Captain Hastings In the ABC Murders

Having recently finished reading The A.B.C. Murders (and I must remark, in passing, that the David Suchet adaptation was remarkably faithful to the book, in this case) I find myself confused by the character of Captain Hastings. As I mentioned before, he started out as a near-clone of Dr. Watson. In only the second Poirot novel, Agatha Christie gave him a wife and sent him off to Argentina. She then used him in more than twenty short stories and another dozen short stories that would become the novel The Big Four. He then periodically showed up in the novels a few more times, the second-to-last of which was The A.B.C. Murders. He’s an odd character, there.

Captain Hastings is an odd character in The A.B.C. Murders for two reasons:

  1. He’s changed in ways that don’t quite make sense.
  2. He’s stayed the same in ways that make no sense at all.

To give an example of the second one first, Captain Hastings still hankers after beautiful women. It’s natural enough that he would notice them, or even to be a bit weak-minded about them. What isn’t natural is the way he does so exactly as if he was still twenty years old and unmarried. He never mentions his wife. He openly wants to escort the young and pretty Miss Thora Grey when he should, in fact, be actively avoiding her. Now, it’s no good to say that Hastings was always weak for a pretty face, because he was so in the context of being a completely decent and honorable man. That’s what made it charming. Moreover, that’s what drew Poirot to Hastings. Hastings had a beautiful nature which Poirot admired. He really should have been on the point of refusing to accompany Miss Grey.

Further, he really should have mentioned his wife when Poirot was teasing him about being weak-headed to Miss Grey’s pretty face. “I’m off the market, old chap” or some such line really should have come to his lips. So, for that matter, should some talk about how wonderful his wife is and how happy they are together. That’s just the sort of man that Hastings was.

Similarly, Hastings has learned next to nothing in all of his years with Poirot. That’s not quite 100% true, as he does mention on some of Poirot’s more strange actions that he’d learned that when Poirot was least explicable was when Poirot was hunting down an especially important clue. Still, you’d think that after so many years following the great detective around, he would have learned a little bit. He might have occasionally made a prosaic guess just because Poirot had so frequently told him that he went wrong by being too romantic in his imagination. It’s hard to take the age of their relationship entirely seriously when it seems to have had no effect whatever on Hastings.

The changes that don’t quite make sense are, perhaps, stranger. In some sense they are related to Hastings not changing with his changing circumstances, but he no longer has that beautiful nature which Poirot so admired in Hastings’ youth. His instincts are no longer pure, if for that reason frequently misleading. To some degree I suppose Hastings is merely out of his element. The murderer being presumed to be a madman, the inordinately sane Hastings has nothing really to say. But that brings me to my main question: why on earth did Agatha Christie bring Captain Hastings back for this story? He doesn’t really seem to have a place in it.

The thing that Captain Hastings has to contribute to a story that he’s in is common humanity. He’s a thoroughly decent man. He’s honest, honorable, and generous. He is also romantic. To Poirot, he gives two things. The first is that, never being cynical, he counterbalanced Poirot’s own cynicism. Poirot sees through everything; Hastings sees through nothing. Hastings, therefore, reminds Poirot of the value of the surface. This is related to the second thing he offers Poirot: the perspective of an ordinary person. It is something that Poirot, in his brilliance, is apt to miss on the rare occasions when he forgets to take it into account.

We do get a little bit of that in The A.B.C. Murders. It is Hastings who wonders whether the third note might have had the wrong address written on it intentionally. It’s not much, though, and the story seems to barely notice it.

Overall, I don’t know what to make of it. There was no need to bring Hastings back from Argentina for this story, but little use seems to have been made of him. The problem seems to me that anything which explains the second part will run aground of the first. If there was some reason not to make use of Hastings, why not just leave in him Argentina? He was made much better use of in Peril at End House, and that was written before The A.B.C. Muders. Perhaps Mrs. Christie was so preoccupied with the clever plot that she forgot the good captain. In favor of this hypothesis, she didn’t seem to pay that much attention to the other characters, either.

Suicide in Gold Age Detective Stories

A feature I’ve commented on in Golden Age detective stories is how often the detectives condone or even approve of suicide. To some degree I find this strange because of how un-Christian it is, in spite of the fact that England in the early 1900s was not really a Christian country anymore. Yet you even find this in Poirot, who is a bon catholique. To some degree, I suppose that it was simply part of the culture. That said, another idea has occurred to me.

It is often the case that in order to make the murder difficult to solve, the evidence which the detective uses to solve the is often… thin. At least in the legal sense. There is a tangle of evidence which the detective’s story explains very nicely so that it all makes beautiful sense. It is satisfying. What it often isn’t, though, is sufficient legal proof to obtain a conviction. One solution to this problem is to have the villain confess in front of witnesses. This can be hard to pull off convincingly, though. Why go to all the trouble of trying to frame someone else for the murder in order to get away with it, only to confess in the face of legally flimsy evidence? There is a second solution, though. If the villain kills himself it obviates the need for legal evidence of any kind, and killing himself is not the same action as confessing. To confess is to guarantee that one will be convicted and hanged with all of the social shame and anxiety that entails. To kill oneself can be portrayed as the murderer hedging his bets. It’s easier to pull off, I think, when the murderer’s social status would be destroyed by the detective spreading the word that he did it, even if no criminal conviction could be obtained, and the murder having been committed in order to gain social status. It can be done “offscreen,” too, which means that the reader will probably not examine it as closely.

I should note that there is a humorous Mitchell & Webb sketch which contains this idea. I had seen it many years ago and remembered it after I thought of this the other day:

Murder On The Links: Sniffing For Clues

Murder On The Links is the second novel featuring the detective Hercule Poirot. Published in March of 1923, it came very slighty after the first few Poirot short stories published in The Sketch magazine. However, publishing schedules being what they are, it was probably written before they were. It’s a very interesting story both in its own right and for its place within the history of detective stories. (If you haven’t read it yet and dislike spoilers, go read it now.)

One of the very curious elements of the story is the rivalry between Poirot and Giraud, the famous detective from the Sureté of Paris. Giraud focuses with single-minded determination on finding minute clues, like remnants of footprints and a match discarded in the grass. He painstakingly combs every inch of every crime scene on his hands and knees, looking closely at every surface. This is in strong distinction to Poirot, who lets others find the small clues while he remains standing and contents himself with figuring out what the clues mean. There is a wonderful section of dialog with Hastings in which Poirot defends his method (Hastings, who narrates the story, begins):

“But surely the study of finger-prints and footprints, cigarette ash, different kinds of mud, and other clues that comprise the minute observation of details—all these are of vital importance?”

“But certainly. I have never said otherwise. The trained observer, the expert, without doubt he is useful! But the others, the Hercules Poirots, they are above the experts! To them the experts bring the facts, their business is the method of the crime, its logical deduction, the proper sequence and order of the facts; above all, the true psychology of the case. You have hunted the fox, yes?”

“I have hunted a bit, now and again,” I said, rather bewildered by this abrupt change of subject. “Why?”

“Eh bien, this hunting of the fox, you need the dogs, no?”

“Hounds,” I corrected gently. “Yes, of course.”

“But yet,” Poirot wagged his finger at me. “You did not descend from your horse and run along the ground smelling with your nose and uttering loud Ow Ows?”

There is another section, in which Giraud discounted a two foot section of lead pipe because it did not fit into his theory of the case, but scoured the ground for other clues such as an unburnt match. Poirot remarks:

Mon ami, a clue of two feet long is every bit as valuable as one measuring two millimetres! But it is the romantic idea that all important clues must be infinitesimal!

You also see this in the much later Five Little Pigs, where the client uses this very fact that Poirot does not crawl on his knees in the dirt for clues to persuade him to take a seventeen year old case. He objected that after so much time there would be no clues to find, and she pointed out that he doesn’t use those clues anyway. (He had just boasted of that when she was taken aback by how old Poirot was.)

The context of all of this disparagement of physical clues is interesting to consider. Sherlock Holmes started the detective crazy in 1891 and was known for his magnifying glass, chemical analyses, and sharp eye for detail. He was, perhaps, more known for it than was entirely fair; he certainly did consider psychology, at least on occasion. That said, he was famous for his monograph on cigar ash, for being able to distinguish the tread of every make of bicycle tire, etc. And in 1923 the Holmes stories were by no means complete. Holmes Short stories were published in the 1920s until the last one was published in 1927.

There is also the at-the-time popular detective Dr. Thorndyke, whose entire stock-and-trade was careful observation, extensive medical knowledge, and for-the-time high tech experiments. (The for-the-time high tech may in part explain why he was enormously popular in his day and has had very little staying power after it.) He was relatively early on in his career at this point, having started in 1909 and appearing in five novels by the end of 1922.

I should also mention that from things I’ve read in the time period, there was something of a flood of works that have not generally been remembered but which imitated Sherlock Holmes to greater or lesser extents (often greater). These often, I get the impression, focused on physical evidence to seem clever. Imitation frequently involves exaggeration, especially when it is imitation by writers who are not extraordinary.

Standing against this context, however, is G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Father Brown did not crawl about with a magnifying glass any more than Poirot did, and he started solving cases in 1910. Father Brown was immensely popular in his day (and is still beloved at least by fans of Chesterton). I am not certain of the history but I believe that Father Brown formed the other end of the spectrum from Sherlock Holmes, being primarily a psychological sleuth.

What, then, should we make of Poirot’s looking down on the gathering of minute physical evidence? I think it is probably best classed as a preference among the existing spectrum of detective stories, rather than as anything new, even though it is presented as something of a novelty to the people in the story. Detective stories have something of a tradition of commenting on detective stories as a genre. Especially during the golden age, it is common for detectives to do this by discussing their “theory of detection”. Another common approach was what we see here—for some character to have a rival theory of detection. I think it was most often the Watson character, but police detectives also commonly would clash with the brilliant detective over the right way to go about solving a case.

This commentary had two main purposes, but I think that the second was far more important than the first. The less important purpose was as a commentary on the genre. The more important purpose was to make the brilliant detective seem brilliant. He could not, after all, be all that brilliant if he went about things in the same manner as everyone around him but was merely luckier. Or to put it another way: in order to achieve magical results, one must have some magic. The detective’s commentary on the theory of detection provides this magic; it is his unique theory of detection which is the key to his success.

I think, therefore, the rivalry between Poirot in Giraud should be taken primarily in this light. Instead of as commentary on other fictional detectives, it is meant primarily to be a humorous way to make the brilliance of Hercule Poirot shine. It just happens to be funny, too.

Murder She Wrote: The Days Dwindle Down

Towards the end of the third season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode, The Days Dwindle Down. It’s one of my favorite kinds of mystery stories—a historical mystery. Jessica is asked to investigate a killing which took place thirty years ago.

Very unusually for a Murder, She Wrote title screen, it features Jessica in it. She’s talking with a publicist, who wants to use the real-life murders she’s solved in order to sell books. I’m not clear on what his actual plan is, but it doesn’t matter because he’s not really a character in this story. He’s only here to introduce the information that Jessica solves real-life crimes to one of the real characters:

This is Georgia Wilson. She’s the one who asks Jessica to solve the thirty year old mystery. It happens not long after the breakfast meeting. She shows up at Jessica’s room and asks if she can come in because she could be fired if anyone sees her bothering Jessica. It turns out that her husband just got out of prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and she wants Jessica to… actually, she never really says. He’s a broken man and she wants him to be repaired so they can enjoy whatever years they have left, but she doesn’t say what Jessica can do to bring this about. She does ask Jessica to come and listen to his story, though, which is at least actionable.

When Jessica arrives, Sam is sitting in his chair, staring out of the window.

After a minute or so in which Sam is grumpy, he agrees to tell the story of what happened. And here we come to something fascinating about this episode: it is actually based on a movie. The movie is called Strange Bargain and was released in 1949. Since this episode first aired in 1987, the events depicted really took place thirty eight years before. Everyone in Hollywood always plays younger, even the movies themselves, it turns out. It works, though, and the flashbacks are done using footage from the movie.

Sam’s story starts out with Gloria talking Sam into asking his boss, Mr. Jarvis, for a raise. He makes an appointment and manages to get past Mr. Jarvis’s personal secretary, who was an intimidating character in her own right.

He did get past her, though, and saw Mr. Jarvis. Unfortunately, after he asked for the raise, Mr. Jarvis told him that he was fired because the company is in financial trouble and they have to cut costs.

He, himself, had sunk all of his money into the firm except for about $10,000 dollars. (That would have been worth in the neighborhood of $50,000 in 1987 dollars and $109,000 in 2020 dollars.) Later that day, Mr. Jarvis took Sam out for a drink and offered a, well, a strange bargain. He had recently increased his life insurance policy to $250,000 (about $2.7M in 2020), and was planning to kill himself so that his wife and child would get the money. He would give Sam the $10,000 he had left if Sam would clean up the crime scene to make it look like murder instead of suicide so that his family would get the insurance money.

Sam at first refused, but Jarvis called him at home and told him that he was going through with it earlier than he originally planned and begged Sam to help him. Sam drove there to talk him out of it but by the time he got there Mr. Jarvis was already dead. The envelope with the money was there, and Jarvis had already done it, so Sam took the money and did as Jarvis had asked him to do. He forgot to fire the shots when he was in the library, though, so he fired them through the library window. Before going home he drove to the Santa Monica peer and threw the gun away underneath the pier.

Unfortunately, after he washed the blood off of his hands he forgot to wash the blood off of the steering wheel in his car. Also, the next day, when they went to pay their respects to the widow, Lieutenant Webb was there and told them that though the gun hasn’t been found the three bullets matched—the one in the body and two that were fired into the wall. When Webb said this, Sam looked at where he fired the shots into the wall. Webb was looking for it.

“Ah, yes, Mr. Wilson. Right there.” From this point on, Webb was convinced that Sam did it and was out to get him, at least according to Gloria. She also had a complaint that Sam had done everything he could to help Mr. Jarvis but Mrs. Jarvis and Sidney (Jarvis’s son) didn’t lift a finger to help him.

Sam telling Gloria that the Jarvis’s couldn’t have known about Jarvis’ plan is interrupted by Sam and Gloria’s son Rod and his very pregnant wife Terry coming in.

Jessica said she would like to meet Lieutenant Webb, but Rod wishes her luck. He tried, himself, but was told that Webb was retired and “unavailable”.

Rod gives Jessica a lift back to her hotel, where he fills her in on a few more details. He became a police officer in order to try to clear his father. The police file on the Jarvis case was missing, so he assembled his own file on the case full of newspaper clippings, court depositions—every scrap of evidence and information he could get his hands on. He lends this to Jessica. Jessica speculates that the reason why it wasn’t possible to prove suicide is that perhaps there’s a possibility that no one had yet considered: what if someone else had murdered Jarvis and only made it look like suicide when Sam found the body?

While this is an intriguing possibility, I’m not sure that it’s really justified. It would be different if there should have been evidence of the suicide which wasn’t there, but in fact the evidence was there, where you would have expected it. Furthermore, its disappearance is adequately accounted for. The reason that there is no evidence to prove suicide is that Sam destroyed it all. Speculating that someone actually murdered Mr. Jarvis doesn’t account for anything. Jessica seems to really like this idea, though, and takes it as a working hypothesis.

The next day they go to the house where Mr. Jarvis died.

This is one of those cases where it’s unfortunate that Murder, She Wrote wasn’t filmed in widescreen, because the house was so big that a 4:3 image can’t capture it all (at this distance away). It’s a big house. So big, in fact, that I wonder how on earth the family paid for it. If we use 2020 money throughout, $2.7M over thirty years is only $90k/year. Granted, it probably would have been smarter to invest the money and live off of interest or dividends or what-have-you, but if you assume that they were able to get 5% above inflation, that would still only amount for $135k/year. Comfortable, yes, but hardly wealthy. It wouldn’t surprise me if the property taxes on this palace consumed half of that. The gardening and maintenance bills would eat into a decent chunk of it, too. This isn’t a big problem; had it been about four to eight times bigger the results would have been far more in keeping with what we’re shown here. (An alternative would have been for Mrs. Jarvis or Sidney to have invested the money in some business which succeeded, but that clearly didn’t happen.)

On the way there, Jessica speculates that the killer might have forced Mr. Jarvis to call Sam. That would explain why Jarvis said that the plan was going ahead sooner than expected. Rod raises the excellent question of, why? Why kill someone you knew was intending to commit suicide? Jessica gives the only possible answer: perhaps the killer thought that Jarvis wouldn’t go through with it.

They go up to the doors of the house and Sidney opens them before anyone can ring the doorbell.

They explain that Jessica is here looking into the case, and Sidney dislikes the whole thing. In the discussion, it comes up that Jarvis’s business partner, Mr. Hearst, had lied about not visiting the home shortly before Jarvis was killed. Eventually Jessica persuades Sidney by pointing out that now that his prison sentence is over, Sam has nothing to gain by stirring up the past. Sidney relents. Jessica asks to talk to his mother, but unfortunately his mother is dead. Sidney then shows them to the library.

On the way, Jessica notices a clue. On the sideboard, there’s a letter written to Mrs. Jarvis in the mail.

They do not want us to miss this clue. Fair enough. Obviously this means that Sidney is lying about his mother being dead, though in reality it’s not uncommon to get mail addressed to someone who is dead for years afterwards. Anyway, why is Sidney lying about his mother being dead? We’ll find out.

Not right now, though. We don’t see the examination of the library, possibly because it would be too much work to come up with a set that closely matches the set from the movie. Instead, we cut to Jessica having an appointment with a “Mrs Davis”.

Mrs. Davis is the granddaughter of Mr. Jervis’ business partner, Mr. Herne. (He’s the one who wanted Jervis out of the business and lied to the police about not visiting Jervis at his house the day of the murder.) Susan Strasberg, the actress who plays Mrs. Davis, looks tiny compared to Jessica. I looked it up and she’s just a hair over 5′ tall. This made me wonder how tall Angela Lansbury is, since she towers over Ms. Strasberg, but normally looks small herself. It turns out that she’s 5’8″, which makes me think that they make a point of surrounding her with taller actors. That is, at least, one explanation for me never having noticed this before.

Be that as it may, Jessica pumps Mrs. Davis for information in a surprisingly clumsy way. She offends Mrs. Davis, who had been misled into thinking that Jessica was there to look for investment advice. In the course of the heated conversation which follows, Mrs. Davis said that Jervis had been in the process of completing a deal for her grandfather to take over the firm. This contradicts what Mrs. Jarvis said, that Herne took over the firm after Jarvis’s death. She accuses Mrs. Jarvis of lying, and says that Mrs. Jarvis lied doesn’t surprise her, though not why it doesn’t.

The sub-plot with the granddaughter is hard for me to figure out. The actress who played her was 49 at the time of this episode, so if we go with the Hollywood standard that actors play characters 10 years younger than they are, the character would be 39. That would make her about 9 years old at the time of the murder, which generally fits. She wouldn’t have known anything about it and what she did know would have all been second or third hand, learned much later. She can’t have inherited the firm more than about ten years ago, so her knowledge of the state of it twenty years before that would be minimal at best.

The attempt to set Herne up as a suspect in Jarvis’ murder seems to me a bit clumsy. There’s extremely little evidence given. Herne wanted the firm without Jarvis, and since Herne had money and Jarvis didn’t, and since the firm was going under, it seems quite superfluous to murder Jarvis to get the firm. This could be worked in such a way as to give him a motive—Jarvis was going to run the firm into the ground before giving it up—but Jessica never tries to establish this or anything like it.

I also don’t understand why Jessica is so aggressive with Mrs. Davis. I am inclined to suspect that the hostility created was meant to take the place of evidence that makes Herne a suspect. Be that as it may, on her way out Jessica talks to an older woman in a nearby office and finds out the address of Thelma Vante, Mr. Jarvis’s personal secretary. She then goes to visit her.

Thelma is delighted to meet Jessica. “Wait till I tell the girls. Me, in a book by J.B. Fletcher.” She shows Jessica an old photo book, and also relates a little personal history. Her ex-husband was beautiful but never worked a day in his life. Also, they had a beautiful home. Jessica doesn’t come out and say it but you can see that she’s wondering where the money came from for that beautiful home. Jessica also brings up the idea of Mrs. Jarvis having killed her husband—she didn’t get to the beach house until well after Mr. Jarvis was dead. Thelma poo-poos the idea because Mrs. Jarvis didn’t have the guts to murder anyone.

As soon as Jessica drives off in a cab, Thelma goes inside and places a phone call. She says that “there seems to be some new interest in our problem.” I suppose this isn’t giving away too much because she was awfully suspicious when Jessica interviewed her, especially with the evidence of her nice house, workless husband, and complaints that she didn’t get anything when Jarvis died.

Over a family dinner at the Wilson house, Jessica discusses the case with them. Sam Wilson thinks that Mrs. Davis is lying about when her grandfather took over the firm. His recollection is that even after Mr. Jarvis’ death, Mr. Herne (Mrs. Davis’ grandfather) didn’t know if he’d be able to take over the firm. Jessica thinks that Mrs. Davis was lying to protect her grandfather’s reputation, or the reputation of the firm. Rod comes in and delivers the news that Mrs. Jarvis is not dead, she’s living at a rest home. Jessica and Georgia Wilson decide to pay her a visit in the morning.

Before they can do that, someone comes to Jessica’s hotel room, points a gun in her direction while she’s sleeping, and fires.

If you ask me, this is playing a little unfair with the audience. We know that Jessica is not going to be killed in an episode, but here the gun is actually pointing at her. The camera does move to showing only the gun, from the side, when it fires, though. The next scene (which I suspect is after a commercial break, in the original airing) has Rod coming over to check on Jessica.

The guy in blue who is kneeling is extracting the bullet from the cushion of that chair. Now, granted, the gun is not in focus in the earlier frame, but it really looks like it’s pointing directly at Jessica and nowhere near the chair. The bullet is from a .38 pistol and hasn’t been made in twenty years, btw. Jessica asks the police detective (the guy in the blue suit who pulled the bullet from the cushion) to humor her and compare the ballistics of the bullet to the one from the Jarvis case.

The next morning, Jessica and Georgia follow through on their plan to visit Mrs. Jarvis.

Unfortunately, it turns out that she has dementia and doesn’t even know that her husband is dead. Sydney walks in on them after Mrs. Jarvis tells them about the roses that her husband grows and they question him a bit more. He claims that Mrs. Davis is lying about when her grandfather took over the firm and it happened in a “proxy fight”, which was a matter of public record. This implies that the company was publicly traded, because proxy voting of shareholders is only a thing in publicly traded companies. That’s not of great significance, except that if it is a publicly traded company, stock purchases that give somebody more than 5% ownership of the company are public record, which Jessica should know. That said, proxy fights are about getting the shareholders to vote for somebody (or some bodies) for the board of directors of the corporation, they’re not about ownership. I think we need to chalk this one up to Hollywood writers having no idea how corporations actually work.

After saying goodbye to Sydney, Jessica and Georgia take a minute to discuss the shot fired into her hotel room chair. Whoever it was, Jessica points out, it certainly wasn’t Mrs. Jarvis. Further, it clearly wasn’t an attempt on her life. The shooter had all the time in the world to aim carefully, or even to fire a second or third shot, if he really wanted Jessica dead. Jessica then asks for a lift to back to Herne and Jarvis (the firm).

At first Mrs. Davis is reluctant to see her but, through an intercomm trick, Jessica gains entry. They talk for a bit, but nothing really comes of it. After Mrs. Davis angrily tells Jessica to leave, Jessica replies, “If you’ll forgive me, Mrs. Davis, it appears to me that you suspect your grandfather more than anyone.” As far as I can tell, that includes the audience. This is the last we see of Mrs. Davis, and we’ve still got fifteen minutes to go.

I still don’t understand why she was here. I suppose it’s supposed to be a red herring but at best it’s a pink herring. Mrs. Davis is angry and defensive but we’re never given any reason why she’s angry and defensive. Or if Jessica is right that Mrs. Davis suspects her grandfather, there’s no reason why she suspects him—at least none that we’re given—so her defensiveness doesn’t feel like it comes from anywhere.

Later on, in her hotel lobby, Jessica tells Sam and Georgia that unfortunately the ballistics report on the Jarvis case went missing with the rest of the case file. After they leave she gets a telephone call from someone claiming to have information on the Jarvis case but she has to come alone. He won’t give his name but Jessica goes anyway. She takes a taxi.

It turns out that it’s Colonel Potter in a wheelchair. Recognizing the actor by his most famous role aside, it’s actually Lieutenant Webb, who had been in charge of the case thirty years ago. He apologizes for all of the intrigue but it had to be strictly unofficial. How waiting until Jessica got to his house to admit to his name makes it any less official than telling her his name over the telephone, he doesn’t explain. He also couldn’t face the Wilsons, because he always had the feeling that Sam Wilson was innocent. He couldn’t do anything, though, because the DA told him to wrap up the case quickly and that his job was to collect evidence, not to judge the case. This bit of backstory out of the way, he gets to the reason he asked her to come—he’s got the old case files, including the ballistics report from the Jarvis case.

The bullets match.

They discuss the case for a while, which is fun because Harry Morgan is a wonderfully charismatic actor. They don’t really add anything to the case, though. Jessica suggests that perhaps the killer thought that he would benefit, but was wrong. Webb said that he entertained that theory, in particular that Thelma Vantay, the secretary, might have been having an affair with Jarvis and thought she would benefit, but they checked it out and Jarvis seemed to be faithful to his wife. He wishes Jessica well on her investigation of the case, and she leaves to go see Thelma again.

Thelma is initially reluctant to talk but Jessica points out that the statute of limitations for blackmail has passed. Once she understands the significance of this, Thelma opens up, though curiously she mostly just confirms what Jessica guesses. She knew about the life insurance policy increase and she had heard Jarvis talk about suicide a few times, so when he ended up dead, she figured out what happened and blackmailed the Jarvises. In particular, she blackmailed Sydney. What, exactly, she blackmailed him with is not entirely obvious, though. She didn’t know anything that the police didn’t know—certainly they knew about the life insurance policy. I suppose she could have told them that Jarvis had talked about suicide before, which might corroborate Sam’s story, but it’s thin material to blackmail someone with.

Jessica and Rod get to talking about it. He thinks that they can now prove suicide but Jessica is bothered by the gun being used to shoot near her. Why? It doesn’t really make any sense to attract this sort of attention to the case so unnecessarily.

Jessica then has an epiphany.

They go to the Jarvis house and press Sydney until he makes a slip and says that the gun was thrown under the Santa Monica pier. This wasn’t public knowledge; all that the public was told was that the gun was disposed of. Sydney admits to following Sam to the pier and retrieving the gun, because, he says, he killed his father. Jessica asks if he isn’t covering for his mother, instead. The Wilsons point out that Mrs. Jarvis couldn’t have fired the gun near Jessica the other night and she agrees—it was a mistake to think that the same person who killed Jarvis fired the gun near Jessica. Sydney did it to direct attention away from his mother, who had the perfect alibi for the second crime.

Sydney admits to it all. His mother didn’t mean to kill his father. She came back to the library to retrieve a book and came across him when he was in the process of trying to commit suicide. She grappled with him, but in the struggle the gun went off and he was killed. It was an accident but with the insurance money no one would believe that. So Sydney tried to cover it up. He even tried to protect Sam by putting pressure on the DA to close the case quickly, except that backfired when Thelma figured out what was going on and blackmailed him. He had to choose between Sam and his mother, and chose his mother.

The Wilsons and Jessica leave. On the way out Rod says that he will call the DA but Sam tells him not to. He has the closure he wanted—it would be absurd to prosecute Mrs. Jarvis, who didn’t really commit a crime, and Sydney was only trying to protect his mother. They know what happened, which is enough for him. Rod appeals to Jessica, who says that justice is imperfect and that sometimes there’s a difference between serving the ideal of justice and doing what’s best. Sam and Georgia kiss and the episode ends with Jessica smiling on them.

Before I get into further analysis of the story and it’s ending, I have to say that it’s frustrating how utterly incompetent Hollywood writers are at moral philosophy. Justice is not always imperfect. Human attempts to achieve justice are always imperfect. Worse still is the consequentialist conclusion that when a principle doesn’t produce the consequences you want, to hell with the principle. What they really want to get at is the perfectly legitimate conclusion that they do not have it within their power to achieve justice and invoking the criminal justice system, which is a blunt instrument wielded by flawed human beings, is not permissible because it will not achieve the end for which it will be invoked.

That said, it seems likely that the statue of limitations on withholding exculpatory evidence for a charge for a crime that was not committed has probably run out quite a while ago, so the whole thing is almost certainly moot. If the DA could not bring any charges calling him doesn’t matter, one way or the other.

That out of the way, it is curious that this episode has a different ending than the movie it used as a source did. In Strange Bargain, it turned out that Mrs. Jarvis actually did kill her husband and set the murder scene to look like suicide. The movie ends with her admitting this to Sam before she kills him; Lieutenant Webb arrives just in time to save Sam.

Obviously, they did have to change the ending to the movie in order to justify the episode and I think that on the whole they did change it in a way that at least made sense. They could have done a better job than an accidental death that basically was a suicide, just with someone else trying to claw the gun away when the suicide was committed. It really having been the business partner, for example, would have been a more interesting reveal, though they couldn’t have the weird sub-plot where the same gun was used to shoot at Jessica had they done that. The other odd thing about this ending is that it doesn’t really change anything for the characters in the story. Jarvis did really kill himself and the only people who have learned that are people who already believed it. Why Sam was brooding when the episode started and now is willing to forgo public exoneration is not really explained. Such character development is possible, of course, it just didn’t happen in this episode.

On the other hand, TV shows are, structurally, short stories. Short stories are about sketching out stories, not about painting them in full. We could certainly imagine a story in which a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder at first broods but then in the course of helping a sleuth investigate what really happened comes out of his shell and, though he can’t prove the truth, has spent enough time focusing on something that is not himself that he no longer needs to prove it to anyone.

Though it is not a conventional detective story, it is possible to tell a detective story in which the detective uncovers the truth but it doesn’t do anyone any good. To some degree the Poirot story Five Little Pigs is that. Poirot uncovers the truth but the only person he helps by doing so believed it, or at least part of it, already. (She believed that the person convicted was innocent; she did not know who was guilty.) A few other people who didn’t know it now do, but that’s it. Yet, it is profoundly satisfying because the mystery was such a tangle and everything about it makes so much more sense when it is untangled. It is not merely satisfying to see a puzzle unraveled; it also gives insight into how possible it is to misunderstand fragmentary facts. It’s an extremely good story and I think that The Days Dwindle Down is an enjoyable episode in part because there are fuller versions of it like Five Little Pigs.

Overall, I think that The Days Dwindle Down could have been, realistically, better than it was. Probably the better outcome would be to have revealed someone else as the murderer. Failing that, it would still have been better to come up with some sort of exculpatory evidence which did actually prove suicide. It’s hard to think what that could have been since the premise was that Sam had destroyed it all; some sort of witness is about all that could be done. To be fair, that’s actually what they did, except that the witness still refused to talk publicly. I think that the best way out, here, would have been the route of Five Little Pigs—a witness who misunderstood what he saw all these years. This would have been easier if there had been something else in Strange Bargain such as a bump on the head that could have been caused in a previous struggle. Unfortunately, that movie had a different purpose in mind, so it didn’t provide these things. With what we’re given, I’d say that it would have made more sense for Herne to have brought his granddaughter in the car, somehow, perhaps after the death but before Sam arrived, and she got bored and came out and saw her grandfather in the room with the corpse, and thought that he did it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t have a flashback for any of this, since it wasn’t in Strange Bargain, but a flashback isn’t a strict requirement here. The flashback that they had was very incomplete, as it was.

If a flashback was an absolute requirement then I think it would have been better to go through with how Strange Bargain actually ended, with Mrs. Jarvis having murdered her husband because he wouldn’t go through with it. Sydney could have protected his mother. That would make him an accessory after the fact, though, so he still wouldn’t be able to come forward (depending on the jurisdiction). If they had gotten rid of the shooting at Jessica, he could have been merely a witness who didn’t come forward, though, which wouldn’t have been so bad. They could have changed the ending around so he would have been willing to publicly exonerate Sam, now that his mother has dementia (or she could have recently died). That would have been better, and still allowed the use of flashbacks from the movie in the denouement. Not as good as the other options, but still an improvement over an accidental death.

All told, yes, it could certainly have been a better episode, but The Days Dwindle Down was a good episode and the idea of using flashbacks from a 38 year old movie was a lot of fun.

The Poirot Short Stories Are Interesting

A few weeks ago I bought a book of the complete Poirot short stories. I’m not through it; there are a lot of them. I’ve made a lot of progress, though.

Interestingly, the short stories are in three major groups. The first is a series of short stories written for The Sketch magazine. This comprises possibly the majority of short stories, by number, since it was a weekly magazine. The next grouping consists of various short stories that came out as one-offs. A good example of this is the short story How Does Your Garden Grow, which was originally published in Ladies’ Home Journal, and was, so far as I know, the only Poirot story ever published there. (To be fair, that was in America; it was published in Strand magazine in the UK a few months later.) Finally there was the collection of twelve short stories which made up the collection The Labours of Hercules. Each of these bore a tenuous relationship to one of the twelve labors of Hercules from Greek mythology.

(There was a series of short stories right after the ones in The Sketch magazine which then formed the novel The Big Four, but they’re a connected series of short stories rather than traditional, independent, short stories, so I’m not counting them. They’re closer to a novel first being published in serialized form than true short stories.)

One of the things I’ve found interesting about the Poirot short stories is how often they are not fair play mysteries; in many cases they’re not even so much mysteries as they are tales of something interesting. They are told in a mystery format. In The Nemean Lion, for example, (spoiler alert) the reader has no real way to guess that one of the lady’s companions has a trained Pekingese dog which gets substituted for the real one and is trained, once its leash is cut, to run home. Frankly, there was no need for such a solution; if the Lady’s Companion was in on it, a confederate to walk the Pekingese home would have worked just as well. Further, that Poirot’s client was poisoning his wife in order to be able to marry his secretary was justified by what was said, but was a shot in the dark even for Poirot. It was an entertaining story to read, but mostly because of the revelations and not because of any sort of detection. It was interesting to find out the unusual criminal enterprise and the revelation that the apparently dumb Lady’s companion—who herself complained about being untrained and unskilled—was an organizational criminal genius.

I find this sort of short story curious because I had been used to thinking of short stories as being primarily about setting up complex puzzles with ingenious solutions. On the other hand, The Labours of Hercules dates from 1939 through 1947 (though most were published in 1940), and short stories were probably changing by then. It would be a while before the market for short stories fell out, but tastes were undoubtedly changing, especially as we’re getting into early World War II, here.

To some degree this is just a historical curiosity. I think that the market for short stories is never coming back. It’s moved into television and the streaming that is replacing television. It’s interesting to look at short stories, though, since they were so influential in the early development of the mystery genre.

Progress!

So, I’ve finally begun work on the text of the third chronicle of Brother Thomas. Up til now, I’ve been working on what really happened, developing characters, working out plot elements, etc. Now, I’ve finally begun work on the part that people will actually read (God willing). My working title for it had been He Didn’t Drown in the Lake, but I’m now leaning more towards The Corpse in Crystal Lake. Both are tentative titles, so we’ll see what I decide on when I’m done with the novel. Here’s the first paragraph:

It began, as so many things do for small businesses, with a referral, made on the morning of the thirtieth day of June, in the year of our Lord 2015. Properly speaking, the Franciscan Brothers of Investigation did not a run a business, for they did not charge their clients, but then it was no ordinary referral, either. It would be some time before Brother Thomas would learn of the referral, but the effects of it he learned within the hour.

This is, of course, a first draft, and everything is subject to change.

By the way, if anyone is interested in being a test reader for me and reading chapters as I finish the first draft of them, let me know. (Having read my previous Brother Thomas novels is not a requirement for this.)

It’s been a difficult year for getting writing work done. Overall I’ve been doing extremely well, considering. My family is in good health and my job hasn’t been affected by COVID. The big problem is really that my children haven’t been able to go anywhere, so they’ve needed me quite a lot. Perhaps it’s ironic, but I’m an introvert who has had almost no time alone since COVID-19 hit. Things could be wildly worse, but it’s been very hard to muster up creative energy, or perhaps it’s creative focus I’ve found difficult. Anyway, between things stabilizing out a bit and I’ve been figuring out how to get my ideas in order on shorter notice and with less contiguous writing time available. This has the potential to mean that more editing time will be needed, but I’m trying to help that with more careful planning before I start. Now I’ve got so many files with notes in them that flipping between them is starting to take time!

There’s always something, isn’t there?

The Greatest Treason?

In her essay about Gaudy Night in the book Titles To Fame, Dorothy L. Sayers talks about how Harriet had to come to Lord Peter in the fullness of understanding an not under any misapprehension. She says “he must prevent her from committing ‘the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason'”. This is an interesting idea which is explored in Gaudy Night. But is it true?

(It is worth noting that Ms. Sayers is intentionally misquoting T.S. Eliot from whose Murder in the Cathedral this is drawn. In that play, the character of Thomas of Beckett is visited by four tempters, and he is not talking about all possible temptations, but only the four temptations which were presented him, when he called the fourth “the greatest treason”. Thus I am addressing Ms. Sayers’ idea, not T.S. Eliot’s.)

The short answer to this is, “no.” There cannot be a right reason to do the wrong thing, so if we leave off the possibility of doing the right thing for the right reason, only two options remain:

  1. To do the right thing for the wrong reason.
  2. To do the wrong thing for the wrong reason.

Pretty clearly, option 1 is better than option 2. Either one harms the man doing them, but at least option 1 does not involve harming others, too.

There is the interesting question of what becomes of the man who has taken option #1? He can repent, but he cannot make amends, for there is no harm he has caused to repair. This leaves him in the curious position of not being able to take any actions which proves his repentance.

Or does it?

The case that Ms. Sayers had in mind, of Harriet Vane marrying Lord Peter under a misapprehension, does give some scope for active repentance—she can be a good wife.

Modern people do not understand decisions. Perhaps because of the pernicious influence of Martin Luther, moderns think of decisions solely as the work of a moment—their substance being that moment in which a resolution is formed and a word may be spoken which conveys that resolution. This is not the substance of a decision. That is merely a moment of resolution. The true substance of a decision is the action over time which is in accordance with this decision. Thus a person makes a vow in a moment to love, honor, and cherish a husband or a wife, but the actual act of this decision takes place during the entirety of the marriage. The words that take but a moment bind a person, but it is the action over the course of the marriage which is the substance of the bond. (This is, really, the same thing as good works being the substance of faith, and not something separate from faith, which is why I suspect Martin Luther.) If Harriet had married Lord Peter for the right reason, she could still fix this, over time, turning her marriage into what it should be by fixing her actions to one suited to the truth of her marriage and not to the misapprehension under which she bound herself to it.

Far from dooming a marriage, one or both of the people entering into it because of a mistake gives scope for the growth of fixing themselves and the marriage. Indeed, something like this is what in fact happened with Harriet and Lord Peter, and the fixing of this mistake is no small part of the substance of the final Lord Peter novel, Busman’s Honeymoon. This may also be why Busman’s Honeymoon is one of the few successful novels about a marriage. It’s certainly not perfect, but it works and isn’t merely using some form of reset to try to tell the story of people falling in love all over again.

Now, none of this means that it is not better for characters to do the right thing for the right reason, and Ms. Sayers certainly had the best idea in trying to have her characters avoid the mistake of coming together for the wrong reasons. I’m merely noting that there are worse things than doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

Poirot and Hastings

I’ve recently been reading the Poirot short stories and one of the things which has struck me about the early Poirot short stories is how Captain Hastings figures into them. He is far more of a Watson character than I had expected.

Agatha Christie would publish Poirot short stories of Poirot throughout her career, but of particular interest to me are the first ones, a series of twenty five that were published in the weekly magazine The Sketch in the year 1923, starting on the seventh of March. This places them, in terms of publication, right after the first two Poirot novels, The Mysterious Affair at Styles published in October of 1920 and The Murder on the Links published in March of 1923. Both of those would involve Captain Hastings, though not many of the subsequent novels would. (He is given a wife at the end of The Murder on the Links and packed off to Argentina.) Christie’s eagerness to get rid of Captain Hastings is interesting, but I will return to that later. What I really find interesting is how Hastings was portrayed in those 1923 stories.

To begin with, the Poirot short stories are reminiscences written by Captain Hastings of his friend Poirot. They read, in this way, much like the stories of Doctor Watson of his friend Holmes. Captain Hastings is, like Dr. Watson, an army man who was invalided out of the service. Further, he was, in these short stories, a roommate of Poirot. Like Watson in the later stories, he routinely accompanied Poirot on his investigations. There is even in the stories a housekeeper who lets clients in, though she is not named. Within the stories Hastings frequently makes guesses—not infrequently invited by the detective—which Poirot frequently insults for their lack of imagination and deplorable lack of method.

In short, at first Captain Hastings lacks only Watson’s medical degree and name. He is, in all other respects, basically Dr. Watson. Of course, I knew that he was “a Watson”, in the sense of Fr. Ronald Knox’s ninth commandment in his decalogue. (“The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.”) How extremely like Watson he was in detail, though, I hadn’t realized.

I gained my first familiarity with Poirot from the excellent television adaptations of the Poirot stories starring David Suchet. In those, the character of Captain Hastings is softened a bit, and Hugh Frasier’s excellent portrayal of him is so different from the typical portrayal of Watson that I did not originally catch the similarities. (The adaptations also introduce Miss Lemon from the beginning and do not feature Hastings and Poirot as roommates.)

I find this start so interesting because Agatha Christie is known for the brilliant originality of her plots. She is justifiably known for them. And yet, here we are with Captain Hastings being unmistakably Dr. Watson with the minor change that doesn’t give anyone brandy as medicine.

I’ve previously written about the Holmes/Watson similarities one can see in Dr. Thorndyke and his chronicler, Dr. Christopher Jervis. Seeing the same thing in Poirot and Hastings makes me wonder if, through the early 1920s, this setup was simply considered to be part of the genre. (For more on this distinction, see my post Predictability vs. Recognizability.) From the perspective of a century later, with a wide variety in detectives, it does not feel to us like a Watson character is necessary even in the Knox Decalogue sense. We do not need a stupid character to constantly demand explanations and still less do we need a chronicler whose thoughts we are told. We don’t even need someone to constantly admire the detective. In the early 1920s, though, They did not have such a wide variety of detectives.

Some prior art such as Poe’s Murders of the Rue Morgue notwithstanding, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle basically invented the genre of the detective story in 1891 (in the Holmes short stories). The Poirot short stories come a scant thirty two years later. Conan Doyle was not even done with writing Holmes stories at this point (the last Holmes Story Conan Doyle would write was The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, published in March of 1927). To be fair, though, the first Lord Peter Wimsey story, Whose Body?, was also published in 1923, and did not involve a Watson character, unless you want to class Charles Parker as one, but he was neither the chronicler nor a stupid friend. There was also G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, of course, which only occasionally had Flambeau as a companion, but he was very clearly no Watson. And as Dorothy L. Sayers said in a slightly different context, G.K. Chesterton was an acknowledged genius, renowned for fantastical paradox. Writing a detective story with no Watson in it, in 1910, might simply have been, to use Ms. Sayers words, “just one paradox more to his credit.”

Another possibility is that Agatha Christie originally included Captain Hastings as merely a feature of the genre, but then decided that he was not really a necessary part of it. It might be for this reason she wanted to marry him off of her hands and pension him off to a happy married life in the safe removes of Argentina. If so, though, it’s curious that she kept him around for twenty five short stories after giving him the wife. It was actually more than that; in 1924 she published half has many short stories in The Sketch which would, in 1927, become the novel The Big Four. These were set eighteen months after The Murder on the Links and featured Captain Hastings returning from Argentina to visit his old friend. Her first story without Captain Hastings was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published in 1926. Her next novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train, published in 1928, did not feature Captain Hastings, and even more curiously it was adapted from a previous short story (The Plymouth Express) which did feature him. This run did not last long, however. Her next novel, Peril at End House (1932), featured the good Captain. He also features in Christie’s next novel, Lord Edgeware Dies (1933). The next three novels did not have him, and he would return in The A.B.C. Murders in 1936. This is a sufficient recounting of the history, I think; Captain Hasting was still appearing thirteen years after Christie had given him a wife and sent him to Argentina.

What are we to make of this? Frankly, I don’t really know. Hastings would not show up much more in the Poirot stories, but a run of at least thirteen years after he was done away with is pretty good. After The Murder on the Links, until 1936, there were five stories with Captain Hastings and five without him. She clearly didn’t need him, but also seemed to want him. Perhaps most curious in this is that the final Poirot story, Curtain, features Captain Hastings very prominently. Written in the early 1940s and put in a vault until its publication in 1975, it was the first time that Hastings appeared in a Poirot novel in more than thirty years. Evidently she considered him important, in some way. Perhaps with Curtain it was just that the man who was there at the beginning of Poirot’s career should also be there at the end of it. Whatever it was, Hastings did come to have significance past being a mere literary requirement.

Ultimately, I don’t know what to make of Captain Hastings. He was certainly a good character, though perhaps not one of the great characters in literature. I suppose at least he does go to show that it is not a character’s beginning that defines him but his ending.

Murder She Wrote: If The Frame Fits

The final episode of Season 2 in Murder, She Wrote is titled If The Frame Fits. It’s a really good episode. It’s got good structure, good dialog, good acting, good settings—it’s very well done. Other than not being set in Cabot Cove, it’s the sort of episode that’s why one falls in love with Murder, She Wrote.

The opening is dramatic. We go from the establishing shot of a grand house (used in the title screen) right to a burglar breaking in.

Shortly after, Jessica and her friend Llyod Marcus come driving up. It turns out that this is Llyod’s house.

They came home early from a party because Llyod wanted to discuss a manuscript with Jessica. A “friend” wrote a draft of a murder mystery, and he wants Jessica’s thoughts on it. They go inside and he calls for his valet, but then remembers that it’s the valet’s day off. Jessica then recognizes one of the paintings. “That’s a Desmond DeVries, isn’t it?” “I wouldn’t know,” Llyod responds. “One of those splatter paintings is the same as the next, to me.”

It turns out that it was his late wife who was the collector. In turn, Jessica reminisces about Frank’s model car collection, until Llyod reminds her that they are there to discus his “friend’s” manuscript. Jessica fetches her copy from the library and we get an ominous shot of the thief hiding behind a curtain, his boxcutter knife held in a vaguely threatening way. Jessica doesn’t notice, though, and returns to Llyod. She tells him it might be better if she spoke directly with the author, and Llyod says that would be impossible because he lives in Tibet. Then they hear a sound from the library. When they examine the library, a painting which was there a minute ago is now missing.

Soon thereafter, we meet the police chief, named Cooper, and, so far as we know, the only policeman in the community. He was originally from New York, as we could tell by his accent if he didn’t mention it in his backstory. Also, his wife wants him to be a plumber, since it pays better. This is a recurring theme in his conversation.

To be fair, he looks more like a plumber than a police chief. He also doesn’t seem to be very good at the police stuff. Later on, Jessica has to stop him from handling evidence with his bare hands.

Anyway, it comes out that this is but the latest in a rash of burglaries in Cedar Heights. There’s been one approximately every three months. The thief leaves no clues and none of the paintings have been recovered. This conversation is cut short by the appearance of Llyod’s valet. He’s in his late fifties or early sixties and has a very English accent, which feels a little out of place. The episode tries to make him a character in the story, but not very hard, so I’m not going to bother with the extremely minor sub-plot that involves him. His entrance through the kitchen door did give Jessica the opportunity to examine the door, though, and she finds that there was a piece of tape on it. The piece of tape that’s left isn’t in a place to do anything useful, but it does suggest that the thief had taped the latch to prevent it from engaging and locking the door.

The next day, at some sort of country club, we meet the mayor and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Tilley.

Apparently being the mayor is a side-hustle for him; he makes his living selling insurance. In fact, he’d insured all four huge art claims this year. He’s worried he’s going to be fired for… insuring paintings that art thieves like to steal? Would they have preferred that he not sell policies to people? Would replacing him with a different insurance salesman be at all likely to result in only selling insurance to people who buy paintings that art thieves don’t want? I’m unclear what he’s nervous about. Now, if he worked for a small insurance company, or better yet owned a small insurance company (not that small insurance companies can really exist anymore, but that’s a more esoteric detail), it would make sense for him to worry about it going out of business because of all of the claims. Alternatively, it would make sense for him to worry that with premiums going up so much because of all of the thefts, no one will buy insurance anymore and all of his commissions will disappear.

Be that as it may, we’re introduced to the next character—Lloyd’s oldest daughter, Julia.

You may not be able to tell from the picture of her, but she is a deeply unpleasant woman. Within all of her complaining, we learn that her father doesn’t approve of her marriage, and we get the idea that she blames his disapproval for her marriage not being what she wanted it to be.

Julia takes Jessica for a walk, to show her “how the leisured class lives”. Somehow or other this ends up at a golf course, and we meet another of the important characters in our story: Binky Holburn. He’s played by the inimitable John DeLancie (if you know him, there’s a good chance that it’s as Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation).

With him is Ellen Davis. She’s… somehow attached to the country club. I’ve no idea how; she seems to be simultaneous a golf instructor, bill collector, and manager.

Binky is delighted to meet Jessica. So much so that Llyod remarks, “Binky was so anxious to meet you he came by my house yesterday before I’d even left to meet your plane.”

Murder, She Wrote needs to strike a balance between disguising the clues so that one needs to be watching out for them and also obvious enough that many if not most people will catch them. Indeed, this is a needle that all mystery writers must thread, though in a novel one has a much larger amount of hey in which to hide the needle, if you’ll pardon me for switching metaphors mid-stream. A TV show—even an hour-long one—doesn’t have nearly as much time and so disguising the clues is much harder.

Binky then brings up the subject of the art thief, remarking on Jessica nearly meeting him. He mentions that one of his was the first painting stolen, and advances the theory that it’s a drug addict, since he only takes mediocre paintings and leaves the masterpieces.

Binky then invites everyone to a dinner party in Jessica’s honor. Ellen declines because of too much paperwork to catch up with. Julia declines saying that she planned a very quiet evening because she and Donald, her husband, so rarely get to spend time together.

In the next scene, Jessica, Llyod, and Julia are having lunch. After Julia is monstrously unpleasant for a bit (can you guess by now who is going to get murdered?), her husband and younger sister, Sabrina, walk in to join the lunch. There’s a curious tension about this, like there’s more to it than a brother-in-law merely helping out his sister-in-law.

This completes the cast of major characters in the episode. It’s an interesting collection of characters; there are many relationships and many possible relationships, though still a small enough group to keep track of. Not much happens at lunch before the scene is over. Jessica is introduced to Donald and Julia gets the double martini she had ordered. She and Donald are a little cold, though they don’t say much past the minor discussion of why he’s late.

The next scene is Binky’s dinner party with Jessica and Llyod. Binky finishes up a story about his favorite cafe in Paris, laments that Donald has a business meeting and Sabrina a headache, then remembers Llyod’s book. Jessica (who signals to Binky that she doesn’t want to read it) says that she left her manuscript back at the house. Binky suggests to Llyod that he go get it. Llyod delightedly jumps up and says that he won’t be ten minutes.

On the car ride home, Llyod looks crestfallen, while Jessica tells him that his friend would be far better off writing about something closer to his personal experience.

Llyod dejectedly says, “That’s allright, Jessica, your comments were very helpful.” He then pulls up in front of his daughter’s house (it was established that they live “practically nextdoor”) and peers out of the window. Then he says, “That’s odd. Julia’s front door is open.” Llyod cranes his neck to look out of the windshield, and they show us what he’s looking at:

If you look very carefully, you can see that the front door is in fact open, but Llyod couldn’t have seen this when he started to slow down. In fact, he comes to a stop before he looks closely at the door. It’s pretty clear that he knows something is up.

They go to investigate, and if your money was on Julia as the corpse, congratulations, you win. They find her crumpled on the floor with a rope around her neck.

I’m guessing that there’s a commercial break here, because we cut to the chief of police crouching over the dead body, saying that the situation is under control. What situation he’s referring to is unclear. It seems unlikely that anyone is worried about Julia reanimating as a zombie or a vampire—other than that, I’m not sure what control there is to worry about. He doesn’t seem to have done any investigating yet past having removed the cord from around the victim’s neck.

Jessica offers to take Llyod home and he refuses since he might have things that he can tell. Jessica relents and starts investigating. It’s unlike her to have waited for the police chief to have arrived. Normally she’d have investigated than said to the police chief, “surely you’ve noticed…” after he arrived. This way plays a little better, though, so I suppose we just have to forgive it.

Jessica asks how long the clock on the mantle had been broken, and Llyod says that it was perfectly fine the day before. The police chief concludes that it was “broke in the struggle” and provides a time of death. Jessica, very sensibly, asks what struggle it was supposed to have been broken in. Everything else on the mantle is in good condition, nothing is in disarray, and the body is nowhere near the clock. Jessica recommends that he takes the clock in for lab analysis and he starts to grab it. She reminds him, “including for fingerprints” and he then thinks to pull out a handkerchief to use to pick it up. I generally like it when the police invite Jessica’s help, but it’s stretching credulity a little far that he wouldn’t think to look for fingerprints. In fact, the more incompetent an investigator the more I would expect him to want to lean on easy evidence like fingerprints.

Jessica then looks at Julia’s neck, now that the cord has been removed, and there’s a thin cut along it. The cut is the sort of thing that would be made of she were strangled with wire, not with a thick rope like was around around her neck. The clues are beginning to add up that we are not looking at a pristine crime scene. Clearly, what we found was staged. But by whom, and why?

Jessica notices a button clasped in Julia’s left hand.

Victims ripping buttons off of their murderer’s clothes is a somewhat overdone trope since grabbing your attacker’s buttons and yanking is neither useful nor instinctive. Even grabbing one’s murderer’s buttons and hanging on until you’re dead so that the murderer must yank his sports jacket away from your corpse’s steel grip isn’t exactly a strong instinct in our species. Moreover, even if one were to rip a button off of one’s murderer’s coat, it would be incredibly hard to do it between the thumb and palm, as it’s shown in the picture above. All that said, for reasons we’ll get to soon, the button being where it is actually fits in this case.

The button turns out to have the initials “DG” on it. Llyod proposes that they stand for “Donald Granger,” as he recognizes the button from a suit Donald had made in Saville Row on his honeymoon. I guess we’re supposed to believe that he put on his honeymoon blazer to murder his wife out of sentiment?

Just as Llyod is explaining his theory as to why Donald did it, Donald walks in and says hello, then notices the chief of police and the corpse on the floor. Llyod rushes over, shouting about how Donald killed his daughter. Then they go to Donald’s wardrobe and match the button to the blazer. When it matches, Donald says, “Stop it! Everything is all wrong. This is insane. I didn’t kill her.” Jessica ignores this and asks Donald where he was. Llyod interjects that no business dinner lasts until one (presumably, AM). He must, therefore, have been cavorting with a floozie. He movies to attack Donald once more, but Jessica restrains him.

The next day Llyod is pacing the floor, having refused food as well as not sleeping, apparently waiting for a telephone call. It arrives just as Jessica walks in the room. The police chief called to let Lloyd know that he has formally charged Donald with the murder of Julia. After Sabrina says that Donald couldn’t have done it and Lloyd explodes at her the evidence is clear, then storms off, Sabrina tells Jessica that Donald wasn’t a fortune hunter—at Lloyd’s insistence he signed a prenuptial agreement which means that he wouldn’t get a penny of Julia’s estate. This clue duly delivered, Sabrina leaves to get Donald a lawyer. I’m kidding, slightly. She said it in Donald’s defense because her father had just called Donald a fortune hunter. It works the information in naturally. The problem is just that the information stands out so much that we can’t help noticing it. And if somehow you did miss it, Jessica pauses and looks thoughtful to make sure you know that something important just happened.

If I were inclined to be flippant, I might call this “clue face”.

Mrs Fletcher then goes to see the police chief. The police station is interesting, by the way:

Cedar Heights is generally discussed as if it’s a secluded enclave for rich people an hour or more outside of New York City. The chief of police does his own plumbing and doesn’t have so much as a single deputy that we’ve ever seen. And yet, to go by this establishing shot, it’s got multi-story buildings and elevated train tracks. Also, the sign says “Police Station 15”. That’s an awful lot of police stations to have with a single policeman in town.

Anyway, as he’s trying to fix the pipes in the sink in the office attached to his bathroom, the police chief says that Donald Granger’s story doesn’t hold water any more than the pipes do. His business meeting had been canceled earlier in the day. His story is that he went to the seafood shanty, met a friend, and had a late supper. However, the police chief says, no body drops in to the seafood shanty. It’s way out near the beach somewheres. The kind of place people go where they don’t want to be seen. He won’t name the friend, either. The chief’s analysis is that for someone who is supposed to be bright, Granger committed one hell of a stupid murder. Jessica emphatically agrees. Granger’s lawyer then shoes up to bail him out.

We now move to the country club, where Ellen Davis hand-delivers a bill to the mayor’s wife.

Mrs. Tilley makes an impressively catty comment. After complementing Ellen on her outfit, she observes that if you’re going fishing, it pays to have attractive bait. Ellen smiles, and attributes not receiving a payment from the Tilleys in several months to the mail being dreadful, lately. It’s a decent disguising of information, but I, suspect that the writers actually wanted to draw attention to it and so didn’t disguise it too carefully. Jessica isn’t around to draw our attention to it with clue-face, so they can’t afford to be as subtle, I suppose.

Ellen smiles and walks off. I still wonder what her job is supposed to be at this country club, but we never do find out. The mayor’s wife then walks into Jessica, who is at the country club for some reason. She invites Jessica to a dinner party, but Jessica declines because she can’t make any plans under the circumstances. Mrs. Tilley interprets that to be about investigating the case, and starts talking with her about it. It’s hard to tell whether she’s interested in the case as a mystery or just loves nothing so much as gossip. Either way, she’s got information to share, and is eager to do it sotto voce.

She tells Jessica to cherchez la femme, in this case, the younger sister, Sabrina. It turns out that Donald had originally been with Sabrina, but then she introduced him to her sister and he switched to the older sister. However, Donald has had lots of late-night business meetings in Manhattan… need she say more? Jessica replies that she’s said quite enough enough already. Why Jessica disapproves of gossip now, when it helps her investigation, I don’t know. She’s normally happy to smile at any sexual impropriety, and in fact will again later in this episode. Mrs. Tilley goes on to say that it would be convenient if the murderer were Donald, though, since it would mean that her husband’s firm wouldn’t have to pay up on the million dollar life insurance policy that her husband sold them the day after they were married. I guess they must have waited to take their honeymoon. That one warrants clue-face with eyebrows.

Jessica goes off to see the police chief. For some reason, she runs into him at the scene of the crime. She tells him about the life insurance motive that Donald Granger has, but he gets a phone call from someone confirming that Donald Granger was, in fact, at the Seafood Shanty at the time of the murder. They didn’t recognize who he was with; she was a brunette and a “real looker”. Chief Granger remarks that none of it makes any sense, and Jessica agrees. She goes through the list of contradictory evidence.

Supposedly Julia tore the button off of the tailored blazer, but her carefully manicured nails suffered no damage. The cuts on the neck were unlikely to be made by a thick rope. Then Jessica notices the painting on the wall. The chief of police looks at it too, and remarks that they all look alike to him.

Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that this is Lloyd’s Desmond Devries splatter painting.

Jessica goes to Lloyd’s house and confronts him. The other day, on the drive home, she thought he was preoccupied because of her comments on his manuscript, but now she thinks otherwise. As much as he believes that all splatter paintings look alike, they don’t, she recognizes that the painting now hanging over Julia’s fireplace was in Lloyd’s library the day before. Further, she has to wonder about his having been gone fetching the manuscript for forty minutes when he said he’d back in less than ten minutes. This last part isn’t playing fair with the audience as the length of time he was gone was never mentioned. For all we knew until now, he had indeed returned in less than ten minutes.

That bit of hiding evidence from the audience aside, the revelation that Lloyd had found Julia dead on his way to pick up the manuscript and rearranged the scene of the crime to frame Donald does certainly make sense of many of the things we saw that night. Lloyd was excessively preoccupied, and stopped by Julia’s house before he could have seen the front door was open. His having already known that Julia was dead makes more sense of what we saw, so I do think this twist is entirely fair.

At the police station, Lloyd tells the police chief what happened. The painting over Julia’s mantle was missing from the frame, and the room was in a horrible mess.

They all go to the crime scene where Lloyd describes what he had found. The painting had been cut out of its frame, and the wire from the painting was wrapped around Julia’s neck. A pizza cutter was lying on the floor nearby, presumably used to cut the painting from the frame. The lock on the reader door was taped over, just like at Lloyd’s house. There was a small penlight outside the door. The clock had been smashed on the floor, he just replaced it. He cleaned the crime scene up, replaced the stolen painting with one of his own, ripped off the button and pressed it into Julia’s stiff fingers, then left the door open and went to rejoin Binky and Jessica.

In response to Jessica’s question about what happened to the frame and wire, he threw them in the garbage, which according to the police chief is incinerated every day, so all of the evidence has been destroyed. Daily garbage pickup is pretty impressive. This evidence being gone somehow allows the police chief to conclude that Lloyd killed his daughter himself, since (according to him) the only reason to frame someone is if you committed the crime yourself. Frankly, I’m not sure how the empty frame and the wire and pizza cutter being found in the trash would have exonerated Lloyd. There would have been no reason to switch paintings if the painting had not, in fact, been taken. Strangling his daughter with a wire then substituting a rope also served no possible purpose if she hadn’t been killed as part of an art theft, and the chief is not accusing Lloyd of being the art thief.

At the wake for Julia, Jessica delivers the news to Donald and Sabrina. He’s surprised that Lloyd hated him so much, and Sabrina is, as ever, confused. She asks what to do and Jessica says that the only way to exonerate Lloyd is to find the Cedar Heights art thief. Donald says that there must be some evidence—finger prints, or foot prints, or perhaps they could trace the pizza cutter?

Apparently waving one’s glasses back and forth signifies cutting a painting with a pizza cutter.

Unfortunately, Jessica says, Lloyd destroyed all of the evidence. They need to go to the country club to begin at the beginning. Donald gives her a ride and drops her off. She runs into Ellen Davis, and asks where Binky Hoburn is. Ellen says she just left him, and Jessica gives her the good news that Donald Granger is no longer under suspicion for the murder. Ellen looks confused and agrees that it is good news. Jessica continues that it’s especially convenient for her because it relieves her of the obligation to give Donald an alibi. She surmises that while the employees at the Sea Shanty didn’t know her name, they would probably recognize her photograph. Ellen says that she was just checking out the place and ran into Donald there. She recommends not reading too much into that, it might prove embarrassing, and Jessica asks, embarrassing for who? Ellen doesn’t answer, she just walks off.

She finds Binky on the putting green, and apparently he is absolutely terrible at golf. In response to her question, he says that the night his painting was stolen he was on his evening constitutional. He always goes for a walk after dinner, and you could practically set the town clock by him.

Next she talks with the Tilleys, since theirs was the next painting stolen. Their painting was definitely insured. Mayor Tilley was offended at the idea that he wouldn’t ensure his own property—insurance isn’t about the money, it’s about peace of mind. Anyway, they were at the opera in New York when it happened. Everyone who was anyone was there. It was also the maid’s night off. Jessica then goes to see the police chief. He’s doing more work on the pipes on the sink in his office.

Mayor Tilley is with them, and somehow got the information that by pure luck “a friend of Carpenter spotted [one of the stolen paintings] in an Edinburgh gallery.” In the ensuing discussion, it comes out that in every theft it was the servants’ night off and the owners weren’t home either. This suggests to Jessica that the thief is someone with intimate knowledge of the community—one of its members.

Jessica then pays a call on Ellen Davis. (She actually first runs into Lloyd’s valet, but the conversation doesn’t really add anything besides the suggestion that the Tilleys are in financial difficulties, which we already knew and which probably didn’t change what Jessica did anyway.) Somehow the subject of Donald Granger comes up, with Jessica implying that there’s something between them. Ellen replies, “You mean, were we having an affair? This is the ’80s, Mrs. Fletcher. Promiscuity is not, exactly, page one news.” In contrast to her scolding tone of Mrs. Tilley talking about infidelity, here Jessica just indulgently nods her head and looks at Ellen.

Jessica is, as always, remarkably selective in what she shows disapproval of. Moreover, she’s remarkably cosmopolitan in what she shows disapproval of. She dislikes gossip, but isn’t phased by cheating and adulterating a marriage. One of the great weaknesses of Murder, She Wrote writing is that Jessica is in no way a small town character. In a small town, you have to deal with the fallout of people adulterating marriages because people still live with each other afterward; adultery can be a hardship on an entire community. In a big city, adultery just means that people stop going to the same parties which they probably won’t be invited to anyway, and otherwise they never see each other again. Quite apart from the moral aspect of adultery, someone who comes from a small community will instinctively dislike the way this is community-wrecking behavior. It’s only city-folk, who have no community, who don’t give a thought to the communal impact of decisions.

Jessica stares Ellen down, and Ellen discards her bravado and explains. She had worked in Donald’s club in New York. He was very unhappy in his marriage and was going to ask his wife for a divorce. (For some reason, on television, mistresses always believe that the married man is going to leave his wife and marry her and then be faithful to her. How similar this is to reality, I have no idea, though since adultery is hardly a smart idea, it would not be shocking if the people doing it are prone to not thinking it through in real life.)

She took the job at the country club—whatever it is—to be closer to Donald. This I find a little odd, since part of the problem in the marriage is that he spends all of his time away from home. Working at the country club should actually put her further away from him while he spends all of his evening in business meetings. (If “business meetings” was code for sleeping with her after work, it’s unclear how moving to cedar heights could have put her closer.)

Her friendship with Buinky Holburn is just a ruse. In reality, she finds him a bore. He talks incessantly of his house and art and his trips to England and Scotland and other places that art might be fenced, approximately every 3 months. Jessica asks if Binky is in financial trouble, and Ellen replies that while the idle rich are notoriously slow payers, Binky is the exception. She just wishes she knew where he got the money from.

Well, if she can’t put two and two together, Jessica can. Her next stop is at Binky’s house, with the chief of police and a warrant to look at his passport. I wonder on what basis the chief got a warrant; having money and supposedly making trips to Great Britain every three months isn’t exactly slam-dunk evidence, especially when all we have is the word of some guy that one of the paintings turned up in an Edinburgh gallery. Fortunately, the warrant is unnecessary—Binky admits it and is delighted that it took someone of Jessica’s caliber to catch him. He opens his safe and produces Lloyd’s painting.

The odd thing about it is that the painting goes all the way to the edge. The thing is, canvases always go several inches past that, in order to wrap around the wooden stretcher and be nailed or stapled into it with the edge folded over so that it won’t fray loose. If the painting were actually cut from the front, it would ruin the painting as it couldn’t be re-mounted without losing several inches. Unless we’re going to chalk this up to the prop department, it seriously calls into question Binky’s competence as an art thief. Especially with this being his sixth time—surely some art gallery he fenced it at would have complained by now. More on this in a bit.

Binky remarks that it was great fun while it lasted. He never took the real masterpieces, the insurance always settled so no one was hurt financially, and no one got hurt. The chief adds, “until Julia Granger caught you.” Binky laughs at this. He was having créme caramel with Jessica when Julia was murdered. The chief wonders if this means that they have a second art thief, and Jessica says, “not exactly.” They go over the evidence, and when they get to the pizza cutter, Binky exclaims in surprise. What on earth would a pizza cutter be doing there. He always used a single-edged razor. A pizza cutter is ridiculous because it would ruin the painting. Upon hearing this, Jessica sees the light.

The light Jessica sees, of course, is that a pizza cutter is an inappropriate tool to the task, which means that the “thief” had no idea what he was doing. There’s actually a secondary significance to this, which I’ll get to in a minute. Before we get there, there is a problem with this evidence.

Actually, before we get to the problem with the evidence, I want to mention the problem with Binky’s response to it. He protests that he doesn’t have a pizza cutter. In fact, he’s never eaten a pizza in his life!

The logic is somewhat odd; to not have eaten a pizza is not the same thing as to not have a pizza cutter. In the recesses of my pantry I somehow own a slap chopper, and I’ve never in my life slap-chopped anything. When I chop things, I use either a kitchen knife, a cleaver, a hatchet, or an ax (depending on the thickness of the thing to be chopped). With a knife one cuts to chop, with an ax one swings to chop. Never once have I slapped anything to chop it, and yet there the thing somehow is. That said, Binky has an alibi for the time of the murder so the fault in his logic is of no great significance. So let’s move on to the problem of the pizza cutter being a bad tool for stealing paintings.

The episode doesn’t give full details on how the painting was actually removed in Julia’s house, but in general there seems to be the suggestion that the cutting tool would be used to cut the painting from the front. If you did this with a pizza cutter, this would indeed ruin the painting, but no more than if you did it with a single-edge razor. Heck, you could cut it with a high-tech laser or a sci-fi monomolecular saw. The problem, which I mentioned above, is that the canvas for a painting is several inches wider and taller than the part that you see because it has to be wrapped around the wooden stretcher that holds the painted surface taught. If you cut it from the front, you’d lose several inches of the painting when you wrapped it around a new stretcher. Now, there is something for a competent art thief to cut when stealing a painting, but it’s not the canvas.

When mounting a painting on a wooden stretcher into a frame, it is typically taped, from the back, to the frame. This is done with a specialized tape called, uncreatively, “framing tape”. It’s a brown, papery tape which has an adhesive that’s meant to last years and ensure that the painting never falls out. If you are going to steal a painting, it would be more convenient to remove the frame and it would be a pain in the neck to peal the framing tape off, so the easiest option is to turn the framed painting around and cut the framing tape on the back. The painting will not be wedged tightly into the frame, so there’s room for a knife to go in without harming the canvas. So here’s the thing: this is equally true of a pizza wheel as it is of a single-edged razor. You are no more likely to damage the canvas with a pizza wheel than with a razor. In general, I would expect art thieves would normally go for a razor over a pizza wheel simply because the razor, being smaller, is easier to carry, and less likely to make noise since pizza wheels are frequently prone to rattle. That said, you can find tools meant for cutting fabric which are basically extra-sharp pizza wheels with a bit smaller blade because they don’t need to worry about the axle getting caught in cheese. Here’s a picture of my wife’s:

When I cut fabric I just use fabric scissors. The wheel cutter requires, or at least does best, with the backing mat you see it resting on in this picture, which is too fussy for my taste. Still, it exists and, I’m told, works well. A pizza cutter is more optimized for cutting pizza, but the things are just as capable of taking a sharp edge as any other piece of thin metal, and it would be perfectly fit for purpose, as the British say.

What we’re left with is that a pizza cutter is a slightly unusual choice for the imitation art thief to have picked. That is sufficient, though, because we did hear somebody who knew about this odd choice without being told.

Before we get to that, though, we have one final scene with Sabrina and Donald Granger. They’re at the funeral home, getting the flowers ready.

If you’re familiar with Murder, She Wrote, you’ll know this means that there’s a 98% chance that one of them did it. Sabrina seems to be implying that she wants to move on from being brother and sister in law to having a romantic relationship. Jessica even interrupts them by telling Sabrina that they’ve discovered the identify of her sister’s killer. This is so much the setup for the revelation that Sabrina did it that it might almost make one forget that Donald Granger had mentioned the pizza cutter without having been told about it.

Jessica presents the evidence, except for his slip about the pizza cutter. It’s not very strong and he argues with her. He presents his alibi, of being at the seafood shanty with Ellen Davis, but Jessica counters that the medical examiner couldn’t be so precise with the time of death. He counters that it had to be 9:45 because the clock was broken during the struggle. Whereupon the chief of police walks in from just offscreen and asks him how he knew that, since it wasn’t made public and he had bagged the clock for evidence before Donald had come into the house. Moreover, Lloyd said that when he planted the jacket button in Julia’s hand, her fingers were stiff, which means that she had to have been dead some hours. (That said, I don’t think that Lloyd’s evidence is worth a damn against his son in law, given that he’s already tried to frame him once, but that’s OK because catching Donald doesn’t hang on this.) As he tries to struggle out of this, Jessica then reveals his slip up with the pizza cutter. Then the dramatic music signaling that the case is proved plays.

Sabrina, troubled by everyone’s silence and the conclusive music, declares that she doesn’t believe it. Donald tells her, “Believe it, Sabrina. It was a million dollar craps shoot, and I lost. Count your blessing, kid. It could have been you in that box.” Sabrina attacks Donald uselessly. He pushes her off and Jessica holds and comforts her as the police chief leads Donald Granger off to one of the many police stations in the small town of Cedar Heights. Interestingly, the episode ends here, on a somber note:

I would be curious to know how the writers decide between ending solemnly and ending slightly after the denouement, with everyone laughing. This ending fits, though I actually think it’s a pity that we don’t get to see Ellen Davis anymore. It would be interesting to know whether she blames Jessica for catching Donald or thanks her. It would also be interesting to see Lloyd’s reaction to learning that he had framed a guilty man.

Be that as it may, I hope you can see why I think that (despite not taking place in Cabot Cove) this is one of the great Murder, She Wrote episodes. It has an interesting cast of characters that are pleasant and interesting, with the exceptions of Julia (who, thankfully, is murdered fairly quickly) and Sabrina (who doesn’t get a ton of screen time). Despite having at least fifteen police stations, Cedar Heights has a small-town feel, which partially makes up for not being in Cabot Cove. The particular settings are mostly pretty, and even the awful splatter art is at least partially redeemed by its badness actually being a plot point.

The episode takes a little while to introduce all of the characters and for the murder to happen, but it makes up for that by starting off with the art theft and keeping that mystery going while we meet the characters. It both makes the episode more interesting and also makes it more complex. At the same time, it’s not merely complicated; the two mysteries intertwine in important ways. Even the murder mystery is done in stages, where we first have to unravel that the crime scene was substantially tampered with before we can get on to solving the murder. Once that progress is made, the art theft mystery becomes of primary importance, and only once that’s settled can we properly tackle the murder mystery. There’s a lot to sink one’s teeth in, and with how the plot is constructed, it all matters.

One tradeoff, due to the limited time in a Murder, She Wrote, to fit all of this in, is that the case against Donald Granger is a bit weak. The evidence against him is almost entirely having slipped up and mentioned the pizza cutter he shouldn’t have known about. Even that wasn’t worked in very naturally. He was trying to seem eager to catch the killer, but he should have waited a little bit longer, so he could make the slip while he was caught up in the conversation. The way it was done, he basically volunteered the information unprompted. This might have been OK if he wanted to seem clever, but what he actually wanted to seem was eager, not clever. Passion, conviction, and sincerity are what are needed to sound eager, not information or deductions. Other than this, there was no real evidence against him.

Which is actually a little bit odd, since he set the clock’s time while holding it in his bare hands.

This one I’m going to chalk up to an error in production. There’s no way that he would have forgotten to have worn gloves during such a carefully premeditated murder. Further, the chief bagged the clock for evidence, so unless we’re to suppose that Lloyd somehow smudged all of Granger’s fingerprints, he had to have worn gloves when he set the clock and wardrobe just forgot to give him gloves for this shot.

During the accusation, Granger does give a second piece of evidence against himself—his knowledge of the clock having been broken “in the struggle”. Realistically, these do seem to enough to get a conviction, but it’s a little unfortunate that the proof had to be manufactured rather than discovered. Still, it was at least manufactured through Jessica’s skill rather than by sheer chance, like the knowledge about the pizza cutter. It was also manufactured by presenting the case against Granger, rather than through lying to him about having lost an earring that never existed, or something like that.

Overall, I also think that the episode was pretty fair, as far as giving us all of the clues goes. We got a hint that the art thief was Binky pretty early, when Lloyd mentioned that he had been at Lloyd’s house the morning of the robbery—the clue which comes later about Binky taking trips every three months is confirmation of our suspicions, it’s not wholly new. (That Binky has plenty of money could go either way; we have no reason to suppose he didn’t inherit sufficient wealth to pay his dues at a country club on time. That said, his not being hard up certainly doesn’t cast doubt on his identity as the art thief.)

We also were given plenty of clues that the murder scene was tampered with. The clock was smashed in the struggle but there was no struggle. Julia was clearly strangled with a wire, but there was a cord around her neck. They did conceal from us that Lloyd took forty minutes to get the manuscript when it should have taken him less than ten, but I think that they made up for it by having Lloyd clearly stop before he could have seen that Julia’s door was open.

As to the murder itself, there was only one real clue that it was Donald and that was his slip up about the pizza cutter. Actually, that’s not quite true. Lloyd did mention Julia’s stiff fingers, which suggested that she had been dead for hours by the time he found her—not that they actually told us when that was—which does carry the suggestion that Donald’s alibi wasn’t good. That said, if the time of death was much earlier, Binky wasn’t having créme caramel with Jessica when it happened. In fact, I don’t think he was anyway, because the murder had to have happened before Lloyd left to get the manuscript, and they hadn’t started the créme caramel yet—Binky told Lloyd that if he hurried he’d just in time for it. Binky might still have Jessica for an alibi, but it would have had to have been long before desert.

All that said, Binky having been the killer doesn’t fit with the modus operandi of the art thief. He stole paintings every three months, and had just stolen a painting from Lloyd the night before. This was never brought up, but it was actually a bit of a slip-up on Donald Granger’s part. The art thief, having had such a regular schedule before, might hurry it up a bit, but it doesn’t seem plausible that he would hurry it up from every three months to every three thirds of a day. I think, though, that we simply need to forgive this as time compression so that Jessica can be present when the murder happens, in which case it wouldn’t be fair to use it to exonerate Binky. I think we’ll need to fall back on Jessica being Binky’s alibi earlier in the evening. He had invited everyone over for a dinner party, and even though they finished the evening somewhere in the viscinity of 1am and were having créme caramel some time after 9:45pm, they probably started dinner before 8:45pm, which is the time that Donald Granger started setting the clock forward from in the flashback. Rigor Mortis sets in anywhere from 1-6 hours after death (averaging 2-4), so if Lloyd found Julia at 9:50pm, that puts the time of death anywhere from 8:50pm to 3:30pm. The latter might run into the late lunch that Julia was at, but it seems unlikely that Binky had Jessica as an alibi for that entire time. If we suppose that the dinner party started with wine and snacks at around 6pm, though, I think that Binky is probably pretty safe.

Obviously, If the Frame Fits is not perfect, but at the same time its imperfections admit of explanations that are (reasonably) satisfying. It gives one meat to chew on. Oh, and it has a remarkably clever title. Quite early on, it seems to suggest that the art thief is the killer, but ends up referring to the guilty man having been framed for the crime. Even better, this is in distinction to the framing of the thief for the murder which the real murderer tried to do. That frame didn’t fit.

An Interesting Murder Technique: Snake Venom

Unusual poisons are not that popular as a means of murder in mystery stories these days, but all the same, I just got an idea for an interesting one: injected snake venom with the same symptoms as a poison.

One of the difficulties with poisons is that it’s really hard to have an alibi with one. The benefit to a snake venom is that if people don’t look for injections, they won’t be able to find out how the poison was administered, because it wasn’t. A person who thus had no access to the food of the victim could probably put themselves out of suspicion this way.

As an additional benefit, if the police do not specifically suspect snake venom, it is exceedingly unlikely that the lab will run any assays for snake venom. Even if they did, they would tend to look for the venom of native species rather than rare imports.

This is only a half formed idea so far, but it has some interesting possibilities.

A Comment on The Butler Did It

On my recent post The Butler Did It: Poirot Style, I got an interesting comment from Paul. It brings up some points which I would like to discuss at greater length.

Somewhere I heard the phrase “nobody’s a hero to his valet” which could apply to his butler.

So I disagree that a murder by the butler is out of bounds because the butler is an employee “thus” not personally connected to the victim.

An employer could very well give an employee Very Good Reasons for the employee to want his boss dead.

And yes, a valet or a butler could quit (although getting a good reference might be a problem), but have other reasons to not quit.

One thought on the butler, as I understand the job, the butler manages the household staff so might likely know “when the best time/place to kill somebody without witnesses”. 👿

On the subject of no one being a hero to his valet, I believe that this is because the man is an object of professional aid to the valet; he is passive while the valet helps him to dress. The valet, though a servant, is an intrinsically superior position during the performance of his duties. This is not precisely the same for a butler, who would not, in the ordinary course of things, lay his hands upon his master. Which brings us to the last point, about the butler managing the household staff. This will depend to some degree on the particular household, as the jobs of servants were somewhat elastic with the actual number of servants present.

In Victorian times and through (about) World War II, butlers did tend to be in charge of the servants in midsize to large households. They did not tend to be present in smaller houses, and in the very great houses there might be a steward who was in charge of the domestic staff with the butler taking on his more historical role of being in charge of the wines, or somewhat more expansively, of the food and drink. (The term “butler” comes from words in older languages meaning, basically, bottler, i.e. one in charge of the bottles.) Murder mysteries don’t tend to be set in the mansions of kings or similar, though, so I think it would be reasonable to presume butlers will be in charge of the household staff and thus in a good position to arrange a time that is especially convenient for murdering someone. But this, in fact, raises something of a problem in choosing the butler as the murderer—it makes it too easy for the murderer.

I know that most most of the rules of detective stories focus on not making it too easy for the detective, but it is actually the case that if one makes it too easy for the murderer, it spoils the fun. Murder mysteries are meant to be a human drama, and in a human drama the reader sympathizes with both sides of the puzzle. We want the detective to win, but at the same time we do also need to be able to see ourselves in the role of the murderer, if for no other reason than we have to think like him in order to try to catch him before the detective does. A murderer who merely has special powers (such as being able to arrange everyone to avoid witnesses) is too unlike us. And then there’s the even more basic problem that the puzzle has to be difficult to solve or there’s no fun in solving it. That’s why the dumb police detective always arrests some poor servant, since the servants have obvious opportunity. Abusing a position of trust is too easy.

All that said, I think that Paul is right that the butler could make a reasonable choice for the murderer within the bounds of the murder having to be personal. Off the top of my head, he could know that the victim was carrying on some evil that he thought needed to be stopped. The employer taking advantage of serving women would work for this. The butler could know that his employer committed some heinous crime and got away with it (but without sufficient legal proof to ensure a conviction). The butler could do it for the sake of a child that the victim was mistreating, or even just to bring the inheritance to the adult child from whom help was being cruelly withheld in getting started in the world. The butler could even secretly desire to have an affair with his master’s wife and hope that by killing his master he will have cleared his chance to take his master’s place.

I think that if one wanted to take this approach, it would be important to make sure that the butler is noticed as a character. He would need to be active during the investigation. Doing things outside of his duties, and speaking not only when spoken to. If he remained entirely passive and looking like the normal servant, who is there in the typical mystery only to furnish some alibis and clues, the typical reader would, I think, feel he had been treated unfairly. Yes, the reader is hoping that the writer will try hard to trick him, but at the same time the trickery has to be of a certain sort. A double-bluff, such as having somebody else frame the murderer for the crime, is a great sort of trick. Bluffing that someone is out of bounds when they’re not isn’t the right sort of trick. In real life someone might creep over to his neighbor’s house during a dinner party to murder him, hoping to throw suspicion on the guests. In a murder mystery, if someone dies during a dinner party in an mansion and it isn’t one of the guests, but it is revealed in the last page that the detective found the neighbor’s footprints, the writer has played foul. Granted, I’ve emphasized it by having the writer play double-foul by not revealing the clue which incriminated the neighbor, but even if there were some tracks leading to the neighbor’s house, if they were not cunningly planted by a dinner guest in order to make the absurd suggestion that it was the neighbor, the reader would still justifiably feel aggrieved. It’s not on any of the lists, but we do need some reason to doubt that the murderer committed the crime. Having an obvious criminal and not going with it because the detective is too clever for his own good is the stuff of parodies. (Quite literally. If you want to read such a parody, The Viaduct Murder is an excellent example of exactly this.)

I think that a decent example of what I mean about how to do this well can be found in the Poirot story which my previous blog post was about: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman. In it the butler is quite prominent. We get all sorts of information from him which he volunteers beyond the scope of the ordinary butler. He stayed to overhear a conversation with his master; a thing which no ordinary butler would have done. He is an obvious suspect, but manufactured for us a still more obvious suspect. Moreover, there is evidence in the beginning to make us suspicious of the butler’s story, such as the last course not having been eaten by anyone, and the telephone having been on the receiver, requiring the dying man to have replaced the receiver as he gasped out his last breath. These incongruities make us notice the butler early on, such that his being the culprit is a shock we were prepared for. Moreover, he did not merely hide in his job. He took an active role in the misdirection after the crime. He was caught, not by process of elimination, or by fingerprint identification as being a notorious criminal, but by having made mistakes which Poirot noticed and caught him by. This, I think, is the sort of template to follow if one wants to write a mystery in which the butler did it.

The Butler Did It: Poirot Style

I have a series of posts about the onetime common phrase, “the butler did it”. The first was The Butler Did It? The short version is that it’s curious that this phrase exists since it’s hard to find examples, in mystery novels, of when the butler actually did it. In the series I present a few theories as to how this could be, as well as look at the few examples I could find of when the butler actually did it. I had thought that I was done with this series, but I just came across another example! (Without counting, I think that brings me up to four.) If it’s not obvious, by the way, spoilers will follow, so if you haven’t read the Poirot short stories yet, go do that before continuing.

The story in question is The Adventure of The Italian Nobleman. It was first published in The Sketch magazine, issue 1604, published on October 24, 1923. This is a scant three years after the publication of the first Poirot story, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. According to Wikipedia, Agatha Christie wrote these short stories for The Sketch at the suggestion of its editor, Bruce Ingram. (The Sketch was an illustrated weekly journal which began its run in February of 1893.) It came towards the end of the group of short stories which would later be collected in the book Poirot Investigates, though of course we can’t be sure that it was not written earlier and merely published later.

Before proceeding, in the interests of full disclosure I should note that, technically, the murderer is not, very strictly speaking, a butler. He is a “valet-butler.” I think I am not being unreasonable in saying that this is close enough, though.

The structure of this story may be closer to the quintessential “the butler did it” than the other examples I can think of, with the possible exception of The Door by Mary Roberts Reinhart. In The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman, the butler had obvious access to the victim but concocted a complicated story which implicated someone who had a more obvious motive. The pursuit, at least by the police, of this other man, distracted us from considering the butler’s story too closely.

Having said that, I should perhaps take a moment to defend the idea of a quintessential “the butler did it” story. If the thing can barely be found in literature and mostly exists mostly as a joke, what right do I have to claim that there is such a thing as an ideal of it? And yet, I think that we can take a stab at it because of some of its features.

In particular, “the butler did it” seems to be describing the murderer being the person least suspected because he is akin to the furniture. S.S. Van Dine’s reason for prohibiting servants from being the criminal, though overstated (and a touch snobbish), gives some insight here:

11. Servants–such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like–must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person–one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.

I think that it’s actually related to another prohibition, number seventeen, which states that a professional criminal must not be the murderer. The unifying theme is stated in rule number nineteen, that the motive for murder must be personal. What all of these things are getting at is that there must actually be some connection between murderer and victim. It’s not enough merely to have been in the same place at the same time. This is what the butler doing it gets wrong (most of the time). A butler’s relationship to his employer is, by definition, that of an employee. This is the opposite of having a personal connection to the victim.

There are exceptions to this, of course. He could have taken on the job of butler merely to gain access to his victim, as part of a revenge plot. He could be a long-lost relative who will be an heir to the victim. There are, undoubtedly, other such schemes for which buttling gives the murderer an excuse to get near his victim. They will all have in common that being the butler is merely a cover story, even if he did actually buttle. What they also have in common is that—this trope aside—the butler is not someone you would ordinarily suspect of having a relationship with the victim. People do not, customarily, employ their relatives. Therefore, if you suspect the author of playing fair you will tend to not suspect the butler.

And here we come to what I think is likely to be the reason for this trope existing, that is, what the trope of “the butler did it” really means. I think that it means that the murderer is the person we least expect because the story is structured so that he would be one of the people who is normally “out of bounds.” (To borrow a sporting metaphor.) I’ve mentioned before in this series that I think that the trope was probably far more common in plays that in novels. If plays were the TV shows of yesteryear, it makes sense that they would tend to be written by hack writers who would try to be clever but would have trouble being really clever. Thus they would be more prone to pick someone the audience has no reason to suspect, like the butler. They can’t just have it be the butler, though, because they would seem random and hence unfair. As a compromise, they then reveal (without warning) that the butler is actually a long lost cousin or an illegitimate nephew or some such. The adage that the butler always did it probably, then, was conceived in response to this sort of plot device. It is advice to expect a hack plot in which the least likely person can be relied upon to be the culprit, though with some contrived connection as an excuse.

If my guess is correct, The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman does not really fit the mold. Its butler is too much in the foreground. Apart from the suspect for whom we have only the butler’s word was there, the butler is in fact the only person with the opportunity to commit the murder. Mrs. Christie is, in this way, playing fair with the audience more than the prototypical butler-did-it story would. The butler is a legitimate suspect, and we are distracted from him only by his own ingenious misdirection. If one stops to think for a moment, one would suspect the butler.

So, all things considered, I’m not sure if it’s right to classify The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman as a butler-did-it story. The butler did do it, of course. That’s not at issue. The question is whether he did it in the right way. With that the question, I don’t think that it’s an example of the trope, if the-butler-did-it even can be called a trope. Still, it’s worth mentioning, since, after all, the butler did do it.

Are Plot Holes Like the Dark Side?

In Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Luke famously asks Master Yoda if the dark side of the force is more powerful than the light side of the force. Yoda’s answer is no, it’s not more powerful. It’s only faster. That is, one gains power more quickly on the dark side, but there isn’t more power to be gained. And, of course, that faster power comes at a price.

I’ve been wondering if there isn’t something analogous in writing, where plot holes make interesting stories easier to write.

In one sense this is obviously true. Shoddy workmanship is easier than good workmanship. On the other hand, Rian Johnson supposedly worked for weeks on the opening word crawl for Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi, and the first two sentences contradicted each other. Shoddy workmanship requires less effort, but apparently it is not always the result of less effort. In any event, this isn’t what I’m wondering about.

There are two ways in which something being easier is interesting. The first is that easier things, if one keeps the results the same, require less effort and are thus more comfortable. It’s in this sense that doing a bad job is easier than doing a good job. The other way in which something being easier is interesting is if it allows one to produce better results. A lever is a good example of this: a lever allows a man who is pushing his hardest to push more weight. Or to give another example, a wheel allows a man who is pulling as hard as he can to pull far more weight. This is what I’m wondering about.

Do plot holes allow a writer of a given skill level to write a more interesting story than his skill level would normally allow?

Obviously, I mean before one gets to the end and finds out that the implicit promises of an explanation will not be fulfilled.

What makes a story interesting are questions which are raised and which the story (implicitly) promises will be answered at the end. One of the most intriguing questions which can be raised is an apparent contradiction which admits of some deeper explanation which shows that the appearance is deceiving and the contradiction is not really a contradiction. In Silver Blaze, Holmes draws the inspector’s attention to the curious incident of the dog in the night. But the dog did nothing in the night, which is, itself, the curious incident. How can this be? There seems to be a contradiction here.

The solution of this apparent contradiction is that the dog would have barked had a stranger been about, so his doing nothing was positive evidence that no stranger had come by. The apparent contradiction of an interesting-nothing was paid off, and paid off well. So well, it was imitated so often as to make its way onto a list in 1920 of tricks that should be dropped for being too well-used (Silver Blaze was first published in 1892).

Plot holes are contradictions in a story. As such, they have the appearance of being a contradiction. Until the story is over, however, the reader cannot know that there will be no explanation of them. They thus make the story more interesting, as the reader keeps trying to guess what the solution will be. This can go badly for the author, but it need not. It will only go badly if the reader remembers the plot hole when the story is over.

There are two main ways of making the reader forget that there was a plot hole in a story:

  1. Distract the reader
  2. Give a bad explanation

In the first case, if there are enough twists and turns and the characters no longer are concerned with the events in which the plot hole occurred, the reader may simply forget the plot hole entirely. This will work better with readers who have bad memories, but they certainly can be found. (It probably works better in movies and television.)

In the second case, if the author only gives part of the bad explanation and has the characters are seen to accept it, many readers won’t pause to think through the rest of the explanation and how it doesn’t work. The more quick-witted readers, as well as the more dogged readers, will, of course, but there are plenty of readers with little patience and not much more wit.

If the author is able to disguise his plot holes in this manner, he will have gotten the advantage of his book being more interesting while the reader was reading it. The use of this technique—possibly without the author even realizing what he is doing it—might well enable him to write books which, to an inattentive reader, seem far more interesting than they really are. In this way, plot holes may be like the dark side of the force. It’s not that they let one write better stories—clearly they don’t do that—but they may make it much faster in the learning of the craft of writing to write stories which capture readers’ interest.

And this may be why we see stories with plot holes so often.

Murder at a Dinner Party in a Mansion

As I mentioned in Fun Settings for a Murder Mystery, murder at a dinner party held in a mansion is one of the most iconic golden-age settings for a murder mystery. It’s so iconic that the (sort of) murder mystery board game Clue (or Cluedo, if you’re British) has exactly this setting. It was necessary, but fitting, that the movie Clue had it as well. Parodies must be instantly recognizable.

There may not be a more recognizable setting for a murder mystery. And yet, I can’t actually think of them being done very often in golden age mysteries.

I cannot think of any Sherlock Holmes stories like this, though a few came close. Of all of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, only Clouds of Witness comes close, though that was a rented hunting lodge, not a mansion, and there was no dinner party and the murder happened in the middle of the night. I’m sure that there was at least one Poirot with this. A quick search turns up Murder in Three Acts, which has more than one poisoning at a dinner party. As I’ve mentioned, Murder on The Orient Express is similar in structure to a dinner party at a mansion, though it is, of course, a train and not a mansion. I can think of a Miles Bredon case, The Body in the Silo, which is a fairly classic example of it. I can’t think of any Father Brown stories with this setting. I’ve only read two Dr. Thorndyke stories, so I can’t speak with any authority on them. I find the dinner party plot unlikely in a Dr. Thorndyke story unlikely, though, and a quick search doesn’t turn anything up.

To be fair, I suspect that murder at a dinner party is likely to have been the plot of plays more often than of novels. They’re a fun and interesting setting for a novel, but they have a much greater benefit to a play: they put everyone into very few settings that don’t need to be changed out. As I discussed in Were Plays the TV of Previous Centuries? most of these were lost.

So, why is this setting, despite being so richly suggestive and iconic, so (relatively) uncommon in novels?

I think that the answer is that it’s hard to pull off. Especially if the murderer does not use poison, getting time alone with the victim in order to do away with him is not easy in the context of a dinner party, with cigars, billiards, tea, etc. following. The timing is tight, and that is not easy to manage with many people going about the activities of a party, even a low-key party. This is not merely a problem for the writer; it is also a problem for the murderer. There must be some reason, then, why the murderer would wait for such a difficult time to commit his murder, and moreover one that undeniably puts him, if not at the scene of the crime, at the most a room or two over from it.

Novels, being so much longer than either short stories or plays, give the reader time to think about the story. They spend time with all of the characters in a way that they don’t in a play or short story (or movie, though those are less common). The audience to a play will forgive a playwright for taking liberties with a story that are necessary to fit the story onto a stage. The reader of a novel is not nearly so forgiving because the writer of a novel does not need to take liberties to fit a story into a book.

I think that the rock upon which this setting falters, in novels, is plausibility from the murderer’s perspective. At a dinner party in a mansion is an absolutely terrible place to murder someone. All of the things which make it interesting also make it a bad plan. This can be made to work by springing the need for the murder upon the murderer—a sudden realization that he has mere minutes to silence the victim before he is ruined, for example. This is a workable condition, but a limiting one.

Another possible way of working around it is for the murderer to have as part of his plan the framing of someone. He might be killing two birds with one stone, as it were—killing the one and getting the other out of the way through a conviction for murder. That said, this was a better plot back in the golden age of mysteries, in England, where execution was common and swift. In the modern US, where execution is rare and often takes decades, the amount accomplished by framing someone for murder is less. Not nothing, though. It could effectively get a love-rival out of the way, or open up a coveted job.

In summation, I think that this is an under-used setting, which can be made greater use of, and should.

A Monograph on Cigar Ash

In the first Sherlock Holmes story, he identifies the brand of cigar which a murderer smoked by its ash. As he explained to Dr. Watson:

I have made a special study of cigar ashes—in fact, I have written a monograph upon the subject. I flatter myself that I can distinguish at a glance the ash of any known brand, either of cigar or of tobacco. It is just in such details that the skilled detective differs from the Gregson and Lestrade type.

I wonder if anyone ever read this monograph.

I should, perhaps, explain my curiosity, as well as my meaning. This scene reminds me of a list of 20 rules for detective fiction which S.S. Van Dine wrote in 1920. The twentieth rule included a list of then-overused plot elements:

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective-story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality.
A. Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.
B. The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.
C. Forged finger-prints.
D. The dummy-figure alibi.
E. The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.
F. The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.
G. The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.
H. The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.
I. The word-association test for guilt.
J. The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.

As you can see, identifying the culprit by the brand of cigarette he smokes was hackneyed by 1920. Granted, that’s 33 years after the publication of A Study in Scarlet. Moreover, a thing being hackneyed implies that it was commonly used. And, of course, identifying the brand of a cigarette by its end is not the same thing as identifying a cigar by its ash.

Still, when I think over the golden age detectives with which I’m familiar (that, admittedly, mostly come after 1920), identifying people by their unusual preference in tobacco was quite uncommon. Indeed, the only instance I can recall where tobacco brand comes up as a means of identification at all was a red herring in the Miles Bredon story The Three Taps by Fr. Ronald Knox (published in 1927). I can’t remember it at all in Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, or Father Brown. I’ve only read two Dr. Thorndyke stories, but neither of them ever features identification via tobacco products. My memory may simply be failing me, but I’m not sure that cigar ash was ever used for identification again even by Mr. Sherlock Holmes. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he identified Watson by a cigarette end, not by ash.

Overall, the use of identification by tobacco products (or a favorite candy wrapper, etc) occupies a very curious place in detective fiction. We can probably lump these in with other identifying things, such as monogrammed handkerchiefs, cigarette cases, fingerprints, the victim having written the murderer’s name in his own blood, etc. What these things all have in common is that they are simple evidence. If they mean what they seem to mean, no cleverness is required in order to catch the murderer. That is, no cleverness is required on the part of the reader.

At least in the very early 1900s, some cleverness on the part of the detective was required to take finger marks. Occasionally even modern shows will have a police detective using some clever means to take fingerprints off of an unusual surface in a low-tech setting. All of that may be interesting, but it is not very satisfactory for the reader. It is the fictitious equivalent of watching a reality TV show about someone doing his job with cameras following along. There’s nothing mysterious about finding out that, after some tricky work, the fingerprints of Mr. John Smithington were found on the knife plunged into the back of his creditor, Mr. Dalrymple Worthorford, so the police went and arrested him and he confessed. It might possibly be interesting that if one mixes equal parts vanilla icecream, superglue, and hand sanitizer one can cause fingerprints on cork-bark handles to fluoresce under infrared light (I made all that up), but if all that happens is the detective asks his assistant for these items, he gets them, then shines the light and takes a picture of the fingerprints, we might as well have been watching a science show for children.

The problem, then, is that for our mystery story to be a mystery story, the simple clues must be, in some measure, misleading. They tend to be misleading in only two ways, however. Either they mean that the murderer is trying to frame someone, or else they mean that the person they identify was at the scene of the crime (probably) before or (possibly) after it occurred. These are great features of a mystery story, but they are only sometimes used, and of all of the ways to use them, cigar ash is probably the weakest form of evidence to achieve the desired end. (Cigarette ends are not that much stronger, unless one is going to drag in modern forensic teams and do DNA analysis, but that is largely to drain the fun out of the story.)

All of which adds up to why I wonder whether anyone ever read Mr. Holmes’ monograph on cigar ash. There have been many detectives since Holmes with approximately his brilliance and attention to detail. I don’t know whether any of their authors have ever given them cigar ash to identify, though.