I saw this rather odd writing tip on Twitter the other day. I’m quoting it, rather than another, because it does such a good job of summarizing an attitude towards writing I’ve seen over the years.
Writing Tip: If “editing” your first draft consists of fixing a few typos and changing a word here and there, you’re not doing it right. A first draft should be ripped apart, refashioned, and sewn back together. Anything less is vanity.
It’s that last part that’s the key to this weird attitude. If a particular writer has a writing style where the first draft is essentially a protracted brainstorming session and that works for them, then good for them. The weird attitude is that this is how it should be.
In reality, for at least some people, writing a decent first draft is a viable option. If you’ve done enough planning that you’ve constructed the characters and planned out the setting and written the plot in such a way that it flows out of the characters in their circumstances—substantial changes wouldn’t be editing, they’d be just writing a different book where some of the characters have the same names.
Now, again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. If for some reason a writer cannot bring themselves to do this sort of planning and thinking before they start writing, then I understand doing a book-length brainstorming session in order to generate some material to work with. I’ve written a few first drafts of novels which I haven’t carried through to publishing, and there’s even a very loose sense in which The Dean Died Over Winter Break can be thought of as a substantial rewrite of a previous novel called A Murder At Yalevard—though it was really more of a different book in which I borrowed some elements of the original. But I find it very strange that the writer quoted above cannot conceive of someone who can plan out their books.
There is of course the explanation that such a writer just cannot see beyond their own limitations, but I can’t help but wonder if this attitude isn’t tied in to the idea of the tortured genius. It was an idea that, so far as I know, became popular somewhere in the 1800s, around the time of Byron and Shelley, who were tortured not so much be genius as by their inability to control their lust. Shelley, in particular, seems to have been afflicted in this way, and his vices seem to have been excused by himself and his wife and friends as, not weaknesses, but virtues. To try to say it was not bad for Percy Bysshe Shelly to cheat on his pregnant wife, they invented a new kind of morality where artists were excused from being halfway decent human beings because of the enormous value they gave to humanity. Their art, I mean.
I’m not sure why this idea was popular, but it does seem to have had some currency through at least the 1930s—at least if golden age detective stories are anything to go by. It also seems, curiously, to be more popular with women than with men; it seems to have been female writers who wrote about it approvingly, and within their fiction it was generally only the women (and occasionally a close male friend) who bought the nonsense. Why that is, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s related to the “bad boy” phenomenon. And for that reason, the idea that one should tear a first draft up in a passion of anger at how far it falls short, and completely rework it, may be related.
As a related side-note, actual geniuses never seem to have been tortured, except occasionally by actual problems, like Beethoven being deaf. Shakespeare was, so far as we know, as reasonably happy as a recusant Catholic could have been in England in the late 1500s. Mozart seems to have no greater troubles than having a period when he didn’t make much money because a war made it hard for musicians; summary biographies don’t mention anything which would interest modern people by similarity, such as profound depression.
Shelly’s genius, to the degree that anyone still holds that he was a genius, seems very overrated. Ozymandias is a good poem, but certainly nothing worth excusing adultery for.
Casting the mind’s eye over other examples of tortured geniuses and actual geniuses, it seems like perhaps the thing that’s really attractive about the tortured genius is not the genius part, but the torture part. And I can’t help but think that this attitude that writing should be torture—what else can throwing away something one worked long and hard at be?—is an attempt to try to find some shreds of life in pain, by people who have no idea where to find life in this world.
This is a continuation of my post from yesterday, giving some prelimary thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers essay Gaudy Night in the book Titles to Fame. Today something Ms. Sayers said about the development of a character over many books caught my attention. I’m going to quote it here because I think that the expression of Ms. Sayers own words are necessary to understand the thing she is trying to communicate:
I had from the outset, of course, envisaged for Peter a prolonged and triumphal career, going on through book after book amid the plaudits of adoring multitudes. It is true that his setting forth did not cause as great a stir as I had expected, and that the adoring multitudes were represented by a small, though faithful, band of adherents. But time would, I hoped, bring the public into a better frame of mind, and I plugged confidently on, putting my puppet through all his tricks and exhibiting him in a number of elegant attitudes. But I had not properly realized—and this shows how far I was from understand what it was I was trying to do with the detective novel—that any character that remains static except for a repertory of tricks and attitudes is bound to become a monstrous weariness to his maker in the course of eight or nine volumes.
I cannot contradict Ms. Sayers from my own experience, yet, as I’m only beginning work on my third Brother Thomas novel. However, there is something here on which I think she is mistaken, or, rather, about which she is over-generalizing.
Before saying what, I also think it’s worth considering the Lord Peter bibliography, bearing in mind that Ms. Sayers had tired of Lord Peter and set off to retire him in Strong Poison:
Clouds of Witness
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
The Five Red Herrings
Have His Carcase
Murder Must Advertise
The Nine Tailors
The eight or nine volumes in which Lord Peter had become a monstrous weariness to his maker was, in fact, four volumes. It’s worth considering what those four volumes were like. In Whose Body? we (and the authoress) meet Lord Peter, and everyone is interesting when you first meet them. Clouds of Witness was an excellently crafted mystery, and there was some character development in it, though in the sense of revealing the character of Wimsey rather than changing it. In Unnatural Death we see a great deel more of Miss Climpson and not nearly as much of Wimsey, and that quite often to serve the plot. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we see more of Wimsey, but his personality has largely retreated. Over the stories, we also see the diminution of Charles Parker, in whom Sayers seemed to initially place some personality and intend character development.
What we see, when we look at him, is that he became somewhat more of a puppet in these stories; he was there because someone had to investigate the mysteries, and Sayers balked at introducing a new detective in each story after her experiment with doing so in Unnatural Death. The problem, though, is not really that Lord Peter wasn’t changing. The problem is that Lord Peter didn’t have much of a personality (yet). You can see this in what Ms. Sayers said she needed to do in order to humanize him in order to pull off the romance which was started in Strong Poison but which didn’t work there:
If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.
None of this requires Peter to change throughout the books. All it requires is to actually do it.
To give an example of what I mean, in the first four books we do learn that Lord Peter likes music, but he never says anything about it. We don’t know what he likes about which pieces. He collects first editions, but we don’t know why he collects first editions, and rarely which things he collects first editions of. He has read literature, but we don’t know what he thinks of it. And then, of course, he’s the sort of pointlessly non-religious character which was extraordinarily common amongst golden age detectives, for no discernible reason.
I don’t mean to keep harping on this point, but it is closely related to the problem Ms. Sayers has with Lord Peter—that he can’t articulate a reason for anything that he does other than sheer curiosity is a massive problem to him being a flesh-and-blood human being. All human beings have curiosity; the detective merely being curious is not enough. He must also either overcome the inhibitions which people have to investigating murders, or he must simply lack them. A religious reason for risking death and people disliking you can overcome this inhibition, as they did for Father Brown. The other detectives of the time seem to merely lack this inhibition. This may partially be why they are all eccentric, but they are mostly eccentric without being interesting because of it.
While there was still the thrill of working out the form and nature of the mystery novel, this could be overlooked. One detective might do as well as another when the reader wasn’t much paying attention to him anyway. As Chesterton showed, however, this was in no way necessary. And I think that this is what Ms. Sayers discovered when she finally started putting flesh onto her detective.
An extremely common feature of golden age detective mysteries is the presence of servants in a household. They acted as witnesses for the police, to place people at the scene of a crime as well as to provide alibis. They were also invaluable sources of information when discretely pumped. It is very difficult to come up with any modern equivalent, though, at least outside of exceedingly rich households.
In real life, servants occupied a curious niche in British culture during the early 1900s; with the rise of the middle class servants were relatively commonplace, since the middle class was comparatively wealthy and the transition from farms to a modern economy was still underway, supplying a large number of people who had few specialized skills but just as much need to earn a living as anyone else. This made servants affordable, and the middle class’s pretensions to be like the aristocracy, combined with a lack of the modern labor-saving devices, made servants indispensable of one could at all employ them.
From the detective writer’s perspective, they were enormously valuable, since they lived intimately with families to whom they rarely had any great allegiance. A brother might lie to protect a brother, or a mother her son, but there was no reason to suppose that a valet would lie to protect his master or a cook to protect her mistress. I can’t recall a single instance of anyone supposing that a charwoman would so much as j-walk for an employer.
In books, servants were not omniscient; it was possible to fool them or even to hide a body on the premises and dispose of it without their seeing. Neither were they disloyal. They would answer the questions of the police, so far as they were legally obliged to, but they did, in general, hold that repeating what they saw to strangers was no business of theirs. Discretion was important no less in maids than in doctors. However close to reality this was, it was plausible—if for no other reason than in keeping with other fiction from the timer period—and phenomenally useful to the detective writer.
The writers of mysteries has two opposing problems, and they arise out of the two principle characters of the mystery story. On the one hand, there must be sufficient evidence of the crime that the detective can detect it. On the other hand, there must be sufficiently little evidence of the crime that the murderer is willing to commit the crime at all. The near-ubiquity of servants, combined with their limitations, answer this need quite admirably, which goes a long way to explaining how frequently they showed up for the purpose.
Times have changed and servants no longer make any economic sense, outside of the homes of the unbelievably rich. The most significant factor here is that the transition in farming is mostly complete. In the United States, approximately 2% of the population are farmers; mechanization has taken its toll and the toll has been paid. Immigrants do supply a small stream of unspecialized labor, but even here the economy as a whole has developed enough jobs for people who can learn specialized skills that they do not concentrate in any particular industry. Even where they do show up in service jobs, these service jobs tend to be done on a contract basis. People no longer employ gardeners but lawn services. People rarely have maids though they may have a cleaning service. Much of the work a maid might do has been rendered doable in a short time by a washing machine, a dryer, or a vacuum cleaner. In short, live-in servants are no longer plausible. Are there any other professions which might fill the role?
I fear that, for the most part, there are not. Where people congregate they tend to pack in too closely, for the sake of efficiency, to make it easy for someone to slip something by the witnesses. Where people do not congregate, they tend to live only with people whose testimony is worthless for an alibi.
There are, of course, exceptions. Resorts will have people who work at them and at least temporarily live there, but who live in sufficiently low density that they will not observe everything which goes on. Museums, art galleries, libraries and the like also (sometimes) have approximately the right density of impartial witnesses, though they tend to be closed outside of business hours and over-packed with guests during business hours. That said, they will have slack times, of course. There are also some academic settings, such as a laboratory, that may work for the purpose, too.
All of these substitutes will have their peculiarities that will, perforce, change the stories set with them. This is no disaster, but it will make some of the spirit of the golden age mysteries harder to recapture because part of that spirit was the ordinariness that the extraordinary events took place in. One cannot make an extraordinary setting feel ordinary. Even if an volcanic observation post has the same density of impartial witnesses that a Victorian home might, it will need to be filled with the sort of odd people who might live an work in a volcanic observation post. Nearly anyone might be forced into the circumstances which make a job as a cook the only job they can get, but few people are forced by the need to avoid starvation into being a librarian. Modern writers, if we try to recapture the atmosphere of golden age mysteries, are forced to turn the characters who in the original would have been comic relief into everymen. Circumstances having changed, we must work very hard to have both the circumstances and the humanity that golden age mysteries had.
I had a reasonably major character who was waiting someplace for some other characters to arrive, and she was reading a book to pass the time. Then I decided to go for it. Not only am I going to actually say which book it is, it’s going to be Pride and Prejudice.
Not only is she going to like the book, I think she’s going to talk about it with the brothers.
For some odd reason, this feels almost transgressive. I don’t know why; there’s no rule against having a character read a good book. In fact, there are plenty of instances in golden age mysteries of characters talking about other fictional detectives. There’s no reason I can’t have the characters talk about an interesting subject on occasion.
The history of fingerprints in detective stories is a curious one; their use in detective stories almost never parallels their use in real life. Which is to say, fingerprints in detective stories are always something to be worked around, while in real life they are a tool for catching criminals.
Fingerprints have been known for a very long time, of course, but their use to identify criminals is comparatively recent. Like most things the history of the technology around fingerprints is a long one, but we can suitably take it up with a book by Sir Francis Galton, entitled Finger Prints, in which he a published detailed statistical analysis showing that finger prints were sufficiently unique that they could be used as identification. That is, if a finger print found somewhere matched a finger print taken from a person, you could be confident that it was, in fact, that person’s fingerprint.
Details are a little hazy to my very cursory reading on the subject, but shortly after Paul-Jean Coulier developed a method of transferring fingerprints from objects to paper using iodine fuming we see fingerprints start to be used to identify criminals by police forces in 1901, with the first conviction for murder based upon fingerprint evidence in 1902.
It is not long after this that we see fingerprints start to appear in detective stories; the first I can think of off of the top of my head in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Norwood Builder. In it, a bloody thumb mark is found near where Mr. McFarlane would have gotten his hat before leaving. The thumb print was a false one, of course, made from a cast of a thumb mark left in sealing wax. This discovery has nothing to do with the fingerprint itself, however—the criminal had put it there overnight, and Holmes had observed that there was no mark in that place the day before, proving McFarlane’s innocence.
The next instance I’m aware of—I’m sure that there are others before it—is the first Dr. Thorndyke story, The Red Thumb Mark, published in 1907. Here we have another fingerprint, again in blood, but this time the case revolves almost entirely around the thumb print. It turns out to be a forgery, which Thorndyke proves by careful examination of the thumb print under high magnification. The denouement, for so it might be called, is entirely about the process for using photo-lithographic techniques for creating a stamper capable of creating duplicates of a fingerprint.
I would like to skip forward, now, to 1921, and The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner. This features the detective Malcolm Sage, and he delivers a very curious lecture on the use of photographs and fingerprints. I will quote it in full, because it’s worth reading for the historical curiosity:
“There is no witness so sure as the camera,” remarked Malcolm Sage as he gazed from one to the other of two photographs before him, one representing him holding an automatic pistol to his own head, and the other in which Sir James was posing as a murderer.
“It is strange that it should be so neglected at Scotland Yard,” he added.
Silent and absorbed when engaged upon a problem, Malcolm Sage resented speech as a sick man resents arrowroot. At other times he seemed to find pleasure in lengthy monologues, invariably of a professional nature.
“But we use it a lot, Mr. Sage,” protested Inspector Wensdale.
“For recording the features of criminals,” was the retort. “No, Wensdale, you are obsessed by the finger-print heresy, quite regardless of the fact that none but an amateur ever leaves such a thing behind him, and the amateur is never difficult to trace.”
He paused for a moment; but the inspector made no comment.
“The two greatest factors in the suppression of crime,” continued Malcolm Sage, “are photography and finger-prints. Both are in use at Scotland Yard; but each in place of the other. Finger-prints are regarded as clues, and photography is a means of identification, whereas finger-prints are of little use except to identify past offenders, and photography is the greatest aid to the actual tracing of the criminal.”
By the later 1920s, fingerprints, where they exist at all, are almost exclusively red herrings, and I think by the 1930s they more-or-less never show up. Consider this scene from Gaudy Night, in 1935.
“Is there no material evidence to be obtained from an examination of the documents themseves?” asked Miss Pyke. “Speaking for myself, I am quite ready to have my fingerprints taken or to undergo any other kind of precautionary measure that may be considered necessary.”
“I’m afraid,” said Harriet,” the evidence of finger-prints isn’t quite so easy a matter as we make it appear in books. I mean, we could take finger-prints, naturally, from the S.C.R. and, possibly, from the scouts—though they wouldn’t like it much. But I should doubt very much whether rough scribbling-paper like this would show distinguishable prints. And besides—”
“Besides,” said the Dean, “every malefactor nowadays knows enough about finger-prints to wear gloves.”
There’s also a later scene where Lord Peter dusts a door for fingerprints.
“Am I really going to see finger-prints discovered?” asked the Dean.
“Why, of course,” said Wimsey. “It won’t tell us anything, but it impresses the spectator and inspires confidence…”
He went on to dust for fingerprints right up to the top of the door, which he said was “merely a shopwindow display of thoroughness and efficiency. All a matter of routine, as the policeman says. Your college is kept very well dusted; I congratulate you.” In fact, he suspected the use of strings over a door to manipulate things inside, and was checking to see if there were marks; at this late juncture checking for fingerprints is merely cover for some other, more useful, activity.
As we move out of the golden age and into more contemporary detective fiction, we tend to find that fingerprints either implicate an innocent person in a meeting with the victim prior to his death or else turn out to belong to the victim in very strange places. In short, they turn out to be either red herrings or further puzzles. (Obviously, I am painting with a very large brush, here.)
Curiously, while there seems to have been a spate of forged fingerprints shortly after the things became used as evidence, I can’t recall seeing or reading of any forged fingerprints in stories written in the last 100 years. Most of the time, fingerprints are like cell phones in horror stories—something the author feels duty bound to add a line or two explaining away, but otherwise things one would just as soon forget.
There is a close analogy in DNA evidence, which to some degree are the fingerprints of our day. Any idiot can get a lab result saying that person A was in place B where the crime was committed, and he should never have been in place B, therefore he committed the crime. This requires not a detective but merely a well-trained monkey. It is, therefore, entirely uninteresting. Fingerprints at least have the advantage that the amateur can take fingerprints almost as well as the professional; DNA evidence simply cannot be found by the amateur. DNA evidence is, therefore, merely annoying, from the perspective of the mystery author. It can be used, as fingerprints were, to frame innocent people, but not really better than any other evidence. Hair is a great place to take DNA from, but matching hair to a person is an age-old thing; finding the innocent suspect’s hair at the scene of the crime can be done without DNA evidence.
I know in my own stories I occasionally feel obliged to explain why there is no DNA evidence, though I’m always annoyed by it. To be fair, I also used DNA evidence in one of my stories, though only as potential clinching evidence that would have been worthless without knowing who to test (the test would have happened after the book was over).
I suspect that DNA evidence will eventually go the way of fingerprints—something that needs only the most cursory explanation to wave away, since the reader is as uninterested in it as the author is.
Since murder—in a detective story—requires a motive, money is a very frequent one, as is revenge. Since confusion as to motive helps a detective story to be interesting, Comingling the possible motives of money and revenge can make for a story being very interesting.
In golden age mysteries, this often took the form of a relative who went off and made his fortune in Africa, or in Australia, or in America. To England in the early 1900s, there were a large number of far-off places in which it was possible to make a fortune and to make deadly enemies while one was doing it. This, rather usefully, made for a ready supply of fictional millionaires with dubious pasts in detective fiction. A story might go any way of it, with the millionaire being killed for his money, or for how he got his money, and this, in turn, made any detective story which featured a millionaire who made his fortune in foreign lands instantly inscrutable. There were many ways the story could go until sufficient facts were put into place to know which way it had gone.
I am not sure that this sort of plot is really open to contemporary stories any more. For one thing, there is noplace where popular imagination will accept that fortunes are easily made (if you don’t contract a deadly disease, etc). The closest I think one can come would be a tech startup of some kind. The problem is that tech startups happen within the bosom of civilization. Worse, they are started by the most harmless people that one can imagine: nerds. Popular imagination may accept someone making a fortune in a tech startup, but will not accept the nerd who made this fortune having murdered someone in order to keep it to himself.
It would actually be somewhat plausible to have a more daring person use the small amount of money he had from his parents to fund a startup with a nerd friend and then to get rich from it, so we need not be strictly limited to having a nerd as our rich man. The problem is that it would still be the nerd who would have to get revenge, and this would not be very plausible. At the outskirts, the nerd might somehow have acquired a wife and children—though I think this would tend to strain the credulity of the average reader (more because the nerd is conceived of like a sorcerer, and sorcerers must be virgins to be powerful)—and one of the children of the nerd might grow up to seek vengeance for his father. That said, I don’t think that anyone will really buy it.
I do think it could be made to work if you want to go the dark route, though. You can have the millionaire who cheated the nerd also have cuckolded him, so that the child who kills him is actually his own offspring, having inherited his daring and risk-taking from his biological father. It would make for one heck of a reveal at the end, but I don’t like to go the dark route, myself.
To some degree the problem is that the world has become over-technologized for there to be anyone to kill in order to keep a fortune to oneself. Precious metals, oil, etc.—all these are now located by experts using expensive machines, and cannot be extracted without the sort of precise data provided by these experts. The other thing is that technology is a magnifier. Where it does provide wealth, it provides it in such abundance that it is no great hardship to share. The diamond mines, or oil wells, or whatever the millionaire made his millions on in the early 1900s provided enough wealth for one man, but would have provided only prosperity for two. Diamond mines might very plausibly produce a few hundred diamonds; a gold mine might very plausibly produce only a few hundred pounds of gold. That would be wonderful in one year; it’s not actually that much to buy a mansion on and keep servants for another forty years.
The other problem is that the modern ways of making a fortune, though they take a lot of work, involve very little suffering. No one digs all day under a scorching sun to develop a cell phone app. No one gets an almost deadly fever, or is bitten by venomous insects, or is mauled by a jaguar, while creating a website that takes pictures of your cat and gives you wine suggestions. In short, modern fortunes are not made in a romantic way. Something as dramatic as a deadly vengeance simply doesn’t go with the utterly prosaic ways in which modern fortunes are made.
I have faith that the basic outline of the plot can be made to work, but I think it will take a great deal of work, indeed, to come up with the way to do it.
It’s interesting that here in the United States, 2020 is a troubled time, in a somewhat similar way to how the 1920s in America were a troubled time. So far, at least, they are troubled for different reasons, though of course one should never count on the future as certain. I don’t think that the specifics of the troubles matter very much, though, to the subject I want to talk about.
As you may remember from previous posts, I’m very much in the camp that approximately the first thirty five years of the twentieth century (in England) were the golden age of detective fiction. That is not to say that there hasn’t been good detective fiction since, of course. The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael are some of my favorite mysteries and they were written between 1977 and 1994. The period from 1900-1935 was, however, one of astonishing growth and development of the genre that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created in the 1887. (In a sense Poe created it with Murders in the Rue Morgue, and A Study in Scarlet even references Dupin, but there seems to be very little between the two, and an explosion in the style only after Sherlock Holmes was born.)
While there was a great deal of development in the early part of the 1900s, the 1920s are sort-of smack-dab in the middle of the golden age and were the origin of some of its most celebrated sleuths. Coming shortly after the first world war shattered the optimism which had, to some degree, dominated the late nineteenth and very early 20th centuries, the 1920s involved a great deal of exhaustion, both religious and moral. America, though across an ocean, was deep into the rise in organized crime which Prohibition had caused and exported many sensational stories about organized crime to England. Divorce was ceasing to be scandalous. Contraceptives were becoming more popular and sex outside of wedlock was becoming far more accepted. It was a troubled time.
In spite of that, it was an artistically creative time. Detective stories, which are almost always rigorously moral stories, were wildly popular, and writing them was also popular. We tend to forget the troubles of the past because we don’t live them; even when we’re aware of them it’s hard to feel their concerns because ours are different. Moreover, we know how things turned out for previous ages and so the many worries that people at the time had seem unreal to us because we know which worries never came to pass. Given that we, in 2020, know that the 1920s was a troubled time, that should give us some idea of how troubled must it have been to live in it!
Despite their troubles, the authors of the 1920s were able to write, and often to write a lot. Granted, many of them made money at it, but not always a lot, at least not at first. For example, it was not until after she published her fifth Lord Peter Wimsey story that Dorothy L. Sayers was able to quit her day job to write full-time. And even if they did it for money, creativity is not something can simply turn on, like a spigot, regardless of the conditions.
One possibility is that writing was itself a refuge for the writer. Many of us like to read detective stories in part because we seek refuge from the troubles of our own lives, and want to take a holiday in a place where intelligence is used well and wrongs are set right. It is possible that for some writers, writing allows them that escape while they are writing. I don’t find that so much for myself, but others might.
The other possibility that comes to mind is that the writers who were successful in the 1920s were those who were good at pushing the stresses of the day aside and focusing on the task at hand. It’s a very useful skill, and one that probably needs no argument for trying to get better at.
Freeman Wills Crofts was an Irish mystery writer during the golden age of mysteries. His most famous detective was Inspector French. According to Masters of Mystery, he worked on a railroad and included his extensive knowledge of railways systems and places that they visit into his stories.
What I didn’t realize, until I recently read an article about him, was that many of his stories, and especially his earlier stories, were inverted detective stories. That is, rather than being whodunnits, they were howcatchems. I was surprised to learn that style of story (one can’t quite call it a mystery) was popular so early on. (Crofts sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his novels.)
The same article in which I found this out also said that the novels featuring Dr. Thorndyke, the detective of R. Austin Freeman, were also howcatchems rather than whodunnits. In fact, the Dr. Thorndyke novels were supposed to be so entirely about how the culprit was caught that scientific experiments—all of them performed by the author himself prior to writing about them—were (apparently) the chief amusement of the books.
Prior to learning about these detectives, the only inverted detective stories with which I was familiar were the episodes of the TV show Columbo. I never gave it much thought, but while if I was forced to make a guess I’d have guessed that someone had done an inverted detective story prior to Columbo, I never realized that it was actually popular prior to Columbo. It’s curious how much, in the circle of people I know, the earlier examples faded into obscurity. Though sometimes the characters are preserved longer than their authors.
I cannot recall having encountered, in my own time, anyone talking about Freeman Wills Crofts, nor have I heard anyone talk about R. Austin Freema. Dr. Thorndyke, however, is referred to fairly often in at least one of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, and if my memory doesn’t deceive me, more than one. In the banter between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, they sometimes talk about what Dr. Thorndyke would make of what they’ve found.
I find it a bit surprising to learn that Dr. Thorndyke wasn’t in mysteries but rather howcatchems. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, though. It was only a howcatchem from the reader’s perspective. From Dr. Thorndyke’s perspective, he was every bit as engaged in trying to solve a mystery as Lord Peter was.
The references to Dr. Thorndyke and learning more about him are also a curious vantage point onto popular culture references aging. The first few times I read the stories I had no idea who Dr. Thorndyke was except what was implied by how he was referenced; he was a brilliant Sherlock Holmes type. Past that, I knew nothing. Now that I know more, it is curious that the reference doesn’t really mean more to me than it did. Perhaps that would change if I were to actually read the Dr. Thorndyke stories—I can’t really say without having read them, of course. (I did just order the first book, The Red Thumb Mark, off of Amazon to at least read the first chapter.)
I think that this does point to popular culture references, if done with enough context to explain them, working reasonably well. It is handy, for example, that Dr. Thorndyke is a doctor; the prefix helps to clarify that the name refers to a person and not a company or a place, for example. Having the other person respond in some fashion also helps, because the response will, itself, help to fill in some of the knowledge necessary to understand the reference.
Popular culture references also adds something interesting to track down and to discuss with one’s friends. It’s curious what little tid bits of history get preserved by offhand comments from people who only ever existed in a writer’s imagination, prompting others to research these things and write down what they were.
Thinking over the settings for the golden age of detection fiction, it was relatively common for a detective to run into a mystery while on vacation. I think that this served two primary purposes, which I’d like to consider in turn.
The first function of encountering mysteries while on vacation is to spread the murders out, geographically. You can see the reverse of this problem in Murder, She Wrote when Sheriff Metzger asked, after the third or fourth murder since he moved from New York City to get away from the constant violence, whether Cabot Cove was the death capital of Maine. Unless you put your detective in a huge city, as Sherlock Holmes was in London, it is rather limiting to have to set all of his cases locally.
That said, a consulting detective can be called in by someone who does not live near him, just as Sherlock Holmes often was. Vacations, then, serve another purpose, too. Vacations give us interesting places as settings.
This is related, I think, to Lord Peter being very rich. It’s worth looking at the quote from Dorothy L. Sayers on why she did this; the detective’s vacation fulfills a similar function:
Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.
There’s an element of this which I think applies to all writers, or at least almost all writers. We are not a bunch known for actually going on many vacations. Fictional writers do, of course. They travel to book signings the world over to meet legions of adoring fans who wait in long lines to see them for a few seconds. (To be fair, book tours were a thing, once, though like the Wild West they may have lasted longer in fiction than in reality.) Be that as it may, since giving up their personal secretaries and learning to type for themselves, real writers spend a lot of time alone. That’s how the books actually get written.
Sending one’s detective on a vacation can be a good substitute. It also does away with many of the disadvantages of traveling. Plane rides are something to be endured, not enjoyed. The Caribbean may be beautiful, but it is hot in the sun, and for some of us, at least, sunburn is not a highlight of one’s day. No one enjoys donating blood to biting insects. All these inconveniences, and more, can be placed onto the shoulders of our long-suffering detective, while we, in our imaginations, can enjoy only the highlights of the vacation.
What is true of the writer is also true of the reader; it is a pleasure to read about places that incur inconvenience to actually go to.
This question of setting is one that I think mystery writers (though not the great ones) sometimes neglect. That probably sounds like a more sweeping generalization that I mean it; to stand on firmer ground: I, at least, am prone to neglecting it. I tend to be very plot-focused, and as a result think of the setting primarily as it impacts the plot. Obviously, a setting does need to work with the plot and not against it, but I suspect that a good starting point for a mystery is an excellent setting, and then one can consider what sorts of plots would work well in it. At that point selecting characters becomes easier because one has the guidance of the question: who would do such a thing, at such a place? Then just add in some eccentric acquaintances, a romantic sub-plot, and you’re good to go!
As I mentioned, I’ve been working on the story for He Didn’t Drown in the Lake (the third chronicle of Brother Thomas). I have the “what really happened” written out, and it’s about 5000 words. And I realized I need more.
The first thing I have to do is to add to what-really-happened and include what was going on until the Brothers arrived. There’s a whole bunch of characterization that will happen in those hours between when the police arrive to view the body and when the brothers arrive. In theory, I could just make notes of that, but I tried a bit and it seems like there’s no substitute for actually writing out the story as if it were a novel, even though it won’t (directly) go into the novel.
The other thing I need to write out, in addition to the outline I’m working on, is a schedule for the camp. When does paddleboard yoga happen every day, when are the horseback rides every day, etc. The camp would have a schedule, and I can already tell that I’m going to get horribly lost unless I come up with one, too.
At least I have one paragraph of the actual story written.
One of the problems that detectives investigating complicated murders have is that there is all sorts of evidence that probably exists which it would be convenient for them to have which they don’t. It would be great to have a recording of every phone call every suspect made, for example. Better still would be 24/7 surveillance footage of all suspects. Of course, these would make for very boring detective stories, so no detectives have these.
There is an intermediate case, though, which is the police; the police have broad powers to obtain evidence which ordinary people cannot use. Police can get phone records, they have a network of people to track the movements of an individual, they can compel banks to give them bank records, etc. Sometimes the detective has these advantages because he is a police detective; sometimes he has these advantages because he has a friend on the police force. Perhaps one of the more creative examples was Lord Peter Wimsey, who was able to obtain all sorts of privileges because of his prefix.
There is a curious interaction of these special privileges with the fair play principle. Of course, strictly interpreted any such privilege is fair play if the reader is given the same privilege by being given the information that the detective is, but in another sense this violates part of the spirit of fair play because it takes from the reader the possibility of imagining himself doing what the detective did, under similar circumstances.
This is, for all its flaws, one of the great triumphs of Encyclopedia Brown. His proofs are often pedantic or trivial, and occasionally factually incorrect, but they are all proofs that anyone who has read a lot of non-fiction books could make. The glory of Encyclopedia Brown is that, allowing for the fact that in real life no one would go to the Brown Detective Agency, anyone who reads the books could open their own Brown Detective Agency and make a go of it.
I should also note that I think that this is one reason why some detectives resort to criminal means (more generally, things unavailable to the police) to obtain evidence. This is, essentially, a sort of special privilege for the detective. I suspect this is one of the reasons why I think that such behavior—and, in a sense, lying to witnesses to obtain their testimony—is not as good as the alternative. By doing things which the reader cannot or should not do, the detective gains special privileges which help to explain his special success.
I do not think that there is anything wrong with a detective with special privileges—there have been many great ones—but I think that the great detective without special privileges is a difficult ideal worth being aimed at, at least.
A common enough plot device in murder mysteries is the murder being taken to be an accident or a suicide. This often follows from the murderer trying to disguise the murder as an accident or suicide; any number of things may lead to it being taken that way. The ones that I particularly have in mind, though, are the ones where the detective is unsure of whether it was murder or not.
The problem with this is one of genre—what with the story being a murder mystery, something has gone wrong if the murder isn’t actually a murder. Granted, this does come up from time to time, but such stories are almost invariably disappointing. They can be partially redeemed by the accident or suicide being disguised as murder as part of an attempted murder (framing an innocent person for the not-a-crime, or at least not-their-crime in the case of suicide). However, even this is only tenuously in the genre of murder mystery. The worst, though, is where a series of accidents served to obscure some evidence, which then led the detective to think that this was the one clue which didn’t fit. I get why such things exist—if something is never an alternative, there is no suspense—but it’s deeply unsatisfying for the detective to unravel a problem which he created. It’s not good when the best case is equivalent to the detective having stayed home and taken a nap.
Anyway, whichever way this goes, there is a further problem of genre: unless the book is in the wrong genre, we the reader know that the accident wasn’t an accident. This reminds me of something that James Cameron said in a conversation with his co-writer of Terminator 2. The quirk of the movie is that this time the terminator from the first movie is sent back in time by the human faction to protect a kid from a more advanced terminator sent back in time by the machine faction. However, this is only revealed about 20 minutes in to the movie; they shoot all of the scenes with the original terminator in an ominous way, as if he’s the bad guy. But, as Cameron pointed out, the problem is that in the leadup to the movie Arnold Schwarzenegger was doing hundreds of promotional interviews that started with, “So, Arnold, this time you play a good guy”—that is, it’s not like the audience was actually going to be fooled. So what’s the point?
And that’s a good question. I’m not sure that such pretenses really have a point. They can be a plot device to put the detective in an antagonistic position with the police—especially when the detective is himself the police, leading to the chief of police saying “you have 24 hours to prove this was murder”. They can be a plot device to put the detective in an antagonistic position with the family or other witnesses and suspects. But it just doesn’t work for the detective to be unsure that the death really was murder, because from the point of view of the audience it’s not an open question. If the detective is trying to figure out whether the death was murder, the reader is in the position of having to wait for the author to get to the good part.
Something I can’t recall ever having seen, which I think would be very interesting, would be a murder mystery in which the first “murder” was an accident but the second “murder” was a genuine murder. With the murderer hiding in the shadow of the accident which people take to be murder, he would probably be putting himself out of the reckoning because he has a forged steel alibi for the first “murder”. Only once that death was discovered to be an accident would his breakable alibi for the second murder come under real suspicion.
Given the sheer number of murder mysteries already written, I’m sure that this has actually been done. What I think is more common is a variation on it, where one person commits a murder, then a different person commits a copycat murder, hoping to hide in the first murderer’s shadow. I know I’ve seen that, at least in an episode of Numb3rs. Stretching the concept slightly, you can also see it in the Brother Cadfael story One Corpse Too Many. This is definitely an interesting plot for a murder mystery. It makes things nicely complicated. So complicated that it really can only be done in a mystery novel, not a short story. (The episode of Numb3rs, being a TV show and therefore structurally a short story, managed this with a multiplicity of murders that just made a single villain impossible and further had the solving of the individual murders happen off-screen.)
That said, I think it would be an interesting variation to have a murderer stumble onto an accidental death that he had an alibi for and set it up to be a murder, then during that investigation—or better yet, I think, once it has concluded in frustration—to commit another murder with the same modus operandi and other clues pointing to it being the same murderer.
I’m working on the what-really-happened story for the third chronicle of Brother Thomas, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake. (As I’ve mentioned before, I think of a murder mystery as a story-within-a-story, except that the interior story is told backwards; I write that interior story first to ensure consistency.)
I’m up to about 3,000 words so far. The murderer killed the victim and the search party is out looking for the murdered man (because he didn’t come home for hours from his short evening walk). It’s coming along well and I’m happy with it so far, but man is it a lot of work, on a per-word basis.
The reason it’s a lot of work is, of course, because it’s compressed. I’m only describing the parts that will be relevant later, and so I’m having to make a lot of decisions per sentence. To give an example, how does the search party split up? That will certainly come into play later, and having influence on suspicions. Another big one I had to decide was whether the search party found the body that night, or in the morning. That determines whether the footprints down to the lake where the body went in are easy to find, or not. The problem is, since the search party doesn’t know that this is a murder investigation, if the footprints are easy to find they will be mostly obliterated by the search party walking over them. If they’re in good condition, it will be because the search party didn’t find them—but then the body will have drifted in the lake and the spot where he went in will be hard to find. Both of these are very workable, but I have to decide which one to go with. (I’ve about 95% decided on the search party finding the footprints.)
This decision also affects the timing of the story; the police need to be called in and some suspicion of murder has to arise before the brothers can be called in. I have a preference for them to be called in sooner rather than later, since the evidence will be fresher and guests won’t have left yet, etc.
For all of the jokes about people dropping like flies wherever Jessica Fletcher went, it certainly saved a lot of time and effort over having to have an excuse for her to be called in.
One White Rose For Death is the fourth episode in the third season of Murder, She Wrote.
It’s not one of the most memorable episodes, probably because the setup of Jessica being used to help a classical performer from behind the Iron Curtain to defect while on an American tour was used in the first season (Death Takes a Curtain Call) and had the extremely memorable Major Anatole Karzof of the KGB. That said, this is a fun and interesting episode.
The plot is very different; instead of a former Russian defector and relative of the performer, who brought Jessica to the theater, being the one to help the couple, it’s a British secret agent they met at the theater, and instead of hiding out at Jessica’s house they end up hiding out at the British embassy in whatever country they’re in (most everyone has a British accent, but they hide out at the British embassy so the one country they can’t be in is Great Britain). It’s this later part that makes the episode so interesting: since the murder is committed inside of the embassy, it becomes a closed-mansion mystery.
There is the added tension from the defection story; only the brother (Franz) defected—he had been a spy for the British after the secret police murder his wife—while his sister (Gretta) was dragged along and isn’t happy about it. Then they find out that the East German secret police is holding their parents hostage. This spy-thrilleresque thread vies with the murder mystery thread to be the main plot; it keeps the tension up for the entire episode.
The murder victim gives us a clue—his dead hand clutches the titular white rose.
Jessica overheard the victim asking spy headquarters for information on a mission that had been called White Rose. Fortunately, Michael, the spy who got Jessica into this mess, knows what it was about—it was a failed mission to protect an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, ten years before. (The activist was assassinated.)
The victim was also a spy, in fact Michael had recruited him into the spying business, so he took the murder very personally. He came from a long line of stuffy bankers and his “banker’s face” made him perfect for the spy businesses. The most important thing about being a spy is to be able to pass oneself off as anything, such as a tradesman.
Fortunately for everyone, not least of all the audience, because everyone in the embassy is a suspect, the diplomat in charge of the embassy gives Jessica free run to investigate the murder. I didn’t quite follow his logic, here, but it’s always more pleasant when the detective has the right to investigate, so I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Initial investigations turn up that:
the doctor had ties to anti-apartheid activists in South Africa
the diplomat’s wife is from Rhodesia
the victim’s fingernails and eyes show “moons”. He was killed with a fast-acting poison, which Jessica takes to mean a poisoned weapon.
#3 means that the murder weapon was probably professional; not many people besides professionals carry poisoned stabbing weapons. With the white rose connection, it seems likely that the victim recognized the assassin from operation White Rose. #1 gets dismissed fairly quickly because he was on the wrong side to have assassinated the activist being protected in operation White Rose. #2 bears more investigation, which happens fairly quickly.
The diplomat and his wife come clean.
While she came from Rhodesia, she was the daughter of a light-skinned servant who had been raped by one of her white masters. She was taken from Rhodesia as a child and grew up in England; she hadn’t been near South Africa in over a decade when the assassination happened. The diplomat was stationed in Hong Kong back then. They had been secretive and not forthcoming with their alibis because they wanted to keep the wife’s background a secret due to the diplomat’s needing social standing for his job. After this is revealed Michael walks in with the news that the doctor can be ruled out too because he was in prison (for having participated in a peace march) the day that the activist was killed.
Michael declares the theory that the victim was killed because he recognized the assassin a bust. “I mean, what would a professional assassin be doing here at the embassy?” This question is the spark which gives Jessica the answer. “Unless here is not where he was supposed to be,” she replies.
At this point we can figure out who did it by simple process of elimination. There’s no way it could be the East Germans, so the only person left is the literary agent who met Jessica at the airport and accompanied her to the concert.
There’s a brief scene at the beginning where we meet the literary agent who escorts Jessica and he apologized for the person, Jeffrey, who she expected wasn’t able to meet her because he got tied up in some meeting. Jessica reveals that she just called her agency and they knew nothing about Jeffrey being on any sort of assignment. The police went to his apartment and found him strangled in bed.
The literary agent pulls out his pipe, which the secret agent grabs from him. It turns out that there was a secret stiletto blade in it, presumably poisoned. Later on, we see him arrested. Jessica complains to the British spy that the faux literary agent used her to try to get at the Prime Minister to assassinate him, and it would have worked had the British spy not brought them to the embassy at gunpoint.
The setting of this episode is really excellent. Especially when it comes to a TV show, the embassy of a reasonably rich country like Great Britain makes for a spectacular setting. It’s one of the few places where you can have an ornate, old-fashioned mansion outside of England. Even more, it’s one of the few places where you can have a sealed mansion in America that’s not on a private island. It’s a really great setting. It’s not surprising that embassies are a popular place to set a murder. Really, it’s only surprising that they’re not more popular. After all, there are a lot of embassies in the world.
The construction of this episode is interesting. The dramatic event of an East German trying to defect to the west is merely the setting for the murder. This complicates the plot and serves as an excellent distraction. Further, it does a very good job of hiding the murderer to have him brought along at gunpoint to where he would rather not be. As Chesterton put it:
A great part of the craft or trick of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime. Many mysteries fail merely by leaving him at loose ends in the story, with apparently nothing to do except to commit the crime. He is generally well off, or our just and equal law would probably have him arrested as a vagrant long before he was arrested as a murderer. We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious.
Now, the device of the murderer having to improvise a murder because he was recognized by someone he was thrown together with by chance fulfills this criteria exceedingly well. It does so with a trade-off, of course. That trade-off is that there is exceedingly little that could point to one person instead of another as the murderer. Structurally, the murderer could be anyone since he has an entirely secret relationship to the victim. There is no alternative to examining each person in turn and arriving at the correct conclusion by a process of elimination.
The best the author can do is to eliminate all of the suspects, in which case there is some deductive work to do in figuring out which suspect should not have been eliminated. The second best one can do is what was done in this episode, where it merely seems that all of the suspects have been eliminated because there was one we never thought of.
There is a difficult question which comes up here of giving the murderer an opportunity to murder the victim. This is difficult precisely because it must be done in a way that the reader sees, but not in a way that he notices.
That was done in this episode by an exchange where the faux literary agent demanded to leave and when he was told that he was not yet free to leave no matter who in the home office he knows, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. This exchange was colorful and mildly humorous, which seemed to explain its presence. It did put him alone for a time, which gives him opportunity, but it didn’t give him much opportunity. The body is discovered about two and a half minutes later in the episode, which is close to what it would have been in the story. There’s only one scene break, and it’s Jessica going to find Gretta—they discover the body together after their conversation. This gave the faux literary agent very little time to find his man, stab him, and make his escape. Other than that very brief time, he was always in the lounge, at least as far as we can tell, and always with one or more others there with him. It was enough time, but only if he was lucky and ran into his man, alone, almost immediately.
One thing that was never explained—and possibly because this would have been difficult, never questioned—was what the victim was doing in the garden. We last saw him trying to dig up information on operation White Rose on the telephone. There’s no obvious reason for him to go into the garden. And the body was not hidden, so it pretty much had to have been killed in the garden. If the body was moved to the garden, it would have been hidden. The last thing that the faux literary agent wanted was for the body to be found. The garden was clearly large enough to hide a body such that it would take a while for people who weren’t looking for it to find it. Where it was, Gretta only found it by tripping over an extended foot. (Also, had the body been moved, the killer would presumably have removed the white rose which pointed to him.)
The final thing to discuss, I think, is the choice of killer and victim. The killer was a professional assassin and the victim a professional spy. Granted, the professional assassin murdered the victim only in order to protect himself from being recognized and not because he was being paid for it, but it still removes the murder from those ordinary motives and passions which make murder mysteries morality plays. It’s just difficult to relate to someone being able to identify one as a professional assassin when one has never killed for money.
(Also, come to think of it, how on earth did the victim recognize the killer? The activist who was killed during operation White Rose was stabbed to death, but the assassin escaped into the crowd “before anyone knew what had happened”. That’s not really the sort of circumstance under which one will get a really good look at the assassin, to recognize him 9 years later in a completely different context. And, given that the victim did recognize him, why did the victim let him get within stabbing range in the garden? He was stabbed in the chest, not in the back. A solitary garden, even in the dark, is a sub-optimal place to sneak up on a man to stab him in the chest. I suppose he could have sneaked up on the victim from behind and at the last moment the victim heard him and wheeled around, too late to defend himself.)
Overall, I think that the plotting and structure of this episode are above average for Murder, She Wrote. It’s a fun episode, though of course part of that is the setting. That said, the setting is a choice, and it was a good one. A good setting can go a long way to making a good plot easier to pull off.
I first watched Murder, She Wrote when it aired on television and had seen more than a single season before reaching my tenth birthday. Most episodes, though enjoyable, are not all that memorable, but some really stick with me. One such episode is The Night of the Headless Horseman.
It’s an episode in the middle of the third season and borrows heavily, as the title implies, from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s a very interesting episode and I’m going to discuss its plot and characterization, but first I’m going to give a brief recap of the plot in the reader has not watched this episode recently.
We begin by being introduced to Dorian, a tall, gaunt poetry teacher in a rural boarding school/horse riding academy. He is very much Ichabod Crane. He is reading a poem to the lady he’s courting, Sarah, who is the daughter of the wealthy owner of the school/riding academy. She, too, is very much Katrina Van Tassel (Ichabod’s love interest, if you don’t remember).
The school is set in the south, at least to the degree that the actors can do southern accents (it varies), so we even have the plot element of Dorian being a Yankee outsider (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Sleepy Hollow it was a Dutch settlement). Further borrowing from the famous story, as Dorian walks home, he is comes to a covered bridge:
And then, to pay off the title, out of nowhere a headless horseman carrying a jack-o-lantern rides up.
The rider chases Dorian onto the bridge and throws the jack-o-lantern at him. As the rider rides off, Dorian shakes his fist and exclaims, “Damn you, Nate Finley!”
So far, we have a remarkable homage to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. We’re only about three minutes in, however, and things will begin to diverge, as they must, when Jessica arrives. Speaking of which…
The scene now changes to Jessica arriving from Cabot Cove via the train; Nate picks her up at the station. They begin to catch up, then in what is ostensibly an explanation of what Dorian is doing at the prestigious Wenton Academy (the school/riding academy), we get some obviously important backstory.
Dorian has the job because over the summer the previous poetry teacher, a beautiful young woman named Gretchen, died under mysterious circumstances. The daughter of the Academy’s stable master, she drowned in the river, and—hint, hint—rumor has it that there was a man with her who was the one behind the wheel. If you can’t guess that the earlier mystery will drive the murder we haven’t seen in this episode, you clearly haven’t been watching Murder, She Wrote for long. They do work it in as backstory and gossip well enough that you can feel clever for spotting it, though.
Next, Dr. Penn Walker, the town dentist, shows up:
In this encounter we learn two major things:
The doctor has a strong interest in jewelry; it’s a hobby of his.
He thinks that Jessica is Dorian’s mother.
On the car ride from the train station, Dorian tries to stall Jessica with conversation, in which we learn that the good doctor was engaged to Gretchen, the poetry teacher who died under mysterious circumstances. Also, he was in Europe when it happened. (This simultaneously clears the doctor of being the man behind the wheel and also sets him up with a very strong revenge motive.)
After these important details, Jessica forces Dorian to come clean, and he admits that he’s fallen in love but his intended fiancé’s father has a fixation with pedigrees and so, being an orphan, he wanted to present at least one parent and so lied that Jessica is his mother. This conversation is interrupted by Nate Finley, who rides his horse in front of their car for no reason, then laughs at them.
Clearly, we’re not meant to feel sorry for him when he turns up dead.
(Nate Finley does match the character of Abraham Van Brunt, in being the other suitor for Sarah’s hand and a far better physical specimen, though less socially adept. His character does depart from Van Brunt’s, though, as we’ll see.)
Jessica and Dorian get to the school where some awkwardness ensues as Jessica isn’t sure whether to play along with the lie of being Dorian’s mother. We then get introduced to a trio of boys who play a prank on the stablemaster (driving the horses off, out of the stable). The stablemaster appears to be German; he is named Van Stottard and has a thick German accent, anyway.
Nate Finley happens to be around and threatens the stablemaster that he will find a new stablemaster if the current one cannot keep control of the horses. It’s a noble effort on the part of the writers to distract from the characters just introduced by highlighting what a bad guy Nate Finley is, but one of the problems that Murder, She Wrote writers labor under is that they don’t have the budget for unimportant characters. That said, they do at least have the freedom to make characters important for surprising reasons, so we don’t really know what part the boys play in this.
Dorian accuses Nate Finley of being the headless horseman, which he doesn’t deny. Finley then rides off.
In the next scene, we get the owner of the school telling the headmistress that he wants Nate Finley fired.
This is an unusual move for a television show; ordinarily bullies on TV have the unconditional support of authority figures. The headmistress tells him to calm down; he knows as well as she does that Nate Finley is as good as they come in the saddle, and their riding program is, for some reason, of the utmost importance to the school. Why, is never explained. Even in the 1980s it was a bit of a stretch that wealthy parents would choose to send their children to a boarding school primarily on the basis of its riding program.
The headmistress surmises that the owner is afraid for his daughter, and suggests he should look out for the new English teacher instead. Some more introductions are made and the stablemaster barges in holding all three boys we met earlier. He charges them with committing pranks and they do not deny it; the headmistress says that she will deal with them later.
That night, the headmistress interrupts Nate Finley saddling up his horse to tell him to stay away from the owner’s daughter.
“I want you to stay away from Edwin’s daughter. Satisfy your needs elsewhere.” “Is that an order, or an offer?”
This dialog is a bit odd in that we learn moments later that the two were involved with each other; she threatens to fire him if he doesn’t stay away from the owner’s daughter and he threatens to tell the owner that they were together. Either way, though, Nate Finley clearly deserves the murdering he’s about to receive, and I suppose that this scene serves to establish the headmistress as a possible culprit.
The next scene moves to a restaurant in which the wait staff dress up in period costume for some reason, and we meet the waittress, Bobbie.
She seems to be set up almost as a love interest for Dorian, except that he never really pays any attention to her. The dentist comes in and sits down with Jessica and Dorian. He notices Bobbie’s neclace, and asks where she got it. She replies, “Nate Finley, Doc. Guess he figures it will get him somewhere, which it won’t.” And before anyone else has a chance to speak, Nate Finley walks into the bar. Jessica warns Dorian not to start anything, but in vain, because Finley starts it.
Finley tries to warn Dorian off of Sarah, but Dorian punches him in the mouth. They fight for a while, and Dorian gets shoved against the wall where he knocks down an old saber. He picks it up, as several of Nate Finley’s friends are standing around him.
If you think that there’s any chance that Dorian isn’t holding the murder weapon, you haven’t seen Murder, She Wrote before. Nothing happens here, though, because the Sheriff—who had been conveniently on his way to dinner, I suppose—breaks up the fight.
The fight over, Nate mentions that he thinks he broke a tooth, and a raw nerve in his mouth being exposed, he does the logical thing and asks for a stiff drink from the bartender.
Dorian leaves. As Jessica leaves, she notices the leader of the three trouble-making students feeding Nate Finley’s horse. She says hello to him, but he just walks off.
Dorian goes to Sarah’s house, but no one is home. On his way back, right before the covered bridge, Nate Finley’s friends show up in a yellow pickup truck. He asks them for a ride back to the academy but instead they give him the murder weapon.
They drive off. Dorian only makes it a few more steps before the headless horseman rides again. Dorian tries to defend himself with the sabre…
…but only gets knocked down. His head hits a rock and he falls unconscious.
The next day the stablemaster and headmistress are concerned about Nate Finley’s horse. He had been ridden hard but not cleaned. The sweat has dried into his fur. (This is a problem for horses because the tack the wear—bridle, saddle, etc—will tend to rub the sweat into their skin, causing irritation. Any good horseman will always clean his horse after riding him, for the horse’s sake.) The attentive viewer will infer that Nate Finley has finally been murdered, though the characters don’t catch on just yet. This does yield an interesting problem for the viewer, though, since as far as we know Nate Finley was the headless horseman, and the headless horseman was the last person we saw alive.
Dorian stumbles into the stable and announces his intention to get even with Nate Finley. No one knows where Finley is, though.
Jessica, out on her morning bike ride, runs into the police who have found Nate Finley’s body. The Sheriff asks if Jessica knows where “her son” is, but she doesn’t. No sooner has she said this than a car pulls up with the headmistress and Dorian in it. Dorian launches into a complaint at the Sheriff about how Nate Finley had attacked him the night before. The Sheriff is interested, and asks questions that don’t seem entirely related. Jessica puts two and two together and realizes that Nate Finley has been killed. They see the body under a tarp, or possibly a black cloak. Jessica notices something about the feet:
The boots are on the wrong feet! I’m not giving anything away here, at least by more than a few seconds, as Jessica starts pointing this out to anyone who will listen almost immediately.
It is revealed that Nate Finley was decapitated, so the Sheriff arrests Dorian as having recently threatened Nate Finley with a saber. Curiously, it never occurs to anyone to ask whether a wall decoration at a restaurant was actually sharp. It’s actually pretty rare for wall decorations to be kept in fighting condition. I suppose we’re meant to assume that it was, since the saber is later referred to as “bloody”.
Jessica argues with the Sheriff, pointing out problems with his case, and finishes with the fact that Dorian has sworn that he didn’t do it. That’s supposed to hold weight because Dorian doesn’t lie. When the Sheriff points out that of course she thinks that, being his mother, Jessica accidentally admits that she’s not his mother. As he puts Dorian into the jail cell, he tells Jessica that it’s encouraging to hear that Dorian doesn’t lie.
In the next scene, Jessica and Dorian talk over the situation.
A little bit is added to what we already know. Dorian saw the owner of the school driving off from his house in a hurry. When Jessica talks to Sarah about it, Sarah claims to be the one who drove off, but is obviously lying. The owner comes out and admits to being the one who nearly ran Dorian over. He had gotten an anonymous note that the headmistress was embezzling funds, so he waited until his daughter was asleep and drove off in a hurry to confront her. He did, she denied it, the owner said he would retain an independent auditor, then returned home. (The owner also asks her to tell Dorian to stay away from his daughter or there would be another killing.)
Back at the academy, Jessica runs into one of the three boys, but he runs off when he’s questioned. She runs into the stablemaster, but he refuses to answer questions, except to say that he had no reason to kill Finley but there are others who did. He walks off when Jessica asks if he meant the headmistress, perhaps. So, on to the headmistress.
We get a small scene of the three boys in a secret room at the top of the stables, where one says that they need to tell someone, and the ringleader says that they won’t tell anyone. What won’t be told is, of course, suggestively left off.
When Jessica talks with the headmistress, she says that there is a problem but she’s not the thief. Jessica wonders who knew about the problem and the headmistress gets defensive, asking if she’s trying to implicate her in Nate Finley’s death. Jessica deflects by asking if she’s seen the note.
The spelling is so bad it could even be written by a German! (The stablemaster, you will recall, is German.)
The next scene takes place at the restaurant; it turns out that Dorian has been released from jail, though whether on bail or what is unclear. The waitress, Bobbie, comes over and tells Dorian that she believes that he’s innocent, but if he did kill Finley she could totally understand. It comes out that Bobbie saw Nate riding through town with his black cloak and black floppy hat pulled down low. This was at 11:30, but the Sheriff said that Nate was at the restaurant until 10:30. What happened in that missing hour?
Dorian then breaks a took on an olive, which necessitates a trip to the dentist.
It turns out that he only loosened a cap, which the dentist can re-cement for him. Jessica asks if the doc noticed anything odd about Nate’s dress last night, as he was found with his boots on the wrong feet. The doc observed it would be hard to walk like that; perhaps he had gotten undressed and re-dressed in a hurry. He heard Nate did that quite often, usually with an irate husband in the vicinity.
Jessica then notices a picture on the Dentist’s bureau.
(The inscription reads, “Love Forever, Gretchen”. It’s curious how often people in TV murder mysteries give each other signed headshots as keepsakes.)
That night we see a fight between the owner and his daughter, then one of the three boys spies the stablemaster burying something in a horse stall.
The next morning Jessica is with the headmistress, who tells her that it is the stablemaster who stole the money. Jessica goes to talk to him, but can’t find him. She does, however, hear the boys in their secret loft in the stables, and goes to investigate. She uses the secret knock she heard earlier, then as she opens the door tells them, “When I was a little girl, if you knew the secret knock it entitled you to enter.”
She talks to the boys and they admit to having been the headless horsemen who harassed Dorian the first time, but had nothing to do with the second time. Also, one of them saw the stablemaster bury something (he took to be Nate’s head) in a sack.
In the next scene the Sheriff has his deputy digging up the spot. As the Sheriff goes to open the box that had been buried, Jessica shields the boys from the terrible sight, but it turns out that the box contains only money. The stablemaster had been embezzling money in order to pay a detective to investigate the death of his daughter. He hands over the file that the detective had assembled. There was nothing of value in it, but for some reason it did include another headshot of Gretchen.
Luckily for Jessica, this time Gretchen was wearing a necklace. Jessica recognizes it and solves the puzzle.
In the next scene the dentist comes to visit Jessica in the restaurant which hasn’t yet opened. Dorian told him that Jessica wanted to talk to him.
This can mean only one thing. If you hadn’t figured it out from the clues or by simple process of elimination, the doctor is the killer.
She realized that the necklace Gretchen was wearing in the headshot was the same necklace that Nate Finley had given to Bobbie. The dentist, who makes jewelry as a hobby, had made it and given it to Gretchen and recognized it when it was on Bobbie’s neck. He couldn’t help but know what it meant—that Nate Finley had been the man with Gretchen when she died. (Presumably he snatched the necklace off of her neck before swimming to safety and leaving her to drown.)
Finley had complained of a busted tooth after his altercation with Dorian, and presumably went to a dentist about it. A lot of things in the case didn’t make sense, like the severed head, unless there was something about the head that would instantly point to the killer, such as fresh dental work.
The dentist broke down and told Jessica what happened. Finley did come, and, seeing the picture of Gretchen, started laughing and telling the dentist all about how he had been drunk and drove the car into a lake and abandoned Gretchen to die. Finley was apparently very drunk, because in the re-enactment, he found the whole thing very funny.
At his bragging about leaving Gretchen to die, something snapped in the dentist and he jammed a pick into Nate’s neck. He died quickly. The dentist then figured that he had to make it seem like Nate died elsewhere, so he stripped Nate, put on the clothes, and rode Nate’s horse out of town, making a lot of noise to ensure he would be noticed. He ran into Dorian and knocked him out, then got the idea to frame Dorian using the saber Dorian was holding. The rest, we already know.
The use of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow setting is definitely very interesting, but it faded pretty quickly. Really, after the first few minutes the only thing that was left was the headless horseman. To some degree this was inevitable as they made the horseman the victim, rather than the murderer. That is simply unrelated to the original story.
Now, variation from Sleepy Hollow was inevitable, since that was not a murder mystery. However, I can’t help but think that they didn’t really make as much use of the headless horseman as they could have. First, I’d like to explain why, then I’d like to talk about how they could have made more use of it.
The big problem that the writers had was that in the original story, Ichabod Crane was not the hero. He was wooing Katrina Van Tassel for her money, not out of love. Worse, Katrina didn’t love him, either. The original story isn’t explicit, but it is very strongly hinted that Ichabod proposed marriage to her and she rejected him. It is further implied that her reason for encouraging Ichabod was to stoke the interest, by jealousy, of Abraham Van Blunt. Van Blunt is not as smart as Ichabod, nor as socially graceful, but he was the man Katrina wanted. This, coupled with Ichabod’s mean motive for wooing Katrina really make him a thoroughly unsympathetic character. So right off the bat, making Dorian the underdog-hero of the story creates a lot of distance from the original.
Further, the structure of the story just isn’t paralleled, because the headless horseman (a decapitated Hessian soldier) was a local legend and Ichabod Crane was an extremely superstitious man. Van Blunt used the legend and Ichabod’s cowardice and superstition to drive him out of town. Indeed, for all of his quicker wits, Ichabod was in a way the intellectual inferior for being superstitious. It’s an evocative story in which a pretentious man was shown up for what he truly was. Except for the way that Dorian is a bit full of himself—which is portrayed in a sympathetic way by the writers—none of this comes forward.
To now consider how it could have been used: the more traditional approach to dealing with this sort of thing is for the murderer to try to use the legend or story which everyone knows and to use it to divert suspicion onto the person who most fits the villain of the original legend or story.
If this were a Scooby Doo episode, then someone could pretend to be the headless horseman in order to try to get people to believe that it was actually the headless horseman who committed the crime. Since this isn’t Scooby Doo, we would need the Ichabod Crane figure to be the victim and the Van Blunt character to be the suspect.
Now, obviously the setup in this episode is nothing like that, but that’s why the episode didn’t really live up to its first few minutes. In fact, they stuck to it too closely at the time of the murder—it really makes no sense for the victim to have knocked the killer unconscious immediately prior to his own murder.
There is, admittedly, something interesting about the idea of the headless horseman turning up to be really headless, but I don’t think that idea can really be made to last any longer than the words necessary to describe it.
The other typical way to handle something like this would be to have someone who rides as the headless horseman then try to frame the victim as the headless horseman, and frame someone else for the murder, as revenge.
This approach would still entail a large divergence from the original story, but it would at least keep up the appearance of being related to the original story, and on purpose. The killer would need to benefit from getting rid of both the victim and the person he frames for the death, of course. This motive would be obscured behind the bigger grudge between the victim and the one framed.
This approach could have been made to fit much better with the setup, though it would need to be the horse instructor who was Jessica’s friend, not the Ichabod character. The doctor, instead of seeking revenge for his dead (unfaithful) fiancé, would be in love with Sarah, too. The doctor would have ridden as the headless horseman, possibly two or three times, then would have killed the Ichabod character. The riding instructor friend of Jessica would then come under strong suspicion of the crime, and she would need to clear his name. The gullible Sheriff could actively point to the legend of sleepy hollow, and how it pointed to the riding friend as the guilty party. If they wanted, they could even have made the parallel stronger by making the death accidental, with the doctor only meaning to scare off the Ichabod character and instead frightening the coward into jumping into the river, where he drowned because he couldn’t swim, or the river was too fast, or whatever. His original plan could have been to just frame the riding instructor for being mean to the poet, and using that to make Sarah dislike him as a suitor, with the homicide and subsequent framing of the riding instructor for murder being accidental.
All that said, this is a very memorable episode, owing largely to the first few minutes and how well they remind one of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. However much they could have done better, it is a testament to the power of being evocative that this episode sticks with one.
Give people something to remember you by, and they will probably remember you.