Mystery Science Theater 3000 Could Only Have Happened When It Did

In a sense, of course, all things can only happen when they did. Still, it’s interesting to consider how much the circumstances that led to Mystery Science Theater 3000 existing. (These thoughts were triggered by coming across some DVD special features as I was curating my MST3K DVD collection.)

MST3K began when Minneapolis-local UHF station KTMA needed programming but had all but no budget.

That in itself is an interesting sentence to unpack, because a lot of younger people won’t know what a local TV station is, nor what UHF was. (It has been very interesting explaining this to my twelve year old son who has become a fan of MST3K.)

For those who don’t know, in the 1940s when television got started through the 1980s, TV was broadcast over radio waves. This meant that the station was a building with a tall tower, atop of which was a very powerful radio antenna (ranging from the kilowatts to the megawatts, depending on the station, its budget, and its radio license). A given station could reach, depending on geography and other factors, from a dozen miles to a few hundred miles. There were a few nationally broadcast channels; this meant that they sent their signal out to many stations throughout the country which would broadcast it over their radio transmitters simultaneously. (For a long time there were only three; ABC, NBC, and CBS.) Most TV channels were local, though, typically only viewable from a single city and its surrounding area.

The first radio spectrum allocated to television was higher frequency than that allocated to radio, which was in part a necessity because it needed far more bandwidth, which can only be found higher up in the spectrum. This was still all fairly low frequency, though, as the technology to easily transmit and receive at higher frequencies was harder to make and, in practice, out of reach. Early TVs could only receive these low-frequency channels, channels 2-13. Later on the technology to broadcast on higher channels came about and began to be incorporated into television sets. These channels (channels 14-83) were called UHF channels, for “ultra high frequency”. On early radio TVs these were received somewhat differently and were thus less convenient than the lower frequency channels. This coupled with the shorter propagation of high-frequency radio waves meant that UHF channels tended to have a smaller audience than the standard channels would get.

KTMA (which was the radio call-sign of the station broadcasting in the Minneapolis area on channel 23) began as a station for broadcasting local sporting events. This niche fits a UHF station fairly well since only people relatively close will care about local sporting events anyway. That said, it didn’t really work. (There were other things relating to subscription television that also didn’t work.) Thus around 1988 Jim Mallon was hired as the station director to try to make it viable. There were a few packages of movies that had been purchased to try to broadcast something but because they were the cheapest ones possible they were the worst movies available that no one else wanted.

To make KTMA financially viable, Jim Mallon needed to create some extremely cheap local programming that was at least better than the stuff they were licensing. Jim had roots in the local comedy scene and made contact with Joel Hodgeson. Joel had the idea for MST3K and KTMA having a vault of the worst movies available for license was a great fit. Joel also had contacts in the local comedy scene, and pulled in J. Elvis Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu to co-star with him. At this point all of the riffing was ad-libbed during the live broadcast. (Supposedly Trace and J. Elvis were making $25 a show.) The show was popular but not enough to save KTMA, which was heading into bankruptcy and canceled it. Joel thought that there was something to the show, though, and had enough material to put together a 4 minute pitch tape. He put this together because he’d heard that the newly forming Comedy Channel on cable TV desperately needed programming, and Joel happened to have worked with the president of the forming channel so had a contact and a path of trust.

(For those who don’t know, Cable TV largely replaced broadcast TV because it had much higher quality and, having vastly more bandwidth, it had far more channels on it. People would pay a subscription fee to their local cable TV provider to cover the cost of physically running cables out to everyone’s house. Cable Channels would broadcast their transmission over satellites which the local cable providers would receive on satellite dishes and distribute over physical cables. Adding channels didn’t require licensing radio spectrum and there weren’t issues of radio interference that caused visual and audio static.)

The Comedy Channel picked up the show; as (IIRC) Trace Beaulieu put it, they represented 90 minutes of inexpensive pre-packaged content to a network that rapidly had to create 24 hours of programming in a genre that is notoriously best when short. At first the network tried to interfere a bit, but it didn’t have time to interfere much and rapidly MST3K was popular, took care of itself, and was produced in the mid-west which was inconvenient to travel to so they mostly left it alone. (Things would change a little bit when they got canceled on the Comedy Channel and moved to the SciFi channel, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

This is quite a string of coincidences that could only really have happened when they did. There hasn’t really been another time when people would invest the sort of money into a TV station which needed programming like in the UHF days; enough to pay a bunch of people, not enough to pay them much. There hasn’t been the same sort of cache where talented people who dreamed of being on TV would work for peanuts because at least they were on TV. There is rarely that kind of money available to hire talented people who will work for peanuts with so little oversight. Even when you have something like this, it’s almost never the case that when the first one evanesces (as such things always will in this world) a second such opportunity, with a larger budget, shows up.

I don’t want to overstate my meaning; weird and unlikely things happen all the time. This one was just especially weird and unlikely, and extraordinarily a product of its time.

CD-ROM Was an Enormous Revolution

There was a time during the late 1980s and much of the 1990s when computers were tremendously exciting because they were getting better at an unbelievable pace. Though from an intentionally comedic perspective, the later portions of Weird Al’s parody song All About the Pentiums captures some of this spirit (link because they don’t allow embed).

You’ve gotta be the dumbest newbie I’ve ever seen
You’ve got white-out all over your screen
You think your Commodore 64 is really neato
What kinda chip you got in there, a Dorito?
You’re usin’ a 286? Don’t make me laugh
Your Windows boots up in what, a day and a half?
You could back up your whole hard drive on a floppy diskette
You’re the biggest joke on the Internet

And again, later:

My new computer’s got the clocks, it rocks
But it was obsolete before I opened the box
You say you’ve had your desktop for over a week?
Throw that junk away, man, it’s an antique
Your laptop is a month old? Well that’s great
If you could use a nice, heavy paperweight

When this song was written we had had about a decade of computers being approximately twice as fast every year, though I think that CD-ROM played a big part in this general sort of impression, too. To see what I mean, I want to run through a very brief history of processors.

In 1982, Intel released the 80286, more popularly called the 286. It was used in a variety of things at a variety of speeds, so for simplicity I’m going to focus on where I met it: the IBM PS/2. It had 1MB of RAM and the CPU ran at 10MHz.

The 286 was succeeded by the 386, though at the time it often took years for these things to work into consumer hardware. We had our 286-based PS2 in about 1988, while the 386 came out in 1995. We got a computer with a 386 somewhere around 1990. That ran at about 20MHz, and was faster at executing instructions even at the same clock speed. The 486 was released in 1990 and started at 25MHz in the computers available to us some time later. In 1992 the DX2 was launched, which was a 486 running at 50MHz. Shortly thereafter a version at 66MHz was launched. These were over twice as fast as the initial 486, since being on the same architecture the clock speed mostly tells you the performance.

In 1993 the DX4-100 as well as the next-generation Pentium were launched, and again performance lept up, somewhere around doubling. The Pentium Pro would follow in 1995 and the Pentium II in 1996. By the time of the Pentium II, not only was the architecture faster at the same clock speed, but clock speeds had reached up to 450MHz (lowest was 233MHz). The Pentium III was released in 1999, and would have clock speeds that, in the high-end models, reached up to 1.4GHz (the lowest was 400MHz). By now there were becoming issues with fetching data from RAM that meant that increased clock speeds didn’t linearly increase processing power, but the increased processing power around now was still almost beyond comprehension compared to what it was a mere ten years before.

However, it was still small compared to how big an improvement CD-ROMs were. To see this, we have to consider what (in a sense) they replaced: the floppy disk. While there were several formats of floppy disk, the dominant one in the mid to late 1980s was the 3.5″ floppy disk. Here’s a decent picture of them from Wikipedia:

By Victor Korniyenko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10682229

(For those wondering about the name, the floppy disk was inside of the hard plastic case. The metal door slid to expose the floppy disk to the drive that read it.)

This stored 1.44MB of data. Hence the Evil Overlord rule, “all important data will be padded to 1.45MB”—so the hero couldn’t copy the critical file onto a floppy drive and escape with it, as often happened in movies from a very specific time period. The 1.44MB 3.5” floppy disks were not overly expensive, but they were not super cheap and they were cumbersome. They also were not fast. It would take close to a minute to read all of the data on a floppy disk, though there was some variability. Software would come in boxes that had multiple floppy disks. Early games might be on three floppies, while later games might be on seven or eight. I remember the first time I played around with installing Linux, it took about twenty floppy disks.

Then some time around the later days of the 486 came the widespread availability of affordable, if still expensive, CD-ROM drives. These had a capacity of 650MB and a read speed of 150 Kilobytes per second, making them almost eight times faster than a floppy drive, but more importantly, they had the capacity to store as much data as 450 floppy drives. Hard drives of the day were often in the range of only 200 or 300 MB, so these amazing disks had as much capacity as two to three hard drives, which were the enormous storage vessels we had been copying floppy disks to in order to install software for years. It was an amazing revolution. Computers were getting faster, but doubling speeds at every 18 months (though it seemed faster at the time) by 1992 they were less than 100 times faster than they were in 1985. With the CD-ROM, we had something that could store over 400 times as much data in a portable format as the year before they were introduced. It was a revolution in what could be distributed with software. Games quickly began shipping with far more art, for more screens, and actual music. I remember getting a demo copy of the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica on a single CD, complete with pictures.

DVDs would come out in 1996, though those were movies that came out and it took a year or so for DVD-ROM to really start being used. They were a revolution in movies for various reasons I won’t get into here, but in computers they only represented an increase in storage, and the change was not nearly as great. A single-layer DVD could store 4.7GB and a dual-layer DVD could store 8.5GB. Taking the bigger of the two (which were common), that was thirteen times the capacity of a CD-ROM. That’s a big improvement, but nothing like the CD-ROM’s 450x improvement over the floppy disk. I think that DVD-ROM also made less of a splash because, while almost nothing fit on a single floppy disk, quite a large number of things fit on a single CD-ROM and even more things fit on two CD-ROMs, which were not much harder to package than a single one. Still, it was more than a ten-fold improvement in capacity.

(As a tangent, where we are on the s-curve of technology can be seen in Blu-Ray disks, which had capacities of 25GB and 50GB for single an dual-layer disks. This represents only a six-fold increase in storage capacity over DVDs.)

So while computers got faster, the explosion in storage, for a time, outpaced the explosion in speed. While we tend to forget how much of a revolution CD-ROM was in its day, I do think that it made a large contribution to the heady sense of technological improvement accelerating almost beyond comprehension.

Of course, these days, a two year old computer is still pretty new and quite capable. I’m buying a new laptop this summer to replace my five year old laptop, but only because I’m tired of the palm-detection not working and because I’d like a bit larger screen. It still has enough storage and is fast enough for what I want to use it for. It’s rare to bother with physical disks for data storage these days (except for buying movies), but while WiFi keeps getting faster, it’s hard to care, even for tech nerds like me, because it’s been plenty fast enough for everything everyone does with it for years now. WiFi 6 is cool and all, but the total amount of time it saves in a day is, perhaps, a few seconds.

This is, by the way, something that people who looked at pure technological capacity tended to miss, back when they expected unbridled growth to continue. Eventually, technology reaches a point where it can do most of what people want it to do, so the additional benefits of improved technology become smaller. At the same time, at some point improved technology becomes more expensive (typically after improvements are figuring out how to do what one is already doing better, and when they come from new, more difficult but now possible ways of doing what one is doing). At some point, the additional benefits aren’t worth the additional cost, and while the technical ability to improve technology exists, the money to do that improvement isn’t there. This is rarely a sudden stopping-point; more often it’s a gradual slowing down of improvements.

Too Funny To Not Share

Yesterday evening, a YouTube atheist whose channel is named “TheSkepTick” (he’s British or from some commonwealth country so he means a check mark, not a blood sucking insect) made a video about one of mine. (Specifically, about the first in the Stupid Things Atheists Say series.) Since his videos get several thousand views, this has result in hundreds of comments from angry atheists telling me how stupid I am, how I understand nothing, that I’m projecting, etc. etc. etc.

I’ve no interest in watching the video, but I was mildly curious who TheSkepTick was since I’d never heard of the channel before, so I searched him up on YouTube. Then I looked at his About page. This is the part that’s too funny to not share.

A brand new channel, making Atheism & Skepticism more accessible to a wider audience. A lot of the atheist community, in my mind, sound REALLY smart, because of the huge words and fast paced rebuttals they use. It’s not all like that, you can be like me, not overly intelligent, and look at why people believe things, then question it, simply, yet effectively.

Pray for them, please.

Got The Documents in the Case

I recently ordered a copy of The Documents in the Case and it arrived today. It’s going directly onto the bookshelf as I have no immediate interest in reading it. This is for several reasons. The main reason is that it is written in the form of a series of letters. That’s not necessarily bad, but it takes the right frame of mind to deal with as it has at best a resemblance to a narrative flow. It was done fairly well in the beginning of Busman’s Honeymoon, but that section was mercifully short.

The Documents in the Case was published in 1930, putting it between Strong Poison and Five Red Herrings. It was a collaboration with Robert Eustace, who provided the scientific knowledge, and is quite a departure from Lord Peter. Interestingly, Sayers had intended to kill off Lord Peter in Strong Poison, or rather to retire him and cease writing about him. She proved unable to do so, as she couldn’t get Harriet to agree to marry Lord Peter and when she humanized him for Harriet’s sake she found she made him interesting to her. She probably did not know that at the time that she wrote The Documents in the Case, though, which makes me wonder whether it was originally intended as a new direction, rather than a one-off experiment.

The Five Red Herrings was published the next year, in 1931, and is far and away my least favorite of the Lord Peter stories. Far from humanizing Lord Peter none of the characters in the book were human beings. Have His Carcase came the next year, 1932, and brings a far more human Lord Peter Wimsey, so this was not far off. I’d wonder if The Documents in the Case marked the beginning of Sayers considering a turn toward a more strictly puzzle-oriented type of mystery, except that she actually referred to it in her essay in Titles To Fame as a step in the right direction of making her detective novels more novels than detection.

I did read a page or two, out of curiosity, and came across something very interesting. The woman writing the first letter (after a brief cover letter to the attached documents giving us the barest sense of what’s going on) mentions that in England at the time (the letter is dated 9 September 1928) there were two million women more than men. Presumably this is related to World War 1, though looking it up only about a million men from the British Empire died in World War 1 (I say “only” in regard to the supposed surplus of women). If true, this would certainly go decent way to explaining the loosening of sexual morality at the time, though it had certainly been happening prior to the start of World War 1. I’ll have to look into this more to see whether it really was the case.

It’s Only a Paper Moon

There’s a fun old-timey song called It’s Only A Paper Moon. There’s a version of Erin McKeown which I really like:

According to Wikipedia it’s an old jazz standard which was written for a 1932 play, The Great Magoo. It was about a womanizer who fell hard for a Coney Island dance hall girl. She briefly becomes famous when a recording of her singing It’s Only A Paper Moon becomes famous on the radio. According to an L.A. Times review of the play, “both lovers are Olympic-caliber boozers who swan dive into the gutter at the least hint of a romantic reversal.” Apparently it only ran for eleven performances.

The song featured the next year in a movie called Take A Chance, then waned in popularity until it was covered by popular singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole in the WW2 era.

Here, by the way, is a 1933 recording of it:

I like Erin’s version better.

It’s got a very interesting theme, which is, roughly, levels of reality. This was something that came up in a discussion between Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Pageau, Bishop Barron, and a professor whose name escapes me at the moment. They were discussing religious experiences, and how everyone who has them (however they do) describes them as more real than everyday experience. It stands to reason that if a person truly encounters the divine, they will feel the world something of a shadow in comparison. What this song gets at, though, is that the same thing applies even within creation. Some things are just more real than others.

The particular that it discusses is romantic love, of course; that is, after all, the subject of about 99.8% of all popular songs. Still, it’s true as far as it goes, even if it doesn’t go very far. It goes quite a lot farther than the people who believe that sub-atomic particles are the ultimate reality go, though, and that’s the era that this song was written for.

The Evil Overlord List

If you’ve never encountered it, there is a very funny list of movie tropes which goes by the name Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Were Evil Overlord. If you’d like to read all 235 things on the list, it’s here.

Some of my favorites include:

The artifact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box. The same applies to the object which is my one weakness.

Another great one, though now dated:

Any data file of crucial importance will be padded to 1.45MB in size.

For those too young to get the joke, floppy disks were often used in movies of a certain era (before the internet) to transport crucial information in movies, such as the plans to a super-weapon or the evidence that a villain committed crimes. In the sorts of movies we’re talking about from this era, it was common for heroes to secretly get access to the villain’s computer and copy this information onto a floppy disk. The hard-cased 3.5″ floppy disks which were the most common for this purpose had a capacity of 1.44MB.

Another great is:

One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.

Though I think that my all-time favorite is:

I will not waste time making my enemy’s death look like an accident — I’m not accountable to anyone and my other enemies wouldn’t believe it.

I tend to paraphrase this one when quoting, though, to “I will not waste time making the hero’s death look like an accident. My friends won’t care and my enemies will not believe it anyway.”


This came to mind because twenty some-odd years ago I wrote a script that randomly picks one of the quotes to be the “evil overlord quote of the day” in my email signature, and yesterday someone else recognized it and commented on it, reminding me that I did it.

Jordan Peterson & Jonathan Pageau on The Problem of Perception

I came across a very interesting video which is a conversation between Jonathan Pageau and Jordan Peterson where they discuss the problem of perception—how it is possible to perceive objects.

After listening to it for the second time, I realized that they are discussing from a different angle a problem that I’ve presented to atheists and they’ve never understood. Instead of the problem of perceiving objects I tended to refer to it as the problem of defining human beings within a materialist framework, and the consequent problem that this has for morality.

The basic problem I would present is: how do you define a human being in terms of subatomic particles in such a way that it’s distinct from a corpse? If you can’t—and you certainly can’t—you can’t define what murder is, and if you can’t define what murder is, you can’t say why murder is wrong. The same problem applies to all other moral aspects; good luck defining fraud or theft or arson or trespassing with the intent to commit a crime with a firearm in terms of sub-atomic particles. It’s not just that if God is dead all things are permitted. If God is dead, no things are definable and consequently nothing can be forbidden.

What Jonathan and Jordan are discussing is the same thing, but from a more epistemological perspective. They actually started, more-or-less, with why there is no such thing as a general-purpose robot. There is no such thing as a general-purpose robot because in order to interact with things you need to be able to perceive things and distinguish them from their environment, and though it comes naturally to us when you look at what we’re doing in order to be able to build a robot to do it, it turns out that the perception of objects is inextricably linked with purpose. (E.g. whether it matters that the right hand side of the table is separable from the left-hand side depends on whether you want to put something on it or use it for firewood.) People tended to be so used to their purposes that they couldn’t imagine not having the same purposes, and thus assumed these purposes were fundamental and therefore universal, but when examined it turns out that this is just a failure of imagination. (In part, this is why it takes so many years to produce an adult human being, behaviorally speaking.)

It’s a very interesting conversation (despite being called a lecture for some reason), and I recommend watching it in full, more than once. They really get into some of the interesting consequences of how perception and purpose are inextricably linked from each other.

What Toleration Will Tolerate

As Edward Feser has observed, classical liberalism is all about toleration, but in the end, the only thing it will tolerate is itself. It is a bit of a long argument, but the short version is that the Paradox of Tolerance means that liberalism needs to be intolerant of whatever will threaten its toleration, and that turns out to be, approximately, everything else.

Classical liberalism, as it morphed into contemporary liberalism—more often called “progressivism” or “woke”, though none of these are well-defined terms—has increasingly discovered what it can tolerate and what it can’t. It can tolerate fornication, divorce, adultery (with a few qualifications), drug abuse, all manner of sex-like acts which have no relationship of any kind to procreation, and quite a few other things, though it cannot tolerate slavery, rape, or murder (if the victim has been born more than a few minutes ago). It can tolerate telling other people how to be happy as long as they have asked and the answer is a generally acceptable one.

If one casts one’s eye over the things that modern liberalism will tolerate, there are clearly no principles involved. People occasionally make an attempt at “as long as it doesn’t harm anyone” but abortion clearly harms people. (It’s no answer to say “but we define the victims as not people” since the victims of slavery were defined as not-people too, and liberals don’t excuse that for a second.) Divorce harms people, though some liberals do try to get around this via pretending that it doesn’t. Adultery obviously harms people. For that matter drug abuse clearly harms the one abusing the drugs, but the principle is generally “so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone but the person doing it”. Something that points in the right direction, I think, is that liberals who live in low-crime areas are often tolerant of crime, even including violent crime. This is especially true of white liberals and black-on-black crime. And that last part, I think, gives it away.

Modern liberalism tolerates whatever does not inconvenience the liberal. I don’t mean that liberals are inconsistent and suspend their principles whenever they are personally inconvenienced. I mean that this is their principle, to the degree that they have a principle. Many of them do not even pretend to have principles anymore; at best they have slogans which everyone recognizes that they don’t mean literally or figuratively. They do not pretend to aim for a common good; rather their entire criteria for what can be tolerated is “what does it matter if it doesn’t hurt you?” These purely selfish individuals do need to negotiate with each other because no man is an island, so they must cooperate in banning things that the people they need demand be banned; they are particularly willing to do this if they have no interest in doing the things their allies want banned. All of this makes sense as long as you realize that their principle is unenlightened short-term self interest.

I can’t stress enough that I am not accusing contemporary liberals of being hypocrites. My whole point is that they are not hypocrites.

In Towels, Bigger is Usually Better

For people who have a large amount of surface area relative to normal, such as tall people, fully drying off after getting one’s whole body wet (such as in a shower) can be a little challenging, since towels become less absorbent the more water that they hold. One solution to this is to get towels with more capacity to hold water, such as plusher towels. The problem there is that plush towels are not always absorbent. Some I’ve come across seem to be nearly water repellent.

One solution is to look to very high end towels, such as those made of bamboo rayon (rayon is basically a chemically spun cellulose fiber, so it’s what you might call a quasi-natural fiber). They’re soft and absorbent, but hard to find and expensive.

Then I discovered that the solution is to stop buying bath towels and to start buying “bath sheets”. They’re just big towels, but have a different name for some reason. These “bath sheets”, which I’ve bought and regularly use and like, measure 70 inches long by 35 inches wide, and they have plenty of capacity to hold water simply because they’re much larger, despite having an entirely ordinary amount of plushiness and absorbency. Ordinary “bath towels” tend to be around 54×30, which is only two thirds the surface area of the “bath sheet”. Put the other way, the “bath sheet” has 50% more surface area than the “bath towel”. That’s a lot of extra water it can hold while still feeling dry to the touch and thus drying one off quickly.

As a bonus, it’s also much easier to securely wrap a “bath sheet” around one’s waste even if one’s waste circumference doesn’t qualify one to be an underwear model.

I share this because it took me years to figure out that what I want are decent bath sheets instead of expensive, fancy towels, so I hope I can save you years to figure that out too. Unless you, dear reader, are on the smaller side, in which case “bath towels” probably serve you admirably, and this is only useful knowledge for giving gifts to those in your life who have more trouble getting things from tight places and fitting into airplane seats and the like.

Murder She Wrote: Showdown in Saskatchewan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rear projection is never less than delightful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scene then shifts to a bar.

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

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

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

This was a fun and interesting episode.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chaos on the Bridge?

I recently came across an interesting-looking documentary movie made by William Shatner called Chaos on the Bridge. (It’s only available on YouTube so I can’t embed it.) It is about how Star Trek: The Next Generation got started and all of the trouble that was involved during its first season when it had no idea what it should be. I’ve gotten a little bit of the way into it and it does seem interesting, though not gripping. Has anyone watched it? Is it worth watching the whole thing?

As a side note, I find it curious that I have never learned anything about Gene Roddenberry which made me think better of him. I suppose that that may be related to him starting off, for me, as a great genius visionary who created Star Trek, so the only direction he could go was down. But boy, did he go in that direction. This is a thing to be careful about, of course, because it’s all too easy to be interested in things about a person that are none of one’s business; calumny and detraction are real problems. At the same time, there is a practical value in knowing some things about a creator because they forearm you against dangers in their work. I do not mean, by the way, that drug abuse and sexual licentiousness will be simply championed, but rather that there is a world view which goes with approving of those things, and one must be careful of that world view, especially when its unsavory conclusions are not displayed. When their bad consequences are not obvious are when bad world views are most seductive.

80s Sitcoms & Nostalgia

I was recently thinking about some sitcoms from the 1980s which I grew up with. To this day their theme songs really stir something in me. For example, Who’s the Boss:

Another one that really gets me is The Facts of Life:

Oh, and, of course, Charles in Charge:

There were a ton of similar shows, though none of them really hit me in the same way. Different Strokes, Family Ties, Major Dad, etc. etc. etc.

The thing is, in retrospect, while these shows evoke a lot of nostalgia, they probably shouldn’t, because they often were not good. I don’t mean that they weren’t well written and well acted; they were that. I mean that the family aspect to them wasn’t real. A family is, fundamentally, about teaching the younger members how to be human, and how to do it well. These shows only did that occasionally, and then quite often reluctantly. Their heart was really in subverting the idea of the family; they really wanted to get across the message that there is no such thing as a good way to be human, just do whatever you want and follow your heart, by which they meant that you should be a slave to your irrational impulses. Curiously, the major exception, so far as I remember, was The Cosby Show.)

Of course, they didn’t always do this, and I think that’s where a lot of the nostalgic feeling comes from. Still, it’s a curious thing that I feel a lot of nostalgia for these shows and do not want to show them to my children.

But, what the heck, here’s the greatest of the TV intro songs, aptly enough from The Greatest American Hero:

(If you aren’t familiar with the show, the premise was that aliens came and gave a school teacher a high-tech superhero suit that gives the wearers all sorts of superpowers to fight for justice. Unfortunately, he lost the manual and doesn’t know how to operate the suit, hence all of his clumsy takeoffs, landings, etc.)

Ingenious Murders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Marple and The Moving Finger

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Miss Marple Short Stories vs. Novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Bertram’s Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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