During the golden age of mysteries, a great many of the stories were (of necessity) set against the backdrop of drastic changes in society. These changes often provided motives as well as opportunities for the murders. Motives would often be the desire for money to be used on something other than maintaining the vestiges of an old way of life that the new generation is not interested in. The opportunity provided is often along the lines of a large house with few people in them. It’s that latter part that really interests me at the moment.
Large, derelict houses make great settings for mysteries, and I think that this is especially the case in mysteries for children. Scooby Doo was very frequently set in large houses with few people in them, isolated from their neighbors by large plots of land. These are things that most easily happen when societal changes make things that had been popular, or at least populous, less so. When things get abandoned, or even just partially abandoned, there become the remnants of things that people used to do without there being the people around to explain what they were. This makes such a setting is intrinsically mysterious. Whatever crimes a villain is currently committing, there are many things that need an explanation but without the people present who know what they are to give the explanation. Figuring them out, then figuring out which of these is innocuous and which nefarious can provide a wealth of things for the detective to use his intellect on.
This scope for investigation provided by the former scene of a bustling community now in some state of abandonment can be amplified by the intertwining of the current mystery with previous events. This can take the form of treasure which can be discovered or inherited, but it can also take the form of the deeds or misdeeds of the past influencing revenge in the present. It can take the form of both, separately or intertwining.
So how do we make use of this in contemporary murder mysteries? (I mean, murder mysteries set in at least approximately the time of their writing, as opposed to historical murder mysteries.) Many of the social changes which formed fertile ground for Golden Age murder mysteries are, in the twenty first century, over. The remnants of the medieval system are now pretty much entirely gone in England and, to the degree that the southern plantations and robber barons of the United States formed some counterpart, they’re gone too. We still have billionaires, of course, but for a variety of reasons they have fewer servants. (Part of this is technology, part of it is a more efficient economic system where things like cleaning and landscaping are more efficiently done by companies with specialized equipment who service multiple clients.) Even where a billionaire has something potentially interesting like a hundred million dollar yacht, the things are all new. An American billionaire’s household was assembled fairly recently. The odds are pretty good that his house was built fairly recently. The odds of a billionaire’s parents being billionaires is… not high. There are wealthy families, of course, and some of them even have history. I think these can work for this kind of murder mystery—the wealth of wealthy families tends to substantially diminish with each generation. There are exceptions, of course, but children are so frequently different from their parents that it’s rare for the grandchildren of someone who built up a fortune to have even a quarter of their grandfather’s talent for making money, and even less of his being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of that talent.
I suspect that there is more, in the contemporary United States, that can be made of institutions falling on hard times. That happens in all ages, but especially in our contemporary industrial times. Businesses, schools, hospitals, and more go out of business all the time; plenty come close to it or shrink before they’re bought out by competitors. Not every business would be ripe for this kind of setting, but I suspect a lot would. If one couples this with the advisability of Fun Settings for a Murder Mystery, there’s a lot of fertile ground, here.
Over on his blog Mr. John C. Wright has an interesting post, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is Bunk. As always, Mr. Wright writes well, and the post is worth reading. That said, it struck me that the moment one hears about Campbell’s theory that all stories are some form of a primordial mono-myth it’s obviously bunk. This gets especially obvious when some fool tries to describe both Christianity and the Odyssey as at some fundamental level the same story. Obviously, this can be done if one is willing to make the mono-myth “stuff happened,” but at any meaningful level of detail this is idiotic. Not all ideas are the same and not everyone agrees on what life is, so they cannot all, even in principle, tell the same stories. Further, even within a single worldview there is more than one story it’s possible to tell, and even more than one story that people can think it important to tell.
This gets even worse if you just look at what the Hero’s Journey, the one tale that everyone tells, is supposed to be:
I’m sure that there’s some story that this describes, but if you actually know any stories, it’s just obvious that there’s many that don’t fit this pattern unless you’re willing to use interpretations so tortured that they’re probably banned by the Geneva conventions.
So, is this thing worthless? It clearly is worthless in the field of comparative religion. However, Campbell’s myth of the mono-myth influenced George Lucas when he was writing Star Wars, and given what the prequels were like, we can only assume for the better. There must, therefore, be something in it which can help someone.
It strikes me that the fundamental thing which Campbell does get right, which a great many people—secular people, that is—miss, is the value of domesticity. In the cycle above, the call to adventure and the return both reference the domestic life. What the cycle does not explicitly show, but what is none the less referenced by it, is that all of the other stuff in the cycle exists for the sake of the domestic. The point of the adventure is not the adventure, but in protecting or restoring or supporting the domestic that the hero left.
The main work of life consists in the details. This is related to how God loves beetles. Most of creation are moments we would not write books about; it is good to remember that the stuff that we do write books about are only really interesting because of how they affect (or would affect) the more important stuff we don’t write books about.
(As a side note, this is why gender-swapped female heroes always ring false—as distinct from heroes which were written as female, which ring true according to the skill of the author. It’s not merely that males and females tend to relate to other people differently. When it comes to exigent circumstances like an adventure, this tends to be more in the details than in the main actions (assuming the same abilities; characters with different abilities will naturally meet challenges differently). A big problem with gender-swapped heroes is that the domesticity to which they will return is not the same for males and females. Some aspects of domesticity are the same, some are complementary, some are just different—but the whole thing is not identical. The same adventure will tend to impact the characters differently because of how it impacts their ability to return to domesticity at the end of it. Becoming the greatest sword fighter in the land, who has killed dozens of other warriors in hand-to-hand combat, will affect things like marriage prospects differently for a male and a female. Adventures which don’t involve combat at all will still have different impacts because males and females will return differently, since they’re returning to different things. An adventure to return a magic item somewhere, which is done all by cunning and making alliances, may well be more satisfying for a female character because she was important and rose to the occasion, while it might be disappointing to a male character because it didn’t prove a damn thing about his worth as a warrior. He might need to learn lessons about service having to be what is needed, not what you want to do, that she probably wouldn’t. Both are only probable, of course; you can write approximately any story about a male or a female, the issue is that you have to write it for them, you can’t just write an androgynous story then pick the character afterwards, or worse, write it for the one then swap to the other without changing anything else. For a story to ring true, it needs to be written for the actual characters who are in it.)
If a person can get the importance of the domestic out of Campbell’s mythology, he will write a vastly better story than a person who does not realize that the adventure is in service of the mundane, not the other way around. Even if he only gets it at a subconscious level.
This is why, by the way, the scene of Luke Skywalker before the funeral pyre of Darth Vader was, perhaps, the best scene of the whole trilogy:
The two great domestic activities of life are birth and death. Birth brings us into this temporary world, and death brings us out of it. People on an adventure do not have time to do either properly, but they’re especially well known for not having time to ceremoniously bury their dead. Here, Luke has finished his adventure and has returned to the domestic. He is performing the ultimate domestic duty for his father: he is burying him. The death of the Emperor and the destruction of the Empire have wider ranging consequences than this, but this stands symbolically for them. It would never have been possible if the emperor had still lived. It’s also quite important to the emotional impact of the scene that Luke is alone while he does it. Families are small things and the domestic is most naturally private. Domestic things are worth doing even if no one knows about them.
That’s how you know that they’re more important than the stuff we write about.
A while ago I wrote about the problem of how to put characters above suspicion in a murder mystery so that readers could become fond of them. The problem, as I mentioned, is that golden age mysteries loved to try to put the murderer as far above suspicion as possible. However, we need some characters to be actually above suspicion so that we can have an enjoyable story. So, how do we put them above suspicion in a way that the reader can believe? I gave one answer before, but another recently occurred to me.
A reliable way to put a character above suspicion, for the reader, is to tell the reader the character’s thoughts. Obviously this relies on the story seeming to adhere to the spirit of Fr. Knox’s detective decalogue, or otherwise just that the author is honest. An author who would purport to tell us what a character is thinking but leave out the most important things that they’re thinking is just being dishonest, even if they don’t outright lie. So as long as you have the reader’s trust, telling them a character’s thoughts, which are not about the murder at a time when they would be about the murder if the character was the murderer, will enable the reader to trust the character.
This doesn’t need to be done in such a way as to turn the character into a main character, either. Perhaps an extreme example of this might be Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice.
Persuaded as Miss Bingley was that Darcy admired Elizabeth, this was not the best method of recommending herself; but angry people are not always wise; and in seeing him at last look somewhat nettled, she had all the success she expected.
We are not, that I can recall, ever told Caroline’s thoughts before or after (except in the final chapter, which gives a summary of the next few years).
Like all techniques it must be used judiciously, but I think that it could be used well.
My recent musings on the coincidences that went into Mystery Science Theater 3000 being a success got to me to thinking about coincidences in murder mysteries. The general rule is, of course, that coincidences may not help the hero of a story, and this was codified in Fr. Knox’s decalogue in rule number six. It would be a fool’s errand to try to count up which rule was most often broken, but I suspect it might be this one.
I should clarify that I mean broken but not to the benefit of the story. Agatha Christie managed to break several of the rules in ways that produced a good story, but not this one. (There are two examples I can think of in Agatha Christie’s work that involve coincidences, one in Poirot and one in Miss Marple. In the case of Poirot, she even went to the trouble of saying that Poirot considered the case a failure because he would not have solved it except for the coincidence.)
Having said that, I don’t think it’s impossible to use coincidences in mystery stories. One tolerable example of this is a coincidence which brings the detective in to the case. A good example of this is the Lord Peter Wimsey novel Unnatural Death. Lord Peter learns of the case by the accident of being seated in a restaurant next to someone who was telling a friend about it. He then weedles his way into an acquaintance with the man who told the story and sneakily gets enough information about it out of the man that he can begin investigating. Thus even in this coincidence Lord Peter has to do work to really get started.
This kind of coincidence is tolerable, I suspect, because it’s just a somewhat exaggerated form of the sorts of coincidences which are necessary for the detective to be involved at all. If Sherlock Holmes is to be called into a case, the murder must take place in London, or at least in England. If a man murdered another in the central African jungle in the cleverest possible way, Sherlock Holmes would never hear of it. This is even clearer in terms of time; if a man in the 1980s murders another, Sherlock Holmes could not possible have heard of it, at least Holmes as written by Conan Doyle. Nor would a fiendish plot ever come to the attention of Holmes which happened upon a whaling ship at sea which was lost in a storm before it ever reached port, with all hands dying. For a detective to embark upon a case, many things need to be coincident with his location in time and space. To add on top of this someone happening to talk about the mystery at lunch with a friend at a table next to the detective is just more of the same.
So what are we to make of the sort of coincidences which are more than this but less than just giving the detective the solution?
One of the more difficult ones are coincidences which look like they help the detective but are actually misleading. Probably the best example I can think of, here, is in the story Have His Carcass. Harriet finding the fresh blood seems to be helpful in pinning down the time of the murder with unusual precision but actually confounds the investigation almost until the end of the story. It definitely was quite interesting in that story, though I think it would be difficult to pull off well.
Then there are the coincidences which only seem to be clues, but actually aren’t.
These are often quite interesting when they happen prior to the detective getting on the scene. Red herrings are probably the most obvious example of this. Finding out that the maid’s earring was in the parlor where the body was found because the butler had been stealing jewelry and secretly hiding it in the chandelier above the door (which was never used) is, properly speaking, untangling a coincidence from the main problem.
Red Herrings are not the only such coincidence, of course. Sometimes things look weird for the murderer to have done because the murderer did not do them, but at the same time the person who did is not available. There might be a book missing from the library because someone—perhaps a neighbor—borrowed it a week ago and no one (still alive) knew that or noticed it then. It’s possible that someone was mistaken about which book is missing, and the person who borrowed it didn’t say anything because they were asked about the wrong book and weren’t told why they were asked, so couldn’t tell that there might be a mistake. Perhaps the police are withholding the evidence that the book is missing because they don’t want to tip off the murderer that they know, and so the person who could have easily told them didn’t know to come forward. All of these would work well in a story.
Then we come to the cases of coincidences that do actually help the detective, though they are not merely handing him the solution. Can these work?
I want to say that they can—the safe answer is to never say never—but it’s hard to think of how it can be done. One obvious answer is for the help to be trivial. The problem with that solution is: then why bother at all?
I suspect that the answer has to be something that preserves the detective working hard and being the only person who could solve the crime even with the luck. I suspect that the best way for this to work would be for the detective to manufacture his luck. That is, it is only through his knowledge and effort that he was in the place to receive the luck at all.
A good example of this would be reasoning that if there was evidence to prove who did it, it would be of a particular kind that would then have fallen in a particular place. Since it is not there to be found, if it ever was there it must have been picked up by a particular kind of person and so if he circulates word among these people—or interviews them, or some such—the evidence will fall into his lap. I have a memory that Sherlock Holmes did this, perhaps more than once. I can’t place the story, but I have a memory of more than one person coming, hat in hand, saying that he heard that Mr. Holmes was looking for someone who saw something-or-other, and he did, and getting rewarded for it.
The other, I suspect inferior, kind of luck would be something coming completely out of the blue, but only the detective understands its true significance. An example which comes to mind, though it is a very imperfect example, since it wasn’t discovered by luck, would be the evidence given by the nanny in the Poirot story Five Little Pigs. The nanny thinks that the evidence she has proves the guilt of Caroline Crale (which is why she withheld it), when Poirot knows that it proves Caroline’s innocence. If that kind of evidence were to come to the detective, even by accident, I think it would still work.
To bring this back to where I started: I think that coincidences are acceptable only when something unusual and special went into taking advantage of them. This is very much true of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yes, a lot of unusual circumstances came together to make it possible, but it was a special group of people who took advantage of those circumstances and made it happen. Most people would not have made something great in the same circumstances.
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.
Detectives in the golden age of mysteries were frequently described as ugly in one way or another. Sherlock Holmes was pictured with a hawk-like face and a large, hatchet nose, and Conan Doyle was disappointed when Holmes began to be drawn as a good looking man in illustrations. Lord Peter was described with his face looking “as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola”. Poirot was short, had preposterous military mustaches, and an egg-shaped head. (The main exception to this trend which comes to mind is Dr. Thorndyke.)
I’ve had occasion more than once to wonder why this is. One possible explanation, of course, is that it was true of Sherlock Holmes for whatever reason Conan Doyle chose to do it and everyone else merely copied him. They certainly did copy him in a great many ways, typically quite consciously, so this can’t be entirely ruled out.
If it is the case, then Conan Doyle’s reason for making Holmes ugly is worth considering. Unfortunately, I don’t know that he ever gave it. Certainly, he was trying to convey intensity, for intensity is the chief mark of the descriptions of Holmes. Holmes was unusual, and I think that the degree to which he was an unusual man was meant to be stamped on his features. Beyond that, I don’t know. His physical description was not of primary importance to Conan Doyle, since we got none in the chapter in which Holmes was introduced.
Detectives being ugly may not have been merely in imitation of Holmes, however. The main exception that I alluded to above—Dr. Thorndyke was quite handsome—may be brought to bear in support of this, because Thorndyke was remarkably a copy of Holmes in most other respects. Thorndyke had a not-very-bright doctor friend who ended up sharing rooms with him and chronicling his cases. Thorndyke was a coldly logical calculating machine with little regard for the bumblers on the professional police force. Thorndyke was austere in manner and uninterested in women. If you read the stories (such as The Red Thumb Mark or The Eye of Osiris), you will see even more how much Thorndyke was a copy of Holmes. And yet Thorndyke was not ugly. Perhaps, then, this was not regarded as an integral feature of Holmes.
So why, then, was it so common? Even if it was in part an imitation, why was it so frequently imitated when other things—for example, Holmes’ drug use—was not.
I’m inclined to think that it was about balance. Writers feared making their detectives too great, and so sought to give them some flaws. The problem with giving your characters flaws is that flaws tend to be unpleasant to others. One must pick the flaws of one’s main character very carefully. It’s all to easy to make a story unreadable by having a main character who one wants to throttle, not read about.
Flaws of appearance are well suited to written stories, since they will not be frequently felt by the reader. This also explains, I think, why they do not tend to survive to plays and movie versions—an ugly leading man will be felt quite a lot by the viewer.
Having said that, these flaws frequently do not survive long even in print. They’re not interesting. Moreover, we grow to like the detective and we do not like picturing our friends as ugly.
I believe that for the most part writers in the second century of detective fiction don’t bother with ever having their detectives be ugly. This shows better sense, I think (in this very limited way), but I wonder if it may be in part that brilliant detectives are so well accepted that we no longer feel a need to try to counterbalance their brilliance so that readers will accept them.
I was recently re-reading a section of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, and was reminded that the character of Evelyn Howard spoke in a strange way. Her sentences were short and clipped, almost in the style of telegram messages. (Telegram messages tended to omit whatever words they could because one paid for a telegram by the letter. “MOTHER ILL. SURGERY TOMORROW. COME EARLIEST.”)
Evie’s strange style of speaking was not always easy to read, but it did certainly have the effect of making her speech highly distinct, when reading, which is a great advantage to the reader. It’s a problem somewhat unique to novels that character voices are extremely helpful in telling the characters apart; in a play or movie—presuming the actors don’t all look and sound alike, which was occasionally a problem when casting trends were too pronounced—you don’t need the characters to speak in markedly different ways because different people are saying the lines, each with his own (literal) voice, with his own face, and when two people are speaking two each other, from two different places. That said, the latter isn’t always helpful; when I watch movies with my wife I’m always having to remind her who most of the characters are. Be that as it may, it is important in novels to help the reader to keep track of who is actually talking.
Tagging the dialog with who is saying it is normal, and does help tremendously. That said, it only goes so far. The best way to give characters different voices is to have them say things that only they would say. Unfortunately for authors (and readers), people are not nearly as unique as this would imply. Most of us, in the same circumstances, will say much the same thing, at least when there is any sort of practical necessity guiding our speech. If a pan is hot and someone doesn’t know it, most people will warm them and a few won’t. Those are the only real options as to content.
The next distinguishing feature is how the thing is said, and there is a lot of variety to be found here. Some people speak very simply—”Pan’s hot!”. Others speak in a more flowry way—”Take care lest you burn yourself, for the pan you are about to grasp is hot”. Some prefer latin vocabulary to germanic, or at least longer words to shorter ones—”Exercise caution, the temperature of the cookware is greatly elevated”. Some people prefer to speak in double-negatives instead of positives—”Be careful: if you’re not in the mood to burn yourself you might want to avoid holding that pot without a potholder”. Some people use allusions whenever possible—”If you grab that pan barehanded the pot will will have company in being a tad unreflective in calling the kettle black.” Others prefer to curse and swear a lot—”Get a fudgin’ potholder you dingleberry or by gum you’ll burn your effin fingers, or my name isn’t Dufflestuff McGumblethorp.” And on and on.
This is the category into which Evelyn Howard’s speech falls, and it illustrates a problem with leaning too heavily on unusual ways of speaking: it can be annoying. Worse, it tends to get annoying precisely in proportion to how unusual it is because processing speech is itself a skill that depends on familiarity. There are two main ways to deal with this, but they amount to much the same thing.
Make the unusual speech more subtle.
Have the character use it sparingly.
That is, they both amount to making the reader read very little of the weird stuff.
I should mention that there really is a third option, though, and Poirot, himself, embodies it: make the unusual speech fun. Poirot has a manner of speech that is unique, to be sure, but it is also of a nature most charming. Whether it is actually French or no, that I cannot say. It is unusual, that one, most unusual. When he speaks, you know it is him and no other. But, mon ami, it is also of the fun most great.
A question that comes up in mystery stories is having characters who are above suspicion. In golden age mysteries it was extremely popular to make precisely these people the murderer. Sometimes it was even a game to try to make the murderer as far above suspicion as possible. I am coming to think that this is a mistake, though, or at least that it can be.
Casting my eye over my favorite mysteries, the most interesting characters are usually the ones who are above suspicion. These are the people who are affected by the mystery but are not part of it; they’re the most interesting because we can take them seriously. People who are under suspicion are part of the mystery and thus everything that they do, say, and (appear to) think is all suspect.
To be fair, this is at least partially remedied upon re-reading. Knowing who is and who is not false lets us take the true characters seriously. However, this is only a partial remedy because the other characters in the story cannot trust the suspected characters and thus cannot form meaningful relationships with them.
Now, it is necessary in a mystery story to have suspects, and the plural is important. I’m not trying to suggest that one should do without them. Worse, if one had no suspects then everyone would be a suspect. The key, I think, is the distinction between suspect and non-suspect. Some people must be seen to be under suspicion, and others must be clearly elevated above it in an authentic way. But how to do that, especially when the game in golden-age mysteries was to elevate the murderer above suspicion as much as possible?
Obviously recurring characters help a great deal in this. No one suspects Amos Tupper or Seth in Murder, She Wrote since we know that they’ll be back in future episodes and that Cabot Cove wouldn’t be the same without them. It is also typical that people who were called into the mystery after the crime was committed are above suspicion, hence the police and the detective usually are. This is not always so, though; occasionally people who show up later were there before, secretly. Newcomers are actually above suspicion when they have what makes anyone above suspicion: an alibi.
Of course, in mysteries, alibis are made to be broken. The more cast-iron the alibi, the greater the glory in breaking it.
Some alibis simply stand, though. Being seen continuously in front of unimpeachable witnesses from before the last time someone was seen alive until after they were found dead is, in fact, unbreakable. As long as it wasn’t murder by poison, booby-trap, or anything else that doesn’t require the murderer to be present.
And it doesn’t rule out accomplices.
So, other than a character being a recurring character, is there a way to make someone above suspicion so that the reader can take them seriously and the characters can form meaningful relationships with them?
I think that there is, at least sufficient for our purposes: the author can treat the character as above suspicion. That is, not only is the character established to have a good alibi, but the author proceeds on that basis. The character is given development and other characters form meaningful relationships with them. The possibility of their alibi being breakable, for the wrong time, or irrelevant because of an accomplice is simply never brought up. In effect, the author gives the detective confidence in the character and this allows the desirable consequences.
The example of this which comes to mind most readily is the character of Dean Letitia Martin in Gaudy Night. Harriet tells the dean that she simply refuses to consider her a suspect because the dean is too level-headed. Dean Martin objects that this isn’t really valid, but doesn’t otherwise object since she knows herself to be innocent. And the story proceeds with Dean Martin being an interesting character.
(What brings this to mind is that the character of Rhodri Ap Huw, in my favorite Cadfael story, Saint Peter’s Fair, was partially wasted because Ellis Peters held him out as a suspect.)
In this video Ian of Forgotten Weapons describes the Welrod Mk IIA covert assassination pistol developed during World War 2 by British Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) to outfit special operations units as well as resistance units in German-occupied countries.
Its strange appearance is partially intentional, because without the magazine (which doubles as the grip) it looks somewhat like a bicycle pump and, more importantly, not like a gun. As Ian says in the video, if you’re stopped by German soldiers, you really don’t want them realizing that you have in your possession an assassination pistol.
Possibly the most interesting thing about it, from a mystery writer’s perspective, is that it actually achieves the sort of quietness that one sees in Hollywood depictions of silencers. (Normal sound suppressors, aka “silencers,” only reduce the unimaginably loud bang of the gun to an imaginably but very loud bang that, however, is not going to cause instant hearing damage.)
Ian says that about 14,000 were made. Further, they are still in occasional use by special forces, though special forces don’t particularly admit to it so this is slightly speculative. From the perspective of someone wanting to use a silenced gun in a murder mystery, these are sufficient numbers that one could reasonably find itself into the hands of an ordinary person.
Something else I find curious is that the manual for them says that their effective range is about 25 yards during the day and 7-8 yards at night. This is partially explained by the poor ergonomics and partially by having to use a slow bullet—a bullet traveling faster than the speed of sound will produce a supersonic boom when it hits the air and there’s nothing a silencer can do about that.
Now, nighttime shooting without special optics is always difficult, but I find it curious that in the daytime 25 yards is an easy shot with a bow and arrow, especially for a modern compound bow with carbon fiber arrows. A pistol is, of course, far easier to conceal than a bow and arrows are—to say nothing of being easier to carry—so I’m not trying to suggest that a bow and arrows would be better for the purpose than this gun. I merely find it interesting.
In the latter half of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Curse of the Daanav. This episode is set in the mansion of Seth Hazlitt’s estranged brother, Robert. As settings go, mansions are one of the best.
The episode actually begins in India, though, some unspecified amount of time before the episode begins. It begins, specifically, with two guys in a cave using an oil lamp.
The non-Indian guy looks like he’s wearing a suspiciously modern style of clothing, but the oil lamp makes this likely to be quite some time ago. Flashlights with tungsten filament bulbs were invented in 1904 and had sold millions by 1922 in the United States. They are here to steal a ruby from a golden cobra.
A golden cobra statue, I mean.
The non-Indian guy tries to lift the statue, but it’s too heavy, so instead he uses a knfie to pry the gem loose. The camera goes wonky, the Indian guy screams and collapses, and then the non-Indian guy grabs at his throat and collapses. Then the Indian guy wakes up in a bed, screaming.
So perhaps it was all a dream? Or perhaps he was just remembering something that happened. Given that he seems to be in the present day, I assume it’s just a dream because the guy hasn’t aged at all from when he was in the cave with the oil lamp.
We then cut to Seth’s brother, Richard, giving the ruby to his young wife, Alice.
He says that it’s not half as beautiful as the woman wearing, but that it will turn a few eyes at the party tonight. Alice is distressed by this. She says that his friends will take one look at it and think that she married him for his money. Also, it puts the gift she gave him to shame. He laughs this off, but she protests that being swept off her feet and honeymooning all over Europe, and the jewels and the parties are nice and all, but they’re also overwhelming.
He tells her that she’ll get used to it.
They’re interrupted by Richard’s daughter from his first marriage, Carolyn:
She comes in with the cattiness turned up to 11. About the necklace, she remarks, “It doesn’t surprise me at all. But then he’s always been very generous. Haven’t you, Daddy?”
He replies, “To a fault, in some cases.”
She then says, “Aww, come now, Daddy. What’s the point of having money if you don’t spend it? Besides, all I want is a measily thou. You can call it an advance on my inheritance.”
Richard sighs and, as he picks up his checkbook, says, “Carolyn, honey. These advances are becoming an all-out major assault.”
He tells her that money is not unlimited and he works hard for it. He then says that she has to learn that she can’t buy everything she wants.
She asks, “Why not? You have.”
She grabs the check from him and leaves. He remarks, “that’s a chip off the old block.”
That last part is interesting, because it acknowledges that her patterns of behavior had to come from somewhere, and that’s probably mostly her parents. You usually don’t see that in murder mysteries; spoiled children are typically treated as if they sprang fully formed from their parents and went wholly wrong entirely on their own.
Which is not to say that people do not have free will and do not make their own choices. They do. Bad people can make themselves that way despite being raised well, just as saints can overcome having been raised badly. These are not the norm, though. It’s far more common that if people don’t have principles, it’s because they were raised without them. And this makes the rich old man with the awful children not nearly so much an object of pity as he’s typically made out to be. There is something sad about a man reaping what he has sewn, but that is tempered by the fact that it’s only justice.
We then meet the spoiled brat’s brother, Mark:
She’s walking down the stairs quickly and he asks her what the rush is—is she afraid that some trendy new fashion will start without her?
I get that Murder, She Wrote needs to be time-efficient in its characterizations, but this level of casual antagonism is dysfunctional. I suppose it’s meant to help make him a suspect—Carolyn suggests that if their father and her young wife have a son together, Alice will ensure that her own issue takes over the bank when their father dies, not Mark.
This is basically just taking aristocratic primogeniture from golden-age detective mysteries and pretending that it applies to American businessmen. Even there, Mark would have to be a nephew with Richard having no male issue, so far. As the oldest son, his position under primogeniture would be assured.
In the actual circumstance, this is absurd. Richard Bradford, the actor who plays Richard Hazlitt, was born in 1934 and was thus 54 years old in 1988 when this episode aired. I suspect he was playing older, though, since his children are clearly in their thirties and Richard Hazlitt was unlikely to have fathered them in his early twenties. But heck, let’s suppose the character was supposed to be the same as as the actor—and it’s weird for a thirty year old to talk of a fifty year old as being “old”—this means that in twenty years he’ll be 74. Even if he survived this long, he’ll probably retire, and the oldest his son with his new wife could be is nineteen years old. Are we really to expect a bank to be run by a nineteen year old with no experience in preference to a fifty year old who’s worked in the bank for the last thirty years? Primogeniture will pass a title and estate to a child. American corporations don’t work that way.
This is one weakness that Murder, She Wrote sometimes runs into when it tries to pay tribute to golden age mysteries—some of them simply don’t work in modern America. (See The Lady in the Lake.)
In the next scene Seth and Jessica are in a car with glorious rear-projection of Washington DC behind them.
I can’t help but wonder what it was like shooting rear-projection scenes. Did they feel as silly as they looked, or was it just a part of the business? My mother likes to say that people were more innocent and accepting back then, but I have dim childhood memories of my father making fun of rear projection even back then.
They were in Washington D.C. to confer with their congressman, and that done, Jessica is trying to talk Seth into accepting an invitation to a polo match from his estranged brother (Richard). With effort, she talks him into it, but he makes it conditional on Jessica coming with him, which she reluctantly agrees to.
The scene shifts to the polo match. Richard and Alice are watching, while Mark is playing. The game ends moments after red team (Mark is on blue team) scores a winning point. Richard upbraids Mark for bad playing.
I find it interesting that Richard is not a sympathetic character. Earlier, it was a bit more ambiguous, where he was pulling in the reigns on a spoiled child; it’s possible to not notice who it must have been who spoiled the child. Here, he’s just being pointlessly critical and cruel. I wonder if this is to help make Seth more sympathetic for being estranged from his brother for so many years.
Mark asks his father why he doesn’t get off his (Mark’s) back, and Richard asks Mark why the hell he doesn’t learn to play the game. He then says, “and there’s someone who could teach you,” and calls out to Vikram Singh, and congratulates him on a good match.
It’s the same guy as in the dream!
Jessica and Seth come up and Jessica observes that they seem to have missed the entire match. “So much for that driver’s short-cuts.” This is a cute way to get them there at the right time, story-wise. It’s not a big deal, but saves a bit of time.
We then meet Alice’s father as the two of them walk up to Jessica and Seth.
Seth guesses that she’s Caroline, but she clarifies that she’s Richard’s wife. She introduces her father, whose name is Burt Davis
Richard then notices Seth, and the two of them stare at each other warily.
It then comes up that Richard was not the one who invited Seth, it was Alice who took the liberty. She then tells Seth and Jessica to come stay at the house, and Richard can’t say no to her so it is arranged. She has a forceful personality, but also means well, which is unusual in a murder mystery.
The scene shifts to the party that evening, where we see Burt eating and drinking off of the plates that servants (or catering staff) are carrying. I think this may be meant to establish his character as low class and unused to the events, or else just someone who really enjoys eating and drinking. He wanders into Seth, and then Jessica walks up with Vikram Singh, and it turns out that they’re standing next to Caroline and Mark.
The children complain, as is their habit. Jessica tells them that she was just saying to Singh that she was sorry they missed the polo match. Mark says that she didn’t miss anything but Vikram begs to differ; prior to his fall Mark scored three goals, which Singh considers most impressive.
Richard and Alice join the group, and Vikram Singh notices the ruby she’s wearing (the one from the dream which Richard gave to Alice at the beginning of the episode). Singh identifies it as “The Eye of the Daanav” and tells them about its curse. The ruby, he explains, is the all-seeing eye of a powerful demon called “The Daanav”. It’s a golden-headed cobra which controls all that is dark and evil in this world.
I’m kind of curious what religion this legend is from, because it doesn’t really match up with Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam, the three major religions you’ll find in India. (I wonder if this is like the episode where there was a Sheik with thirty six wives.) Anyway, the Daanav was angered by the theft of its all-seeing eye (more than a century ago), and laid a curse on it that would rob the breath of life itself from one whose heart is less than pure, killing them most horribly.
Richard thinks that this is merely a scare tactic, though, as Singh has already, on behalf of his government, offered Richard twice what he paid for the jewel. Richard, however, is adamant that he won’t sell it. Why, is not stated. It’s hard to see how he could have a strong attachment to it, but as we will see the plot requires him to not be willing to give it up. Perhaps this is why he was shown to be such a selfish, inconsiderate bastard earlier.
At this awkward juncture Alice excuses herself as having a ton of people to meet, then remembers that she hasn’t given Richard his gift yet and tells him to wait in the study while she goes to get it. It turns out that she left it in her car in the garage. When she gets there an engine is running. She leaves the door slightly ajar and goes to investigate, but the car’s doors are locked. Then the door she left ajar is slowly and quietly closed. She bangs against the door, calling for help, as she coughs from the carbon monoxide. She eventually falls to the ground, unconscious and we fade to commercial.
When we come back from commercial, Burt and Mark are walking to the garage because Burt had thought he’d lost his pipe then remembered he’d left it in the car in the afternoon. Mark tries the door to the garage and remarks that it’s locked, which is unusual. He thinks he’s left his keys “upstairs” (this is a detached garage so “back in the house” would have been more accurate, but Mark appears to be drunk). Burt holds up the key to the garage and asks, “what’s this?” Mark replies, “Oh, what do you know?” They then hear the sound of the car engine and rush in to investigate and find Alice.
They rush her back into the house, Mark carrying her, and Seth takes charge while he instructs Richard to call the paramedics. This done, Richard comes to tell Seth that the paramedics are on their way and he tells her that it’s OK, Alice is coming around. Burt then insists on calling the police as he thinks that someone tried to kill Alice. Richard thinks this is ridiculous, but the next scene shows a police car so someone called the police.
Jessica meets Lt. Ames in the garage, looking at the scene of the crime.
Lt. Ames tells Jessica that this is probably a failed suicide attempt. Jessica finds this ridiculous because who commits suicide by turning on a car and closing the garage door so the garage will fill up with fumes and then going off to a party only to leave in the middle to kill themselves, since it must have taken longer than the fifteen minutes that Alice was gone for the garage to have filled up with fumes (It’s an enormous, many-car garage).
Larry looks at her with new interest, closes the door, and asks who she is. She lets it slip that she had been in Washington to meet with Congressman Hale. Ames recognizes the name; Hale is the head of the House Committee on Secret Intelligence. He concludes that Jessica is some sort of secret agent who cannot reveal her identity. He then gives Jessica all of the evidence he has.
The entirety of his evidence amounts to Alice’s key having been in the ignition of the car with the doors locked. Alice admits that it’s her key, but protests that she always kept it on a hook in the garage and anyone could have taken it. Under questioning, she said that she pushed the button that should have opened the garage a few times and it didn’t work, then she tried to go out the side door but found it locked.
Ames notes that when he tried the electric garage door opener, it worked fine. Seth interrupts and suggests that she might have been confused. Inhaling that much carbon dioxide was bound to cause a certain amount of confusion.
Alice then interjects that the paramedics said it could have caused far worse than that, had Seth not been there. Seth acknowledges this with an smug nod.
This is a thing that the writers try to develop during the episode—Seth’s medical prowess. The only real problem is that so far as I can see, he didn’t do anything at all. The only thing we know he did was listen to some part of her with a stethoscope and say that it was going to be OK because she was coming round. He didn’t even do as much as Dr. Watson often did (give the patient brandy). Nor do I see what he could have done, given that he didn’t have an oxygen canister on hand to administer oxygen with—the main treatment of carbon monoxide poisoning. There isn’t really a way to administer higher levels of oxygen without an O2 tank (that I’m ware of), and some searching that I did didn’t turn up anything besides administering O2 that will help (in the short term).
A bit of debate happens in which Richard suggests that the carbon monoxide confused Alice and she locked the door herself, while Jessica points out that carbon monoxide confusion still doesn’t explain who started the car. Richard declares that it was an accident, and Lt. Ames accepts that and leaves.
On his way out Lt. Ames tells Jessica, sotto voce, that if she needs his help on this she has it, on the record or not.
Alice goes back to her room and Jessica comes with her and helps her undo her hairdo. As she does so, Alice tells Jessica that she’s confident that she didn’t lock the door herself. Jessica asks who knew where the gift was and Alice says that Caroline was the one who suggested the garage. Burt, who was getting Alice an aspirin, reminds her that Mark knew as well, since he drove up just as Burt and Alice were hiding the present.
After this Jessica and Richard are talking and Richard said that it had to be an accident and it was just luck that Alice wasn’t killed. Jessica replies, “Luck, and your brother.” Richard admits that Seth was impressive and he didn’t realize that Seth had it in him to be so cool under pressure.
Again, I don’t get what Seth is supposed to have done. He didn’t have oxygen or any medicines with him. Is he supposed to have elevated her head in a way that made her breath twice as well, or something? There is an experimental technique where administering a small amount of carbon dioxide can speed the person’s breathing and help them to expel the carbon monoxide faster. He didn’t have any canisters of carbon dioxide on hand either, though.
Structurally speaking, it makes a lot of sense that the writers want Seth to have shown off his medical prowess and to have saved his estranged brother’s beloved wife, but I don’t see any legitimate way to have that here. Had there been an older person on oxygen whose tank could have been borrowed for a few minutes at a critical moment, this could have made sense. As it was, though, how impressive is it supposed to be that he laid her down on a couch and then listened to her lungs? I think that the lack of doing anything really hurt the emotional effect, because all of this talk about Seth saving Alice has the effect, not of drawing one’s attention to the brothers, but of making the viewer wonder what the heck Seth was supposed to have done.
This might not be an issue in a romantic comedy, but this is a mystery show. The viewers are self-selected for being interested in poisons, medical details, and exactly what happened. This is the worst genre to hand-wave away crucial details.
They then run into Vikram Singh, who is still in the house for some reason. He expresses his personal condolences. Richard thanks Singh then excuses himself. Singh interrupts him leaving, though, and says, “Mr. Hazlitt, but for the grace of a god we cannot hope to understand, your wife could very well be dead. Now will you trust that the curse of the ruby is true?”
Richard responds to this about as well as can be expected, but he catches himself at “Listen, you son of a-” and then moderates his language because a lady (Jessica) is present. He informs Singh that the ruby is not for sale, now or ever.
Again, why he has such an attachment to the ruby is never explained or even hinted at. It’s a bit hard to imagine why; so far as we know it’s just a pretty stone he bought as a present for his wife on a lark.
He adds that if he finds out that Singh was responsible for Alice’s almost dying, he will kill him. Singh finally departs.
Richard puts the ruby away in the safe in his study and runs into Seth, who was sitting in a chair in the study. Richard invites him to share a drink and Seth accepts. They begin reminiscing, then talk over what drove them apart—a woman named Molly. It seems that Seth was romantically involved with her, or at least interested in her, but she and Richard eloped. When they got back Seth had already left for Portland, and Richard couldn’t find the words. Then his business took off, and the kids came, and then Molly got sick and died very quickly.
Richard apologize, but Seth says that he should be the one to apologize, since his blindness was what drove Richard and Molly to have to run away. Then Seth did his own running away, and even after he married Ruth he couldn’t bring himself to make the first move toward reconciliation. “And now, Ruth’s gone too. And here we sit. Two of the biggest fools that ever drew breath.” (They then formally reconcile.)
It’s a very well done scene. I think it lacks a little punch because as a TV show it’s hard to take seriously since Seth is an ongoing character and Richard didn’t exist in anyone’s imagination before this episode and won’t exist in anyone’s imagination after it, either, not even in impact on Seth’s character. If this were a one-off story such that both characters existed equally, I’d say it was a superb scene. Both actors are really excellent, though that’s a thing specific to television and not really generalizable to writing mysteries in print form. I think that there’s a lesson, here, though: scenes of large emotional impact should generally be between equal characters.
Actually, a second lesson is that if you’re writing anything episodic or otherwise can’t live with the consequences, make sure to have the big stuff happen to non-major characters who will not be around in the future. We can then give them, in our imaginations, the consequences of their actions and the character changes of their significant improvements. Giving it to characters you will have to take it away from is simply wasting the character development.
General lessons aside, there is another problem, which is that it’s not entirely in character for Seth. He’s a cranky curmudgeon who never thinks deep thoughts. Also, what he said was too eloquent for him. I wouldn’t normally complain about improvements, but this gets back to the part about knowing that it won’t last.
Shortly after they reconcile.
A few hours later we see Alice in a nightgown coming down the stairs and looking for Richard. She seems to believe that he’s in the study. She knocks increasingly loudly and calls to him, but the door is locked. This brings Jessica and Caroline to the top of the stairs.
Jessica asks if something is wrong and Alice says that she thinks Richard must be hurt. This general commotion brings the rest of the house out of bed. Seth says that he left Richard in the study not half an hour ago. Unfortunately there is no key; the latch is an old-fashioned hinge-latch that can only be opened from the inside.
They break the door down and find Richard on the floor, dead.
Caroline then says, “Oh my God. The ruby. It’s gone.” And we get a closeup of Richard.
I think that this is supposed to illustrate that the ruby is gone. Since the ruby was never on any part of Richard that we can see, I’m not sure how it does that. So far as anyone knew, he had put it in the safe. (In fact, he hadn’t, since he was interrupted in that by Seth, but no one else could have known this, and we’ve no reason to suppose he didn’t put the ruby back after his conversation with Seth was over.) The scene then fades to black; I suspect that this would be to the mid-point commercial break. We come back to someone from the police pulling a sheet over the corpse.
Jessica talks to Seth and he tells her about the reconciliation, then goes to get fresh air. Lt. Ames is talking to the rest of the family, asking about secret passages, but Mark assures him that the only way in or out was through the door or windows, all of which were locked.
So, we have a locked room mystery.
I really should be more excited about them than I am but my experience with locked room mysteries is that they’re always disappointing. I’m beginning to think that they have to be. The problem is that a murderer can only get out of a locked room by some trick, and tricks are not very satisfying. Latches can be lowered after a door is closed, for example. In The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side, for example, the latch on the door would close if it was propped up and the door banged shut. A lot of play has been made about the breaking down of the door removing the evidence of how it was locked, too. So, for example, the deadbolt can be broken open and only the catch used to lock the door, and when the innocent people break the door open they will see both the deadbolt and catch broken and so assume that they broke both. (Another approach which I associate more with pre-1930s mysteries, though examples can be found afterwards, are the use of devices to kill the victim such that they were actually killed in a locked room, and the device is disguised or removed later.)
The other issue here is that locked rooms only matter in a mystery when there is the suspicion of suicide that the locked room strengthens. Oddly, we’re never told what the cause of death was, but there is no suspicion of suicide ever brought up.
Pausing for a moment to talk about the cause of death, since it’s very strange that we’re not told: in the establishing shot there was no knife sticking out of the corpse and in the shot above we can see no ligature marks on the neck. There are also no pools of blood, so we can rule out stabbing and strangulation, but beyond this we’re given no information about how he came to be an ex-Richard. We’re not even given the proximate cause of death, such as heart failure, stroke, asphyxiation, etc. My guess is that he was struck from behind on the head with a blunt instrument. The half-hour window since Seth left him until when he was found dead leaves very little time for poisoning and the body wasn’t contorted, the lips not blue, etc. There is also the possibility of being shot since the dark clothes might not show a small bloodstain and if he was shot in the chest and fell backwards, and if the bullet didn’t exit the body (as they frequently don’t), there would not be obvious blood. Still, my money is on a blow to the head from behind.
Assuming, of course, the writers ever figured out a cause of death. I actually suspect that they didn’t.
The one thing we do know is that Lt. Ames treats this as a murder investigation from the beginning and everyone seems to agree with that. So this brings up the question of the locked room: what purpose did it serve? If everyone agrees that Richard was murdered, figuring out how the murderer locked the room after leaving is just a detail. The room being locked from inside only helps the murderer if there is some plausible alternative to “well, you must have done it somehow, as clearly somebody did it somehow”.
Anyway, at this point Caroline brings up the curse of the ruby . This brings Vikram Singh to Lt. Ames’ attention. It’s interesting, btw, how the writers dance around him being Indian. When Ames asks who Singh is, Jessica replies, “He’s the cultural attaché at his country’s embassy in Washington.” Also curious is that Ames tells one of the police extras to check on Singh and see if he was connected to the muslim protests a few weeks ago. Jessica tells Ames that Singh said he had attended a Divali festival last year, which would make him Hindu, not Muslim. Also possible is that he’s in some wierd made-up-for-TV Indian religion and happened to go to a Divali. (Divali is a festival of lights that is celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs; it thus seems to be largely a secular festival to which people attach various religious meanings as they care to.) This impresses Ames, anyway.
It’s getting late so Jessica suggests that Ames wrap up and he does so. He then asks her which federal service she’s with, but Jessica again protests she’s just a mystery writer from Cabot Cove, Maine. Ames takes this to mean that she’ll reveal her real identity when he needs to know and not before then, which he is content with.
This running joke serves the larger purpose of securing police cooperation for Jessica, and is an enjoyable way to do it. Every Murder, She Wrote episode needs to handle the question of how Jessica relates to the police; the episodes run the gambit from complete hostility to fawning admiration. This one is more on the fawning admiration side, but does so with a touch of dignity. Just a touch, but at least he’s clever about his mistake.
The next morning Ames runs into Jessica examining the outside of the room. After some further protestations that she isn’t a government agent, to which Ames enthusiastically (though insincerely) agrees, he asks what she has for him and she replies, “unfortunately, nothing.” The windows were not tampered with and except for their own footprints there are no marks in the flower beds outside the windows. Jessica concludes that the murderer wants them to believe in the curse.
They walk on and the camera pans up to Caroline, who had been watching them from a second floor window.
I believe that this is supposed to make us think Caroline is a suspect. She was the one who drew everyone’s attention to the ruby being missing. She was the one who told Lt. Ames about the curse. Of course, in a Murder, She Wrote, a suspicious close-up like this rules her out as a suspect.
The next scene of Mark, Mark is on the phone with, presumably, the family lawyer and angrily demands a copy of his father’s will today. Ames walks in on the tail end of this and finds it suspicious. There is some interesting word-play, though. “In a pretty big rush to see the will, aren’t you, considering your father is lardy cold?” He replies, “Lieutenant, my father was never anything but cold.”
In the ensuing conversation Seth protests and Mark points out that Seth is in no position to say what Richard was like. The long estrangement makes Ames suspicious until Jessica tells him that Seth can be trusted, which Ames takes to mean that Seth is also a government agent.
Jessica and Ames then go to investigate the study. Jessica figured out how the locked room was accomplished—a lit cigarette that propped up the latch while the door was closed.
As I said, it’s always some sort of trick. Oddly, no one raises the question of what the purpose of this trick was. Ames asks who would go to all this trouble for a ruby, and the scene cuts to interrogating Vikram Singh in the lounge. When Jessica says that Seth was killed by a man, not a curse, Singh leaves. As he goes he puts on black leather gloves, but then pauses as he puts the second one on, then takes it off again, looking quizzically at the glove.
Jessica, eagle-eyed as ever, spots his perplexity about what’s inside his glove. She calls him on it and it turns out to be the Eye of the Daanav.
Back at police headquarters, Jessica doubts that Singh is guilty. For one thing, he couldn’t have known that Alice was going to get Richard’s present from the garage, making it very hard for him to have tried to kill her that way. Also, he’s far too intelligent to have brought the ruby he stole the night before back to the victim’s house to hide it in his own glove without knowing it and then all but show it to Jessica and Lt. Ames. OK, Jessica only says, “Well, frankly, I doubt that an intelligent man like Mr. Singh would have deliberately hidden the ruby in the glove and then put it on in front of us.” She forgets to mention that this is the next day and Mr. Singh did not sleep at the house—it’s never explained why he was questioned there—and so he would have had to bring the ruby back to the house after stealing it the night before in order for it to be at the house.
I think that the writers wanted to write an isolated English country house murder with its closed set of suspects, but forgot that they didn’t actually do that. There’s kind of a lot of stuff that they forgot to do, when you get down to it.
Caroline is summoned to Lt. Ames’ office and questioned about her spending habits. She denies murdering her father for money—he had refused to pay her debts to a collection agency a few weeks ago. She suggests that if they want a financial motive, they should look to Alice, who will receive millions because of an outrageous insurance policy which she forced Richard to take out during their honeymoon.
In the denouement, Lt. Ames, Jessica, Seth, Alice, and Burt are in the accusing parler. They accuse Alice of murdering her husband (and faking the attempt on her own life), but it turns out to be a ruse to force Burt to confess. Well, not so much to confess as to make a slip. Lt. Ames suggests that Alice used one of her cigarettes in the latch and Burt points out that she smokes English cigarettes, not Turkish. Of course, he could only have known that it was a Turkish cigarette used to prop up the latch if he was the murderer.
Burt asks if Jessica is accusing him of trying to kill his own daughter and she says no, it was not meant to be fatal and only meant to raise the specter of the curse.
There’s a problem, here. People—and especially Burt—only learn about the curse moments before Alice goes to the garage to get her present to Richard. As Jessica established, the car had to have been running for a while before this. If Singh couldn’t have known that Alice was going to go to the garage to get her present to Richard, Burt couldn’t have known about the curse in order to make it look like Alice was nearly a victim to it. I think that this is just a plot hole.
Jessica tells Burt she had wondered at how lucky it was that Burt “just happened” to go to the garage and find Alice. When he protests that he had forgotten his pipe in the garage, Jessica reminds him that he had his pipe at the party and put it in his pocket in order to shake hands. There’s also a bit earlier where Burt had told Alice that the ruby was found in Singh’s glove, when Burt couldn’t have known that if he didn’t plant it there himself.
Any one of these is sufficient (in a Murder, She Wrote) to prove Burt is the murderer on its own, so all three together clinches it. Alice is astonished and asks her father why he locked her in the garage—he nearly killed her. He tells her that he had it planned down to the second. He had the key in his pocket and if Mark hadn’t found his key, Burt would have blown it there and then and opened the door and got her out.
He then explains why he killed Richard—he saw the kind of man Richard was: cold, possessive, king of the bloody world. And now he owned Alice, and would show her off to make people think more of him. What kind of a life could she have with a man like that?
Then we get to the real reason: But without Richard, she’d inherit. Oh, they could have been so happy, Burt and Alice. Going first class, never needing a by-your-leave from anybody. It would have been grand.
When this fails to get the reaction he was hoping for, he asks Alice, “You do see, don’t you? I was thinking of you.”
Since he very obviously wasn’t and she may be innocent but she’s not an idiot, she doesn’t say anything and tearfully hugs him. The scene ends and that’s all we get of her character.
The final scene is of Lt. Ames helping Jessica and Seth with their bags. He tells Jessica that it was a privilege to work with someone of her security clearance. She tries one last time to convince him that she’s not a secret agent by showing him her social security card, library card, and voter’s registration card. (Why she’s carrying the social security card and voter’s registration card in her wallet, she does not say.) He looks at them but then Seth calls to Jessica, “You’d better hurry if you want to meet with that agent before he goes to Moscow.”
This is a callback to a line from the scene in the car where Jessica is trying to talk Seth into accepting his brother’s invitation and he’s trying not to: “You’ve got to see that real estate agent about your vacant lot before he runs off to that family reunion of his up in Moscow, Idaho.” Without that context, which of course he doesn’t know, Ames takes it to have its more plain meaning. He looks at her cards again and remarks, “Best phony ID I’ve ever seen.”
Jessica only stares in disbelief, and we go to closing credits.
Overall, it was a very enjoyable episode. It was clearly inspired by the classic English manor house murder, which is always very fun. The theme of the reunion of brothers was well done and well acted, even if Seth was the wrong choice for the part. Alice, the young wife, was also a real asset to the episode. Her innocence and universal good will was really touching.
This was not an episode that stands up to scrutiny, though. You can see the amount that the writers paid attention to detail in things like the cause of death never being mentioned. For that matter, how was the murder supposed to have happened? Did Burt wait up until Seth left the study to creep in and kill Richard? Did he sneak in without Richard noticing him, or did he talk with Richard and wait for him to be standing there with his back turned?
However he did that—and neither options seems very practical—why steal the ruby if the idea was to try to blame the curse? If the ruby could steal itself, presumably it would have done so a long time ago and be back in the golden cobra’s head. If, on the other hand, the idea was to frame Vikram Singh, why wait for a time when Singh almost certainly couldn’t have been in the house? And what was the purpose of the locked room except to use a Turkish cigarette to frame Singh? But why bother using it to lock the door? It would have done as well to leave it in an ash tray.
Less of a fundamental problem, but still showing how little detail mattered, is the way that Burt started the car for the plot to pretend to have the curse try to kill Alice before he learned about the curse. To be fair, this would not have been easy to fix, since the episode started on the day of the party and Murder, She Wrote is generally so packed that the episodes are on a tight deadline. Even so, it’s still a mistake.
I’m also not sure what to make of Richard having been a lousy man and a terrible father to his Children. They did touch on the interesting theme of Alice’s goodness, with the aid of her beauty, reforming him. I wish that they could have done more with it but having the victim alive until the halfway mark is already pushing it in a murder mystery.
Which brings me to the abrupt ending.
One flaw in Murder, She Wrote is that the amount that they cram into less than 47 minutes doesn’t permit them to give characters a real farewell. They tend to just disappear. We never see Mark again after his telephone conversation with his lawyer. We never see Vikram Singh again after he’s arrested for having the ruby in his glove. We last see Caroline in the police station where she tells the police about Alice’s large inheritance. These aren’t well developed characters, though, so it’s not much of a loss to see them go without any closure. It’s far more of a pity that we don’t learn about what Alice will do. If this weren’t an episodic TV show where nothing that happens in it will affect future episodes, she might even lean on Seth for support which he would provide in his recently reconciled dead brother’s stead. Your father murdering your husband and your step children (who are older than you) hating you is a position in which you will want a friend, wealth or no. Alice would be a very interesting character to meet again, though unfortunately that won’t happen. They could at least have cut the opening sequence with the dollar-store Indiana Jones stealing the ruby in exchange for an extra minute in which to give Alice some closure.
The relationship between Jessica and Lt. Ames was also an interesting part of this episode. As I said, Murder, She Wrote has to establish some kind of relationship between Jessica and the police, and if they’re friendly, some sort of reason for them to be friendly. The more usual reason for them to be friendly is that they’ve been impressed by Jessica’s books. Mistaking Jessica for a high ranking secret agent accomplished this in a more fun manner. It’s also nice that while Ames wasn’t brilliant, he wasn’t an idiot, either. He merely had a mistaken premise that he stuck to. It also played, to some degree, on the fact that as the main character in the show Jessica was, in fact, as special as Ames assumed, just in a different way. It’s interesting as an example of how far one can go with taking a bit of comedy seriously without damaging the seriousness. It would have hurt had Jessica required Ames’ belief in order to succeed, but he was initially friendly anyway, so it remains plausible that Jessica could have secured his cooperation without the mistake, and this permits us to enjoy it.
Overall I would rate this in the top half of Murder, She Wrote episodes. It has many flaws but I think that they’re all forgivable in light of its good qualities.
I recently read the Dr. Thorndyke short story A Message From the Deep Sea. I’m not sure when it was first published, but it was collected in John Thorndyke’s Cases, the first short story collection of Thorndyke short stories, published in 1909. It’s a good example of the scientific wizardry that Thorndyke typified—you can loosely describe Dr. Thorndyke as “Sherlock Holmes with all of the humanity removed”. The police detective and police surgeon come to the wrong conclusion in a case where the murderer was trying to frame someone. Only Thorndyke, through his very careful examination and encyclopedia knowledge of everything, was able to see through it. The case, by the way, was that a single woman in her twenties—a German immigrant lodging in England for several years now, generally liked—was murdered in the middle of the night by having her throat slashed while she slept. In one of her hands she held a few strands of long red hair, pointing to the daughter of the landlord as the murderer because the victim stole the other woman’s fiancé from her.
I find it interesting that Thorndyke was able to see through the framing because of a setup designed to allow him to do it. In some sense, of course, this always has to be true in fiction because nothing happens without the story being written to allow it to happen. Somewhat analogous to God, nothing can happen in a story without being in at least the permissive will of the author. In this case, though, the story was really designed around Thorndyke seeing through it. That is, he required a lot of the story to be unusual in order for his scientific wizardry to work.
The titular message from the deep sea was a sand on the murdered woman’s pillow that turned out to be, under the microscrope, deep sea sand from the Mediterranean ocean. In fact, among the micro-shells of the Foraminifera in the sand, was a species that only lives near the Levant, making it possible to identify where in the Mediterranean the sand came from.
At first it seems very strange that sand from the bottom of the Mediterranean sea should show up on the pillow of a dead woman, but it turns out that the man who murdered her—her former boyfriend who she threw off for the fiancé of the landlord’s daughter—worked in a factory that imported and processed turkish sponges. In the early 1900s these would have been literal sponges from the sea floor, rather than the synthetic replicas we use today, so the collection of them would have involved copious quantities of sand being brought up along with them. And, it turned out, the murderer was a laborer in a factory that imported and processed the sponges. Since such sand is everywhere in these factories—the floors are often covered in it ankle-deep, and the men who work there get thoroughly dusted in it. If such a man were to bend over, some would naturally spill out of his pockets and the various folds of his clothing.
There were also some details about damp footprints which could only have been caused by the rain which happened for about an hour before the victim was murdered, with no rain having fallen for the preceding fortnight. Also, there were some candle-grease marks that were left and a bit of candle in a common candle-box which bore the octagonal mark of an unusual candle-holder in the victim’s room.
Oh, also, a tiny bit of the knife used to kill the victim was chipped off on one of her neck vertebrae (which Thorndyke found but the police surgeon missed) which corresponded exactly to a chip in the blade of the knife which the ex-boyfriend used to try to kill Thorndyke at the inquest once Thorndyke had proved him guilty.
Actually, I forgot to mention the part where Thorndyke explained that the victim’s hand wasn’t holding the hairs in a death-grip but only had them placed there afterwards, and also the hairs were clearly taken from a brush because there were hair bulbs on both ends, not all on the same end, and furthermore the hairs had clearly fallen out naturally because they didn’t have the surrounding part of the follicle which comes out when live hair is ripped out but doesn’t come out when it naturally sheds.
The explanation of all of the evidence which Thorndyke collected, which took several pages of slow and exacting explanation occasionally interrupted by questions from the coroner, does make Thorndyke look something like a wizard, especially when other experts in the room missed it all. I can see why it was popular at the time, especially since forensic science was quite new in 1909. Looking at stuff under a microscope to prove what it was was hot stuff at the time. Having an encyclopedia knowledge of anything is always impressive.
The thing is, these are all very strange coincidences. How often is someone murdered by a person who works in a factory that coats them with extremely distinctive powder? (One might object that they don’t change out of their work clothes, but in the early 1900s people had far less clothing and a bachelor might well not change his clothes after coming home from work.) How often is a murder committed during the one hour it rained in the last two weeks? (Something I’m less familiar with—how often does it go two weeks without rain in England?)
The knife getting chipped is not wildly out of the ordinary. (I’ve seen this fairly often with broadheads going through deer.) Without the murderer having been identified, though, it would not have been useful as evidence, except perhaps to exculpate the accused woman because her knife had no chip in it.
The hair with roots on both side struck me as the only really solid evidence of the case that was not put there merely to make Thorndyke look good. A person trying to frame someone with unusual hair might well try to plant their hair at the scene of the crime. Closing the victim’s hand on the hair but not being able to turn it into a death-grip is a mistake any murderer might make. The roots of the hair showing that they were shed and not ripped out would happen from hair that was taken from a brush, and the roots being on both sides would probably show up as well. How many murderers would take the time to orient the hairs with all of their roots on the same side?
One other curious thing about this case is that Thorndyke uses fingerprints as evidence. He found fingerprints in the discarded candle, and then matched them to fingerprints he stealthily took from the former boyfriend on a pretended chance encounter. (He gave the former boyfriend a picture to hold to help him identify, then dusted it for fingerprints.) Using fingerprints is quite unusual in detective fiction, in my experience. Indeed, Thorndyke make his first appearance in the novel The Red Thumb Mark, in which Thorndyke revealed his scientific wizardry in proving that the fingerprint in blood which was the chief evidence against Thorndyke’s client had been forged. The fingerprint is not very strong evidence, though, since it was taken from a candle in a common box, and the former boyfriend had been until very recently a lodger in the house. It wasn’t nothing, but it certainly wasn’t the main evidence used.
Incidentally, this reminds me of S.S. Van Dine’s rule of detective fiction number 20A: “[Do not use, because it has been over-used] determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.”
Murderers smoking exotic brands of cigarettes was common, for a while. Thorndyke, you must recall, solved the crime of the sea-sand twenty years before Van Dine wrote this list. That said, even Sherlock Holmes did not consider the butt-ends of cigarettes very often; he had trained himself in the much more difficult identification of cigar ash.
All in all, this case is entertaining, though only just. Back in 1908, when read in a magazine or newspaper, much in the same way we might watch an episode of a TV show, it would have been more entertaining. Thorndyke reminds me a bit, though, of the superhero Aquaman. Since his powers depended on water, the writers were forced to always work water into the scene of Aquaman’s fight with the bad guys. Thorndyke’s super-powers depend upon the microscopic traces of unusual conditions, so the writer must always work very unusual circumstances into his stories.
I’ve really come to appreciate Poirot’s line, in Murder on the Links, “Mon ami, a clue of two feet long is every bit as valuable as one measuring two millimetres!” He elaborates a bit later:
“One thing more, Poirot, what about the piece of lead piping?”
“You do not see? To disfigure the victim’s face so that it would be unrecognizable. It was that which first set me on the right track. And that imbecile of a Giraud, swarming all over it to look for match ends! Did I not tell you that a clue of two feet long was quite as good as a clue of two inches?”
Ultimately, I think that the clues that are two feet long have tended to win out over the clues that are two millimetres long. The clues which require a microscrope are now the domain of technicians who one hires at an hourly wage to examine crime scenes. We like to read about the people who analyze the clues, not the people who gather them up with specialized equipment.
At the end of the day, I am not surprised that I only discovered that Dr. Thorndyke ever existed from an off-hand line in a Lord Peter Wimsey story. It’s still interesting to see what’s been forgotten, though. And also interesting to see what readers will forgive when a genre is new.
An interesting plot element in a detective story is having multiple murderers. This can really complicate the life of the detective because each murderer may have a truly unbreakable alibi for the murder he didn’t commit. While the detective (and everyone else) labors under the assumption that one person committed both murders, the only viable suspects will probably have no motive.
As I think I’ve mentioned before, one of the really interesting ways of doing this is to have the two murderers murder each other, though one with some sort of time-delay mechanism such that he’s already dead by the time it goes off and kills the other fellow. (Poison is an excellent murder weapon for this case.)
Another scenario for multiple murderers occurred to me: a primary murderer and an after-the-fact accomplice who kills the original murderer to hide his after-the-fact involvement in the first murder. For convenience, let’s name our murderers: John and Steve.
John murders someone, let’s say his wife, Alice. John didn’t plan it out, though, and needs help disposing of the body and erasing the evidence, so he goes to his friend, Steve. Steve reluctantly helps John because he doesn’t want to turn him away, but on the other hand really wishes that John had left him out of it.
The detective begins to investigate and starts coming up with clues that point to John, but also to John having an accomplice, at least after the fact. This alarms Steve, who never wanted to be involved, who got nothing out of the murder, and who doesn’t want to see his life go up in smoke because of John’s bad decisions. Steve begins to think of how to get out of this, and the one solution he comes up with is murdering John. Only John knows it was Steve who helped him, and Steve does have an excellent alibi for when Alice was murdered. If Steve can make it look like John was killed by the same person who killed Alice, he’ll be home free.
This would make for a good mystery, I think, because the detective would first have to disentangle the two murders as not done by the same person, then figure out what happened in the first murder, and from there figure out who the second murderer was. It gives a nice progression of realizations and reveals without everything coming at once, which is the key to a really good mystery novel. (Short stories do better with a single denouement.)
There is a tension which authors face in writing their stories. On the one hand, they wish to make their stories original—why bother to write the story at all if someone else already wrote it just with different names? On the other hand, stories with familiar elements greatly help readers to understand the stories. This can be fairly extreme—when an individual work defines a new genre, quite a few elements of the original may be necessary in order to seem to the reader to be in that genre and they can feel lost, or worse, disinterested, if it strays to far from those elements. Something that may help authors to feel better about this is that derivative origins of a character can easily be lost over with the readers being accepting of this and possibly even forgetting that the beginnings of the characters were clichéd when the many other copies of the work disappear under the sands of time. This will get to an interesting question that I will save for the end. First, I want to give a few examples from my own genre, mystery.
Hercule Poirot had a remarkably derivative beginning as a detective but is now one of the most celebrated fictional detectives of all time and thought of only for his original qualities. For a more highbrow example, Lord Peter Wimsey is a fiercely beloved character so original and lifelike he feels real to a great many of his readers. And yet, to quote Ms. Sayers herself:
When in a light-hearted manner I set out, fifteen years ago, to write the first “Lord Peter” book, it was with the avowed intention of producing something “less like a conventional detective story and more like a novel.” Re-reading Whose body? at this distance of time I observe, with regret, that it is conventional to the last degree, and no more like a novel than I to Hercules.
Gaudy Night, Titles to Fame
In order to explain how they began so conventional and in Poirot’s case outright derivative, I need to go over a (very) brief history of the detective genre. This won’t take long as it only existed for about thirty years by the time these detectives came on the scene.
The origin of the modern murder mystery is Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. Published in 1841, it is told by an unnamed narrator who is a friend of C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin is a brilliant and logical thinker who solves the murders for which the story is named. Poe wrote two other “tales of ratiocination”, but neither is remembered in anything like the same way for various reasons that aren’t pertinent to the moment.
There are a few things published over the next forty six years that people occasionally try to argue are murder mysteries, but the next unambiguous murder mystery is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, which introduced to the world Sherlock Holmes. It was the Sherlock Holmes short stories, however, first published in 1891, that became wildly popular and created the mystery genre.
Even Holmes was not an altogether original conception, as we can see elements of Dupin. Holmes, like Dupin, is a brilliant and logical thinker who goes so much father than others because of his orderly thinking and his methods of the science of deduction. Watson, like Dupin’s unnamed narrator, learns of Sherlock’s brilliance and science of deduction and moreover the adventures that he narrates after becoming his roommate because neither has much money. There are differences of detail, to be sure, but there is an unmistakable inspiration. Heck, there is even a Holmes short story (The Resident Patient) of Holmes imitating a trick of Dupin’s of predicting what someone was thinking about based on what his last conversation was some minutes ago—and Holmes explicitly said that he did so in order to prove that Dupin might have done so as well.
Conan Doyle did not write Holmes for long, however. In 1893 he killed Holmes off. Feeling some financial pressure, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901 and its financial success prompted Conan Doyle to bring Holmes back, which he did in the short story The Adventure of the Empty House in 1903. He wrote twelve more stories through 1904, then nothing again until 1908.
This dearth of an extraordinarily popular character created a vacuum that pulled a great many people into the mystery genre. Most of these short stories are lost to the sands of time, or at least require more than a little digging to find them. It was not too long before these stories would start to broaden the genre out, but I suspect with new Holmes stories occasionally coming out until 1927, the pull of the Holmes premise was strong. Moreover, examples in the genre that I’ve researched from the early 1900s and 1910s have tended to stick close to the Homles-Dupin formula.
Certainly we can see it in Hercule Poirot. His story is narrated by Captain Arthur Hastings, who was invalided out of the army in The Great War and now lived on his pension. (You may recall that Doctor Watson was invalided out of the army after Afghanistan and lived on his pension.) Hastings had met Poirot in Belgium before Poirot was forced by the war to flee to England, but after being reunited by the events in the first Poirot story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the two became roommates and Hastings, like Watson, helped Poirot to solve crimes as a private consulting detective. Indeed, Poirot even told Hastings, as Holmes told Watson, that his instincts for deduction were almost perfectly wrong; the great detective found them invaluable for knowing where not to look.
The case of Hastings is curious, as Agatha Christie married him off and sent him to live in Argentina in her second Poirot novel but she then spent the next ten years frequently bringing him back for story after story, and he was in almost all of the short stories.
For all that he started out as an obvious Watson character, Hastings would bloom into his own man. More importantly, Poirot very quickly became his own detective. His talk of his little grey cells, his fastidious manner, his selectively broken English, his French immodesty, his self awareness, his Catholic faith, and his habit of gathering everyone together and telling the story first as it is known and then as it really happened created a genuinely interesting character. One reads Poirot for Poirot, not because one cannot get enough Sherlock Holmes, but because one wants Poirot.
Heck, even his name was not original in its day. According to Wikipedia, “Poirot’s name was derived from two other fictional detectives of the time: Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans’ Monsieur Poiret, a retired Belgian police officer living in London.” Yet as the best fleshed out character with the most interesting mysteries, Hercule Poirot is remembered and the others are not.
Lord Peter Wimsey was not quite so obviously a direct rip-off of Sherlock Holmes. His books were not narrated by his Watson, who was a police detective and who did not live with Wimsey. Wimsey, being rich, needed no roommates, and did his detecting for fun. Wimsey was himself invalided out of the Great War, by the way, while Charles Parker—his Watson, at first—was never, that we knew, in it. Wimsey had, however, his tricks of the trade just as Holmes did. He had a magnifying monocle that could be used much as Holmes’ famous magnifying glass. He picked the hairs out of a hat to identify just as Holmes concentrated on such trivia that turned out to be important. (In 1923, when Whose Body? was published, R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke was extremely popular and made even more out of even smaller clues, so this may as much be copying him as Holmes.) Even Wimsey’s comic manner feels like it almost certainly owes something to P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertram Wooster, as Lord Peter’s valet, Bunter, almost certainly owes something to Wooster’s valet, Jeeves. Jeeves & Wooster never investigated a crime, that I’ve heard of, so I suppose we can accuse Ms. Sayers of having stolen from two genres. Indeed, one might almost hear the Hollywood pitch meeting phrasing, “What if Bertie Wooster was actually brilliant and used being a fop as a cover to let him solve crimes?”
And yet Lord Peter becomes one of the most memorable characters of all of detective fiction, and consequently of all time. He continued, it must be admitted, a somewhat two dimensional character until Ms. Sayers got tired of him and tried to marry him off to an honorable retirement—she had learned from Sherlock Holmes’ ignominious climb up the Reichenbach Falls not to actually kill one’s detective off. The problem was that she made the girl he was to marry a real character, and she wouldn’t marry him in the sorry two-dimensional state that he was in. (This was in Strong Poison.) Sayers then decided that she had to make him a real character.
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. And all this would have to be squared somehow or other with such random attributes as I had bestowed upon him over a series of years in accordance with the requirements of various detective plots.
Gaudy Night, Titles To Fame
The result was magnificent, though. Lord Peter and Harriet Vane (the aforementioned girl who wouldn’t marry him) investigated a murder together in Have His Carcase, and it is one of the best murder mysteries ever written. Lord Peter becomes a really interesting character who is quite unique within detective fiction. He really comes into his own in Gaudy Night, widely considered Sayers’ best novel, becoming an extraordinarily rich character with a character arc that rings very true to human nature. Harriet also blossoms in Gaudy Night, and the whole thing is a truly excellent study of human nature. (The excerpts I quoted, by the way, are from her essay in the collection Titles To Fame.)
So, what is the author to make of all of this? Especially when faced with the question of how to get people to read a story when people really like what is familiar? If I had the answer I’d be a rich man, or at least a richer man than I am. I can say, though, that it certainly seems that it is not, in the end, who did it first that really matters. It’s who did it best. This is perhaps the true meaning of the saying, “mediocrity borrows, genius steals.” When the genius borrows, he makes the thing his own, and it is his version that is remembered, even if he was twenty years late to the party.
I’m working on another review of a Murder, She Wrote episode, and I wanted to pause to reflect on what it’s been like.
Each review that I write takes me on average about a week to write. I only review episodes that I’ve already seen (typically more than once) but I go through them again as I write in order to ensure that I’m not missing anything, as well as to provide screenshots that capture crucial detail to understanding the episode and the commentary I’m going to give on it. The first few didn’t take me so long, but as I settled into how I want to analyze the episodes, that’s what it ended up coming out to. It’s a lot of time, but I do enjoy the process of paying such close attention.
One thing that’s really jumped out at me as I’ve been re-watching Murder, She Wrote is the degree to which Jessica is not really a small-town retired school teacher. She is, to the last degree, a big-city celebrity who has a private home somewhere that the people don’t really bother her. About the only exception to this is her distaste for people selling recreational drugs, which I would expect a big-city celebrity to be more cool about. Other than that, all of her morays are ones that make sense in a big city—not asking about people’s background or character, not being bothered by things like adultery, fornication, divorce, theft, trespassing, or really anything that doesn’t affect her personally. Most of what she is indignant about is the implication that Cabot Cove lacks anything you can find in a big city. That’s precisely the sort of thing that someone from a big city who is hiding out in a small town would be indignant about. People who are actually from small towns are quite candid that they’re different from big cities—for worse and very much for better. Especially back in the 1980s, people from small towns were proud of the fact that they don’t have to lock their doors at night. Jessica never is.
Another thing that’s really stood out to me is the degree to which the plotting of the episodes was often sloppy. It’s not that, when I watched them as a kid, I thought that every episode was a masterpiece. Further, I understood then and understand now that with over two hundred episodes, they can’t all be winners. As the saying goes, fifty percent have to be in the bottom fifty percent. Still, they’re often unnecessarily sloppy. A flashback will include things that Jessica couldn’t possibly have seen. People will behave in odd ways that could be explained but no explanation is given. Murderers will reveal secrets they shouldn’t have known for no reason, saying things that no one would ever say as if it was normal, like explaining why the person they framed won’t like jail. Jessica will lure the murderer back to the crime scene at night by pretending that an earring is there, when the murderer could first check her jewelry box to see if she’s actually missing an earring.
Having realized this, my examinations of the episodes of Murder, She Wrote have ended up being a little different than the original intention. At first I wanted to look how they were constructed to learn from them. I should say that this is still possible in some cases. If the Frame Fits comes to mind as one of the very well constructed episodes. One White Rose for Death is another. Most of the time, though, the analysis is more about why the episode is interesting despite its plot holes and flaws. In some ways this may be more instructive yet.
When a plot is really excellent, it can be easy to miss all of the other things that go into making the episode good, such as characters, setting, dialog, etc. When the plot is not the strong part but the episode is enjoyable anyway, it forces one to notice the other parts more. The best stories will be well done in every aspect of the story, not merely the plot, so it is well to notice these other things, too.
Over at her blog, Mary wrote an interesting post (which I’m quoting with permission):
Typing innocently along and abruptly realizing: there will be math.
Given that our heroine is a member of a class of five students — admittedly, the girls’ class, and a specialized course of study, and I can make make it a small one, but not astoundingly so — how large is the town they are in?
If this much of the population does the work that this course trains them for, and they are half of one year, the percentage should be feasible to work out. Though I might consider having more than one school in the town. And I still have to work out how many do it. (Not enough to make it easy!)
And then I have to break it down because the town also is divided in several populations, which I have already shown as rather large. Or perhaps they were supplemented by visitors? Still, a non-trivial number must live in the town. . . .
I’ve run into similar things, especially in writing mysteries. What may seem like a simple choice has all sorts of implications to it which you need to think out in order to avoid plot holes. I also hit this sort of thing all the time when I was designing the space ship for A Stitch in Space.
Part of what caught my eye about Mary’s post is that typically when people say “there will not be math” they mean “this won’t be hard” which is partly about math being exacting and partly about math generally being taught badly. I have a background in Math—I got a master’s degree in mathematics for fun—so I tend to think of “there will be math” differently than most do, but in this case I think that the symbolism is actually quite helpful.
The case that Mary is considering involves math because the relationships involved are well defined. A child has two parents. That simple fact imposes a great many restrictions on a storyteller. The moment you have a character you have two parents and (unless they’re very inbred) four grandparents and eight great-grandparents. The novel writer can kill or otherwise get rid of as many of these off as he pleases, of course, but on some level the mere presence of a single character obliges him to do something with this much larger cast. Even in Young Adult fiction where the parents are nowhere to be seen, achieving that limits the possible settings. You can’t set a ten year old and an eleven year old as neighbors in London each owning his own house. You can’t have two eight-year-olds with adjoining estates in the country. You can do either, of course, if you permit the parents to be present, even if you get them out of the way by being very busy. Within society, somebody must be in loco parentis. (You can, of course, come up with nearly anything you want if the children are the last survivors of a doomed ship on a desert island. But then, you are stuck with the ship and the island.)
Mary’s example shows these restrictions on the author even further. If there are parents and this isn’t Little House on the Prairie, there will probably be a butcher and a baker and possibly even a candlestick maker. Somebody will do the carpentry and somebody will have to sell the carpenter the lumber to do it with. People will have to have some way to earn money in order to pay for whatever they can’t pick up locally, too.
Of course, to do this properly one would have to be God. The best a human author can do is some believable approximations. That said, I find it very helpful to figure this stuff out ahead of time. Having thought it through, at least once, tends to make one’s later decisions much easier to reconcile with one’s earlier decisions, which cuts down quite considerably on plot holes.
The other thing—which I’ve learned the hard way—is that after you do this sort of planning, write it down. I can say from experience it’s really annoying to have to reread your earlier books to find out how tall a character is, or in what year he joined your order of consulting detectives, or such-like. Because Mary is quite right. If you’re not writing stand-alone short stories, there will be math ahead. The only open question is whether you’re going to take the trouble to do the math (as Mary is), or whether you’re going to get it wrong by making up the answers as you go.
A lot of people go the make-it-up-as-you-go route, but this isn’t being fair to your readers, since it amounts to asking them to forget what you wrote in previous books. Forgetting a book is the opposite of deriving benefit from it. If you’re going to do that, why ask them to read it in the first place?
We’ll all make mistakes, of course. One of the unfortunate things about being a fallen creature is that we will all hurt those we love—I assume all writers love their readers, otherwise, why write at all?—and must act anyway because curling up into a ball and softly weeping for four score and ten years won’t do anyone any good at all. My point in all this is merely that it’s good to be aware of the crosses that you’re going to have to take up before you get to them. When they’re not a surprise, you can settle them on your shoulder better to distribute the weight. They’re still crosses, of course, but this way you have a better chance of carrying them the distance.
Our hero is returning in triumph from his quest and going from success to success —
He’s going success to nerve-wracking attempt to success.
This is fundamentally correct, of course—it’s not very interesting to read about someone who is merely doing chores. When sweeping the floor (in the ordinary course of things) every stroke is an unchallenged triumph of debris-moving. Even someone who could not sweep, such as a man with no arms, would probably not find the blow-by-blow of someone sweeping spilled cheerios off of the floor attention-grabbing.
The one major exception to this, which G.K. Chesterton has noted, are very young children.
…a child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.
(Orthodoxy, Chapter 4: The Ethics of Efland)
The one thing I take issue with in Mary’s formulation is the “nerve-wracking” part. This is a common feature of entertainment, but it is not a necessary feature of entertainment. I know this from experience. Since having young children, I don’t like nerve-wracking challenges anymore. I want calm challenges. My children wrack my nerves from when they wake up until they are asleep. My nerves can’t really take more wracking. (I do suspect that this will change when my youngest child is old enough.)
To some degree this is a matter of sensitivity, just as one must shout in the ear of a person who is hard of hearing and speak very softly to someone who is hung over. To some degree, though, I think that the amount of entertainment which can be gotten out of low-stakes challenges calmly dealt with is underrated.
Or perhaps, now that I say that, it’s not. My favorite genre, mystery, frequently is a calm investigation without huge stakes on the line. It is full of challenges, of course; they just tickle the brain without torturing the nerves.
It’s not a big point, of course. I just want to highlight, perhaps from self-interest, that the size of the challenge is not at all the same thing as how dire the consequences of failure are, nor how close to those consequences one comes prior to solving the problems.
Working on my third Brother Thomas mystery, I learned how to use the vector graphics program inkscape and have made a map of the resort camp where the novel takes place! I’m not sure it’s finished, but it’s close:
I think I’m going to add a legend to it. Some of the detail work is hard to see, so I might have to include a zoomed in section to spare people having to use a magnifying glass. Still, I think it’s come out pretty well.
(I might also add some trees to indicate where there is forest, but that’s most places, so it might make it too crowded.)
So, I’ve finally begun work on the text of the third chronicle of Brother Thomas. Up til now, I’ve been working on what really happened, developing characters, working out plot elements, etc. Now, I’ve finally begun work on the part that people will actually read (God willing). My working title for it had been He Didn’t Drown in the Lake, but I’m now leaning more towards The Corpse in Crystal Lake. Both are tentative titles, so we’ll see what I decide on when I’m done with the novel. Here’s the first paragraph:
It began, as so many things do for small businesses, with a referral, made on the morning of the thirtieth day of June, in the year of our Lord 2015. Properly speaking, the Franciscan Brothers of Investigation did not a run a business, for they did not charge their clients, but then it was no ordinary referral, either. It would be some time before Brother Thomas would learn of the referral, but the effects of it he learned within the hour.
This is, of course, a first draft, and everything is subject to change.
By the way, if anyone is interested in being a test reader for me and reading chapters as I finish the first draft of them, let me know. (Having read my previous Brother Thomas novels is not a requirement for this.)
It’s been a difficult year for getting writing work done. Overall I’ve been doing extremely well, considering. My family is in good health and my job hasn’t been affected by COVID. The big problem is really that my children haven’t been able to go anywhere, so they’ve needed me quite a lot. Perhaps it’s ironic, but I’m an introvert who has had almost no time alone since COVID-19 hit. Things could be wildly worse, but it’s been very hard to muster up creative energy, or perhaps it’s creative focus I’ve found difficult. Anyway, between things stabilizing out a bit and I’ve been figuring out how to get my ideas in order on shorter notice and with less contiguous writing time available. This has the potential to mean that more editing time will be needed, but I’m trying to help that with more careful planning before I start. Now I’ve got so many files with notes in them that flipping between them is starting to take time!
I’ve recently been reading the Poirot short stories and one of the things which has struck me about the early Poirot short stories is how Captain Hastings figures into them. He is far more of a Watson character than I had expected.
Agatha Christie would publish Poirot short stories of Poirot throughout her career, but of particular interest to me are the first ones, a series of twenty five that were published in the weekly magazine The Sketch in the year 1923, starting on the seventh of March. This places them, in terms of publication, right after the first two Poirot novels, The Mysterious Affair at Styles published in October of 1920 and The Murder on the Links published in March of 1923. Both of those would involve Captain Hastings, though not many of the subsequent novels would. (He is given a wife at the end of The Murder on the Links and packed off to Argentina.) Christie’s eagerness to get rid of Captain Hastings is interesting, but I will return to that later. What I really find interesting is how Hastings was portrayed in those 1923 stories.
To begin with, the Poirot short stories are reminiscences written by Captain Hastings of his friend Poirot. They read, in this way, much like the stories of Doctor Watson of his friend Holmes. Captain Hastings is, like Dr. Watson, an army man who was invalided out of the service. Further, he was, in these short stories, a roommate of Poirot. Like Watson in the later stories, he routinely accompanied Poirot on his investigations. There is even in the stories a housekeeper who lets clients in, though she is not named. Within the stories Hastings frequently makes guesses—not infrequently invited by the detective—which Poirot frequently insults for their lack of imagination and deplorable lack of method.
In short, at first Captain Hastings lacks only Watson’s medical degree and name. He is, in all other respects, basically Dr. Watson. Of course, I knew that he was “a Watson”, in the sense of Fr. Ronald Knox’s ninth commandment in his decalogue. (“The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.”) How extremely like Watson he was in detail, though, I hadn’t realized.
I gained my first familiarity with Poirot from the excellent television adaptations of the Poirot stories starring David Suchet. In those, the character of Captain Hastings is softened a bit, and Hugh Frasier’s excellent portrayal of him is so different from the typical portrayal of Watson that I did not originally catch the similarities. (The adaptations also introduce Miss Lemon from the beginning and do not feature Hastings and Poirot as roommates.)
I find this start so interesting because Agatha Christie is known for the brilliant originality of her plots. She is justifiably known for them. And yet, here we are with Captain Hastings being unmistakably Dr. Watson with the minor change that doesn’t give anyone brandy as medicine.
I’ve previously written about the Holmes/Watson similarities one can see in Dr. Thorndyke and his chronicler, Dr. Christopher Jervis. Seeing the same thing in Poirot and Hastings makes me wonder if, through the early 1920s, this setup was simply considered to be part of the genre. (For more on this distinction, see my post Predictability vs. Recognizability.) From the perspective of a century later, with a wide variety in detectives, it does not feel to us like a Watson character is necessary even in the Knox Decalogue sense. We do not need a stupid character to constantly demand explanations and still less do we need a chronicler whose thoughts we are told. We don’t even need someone to constantly admire the detective. In the early 1920s, though, They did not have such a wide variety of detectives.
Some prior art such as Poe’s Murders of the Rue Morgue notwithstanding, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle basically invented the genre of the detective story in 1891 (in the Holmes short stories). The Poirot short stories come a scant thirty two years later. Conan Doyle was not even done with writing Holmes stories at this point (the last Holmes Story Conan Doyle would write was The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, published in March of 1927). To be fair, though, the first Lord Peter Wimsey story, Whose Body?, was also published in 1923, and did not involve a Watson character, unless you want to class Charles Parker as one, but he was neither the chronicler nor a stupid friend. There was also G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, of course, which only occasionally had Flambeau as a companion, but he was very clearly no Watson. And as Dorothy L. Sayers said in a slightly different context, G.K. Chesterton was an acknowledged genius, renowned for fantastical paradox. Writing a detective story with no Watson in it, in 1910, might simply have been, to use Ms. Sayers words, “just one paradox more to his credit.”
Another possibility is that Agatha Christie originally included Captain Hastings as merely a feature of the genre, but then decided that he was not really a necessary part of it. It might be for this reason she wanted to marry him off of her hands and pension him off to a happy married life in the safe removes of Argentina. If so, though, it’s curious that she kept him around for twenty five short stories after giving him the wife. It was actually more than that; in 1924 she published half has many short stories in The Sketch which would, in 1927, become the novel The Big Four. These were set eighteen months after The Murder on the Links and featured Captain Hastings returning from Argentina to visit his old friend. Her first story without Captain Hastings was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, published in 1926. Her next novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train, published in 1928, did not feature Captain Hastings, and even more curiously it was adapted from a previous short story (The Plymouth Express) which did feature him. This run did not last long, however. Her next novel, Peril at End House (1932), featured the good Captain. He also features in Christie’s next novel, Lord Edgeware Dies (1933). The next three novels did not have him, and he would return in The A.B.C. Murders in 1936. This is a sufficient recounting of the history, I think; Captain Hasting was still appearing thirteen years after Christie had given him a wife and sent him to Argentina.
What are we to make of this? Frankly, I don’t really know. Hastings would not show up much more in the Poirot stories, but a run of at least thirteen years after he was done away with is pretty good. After The Murder on the Links, until 1936, there were five stories with Captain Hastings and five without him. She clearly didn’t need him, but also seemed to want him. Perhaps most curious in this is that the final Poirot story, Curtain, features Captain Hastings very prominently. Written in the early 1940s and put in a vault until its publication in 1975, it was the first time that Hastings appeared in a Poirot novel in more than thirty years. Evidently she considered him important, in some way. Perhaps with Curtain it was just that the man who was there at the beginning of Poirot’s career should also be there at the end of it. Whatever it was, Hastings did come to have significance past being a mere literary requirement.
Ultimately, I don’t know what to make of Captain Hastings. He was certainly a good character, though perhaps not one of the great characters in literature. I suppose at least he does go to show that it is not a character’s beginning that defines him but his ending.
Unusual poisons are not that popular as a means of murder in mystery stories these days, but all the same, I just got an idea for an interesting one: injected snake venom with the same symptoms as a poison.
One of the difficulties with poisons is that it’s really hard to have an alibi with one. The benefit to a snake venom is that if people don’t look for injections, they won’t be able to find out how the poison was administered, because it wasn’t. A person who thus had no access to the food of the victim could probably put themselves out of suspicion this way.
As an additional benefit, if the police do not specifically suspect snake venom, it is exceedingly unlikely that the lab will run any assays for snake venom. Even if they did, they would tend to look for the venom of native species rather than rare imports.
This is only a half formed idea so far, but it has some interesting possibilities.
On my recent post The Butler Did It: Poirot Style, I got an interesting comment from Paul. It brings up some points which I would like to discuss at greater length.
Somewhere I heard the phrase “nobody’s a hero to his valet” which could apply to his butler.
So I disagree that a murder by the butler is out of bounds because the butler is an employee “thus” not personally connected to the victim.
An employer could very well give an employee Very Good Reasons for the employee to want his boss dead.
And yes, a valet or a butler could quit (although getting a good reference might be a problem), but have other reasons to not quit.
One thought on the butler, as I understand the job, the butler manages the household staff so might likely know “when the best time/place to kill somebody without witnesses”. 👿
On the subject of no one being a hero to his valet, I believe that this is because the man is an object of professional aid to the valet; he is passive while the valet helps him to dress. The valet, though a servant, is an intrinsically superior position during the performance of his duties. This is not precisely the same for a butler, who would not, in the ordinary course of things, lay his hands upon his master. Which brings us to the last point, about the butler managing the household staff. This will depend to some degree on the particular household, as the jobs of servants were somewhat elastic with the actual number of servants present.
In Victorian times and through (about) World War II, butlers did tend to be in charge of the servants in midsize to large households. They did not tend to be present in smaller houses, and in the very great houses there might be a steward who was in charge of the domestic staff with the butler taking on his more historical role of being in charge of the wines, or somewhat more expansively, of the food and drink. (The term “butler” comes from words in older languages meaning, basically, bottler, i.e. one in charge of the bottles.) Murder mysteries don’t tend to be set in the mansions of kings or similar, though, so I think it would be reasonable to presume butlers will be in charge of the household staff and thus in a good position to arrange a time that is especially convenient for murdering someone. But this, in fact, raises something of a problem in choosing the butler as the murderer—it makes it too easy for the murderer.
I know that most most of the rules of detective stories focus on not making it too easy for the detective, but it is actually the case that if one makes it too easy for the murderer, it spoils the fun. Murder mysteries are meant to be a human drama, and in a human drama the reader sympathizes with both sides of the puzzle. We want the detective to win, but at the same time we do also need to be able to see ourselves in the role of the murderer, if for no other reason than we have to think like him in order to try to catch him before the detective does. A murderer who merely has special powers (such as being able to arrange everyone to avoid witnesses) is too unlike us. And then there’s the even more basic problem that the puzzle has to be difficult to solve or there’s no fun in solving it. That’s why the dumb police detective always arrests some poor servant, since the servants have obvious opportunity. Abusing a position of trust is too easy.
All that said, I think that Paul is right that the butler could make a reasonable choice for the murderer within the bounds of the murder having to be personal. Off the top of my head, he could know that the victim was carrying on some evil that he thought needed to be stopped. The employer taking advantage of serving women would work for this. The butler could know that his employer committed some heinous crime and got away with it (but without sufficient legal proof to ensure a conviction). The butler could do it for the sake of a child that the victim was mistreating, or even just to bring the inheritance to the adult child from whom help was being cruelly withheld in getting started in the world. The butler could even secretly desire to have an affair with his master’s wife and hope that by killing his master he will have cleared his chance to take his master’s place.
I think that if one wanted to take this approach, it would be important to make sure that the butler is noticed as a character. He would need to be active during the investigation. Doing things outside of his duties, and speaking not only when spoken to. If he remained entirely passive and looking like the normal servant, who is there in the typical mystery only to furnish some alibis and clues, the typical reader would, I think, feel he had been treated unfairly. Yes, the reader is hoping that the writer will try hard to trick him, but at the same time the trickery has to be of a certain sort. A double-bluff, such as having somebody else frame the murderer for the crime, is a great sort of trick. Bluffing that someone is out of bounds when they’re not isn’t the right sort of trick. In real life someone might creep over to his neighbor’s house during a dinner party to murder him, hoping to throw suspicion on the guests. In a murder mystery, if someone dies during a dinner party in an mansion and it isn’t one of the guests, but it is revealed in the last page that the detective found the neighbor’s footprints, the writer has played foul. Granted, I’ve emphasized it by having the writer play double-foul by not revealing the clue which incriminated the neighbor, but even if there were some tracks leading to the neighbor’s house, if they were not cunningly planted by a dinner guest in order to make the absurd suggestion that it was the neighbor, the reader would still justifiably feel aggrieved. It’s not on any of the lists, but we do need some reason to doubt that the murderer committed the crime. Having an obvious criminal and not going with it because the detective is too clever for his own good is the stuff of parodies. (Quite literally. If you want to read such a parody, The Viaduct Murder is an excellent example of exactly this.)
I think that a decent example of what I mean about how to do this well can be found in the Poirot story which my previous blog post was about: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman. In it the butler is quite prominent. We get all sorts of information from him which he volunteers beyond the scope of the ordinary butler. He stayed to overhear a conversation with his master; a thing which no ordinary butler would have done. He is an obvious suspect, but manufactured for us a still more obvious suspect. Moreover, there is evidence in the beginning to make us suspicious of the butler’s story, such as the last course not having been eaten by anyone, and the telephone having been on the receiver, requiring the dying man to have replaced the receiver as he gasped out his last breath. These incongruities make us notice the butler early on, such that his being the culprit is a shock we were prepared for. Moreover, he did not merely hide in his job. He took an active role in the misdirection after the crime. He was caught, not by process of elimination, or by fingerprint identification as being a notorious criminal, but by having made mistakes which Poirot noticed and caught him by. This, I think, is the sort of template to follow if one wants to write a mystery in which the butler did it.
Yesterday, I asked the question, Are Plot Holes Like the Dark Side? This brought in some interesting comments on the idea of intentionally including plot holes. As my friend Alexander Helene said, “I never thought plot holes were deliberately used for the sake of ease. I always figured they were unintentional.”
I want to clarify that I don’t think that anybody says to himself, “Man, these plot holes I’m including will make audiences think I’m a genius! Muahahahaha!” Intentional plot holes look different.
The most common kind of intentional plot hole is the mysterious event which the author intends to figure out later. “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if the space wizard was off on a far away planet with a cryptic map leading to him? [I’ll figure out why on earth he left his friends to the mercies of the Sith but left a very hard-to-find map behind later. I’m sure there’s some good reason which could explain it. I need to get on with the story now.]”
This sort of thing is much worse, of course, in TV shows, where the authors have already published the really cool stuff by the time they come to trying to figure out how to explain it. Perhaps the best example of this is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Best of Both Worlds Part I. It is the final episode of season 3. It ends with Picard having been assimilated by the Borg and the Enterprise about to fire a super-mega-ultra blast from its main deflector dish which is powerful enough to destroy the Borg cube and which they haven’t seen before so they have not yet adapted to it. So what do the writers do when they come back at the beginning of Season 4 and need some way of getting out of this mess?
They decide that since Picard knew about it and was assimilated, the Borg could just pre-adapt to it, so the mega-ultra-hyper weapon of doom… does nothing and they move on as if nothing happened. This is what an intentional plot hole looks like when you can’t avoid dealing with it. The episode goes on to have to deal with the insuperable problem of the Borg as created in part 1 by the absurd idea that the hive mind can be given a “sleep” command, which it obeys because the way hive minds work is accepting commands as if they’re a computer from a single drone. It was stupid, but the entire episode had to be stupid, because the lack of planning had foreclosed all non-stupid possibilities.
It’s not that the writers of The Best of Both Worlds set out to foreclose every non-stupid possibility for how the episode would end. They just kept upping the stakes and raising the tension and introducing cool stuff without any thought as to how it would work with what they needed to do later on in the episode. This is the normal pattern for intentional plot holes. The writers don’t think of them as plot holes, they just make them plot holes by refusing to think about them. It is, however, the same thing which makes these cool ideas that makes them plot holes.
There is an analogy to sin, here. Sin is hamartia, missing the mark. It is aiming at something but not hitting it. In particular, the person, when sinning, desires some good he mistakenly thinks that he will achieve by sinning. What he gets is, instead, and evil. Sinners are always surprised by this evil because it was not their intention. They are not innocent of it, though, because they could have foreseen the evil that they have wrought, but refused to look, honestly, at what they were actually doing.
In like manner, the author putting plot holes into his writing to make it more interesting does not intend for them to be plot holes, as such. He merely aims for the interest that they lend to the story and does not think about them as actual parts of the plot that are supposed to cohere with the rest. He focuses on the details and ignores the big picture. This intentional ignorance is why he doesn’t realize that the plot holes he is introducing are plot holes, much like the man who cheats on his wife with another man’s wife does not intend to adulterate both marriages. He only aims for the pleasure of intimacy. Both go in roughly the same way, too—it was great until everything fell apart.
(Because this is the internet, I should probably explicitly state that I do not think that writing a story with plot holes has the same degree of evil as adulterating two marriages, though the way that society is going at present perhaps some day soon this disclaimer will be taken to mean that I do not have the audacity to say that adulterating marriages is more than a matter of taste, whereas plot holes are objectively evil, if only a very minor evil. However one wishes to take that, the two are similar in kind, not in degree.)
In Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Luke famously asks Master Yoda if the dark side of the force is more powerful than the light side of the force. Yoda’s answer is no, it’s not more powerful. It’s only faster. That is, one gains power more quickly on the dark side, but there isn’t more power to be gained. And, of course, that faster power comes at a price.
I’ve been wondering if there isn’t something analogous in writing, where plot holes make interesting stories easier to write.
In one sense this is obviously true. Shoddy workmanship is easier than good workmanship. On the other hand, Rian Johnson supposedly worked for weeks on the opening word crawl for Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi, and the first two sentences contradicted each other. Shoddy workmanship requires less effort, but apparently it is not always the result of less effort. In any event, this isn’t what I’m wondering about.
There are two ways in which something being easier is interesting. The first is that easier things, if one keeps the results the same, require less effort and are thus more comfortable. It’s in this sense that doing a bad job is easier than doing a good job. The other way in which something being easier is interesting is if it allows one to produce better results. A lever is a good example of this: a lever allows a man who is pushing his hardest to push more weight. Or to give another example, a wheel allows a man who is pulling as hard as he can to pull far more weight. This is what I’m wondering about.
Do plot holes allow a writer of a given skill level to write a more interesting story than his skill level would normally allow?
Obviously, I mean before one gets to the end and finds out that the implicit promises of an explanation will not be fulfilled.
What makes a story interesting are questions which are raised and which the story (implicitly) promises will be answered at the end. One of the most intriguing questions which can be raised is an apparent contradiction which admits of some deeper explanation which shows that the appearance is deceiving and the contradiction is not really a contradiction. In Silver Blaze, Holmes draws the inspector’s attention to the curious incident of the dog in the night. But the dog did nothing in the night, which is, itself, the curious incident. How can this be? There seems to be a contradiction here.
The solution of this apparent contradiction is that the dog would have barked had a stranger been about, so his doing nothing was positive evidence that no stranger had come by. The apparent contradiction of an interesting-nothing was paid off, and paid off well. So well, it was imitated so often as to make its way onto a list in 1920 of tricks that should be dropped for being too well-used (Silver Blaze was first published in 1892).
Plot holes are contradictions in a story. As such, they have the appearance of being a contradiction. Until the story is over, however, the reader cannot know that there will be no explanation of them. They thus make the story more interesting, as the reader keeps trying to guess what the solution will be. This can go badly for the author, but it need not. It will only go badly if the reader remembers the plot hole when the story is over.
There are two main ways of making the reader forget that there was a plot hole in a story:
Distract the reader
Give a bad explanation
In the first case, if there are enough twists and turns and the characters no longer are concerned with the events in which the plot hole occurred, the reader may simply forget the plot hole entirely. This will work better with readers who have bad memories, but they certainly can be found. (It probably works better in movies and television.)
In the second case, if the author only gives part of the bad explanation and has the characters are seen to accept it, many readers won’t pause to think through the rest of the explanation and how it doesn’t work. The more quick-witted readers, as well as the more dogged readers, will, of course, but there are plenty of readers with little patience and not much more wit.
If the author is able to disguise his plot holes in this manner, he will have gotten the advantage of his book being more interesting while the reader was reading it. The use of this technique—possibly without the author even realizing what he is doing it—might well enable him to write books which, to an inattentive reader, seem far more interesting than they really are. In this way, plot holes may be like the dark side of the force. It’s not that they let one write better stories—clearly they don’t do that—but they may make it much faster in the learning of the craft of writing to write stories which capture readers’ interest.
And this may be why we see stories with plot holes so often.
As I mentioned in Fun Settings for a Murder Mystery, murder at a dinner party held in a mansion is one of the most iconic golden-age settings for a murder mystery. It’s so iconic that the (sort of) murder mystery board game Clue (or Cluedo, if you’re British) has exactly this setting. It was necessary, but fitting, that the movie Clue had it as well. Parodies must be instantly recognizable.
There may not be a more recognizable setting for a murder mystery. And yet, I can’t actually think of them being done very often in golden age mysteries.
I cannot think of any Sherlock Holmes stories like this, though a few came close. Of all of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, only Clouds of Witness comes close, though that was a rented hunting lodge, not a mansion, and there was no dinner party and the murder happened in the middle of the night. I’m sure that there was at least one Poirot with this. A quick search turns up Murder in Three Acts, which has more than one poisoning at a dinner party. As I’ve mentioned, Murder on The Orient Express is similar in structure to a dinner party at a mansion, though it is, of course, a train and not a mansion. I can think of a Miles Bredon case, The Body in the Silo, which is a fairly classic example of it. I can’t think of any Father Brown stories with this setting. I’ve only read two Dr. Thorndyke stories, so I can’t speak with any authority on them. I find the dinner party plot unlikely in a Dr. Thorndyke story unlikely, though, and a quick search doesn’t turn anything up.
To be fair, I suspect that murder at a dinner party is likely to have been the plot of plays more often than of novels. They’re a fun and interesting setting for a novel, but they have a much greater benefit to a play: they put everyone into very few settings that don’t need to be changed out. As I discussed in Were Plays the TV of Previous Centuries? most of these were lost.
So, why is this setting, despite being so richly suggestive and iconic, so (relatively) uncommon in novels?
I think that the answer is that it’s hard to pull off. Especially if the murderer does not use poison, getting time alone with the victim in order to do away with him is not easy in the context of a dinner party, with cigars, billiards, tea, etc. following. The timing is tight, and that is not easy to manage with many people going about the activities of a party, even a low-key party. This is not merely a problem for the writer; it is also a problem for the murderer. There must be some reason, then, why the murderer would wait for such a difficult time to commit his murder, and moreover one that undeniably puts him, if not at the scene of the crime, at the most a room or two over from it.
Novels, being so much longer than either short stories or plays, give the reader time to think about the story. They spend time with all of the characters in a way that they don’t in a play or short story (or movie, though those are less common). The audience to a play will forgive a playwright for taking liberties with a story that are necessary to fit the story onto a stage. The reader of a novel is not nearly so forgiving because the writer of a novel does not need to take liberties to fit a story into a book.
I think that the rock upon which this setting falters, in novels, is plausibility from the murderer’s perspective. At a dinner party in a mansion is an absolutely terrible place to murder someone. All of the things which make it interesting also make it a bad plan. This can be made to work by springing the need for the murder upon the murderer—a sudden realization that he has mere minutes to silence the victim before he is ruined, for example. This is a workable condition, but a limiting one.
Another possible way of working around it is for the murderer to have as part of his plan the framing of someone. He might be killing two birds with one stone, as it were—killing the one and getting the other out of the way through a conviction for murder. That said, this was a better plot back in the golden age of mysteries, in England, where execution was common and swift. In the modern US, where execution is rare and often takes decades, the amount accomplished by framing someone for murder is less. Not nothing, though. It could effectively get a love-rival out of the way, or open up a coveted job.
In summation, I think that this is an under-used setting, which can be made greater use of, and should.
In the first Sherlock Holmes story, he identifies the brand of cigar which a murderer smoked by its ash. As he explained to Dr. Watson:
I have made a special study of cigar ashes—in fact, I have written a monograph upon the subject. I flatter myself that I can distinguish at a glance the ash of any known brand, either of cigar or of tobacco. It is just in such details that the skilled detective differs from the Gregson and Lestrade type.
I wonder if anyone ever read this monograph.
I should, perhaps, explain my curiosity, as well as my meaning. This scene reminds me of a list of 20 rules for detective fiction which S.S. Van Dine wrote in 1920. The twentieth rule included a list of then-overused plot elements:
20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective-story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. A. Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. B. The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. C. Forged finger-prints. D. The dummy-figure alibi. E. The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. F. The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. G. The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. H. The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. I. The word-association test for guilt. J. The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.
As you can see, identifying the culprit by the brand of cigarette he smokes was hackneyed by 1920. Granted, that’s 33 years after the publication of A Study in Scarlet. Moreover, a thing being hackneyed implies that it was commonly used. And, of course, identifying the brand of a cigarette by its end is not the same thing as identifying a cigar by its ash.
Still, when I think over the golden age detectives with which I’m familiar (that, admittedly, mostly come after 1920), identifying people by their unusual preference in tobacco was quite uncommon. Indeed, the only instance I can recall where tobacco brand comes up as a means of identification at all was a red herring in the Miles Bredon story The Three Taps by Fr. Ronald Knox (published in 1927). I can’t remember it at all in Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, or Father Brown. I’ve only read two Dr. Thorndyke stories, but neither of them ever features identification via tobacco products. My memory may simply be failing me, but I’m not sure that cigar ash was ever used for identification again even by Mr. Sherlock Holmes. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he identified Watson by a cigarette end, not by ash.
Overall, the use of identification by tobacco products (or a favorite candy wrapper, etc) occupies a very curious place in detective fiction. We can probably lump these in with other identifying things, such as monogrammed handkerchiefs, cigarette cases, fingerprints, the victim having written the murderer’s name in his own blood, etc. What these things all have in common is that they are simple evidence. If they mean what they seem to mean, no cleverness is required in order to catch the murderer. That is, no cleverness is required on the part of the reader.
At least in the very early 1900s, some cleverness on the part of the detective was required to take finger marks. Occasionally even modern shows will have a police detective using some clever means to take fingerprints off of an unusual surface in a low-tech setting. All of that may be interesting, but it is not very satisfactory for the reader. It is the fictitious equivalent of watching a reality TV show about someone doing his job with cameras following along. There’s nothing mysterious about finding out that, after some tricky work, the fingerprints of Mr. John Smithington were found on the knife plunged into the back of his creditor, Mr. Dalrymple Worthorford, so the police went and arrested him and he confessed. It might possibly be interesting that if one mixes equal parts vanilla icecream, superglue, and hand sanitizer one can cause fingerprints on cork-bark handles to fluoresce under infrared light (I made all that up), but if all that happens is the detective asks his assistant for these items, he gets them, then shines the light and takes a picture of the fingerprints, we might as well have been watching a science show for children.
The problem, then, is that for our mystery story to be a mystery story, the simple clues must be, in some measure, misleading. They tend to be misleading in only two ways, however. Either they mean that the murderer is trying to frame someone, or else they mean that the person they identify was at the scene of the crime (probably) before or (possibly) after it occurred. These are great features of a mystery story, but they are only sometimes used, and of all of the ways to use them, cigar ash is probably the weakest form of evidence to achieve the desired end. (Cigarette ends are not that much stronger, unless one is going to drag in modern forensic teams and do DNA analysis, but that is largely to drain the fun out of the story.)
All of which adds up to why I wonder whether anyone ever read Mr. Holmes’ monograph on cigar ash. There have been many detectives since Holmes with approximately his brilliance and attention to detail. I don’t know whether any of their authors have ever given them cigar ash to identify, though.
There are many types of clues in a detective story which can be left at the scene of the crime. They are often looked at from the perspective of the detective, or really of the reader, since he is on the detective’s side. I think it might be profitable to look at them from another perspective: from that of the murderer.
We can first divide clues found at the scene of the crime by whether they help the murderer or help to catch him. After that, we can divide them based upon whether they were intentional, unavoidable, or accidental.
There are not many sorts of clues which help a murderer. Aside from clues which lead to disprovable theories, by which plot a murderer can be found innocent at trial and thus protect himself by the legal prohibition on double jeopardy, all clues which help the murderer must lead the detective to suspect someone else. We can divide these up by whether they mislead to another person, or only to a trait which the murder doesn’t have.
A clue which misleads to a specific person can be desirable or undesirable from the murderer’s perspective. Sometimes a murderer hates the person toward whom the clue leads; other times the murderer may accidentally framed his fiancé. There is wide latitude here—any place on this spectrum is workable. Clues which accidentally frame the murderer’s fiancé will probably need to be accidental clues, such as the fiancé having been in the room for some other purpose before the murder took place and dropping an earring or a cigarette. On the flip side, clues which implicate someone the murderer dislikes or even hates can be either purposeful or accidental. Both can be made to work; it is not so distasteful to have luck on the side of the murderer as it is on the side of the detective. That said, it will probably be more satisfying for such clues to be intentional. Stories in which all of the complications turned out to be an extraordinary run of (bad) luck can be interesting, but they almost need to be titled Much Ado About Nothing. (Despite there being no coincidences in that play and the misunderstanding being the work of the villains.) Where such clues are by design, this tends to require quite a lot of planning on the part of the murderer, since he has to ensure that the person he’s framing has no alibi. This will almost certainly involve some risk on his part; it’s not easy to know what someone else is doing without being unobserved. Such clues will, except by very good luck on the murderer’s part, only work in a highly premeditated murder.
Clues which lead, not to specific people, but only to traits that the murderer doesn’t have give more leeway in how they are done, but are also more hard to pull off. A good example of this would be Chesterton’s story The Hammer of God. The victim was killed by a tremendous blow with a hammer, which points to an enormously strong man (which the real murderer was not). Another example which comes to mind is the Lord Peter Wimsey story Busman’s Honeymoon. In that story, the blow to the head points to an extremely tall man, which, again, the murderer was not. Come to think of it, it’s curious that both of my examples involve a blow to the head. It’s not necessary, though. It’s quite possible to shoot from a higher place than the natural standing point of the murderer, suggesting a taller person—bullets even have the advantage, if they pass through the body, of giving a second point in space to line up, showing the height more clearly.
The downside to this is that the number of traits one can indicate via evidence is limited. Height, strength, possibly in some circumstances weight—or more likely not being above a certain weight—are about all that come to mind. It would be possible to have evidence which seems to eliminate certain disabilities, though. A gunshot which requires sight, or something done when one hears a sound, or distinguishes who someone is by their voice. Those get quite special purpose, though, since the field of suspects has to get small if a blind man is the murderer and the evidence seems to rule out a blind mind. I suppose one could set a murder in a conference for the blind, but otherwise there just aren’t enough blind men around to fill up a suspect list, once the main issue of the evidence not actually ruling out a blind man is found. It’s the sort of thing which would work pretty well in a short story, but I doubt it could sustain a novel.
The other major classification of clues are clues that help to catch the murderer. These are the meat of a detective story. Without these sorts of clues, detective stories must be in vain. Clues which help the murderer are optional, but clues which hinder the murderer are mandatory. Very well, then. What can we say about clues which help the detective to catch the murderer?
I think that the most important thing to consider with such clues is that from the perspective of the murderer, they are mistakes. In designing these clues, we are choosing what mistakes the murderer will make. This will, of course, be a function of the murderer, whether this was planned, and the circumstances that may intervene.
The first category encompasses the murderer’s intelligence and imagination. There can be a pretty big variance here, though if the murderer is too lacking in either there won’t be much to investigate. The two do not even necessarily go in sync; a young murderer might be quite intelligent but not very imaginative through lack of experience. The reverse can be true as well—a murderer with wide experience of the world might be quite imaginative, though not highly intelligent. The experience would have to be relevant, though, which I think would mostly limit us to murderers who are or have been detectives. That’s a very specialized murder mystery. I suspect one could broaden it out to a person who is very familiar with the workings of a particular place, such as intimate knowledge of how a hotel or other business functions, to know who is where, when. The downside to that specialized knowledge taking the place of intelligence is that it will be harder to hide the murderer, since not many people will have that knowledge.
An interesting sub-category of intelligence and imagination would be the murderer trying to disguise a clue as something harmless and not realizing how it will look. An old school example might be a murderer flicking a burnt-out cigarette end onto the ground where there are others, and assuming that it will be taken to just be one among many. In that case the detective usually finds it either by its residual warmth or by a lack of dirt on top of it or some other sign which the murderer didn’t think would be present to indicate what it is. I’ve also seen cases where a murder thought something would be taken as belonging to the victim when a better knowledge of the victim would show that it didn’t. A good example of this would be the razor in the Lord Peter Wimsey story Have His Carcase. It would be plausible for most men that they owned a cutthroat razor (back in England in the 1930s), but minor investigation of the victim showed that he was extremely unlikely to have one. The pursuit of this clue helped to catch the murderers.
The second category is almost self-explanatory. If the murder was planned out, all else being equal there will be fewer clues in the crime scene since any quarter-way decent plan will have the avoidance of such clues as a primary consideration the forming the plan. A more impromptu murder will lend itself to the presence of more clues. In both cases, however, any clues left will have to pass the stage where the murder is leaving the scene of the crime. Unless fleeing in haste, the murderer will, presumably, look over the scene for clues to remove.
This is where circumstances can intervene to preserve clues for the detective. It can take the form of introducing something that makes the murderer flee in haste, of course. It can also take the form of something which conceals the clue from the murderer during his investigation. Something falling over in the death throws of the victim, for example, might conceal a clue beneath it. Poor lighting can also make a murderer overlook a clue during the cleanup stage. The field for intervening circumstances is very wide. Even pet animals that steal clues have been used successfully. Books that were put back when they should not have been can be a clue, or contain a clue. And of course there are the environmental clues that were so popular back in the early days of detective fiction. Things found that would not be noticed except that they were damp among dry things, or dry among damp things, or clean among dirty, or recent among moldy; the list can go on and on. Changing conditions also work well here; an unpredictable rain can show that the victim was killed before the ground was wet. Temperatures plummeting to below freezing can preserve a clue that would normally have melted away. Even the reverse is possible; hot temperatures can melt away a clue that was meant to make the murder look like suicide.
This very anemic overview of types of clues is meant only as a starting point. I’m not sure that I’m going to make it a series, but as time permits I think I’d like to go through each of these sorts of clues, one at a time, to consider them more closely. Until then, I hope that this systematization was of some interest. When writing a murder mystery imagination is key, but a little bit of order can help to pick among the vast array of possibilities.
In the middle of season three of Murder, She Wrote is another episode about newsmen. This time it’s TV news rather than newspaper news, but other than that, it’s much the same.
Unusually for Murder, She Wrote the title card has a person in it. This is the titular anchorman, no less. His name is Kevin Keats and he’s a hard hitting reporter and also a self-important jerk.
He is conducting what is ostensibly an interview about art with Ronald Ross, who has one of the finest private collections of abstract expressionism in the country. This lasts for a few seconds, then Keats starts accusing him of being a drug dealer. Ross says that he’s very disappointed, because he loves to show off his art collection. He walks off, and his enforcer, Gerald Foster, a big bald man, signals that the interview is over by blocking the camera.
The TV that’s being watched in this shot belongs to Mr. Ross, btw, who is watching it with his enforcer. As a side note, I love the close, personal friendship that crime bosses almost invariably have with their enforcers. It’s so helpful for the casting departments of TV shows and movies that crime bosses never have intermediates so as to have plausible deniability if their enforcers are caught in one of the many criminal assaults they commit. Also nice to know that enforcers aren’t, generally, unpleasant psychopaths who enjoy hurting people but rather cultured and sophisticated gentle souls who by preference would discuss art and are merely willing to do the dirty jobs that someone has to do, out of a deep sense of loyalty to their best friend and employer.
The show cuts to Kevin Keats talking about how he’s got new and explosive information to reveal next week. Mr Ross throws a towel at the television and shouts at it, “You’re a dead man!”
I wonder if, in the whole history of Murder, She Wrote, the murderer has ever shouted a death threat at the victim? Certainly, I can remember no instance of it. Granted, we’re only three seasons in at this point so it’s harder for the audience to be sure that Mr. Ross’s threat entirely exonerates him of the murder soon to take place, but even at this point in the series it’s a good bet.
The end of the show is interesting, btw.
When they’re done they sign off in a curious way. Keats says, “Goodnight, Nick.” Nick replies, “Goodnight. And goodnight, Paula.” She looks up at the audience and says, “Goodnight, America.”
It reminds me a bit of how 60 Minutes ends, though it’s been decades since I saw the show and I can’t easily find any clips to verify that they sign off like this. My recollection is that it did have a bit of a Waltons feel (“Good night, John Boy”), but I’ve no idea if that’s accurate. Either way, I suppose that this is at heart a callback to Edward R. Murrow’s “Good night and good luck.”
I often confuse Edward R. Murrow with Walter Cronkite, who was, back in his day, “the most trusted man in America.” In hindsight, that was largely a testament to how gullible Americans were in the post-war period. From what I’ve gathered from family stories, Murrow was regarded in a similar way, though Murrow acquired a halo of sanctity around him, granted by marxists in the media, because of his supposed role in the takedown of Joe McCarthy (how much of an influence Murrow had is a subject of debate, but popular history will always be simplified history). Be that as it may, the real news had, in this time, acquired a tone of faux-familiarity that was very ingratiating. I suspect that this pretense of being part of the family watching—together with other things, such as the relatively few television channels, the imprimatur implicitly granted by the US government in its fairness doctrine, and many other reasons—was part of why so many people now in their sixties and older regard the news with a completely unreasonable level of trust.
The faux news show in this episode, coming, as it did, in 1986, is in an interesting time. Older people still regarded the news with obsequious gullibility, but children (I was not yet ten) did not, and even in this show one can see a certain amount of cynical realism about the news starting to creep in even to the way it’s presented here in Murder, She Wrote. News was, by this time, a business. Nick, the old man of the three, represents the old time, respected news. Confidential audience research suggests that audiences don’t like him nearly as much as his two younger, better-looking co-stars.
(As a side note, the sub-plot of the network wanting to replace him with a younger, more attractive reporter is a bit silly. It was at the time, and even still is, common practice to have at least one older, respectable-looking character on a show to reflect respectability onto the younger, prettier ones. It would be far more realistic to move him to a small part where he’s often visible but not doing anything of substance.)
The show, Scrutiny, presents itself as beyond reproach, but we do catch a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors, and the sausage making is not attractive. But I’m getting ahead of the episode. Before we see the inner workings of the show, Paula Roman pitches a feature on Cabot Cove to Jessica Fletcher.
Apparently Scrutiny has down-to-earth, gentle segments, and Paula does those. That feels quite dissonant with the segments that Kevin Keats does, but perhaps Nick does some sort of middle-ground which acts as the glue for these two very different kind of segments. Anyway, Paula insists that unlike Kevin’s mean-spirited exposés, her segment will be like a television post card.
Jessica isn’t sure, but Paula’s assurances that the interview will be a gentle, lovers’ caress of Cabot Cove makes Jessica say that she’ll bring it up with the town council and see what they think (spoiler alert: they love the idea).
Then we get a plot twist!
In a meeting with the producer, the anchors, and the guy whose job it is to liaise with the “network” (his title is “vice president in charge of the news”), after they abuse the network guy for thinking about the people who pay for everyone’s fun and he leaves, it turns out that they’re killing part 2 of Kevin’s show about the drug dealing art collector and instead he’s going to be doing Paula’s Cabot Cove segment. She’s been reassigned to do a story on a boy who joined a girl’s basketball team.
Oh, and it comes out that the “network” is very concerned about the shows’ ratings. Nick is an American institution and Kevin and Paula are young and attractive, but the show is not doing so well anyway. This will be a major plot point, later, but it does feel a bit dissonant. Within TV-land, what is the show supposed to do to get higher ratings?
In reality they need to move more niche and pretend that the world is constantly about to end and only watching their show will save it. Even that is a short-term solution as TV news is constantly slipping in ratings to the point where many brand-name news shows have lower viewership than some of the bigger YouTube channels, but that would make for a very different episode. And TV news’ falling ratings doesn’t seem to result in personnel changes anyway.
But what are they supposed to do in TV land? Usually there is some unsavory alternative presented, such as bringing on women in bikinis or covering more sensational events even though they aren’t as Important. This show already covers sensational things that aren’t important. I suppose they could have Paula wear a bikini, but nothing like this is mentioned. It’s just left in the air that things aren’t great despite Scrutiny being a smash hit that enough people watch that Kevin Keats’ face is almost as well known as that of Ronald McDonald (this is mentioned later in the episode).
This being left completely unresolved, we move to Cabot Cove, where the residents are getting ready for their closeup. Interestingly, this episode, despite being in Cabot Cove, does not feature Seth Hazlet. Filling in for him while he’s visiting his sister is Wylie.
Wylie is only in two Murder, She Wrote episodes. The other is Dead Man’s Gold. (The actor, Robert Hogan, showed up in two other episodes, one as Lt. Bergkamp and one as FBI Agent Guilfoyle.) He’s a fun character. He’s got Seth’s crusty cynicism, except with more charm. He notes that the town is going crazy with the coming of the TV show. Then we get the gag of the TV news crew overwhelming Jessica’s house with TV equipment (mostly lights).
I really wonder how realistic this is. It’s made by a TV show who knows how to film outdoors, so I expect they could use very realistic equipment if they chose to. On the other hand, I doubt they would have chosen to. For one thing, not a single one of those lights is like the other and real lighting has a tendency to be symmetric about the subject it’s trying to illuminate. For another, I suspect that the crew who set up would have found it funny to make the lighting as unrealistic as possible. Also, these aren’t the days of technicolor with its huge light requirements because they’re exposing three films, one with a red filter in front of it, one with a green filter, and one with a blue filter. How many lights do they really need outdoors on a sunny day, for a TV show?
Jessica demands that they get the lights out of her flower gardens (you’d think, if they were setting up, they’d have wanted to get her flower gardens as background), and Kevin Keats introduces herself.
We then cut to Amos Tupper, in an ugly brown suit which he apparently bought just for the occasion, driving along the coast road. (I’ve got a screenshot of the ugly brown suit later on.) He pulls over when he sees a helicopter descending towards a stretch limo. The helicopter lands…
…and out of it steps the drug trafficing art collector’s enforcer, carrying a suitcase. He runs to the stretch limo.
As soon as he’s in, the stretch limmo tears onto the road, wheels screeching.
All of this sure attracts Amos’ attention, but it serves absolutely no discernible purpose. There is no reason for the enforcer to be in such a rush, or at least no reason that we are ever told about. There’s no obvious reason for the guy to have taken a helicopter when there’s an airport near Cabot Cove that everyone else uses. There’s no reason for him to have a stretch limo waiting in a field for him. There’s no reason for him to run from the helicopter to the stretch limo. There’s no reason for the stretch limo to tear onto the road so fast its wheels squeak. Literally the next thing we know that the enforcer does is to show up the next morning at the docks. There is absolutely no plausible reason for all of this haste. Moreover, if the enforcer is here to murder Kevin Keats, he would need to wear one of those one-man-band outfits with all of the instruments tied to him in order to draw more attention to himself. It’s almost a small thing, in comparison, that there is no way (we know of) for the enforcer to know that Kevin Keats is in Cabot Cove. It was in no way the obvious place to look for him, and with them worrying about death threats against Keats, it’s a bit odd that they’d publicly mention where they’re filming taped segments.
However improbable, though, this dramatic appearance moves the plot along. Amos shows up in the middle of Kevin Keats interviewing Jessica and tells her all about the big ugly bald guy, which makes Keats request the Sheriff (in private) to quietly hire a boat for him.
I don’t want to entirely skip over that interview, though. We come to it as Keats is asking Jessica, “It makes you wonder, J.B. Fletcher, how you came to buried in a tiny town in the back of Maine where the people are, if you’ll forgive me, hardly your intellectual equals.”
Her intellectual equals? She’s not a philosopher, or even someone who is reputed to write Great American Novels about people without principles or religious beliefs being depressed that life is meaningless and full of suffering. (Those aren’t, in fact, intellectually great, but I would at least see why a pretentious TV news anchor would treat them as if they were works of agonizing brilliance.) She’s a mystery writer! She writes whodunnits where a law student from the deep south catches a murderer because his friend who is accused of the murder claims he didn’t see a light flashing on an extension when he was hiding in the music closet. Mystery stories are actually quite deep, at least when done well, but it’s implausible in the extreme Kevin Keats would regard them that way. The detective being a Christ figure who descends into a world broken by the misuse of reason in order to, by the right use of reason, restore right order to it, is not something it is slightly plausible Kevin Keats would appreciate.
Besides, if she was living in an apartment in New York City she’d be likely to have a corporate lawyer on one side of her, a banker on the other, and the personal assistant to an executive across the hall. Why on earth would these be her “intellectual equals”? People in big cities like a variety of ethnic foods, unusual shops, fornication, committing crimes, and stepping over homeless people to get to all of these things. They would be far more urbane than Jessica’s Cabot Cove neighbors, but why on earth would he think that they’re intellectually superior? If you’ve ever encountered city dwellers, plenty of them can go several weeks at a time without having a single thought in their heads that a dog would not. Liking varied entertainment is not at all the same thing as being intelligent. If anything, it’s a symptom of intellectual weakness to require constant variety in order to sustain interest.
None of which Jessica says because she’s written by people who live in a big city (Los Angeles). Instead she tells Keats that if he’s going to insult her friends and neighbors, he’s going to have to do the segment without her. He apologizes and they do it over again. He asks roughly the same question but without the insults, and she talks about how this is where her roots are, and how she’s lived for decades in that old, drafty house with Frank…
I really wish she gave an answer that had something to do with loyalty and how each place is good in its own way, and she’s good at appreciating the goodness of this particular place. Of course, the problem here, too, is that she’s being written by Hollywood writers, which means people who gave up their roots to move to Los Angeles in order to pursue their dreams of fame and fortune. That is, they are nearly the worst people in the world to answer this question, and not nearly imaginative enough to think of how someone unlike them would answer it for real. All they can do is give the pat answer, “I’ve had lots of experiences here.” I doubt that it’s ever occurred to Hollywood writers that there actually are people you couldn’t pay to move to Los Angeles.
Anyway, Amos Tupper interrupts this interview which Jessica has to know is going to be cut up and mangled, but goes along with anyway, because he’s got extremely important news that just can’t wait. There’s a not very funny bit where he pointedly ignores Keats and tells Jessica about the guy he just saw get out of a helicopter and into a limo.
Amos doesn’t even notice when Keats tells the TV crew to cut the film. Eventually he asks who this fellow is. It’s mildly amusing, but I don’t think it was worth sacrificing Amos’s manners for. It’s also nearly the only time I can think of where Amos was in a hurry for anything. Anyway, he eventually finds out that it’s Kevin Keats, and is embarrassed, though not very embarrassed. He shakes Keats’ hand and says that he looks a lot taller on TV.
The scene is very odd because Amos bought a new suit to show off for the TV cameras and yet doesn’t care about them and even partially looks down his nose at them. I don’t know what to make of it; I guess they just had to stitch the next plot element to the current scene and wanted to get through it as quickly as possible (when writing). It does, at least, do that; we’re now on to the next part of the plot.
Oh, almost. We have a few things to get out of the way, first. It’s now night time and Kevin Keats’ estranged wife calls him at his hotel to vaguely threaten him.
That phone call over, it’s time for Dough, the producer, to walk in and have a fight with Kevin in front of the hotel manager.
“This assignment was a change of pace. A fresh approach. Don’t take it personally.” “Oh, but I do. Scrutiny is a hit for one reason, and you’re looking at him. They toss out producers like so many empty beer cans but I keep rolling along. So you get off my back, before I do something you’ll regret.”
Scrutiny is a hit but the network is worried about the ratings. OK, whatever. This publicly-witnessed threat session over with, we can finally get to the important part: in the morning Kevin gets on the boat the Sheriff Tupper rented for him. Sheriff Tupper then turns around and sees the bald enforcer standing by the dock, watching Kevin. He shouts to him to hold it, whereupon the enforcer runs away and Tupper sighs in disappointment since running after the man is clearly out of the question.
Kevin Keats’ boat makes it about 100 yards away from the dock and then we get the murder.
It was kind of whoever planted the bomb to put it on a timer after the ignition started so that it wasn’t right next to the dock when it exploded. Sure, he destroyed an innocent man’s boat, but at least he didn’t cause unnecessary damage to the dock, which having the bomb go off as soon as the ignition was started would probably have done.
Anyway, we go to commercial and when we came back the big bald enforcer calls the art collector from a phone in the limo and tells him that the situation has resolved itself. The art collector replies that he’s late—he’s watching Paula Roman live, from the scene of the explosion.
I find this perplexing since it entirely rules the enforcer out as a suspect. We’re seeing him in a private conversation where he would have no motive to lie. So what is the point of these characters? If they’re not suspects, why spend time on them? I suppose they could be trying to suggest that the art collector actually carried out the hit without telling his enforcer and was using the enforcer as a blind, but neither appears again in the episode.
We go to Paula Roman, live on the dock only an hour or so later. After she signs off, she talks to Jessica. She claims that she took the first flight over. Jessica looks dubious, but says nothing. They leave together.
They get to the hotel, where Paula doesn’t recognize the busy-body hotel manager, and he directs them to the private dining room where the “TV folks” have set up a temporary field office.
Nick is there, running things in the absence of anyone else. Paula asks where Doug is and Nick says that nobody knows. He checked into his hotel late last night, left early this morning, and nobody has seen him since. He’s probably off climbing a mountain somewhere. This being a potentially identifying personal detail in a Murder, She Wrote, you can bet that it will be significant before the end of the episode.
Paula and Jessica have coffee, and Paula asks about the look Jessica gave her when she said she flew in on the first flight this morning. Jessica tells her that she was on the air a half hour before the first flight from NYC landed in Portland. Paula then admits to having flown in the night before with Doug, the producer. Jessica knows that Paula spent the night with Kevin because she didn’t recognize the hotel manager, which meant that she didn’t go to her own room. We also learn that Richard Abbott, the vice president in charge of news, is also missing (back in NYC).
Some comic relief later, Jessica calls the hotel manager on the phone and asks about the phone call from Keats’ wife. She wasn’t calling from California, it turns out, she “left a local number”. It’s the phone number of a nearby motel. How she left a number when the hotel manager never talked to her other than to say “hello” is unclear. This is before the days of caller ID and the phone had no caller ID screen on it anyway. It’s useful information, though, because it enables Jessica to go interrogate Kevin Keats’ wife, which she does.
It turns out that she came to Cabot Cove in order to try to reconcile with her husband, but he saw Keats with Paula and realized that there was no chance of it when she saw the look of love in his eyes when he looked at Paula. This makes the timing a bit suspect, since Paula arrived with Doug the producer but Mrs. Keats called her husband both after she saw Paula with Kevin but also before Doug walked in the front door.
Plot holes aside, Jessica is busy rudely observing that now that Kevin is dead Mrs. Keats will get all of his assets when the bartender says that there’s a call for a Jessica Fletcher. It turns out it’s Wylie.
He asks Jessica to ask Mrs. Keats how many toes her husband has. Jessica asks, and before she can relay the answer, Wylie tells Jessica, “Unless she said eight, the fellow I’ve got lying here on my table is not the late Kevin Keats.”
Amos, Jessica, and Wylie meet to discuss this new development. Amos, as usual, takes the changing of facts personally. He saw Kevin Keats get on the boat, and doggone it, it’s not fair that it isn’t Kevin Keats who’s dead. Poor Amos. Life as a small-town sheriff is supposed to be simple.
Incidentally, it’s definitely the case that whoever it is on the table didn’t lose the toes in the explosion, they were surgically amputated some time ago. Also, Wylie checked with Seth (who, you will recall, is on vacation) and no one in Cabot Cove is missing those toes. Jessica then brings up another mystery, in addition to whose is the body: where is Kevin Keats? (Apparently it doesn’t occur to anyone that there could have been two people on the boat and Keats was in fact killed but his body not found because they stopped looking after finding the first body.)
Curiously, the next thing we see is where Kevin Keats is.
To be fair, it takes a minute to actually show us Kevin; he’s watching the news where somebody or other is interviewing Cabot Cove’s mayor, but eventually we pan over to him on the motel’s bed.
I love Kevin’s outfit. It’s the pointless leather patch on the flannel shirt that really makes it, for me. That said, the bag of potato chips and the drink in a red plastic cup really pulls the shot together. That’s about it, though. All of the action takes place in the newswoman asking the mayor questions and him not having answers. Then Kevin picks up the phone and dials someone as we fade out.
I’m very unclear on why this scene exists; all it serves to do is to remove the mystery about what happened to Kevin Keats only a few seconds after the mystery was raised. In that way it’s reminiscent of the scene in which the bald enforcer calls his art collector boss and tells him that he didn’t have to kill Keats after all. Is this meant to be a help to the audience? Does Murder, She Wrote have a maximum amount of mystery it’s supposed to maintain in order to not be too confusing to the viewer? I don’t know if that’s the case but it’s an interesting thought. This is television, probably at its height in terms of numbers of viewers of an episode—at that time when an enormous number of people were watching but there were not, yet, hundreds of TV channels competing for viewers. According to Wikipedia, at its height Murder, She Wrote had about forty million viewers, and even in its eleventh season it had about fifteen million viewers per episode. Perhaps in order to be most comfortable to a general audience they wanted to keep the number of things the audience had to keep track of to a minimum.
The next scene has the vice president of TV news, Richard Abbot, walking into the make-shift office in the hotel in Cabot Cove. He and Nick argue, though it’s difficult to characterize what the argument is about. Nick is mad that Richard was missing, and Richard is angry that… I don’t know. He seems annoyed that Nick is annoyed, as much as anything else. Jessica walks in and interrupts them to say that Kevin Keats is very much alive—a thing she doesn’t actually know, btw, unless she knew it by reading the script. It certainly has not been proven yet.
Nick asks whose body was pulled out of the water. Jessica hypothesizes that it’s actually Doug Helman, the producer, because earlier Nick joked that Doug was probably off climbing a mountain, which she free-associated to frostbite, and then noted that the body was missing two toes on its left foot. No one actually knows whether Doug was in fact missing any toes on his left foot, but this is taken as sufficient evidence to conclude it definitely was Doug. (And see, I told you that it being a random personal detail, it would definitely come up again!)
Paula walks in when Richard is asking where she is and she says, “so it was Doug.” Nick tries to get her to work on the rewrites that they have to do but she only wants to talk to Jessica. Nick grabs her by the elbow and tries to pull her to the typewriter, saying “Listen, Helman didn’t even want you up here, the only reason you came is because Kevin insisted, now come on, now let’s get to work.” This being a Murder, She Wrote episode, a random bit of detail about someone other than the person speaking must be a clue. They do a halfway decent job of disguising it by putting it in a heated moment, but it doesn’t really fit very well. The biggest thing is that it stands out for not really being in character, in the sense that there were far more persuasive things that Nick could have said which would also have been far more natural for him to say. If this wasn’t a murder mystery, he’d have given some speech about journalists having to put aside their feelings for the sake of the public, or some such. That instead of that natural thing he went for irrelevant detail is a huge red flag.
There’s also the problem of this not really being in character. Nick’s motivation to drag Paula in is very slight. Granted, he seems to be angling for the producer job by filling in for Doug in this pinch, but Paula isn’t a writer and isn’t even an investigative journalist. Her beat is doing TV postcards of small towns. It’s pretty far fetched that he even wants Paula at a typewriter. It would be different if he needed her pretty face to go in front of the camera, but that’s not what he wanted. Paula refuses, and she and Jessica leave.
As they’re walking, Jessica tells Paula that Kevin called her. Paula asks how Jessica knew, and instead of referencing Paula’s inflection when she said “so it was Doug Helman who was killed on the boat” which would have been decent evidence for it, she instead said that Paula trusts Jessica, and who would Kevin trust? His mistress isn’t entirely implausible, but you’d think he’d have a few friends, too. Paula’s reaction was much better evidence, but oh well. Jessica talks Paula into talking Kevin into coming forward to the Sheriff because staying in hiding could be too easily misconstrued. You’d think that Jessica would know Amos by now. We’re not at the end of the episode, so no matter what Kevin did, Amos would misconstrue it. It’s what he does.
It turns out that the fight Doug had with Kevin over reassigning Doug to Cabot Cove was a put-on. They’d planned it together. The goal was to fake the drug dealing art collector into thinking that the series was dropped (how the art collector was supposed to know this is anyone’s guess) when in reality he was in Cabot Cove because there was a witness in New Hampshire who would only talk to Kevin. The boat thing was “cover”; he wanted people to think that he was on a boat in the harbor when he was really driving to New Hampshire to see the confidential witness.
Augie Wilkin had the only boat in town for rent, and the Sheriff couldn’t get in touch with him until about eight O’clock that night. Once he told Kevin about it, Kevin called Doug and told him to get up to Cabot Cove on the double. Doug must have gotten in very late if he didn’t know he was going to be taking a plane to Cabot Cove until after 8pm. Still, this was before 9/11 and was probably doable.
The fight between Doug Helman and Kevin Keats in front of the hotel manager was staged. “Just another part of the act.” Why there was this is act is… very unclear to me. I’m not sure what could be gained by convincing the hotel manager that Kevin Keats and his producer were fighting. If they were on the best of terms, it wouldn’t make the dropping of the drug dealing art collector story any less plausible. It also wouldn’t make him supposedly running away by boat any less believable, either, which was all he really wanted to disguise. It feels like the sort of thing that’s normally in a story that features people worried about there being a mole in the organization, and so they had to deceive everyone because they didn’t know who it was. Except, there was no mole. There was no reason to not tell Paula and Nick about the plan to disguise Kevin’s going to a secret informant. Also, given that they were keeping up this pretense of a fight, why on earth did Kevin insist that Doug bring Paula up to Cabot Cove with him? He couldn’t keep his pants on for one whole night? From all of the other precautions they took, Paula could only get in the way of the plan. Besides that, no one was covering the boy on a girl’s basketball team in Nebraska. From Kevin and Doug’s perspective, someone should have been covering that, no? They expected there to be a show that would air the next week.
This story is pretty much nothing but loose ends, which makes me somewhat sympathetic to Amos for arresting Kevin. He reasons that whoever planted the bomb had to know about the boat, and since only Kevin and Doug knew about the boat, that means it had to be one of them. It being Doug seems unlikely, so by process of elimination, it had to be Kevin. For once, Jessica has no objections.
Paula visits Kevin in jail and they talk. It comes out that Nick and Richard haven’t sent a lawyer to get him out on bail because they figure it will be better for ratings, at least when the special which is the former Kevin Keats eulogy is broadcast. The Sheriff has even kindly given his permission to let Kevin tape his segment in the jail cell! Amos is nothing if not thoughtful. Why Kevin can’t hire his own lawyer is never said.
Next we see Jessica go interview Mrs. Keats one last time.
I’m not sure if the writers are trying to keep her alive as a suspect or are just using her to give the next clue. She does give a clue, anyway—she thinks that Kevin was about to be fired because the network had just done confidential audience research. The writers really can’t decide whether Scrutiny is more famous than apple pie or going under. Why on earth he told his estranged wife about this, I’ve no idea. She described it as “in a fit of paranoia,” though trying to make her think that she couldn’t get much out of him in divorce would have been more plausible.
Jessica goes and takes this up with Richard Abbott (the vice president in charge of news). He’s cagey, but she gets out of him he didn’t want to discuss the confidential network research in front of the anchors because it concerned one of them. Also, when Doug Helman was killed he (Richard) was in NY having breakfast with the president of another network. “You see, in television land, when the canoe springs a leak, one doesn’t bail water, one just looks for a new canoe.”
And now we go to Jessica’s house, where she’s playing chess with Wylie.
In a Murder, She Wrote episode a scene unrelated to hunting clues, this late in the episode, means that all of the clues we’re going to get have been given. It’s time to guess who the murderer is.
Wylie puts Jessica in check, with mate in one. Usually she beats Seth, so Wylie was able to beat her because she’s distracted—she can’t stop thinking about Kevin Keats’ story. Wylie says that there had to be an easier way to slip out of down, and Jessica says that she didn’t remember telling Wylie about Keats’ plan. “You didn’t. I overheard you talking to Sheriff Tupper on the phone.” And now Jessica realizes who the murder is. She just has to go the jail to be certain.
In jail, Jessica goes over the phone call with Kevin, and indeed Doug had gone over the time table in detail to make sure that he got everything right. Keats was sure that Doug would never have talked about it with a third party present, but Jessica asks, “What if he didn’t know, or care, that there was a third party present?” She means what if it was a third party that he didn’t care about, but it was badly phrased coming right after Kevin saying that he was certain that Dough would never have discussed their plan in front of a third party. Anyway, the scene closes and we open on our murderer, who Jessica visits, alone.
That’s right, it was Nick Brody. He’s working late on a rewrite. Jessica tells him about the confidential audience survey, whose result was that the audience preferred the younger Kevin and Paula to him. Why this means that he needs to be fired is not explained, but that’s OK. Jessica informs him that he was there when Kevin called Doug and worked out their plans, a fact proved by his knowledge that Paula was only in town because Kevin insisted—which they had only ever discussed on the phone.
This is the only actual piece of evidence which Jessica has. It’s a bit like an Encyclopedia Brown case where there is literally one clue, and if you pick up on it you can solve the case and if you don’t, you can’t. It’s an interesting balancing act, but I think it probably gets back to the issue of having such a large, general audience. Too many clues and a large fraction of the audience will think that the mystery is too easy. (Fewer than one clue and the mystery will be too hard, and not just for some people.)
Anyway, it’s enough, and he admits it. Jessica asks how he got to Cabot Cove and he replies that he drove all night. It’s only 350 miles. (Averaging 60 miles an hour, that would take just under six hours. If he left at 9pm he’d have gotten in at the earliest at 3am—he should be tired!)
It’s curious how they deal with the question of how Nick got the bomb. “Oh, about the bomb? Well, you don’t get to be a 63 year old reporter without learning something.” I doubt that there were any reporters of any age in 1986 who could put together a bomb with the explosive power of a few pounds of TNT on a moment’s notice, late at night. Or worse, in the middle of the night in Cabot Cove.
Jessica asks him why he did it—Doug was just following the network’s orders. Nick’s reply was interesting, so I’m going to quote it in full. He said:
Without Helman, I had a better than even chance of staying with the show. I had more experience than any of them. To hell with the audience research. So I wasn’t young, vicious, or even pretty. But I was the one who could talk sense to them. I’m a news man. I’m not a performer. I tried to tell Doug that. And whatever he started out believing, in the end he bought the idea that the wrapping paper—the wrapping paper!—was more important the package.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to finish this rewrite while we’re waiting for the Sheriff. Just dial 9 for an outside line.
One of the unusual things about Murder, She Wrote is that its star was not young. Born in 1925, Angela Lansbury was 59 when the show started and 61 when this episode aired. The primary recurring characters in Cabot Cove were not spring chickens either. The guest stars were frequently actors who had been famous twenty or thirty years before, and now were getting small parts as older people. What’s true of the actors is true of the viewers, as well. The audience of Murder, She Wrote famously skewed much older than for most of prime time television. My mother remembers the commercials frequently being for things like denture creams while I remember them as being for life insurance that you can’t be turned down for no matter how old and sick you are. The final episode of Murder, She Wrote was even titled Death By Demographics.
(To be fair to the networks, they didn’t care. It was advertisers who paid top dollar for younger viewers and much less for older viewers, quite possibly because younger viewers bought more things and also were more malleable; if you could turn an eighteen year old just starting to buy his own toothpaste onto your brand of toothpaste you might have a loyal customer for decades.)
The theme of Nick’s monologue is that, despite being old, he’s still, in reality, valuable. More than that, he’s actually the most valuable. This is a theme that resonates with an older audience, but especially with an older audience in the 1980s. People born in the 1920s and 1930s saw truly enormous amounts of change in the world by the 1980s, not just technologically but even socially. The worship of youth was (partially) socially dominant in the 1970s, with people proclaiming that one should never trust anyone over 30. With the advent of the birth control pill and labor-saving devices like washing machines, traditional restraints and traditional divisions of labor seemed to many pointless and anachronistic. The future was in plastics, as the uncle in The Graduate foretold. The future was in computers, as many people told Jessica when suggesting she replace her old typewriter with a word processor. What place was there for people who vividly remembered horse-drawn milk delivery and wartime rationing?
Nick’s impassioned speech proclaims that there is a place for them, that the world hasn’t actually changed that much. I think this is why Jessica doesn’t say anything. You can see in her face that she agrees with him, but he crossed the line in blowing Doug up. She slowly walks over to call the Sheriff, and he goes back to typing, then pauses a moment in thought.
I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be thinking about. At first it looks like he’s pausing to regret getting caught, but then his look of consternation is replaced by a very slight smile. The music is sad, though.
(Incidentally, the story was by Bob Shayne who was born in 1941 and the teleplay was written by Robert van Scoyk who was born in 1928.)
There’s also the curious theme of this lionization of news. He’s not this new breed of reporter, who is all glitz, he’s a News Man! As if the news was some deeply respectable thing, back in his day. Back in the days of Edward R Murrow (hah!). It is interesting to consider the timing, though. People born in the 1920s and especially the 1930s were young when radio and later TV news journalism were new. Growing up they might have felt that they were so much better informed because of the increased immediacy of these things. One didn’t have to wait for a newspaper, an authoritative voice would boom them over the radio or television might even show you pictures of the things as they happened! There were not many channels and they were more regulated than the newspapers were; it seems plausible that some reasonable fraction of people growing up then might have thought of themselves as better informed than their predecessors, and better informed than younger people today who watch news that’s all about sensationalism and glitz.
Incidentally, this is a separate issue from Baby Boomers who trust the news. They were young adults during the era when TV news was turning glitzy. Someone born in 1946 (approximately the oldest baby boomer possible) would have been forty years old in 1986. Chad Everett, who played Kevin Keats, was born in 1937. In 1986, when this episode was filmed, he was 51 years old. Granted, TV actors usually play younger than they are, but not usually more than about a decade down. In other words, the youthful TV anchor was supposed to be the same age as the oldest baby boomer watching and was, in reality, a decade older than them. (Mark Stevens, who played Nick Brody, was born in 1916. He was 70 playing 63. Kathleen Lloyd, who played Paula Roman, was born in 1948, making her 38 at the time of filming—young enough to be Mark Stevens’ daughter, but no spring chicken.)
Looking back from the vantage point of the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2020, the view of news as something that was once reliable but is now turning commercial and unreliable is quaint to the point of being laughable. The multiplicity of viewpoints expressed when cable television was just getting off of the ground is nothing in comparison to what news is like these days, with each news source trying to cater to its very specific niche, which largely means that the reporters are just being somewhat honest about their biases. Moreover, as a remove from the events sheds light on the biases of the newsmen of old, the rosy view which people had when there were only three major networks seems more like gullibility. Still, we’re all prone to such myopia; to not seeing what is not easily within our horizon.
One other interesting thing about this episode is how much Jessica does not believe in sexual morals at all, or if she does, she keeps them entirely to herself despite being willing to criticize people for all sorts of lesser moral failings or things that aren’t even moral failings but she just dislikes (such as violence in movies and other entertainment). Paula Roman is sleeping with a married man. Even worse, she is getting in the way of that married man reconciling with his wife, which his wife was trying to do. Jessica fawns over Paula like a dear child when Paula is, in fact, very much an adult and actively engaged in adulterating a man’s marriage. Jessica doesn’t even bat an eye. She’s supposed to be a small-town retired English teacher but she’s really a big-city cosmopolitan socialite.
So, all that said, what’s good about this episode?
It has interesting characters. Not all of them, but at least the trio of reporters from Scrutiny are. The character of Richard Abbott, though under-developed, is also interesting for his extreme calm and forthright cynicism about his business. Wylie is great as the doctor. Tom Bosley as Amos is always fun for his manner.
OK, but this is the stuff which comes from good casting, rather than good writing. What about the story?
It is difficult to praise the story because, in part, it’s really a bunch of unrelated stories happening near each other and with some minor relationships to each other. At that level of abstraction, it’s merely the description of a mystery story with red herrings, but these don’t really feel like red herrings because of the way that they are almost serial in their presentation.
The sub-plot of the drug dealing art collector is at the start of the show and gets things in motion, but then is dropped as soon as the murder happens. The sub-plot of a small town preening itself for the cameras and not getting what it hoped is also dropped before the murder happens. We then get a sub-plot of a small town overrun with TV news crews because a famous TV man was (supposedly) murdered in it, but this never really goes anywhere. We have the sub-plot of the vindictive estranged wife who had wanted to patch things up with her husband, but that never really goes anywhere. (I don’t think that she’s ever a realistic suspect.) We get the sub-plot of the two anchors who are romantically involved with each other, adulterating the one’s marriage, but this only really serves to get Kevin Keats out of hiding, and then goes nowhere. The sub-plot of trying to get over to a confidential witness results in a cockamamie scheme whose time table is highly questionable, and in any event it’s linked to the story about the drug dealing art collector, and that plotline being dropped, this one goes nowhere too.
The upshot is that the episode is interesting while it happens, but since all of the sub-plots go nowhere, it’s disappointing once it’s over. Even the theme that was raised of the big city versus the small town ends up nowhere. Jessica is really part of the big city, so the small-town end of this theme has to be held up entirely by Wylie, which he stops doing as soon as there’s a body for him to examine.
About the one thing I can say for the story—rather than the characters, acting, sets, etc—is that it does have an interesting premise of outsiders bringing their troubles someplace else in order to settle them by being unknown in the place they’ve gone to. That is a structure that can be quite interesting. It’s the premise of my favorite Cadfael story, Saint Peter’s Fair. It’s the premise of my third and upcoming Brother Thomas novel, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake. It’s an interesting premise. It’s disappointing when an interesting premise isn’t used to its full, but it’s still something just to have the interesting premise.
Actually, there is a second thing I can say for the story. It does have a nice twist partway through. The corpse being identified as someone other than Kevin Keats was interesting, both simply as a twist and also as a way of changing who the suspects were. Or, rather, raising the question of who the intended victim was, and whether this changes who the suspects were. (It didn’t really change who the suspects were because the suspect who might remain—the enforcer—was already ruled out by the time of this reveal.)
That’s probably about the best that I can say for this story. Like so much of television, it had a lot of promise that it didn’t fulfill, but it was fun while it seemed possible that the promise would be fulfilled. Also like so much of television, it gains quite a lot from having interesting people and interesting sets. Television is a very visual medium, and this (legitimate) visual interest can make up for a lot of weakness in writing.
As I was sitting down to start writing in earnest on the third chronicle of Brother Thomas—having worked out the characters, what really happened, etc. to my satisfaction—I looked for the file where I wrote down biographical facts about my main characters. I couldn’t find it. Worse, I have come to conclude that I can’t find it because I never wrote it.
I am not, it should be noted, talking about lengthy backstory in which I wrote out novella-length descriptions of each character’s experiences in kindergarten, grade school, middle school, high school, etc. I’m just talking about the basic facts: height, weight, hair color, birthday, date of joining the order (if appropriate) etc. Having not written these things down when I mentioned them in the previous two books, I now have to comb through the books to see what I in fact did mention. It’s not entirely wasted effort since it’s a good idea to read the books to get the tone of characters fresh in my mind, but at the same time it’s a lot of work that I really wish I didn’t need to do right now.
So, a hard-won lesson, which I pass on to any readers who are just getting started on a series of books: make sure to keep a file open for facts about your characters who will show up in future books. It will save you a ton of effort down the road.
If a murder mystery involves a rich family, there is an excellent chance that only one of them will get along with other human beings and at least three fourths of them will have manners so bad you’re surprised that they are not frequently punched in the face. I suspect that there are three reasons for this.
The first, and most mundane, reason is that it’s a trope. Merely because it has often been done before, it will be done again. Many writers, especially in television, are lazy and unimaginative. There’s not much to say about this reason, but I do need to acknowledge it.
The second reason has to do with the needs of a mystery story—there must be suspects. When a rich family gets along like cats and dogs it produces a lot of suspects. It’s true that this shows everyone as having a motive—whoever dies, everyone else hated him—but it also shows that no one in the family has the sort of self-control which makes you think that they would refrain from murder because of their principles, if they had any.
The third reason is the most sinister. Most writers are neither rich nor know for their extraordinary resistance to envy. Even if not personally envious, they are not proof against trying to flatter the envy of their readers. It would be, more specifically, sour grapes, but sour grapes are generally an expression of envy. I suspect that this is no small part of why this is a trope.
Now, speaking generally, there is nothing wrong with including spoiled children in a story, nor in including family members who do not get along. I do gravely doubt that the children of the rich are often casually rude; when you don’t have many problems, upsetting other people looms much larger in one’s field of view. In my experience, casual rudeness tends to correlate to being raised by absent or single parents, in poverty, where other people’s feelings seem quite small in comparison to more pressing issues. One really needs to have a lot going wrong in order to be unconcerned about unnecessarily offending others. (Which is not to say that rich people can’t generally pay for their problems to go away, only that upsetting a person is an immediate problem that one feels immediately because man is a social creature. Treating someone badly when out of sight and using money to paper over the problem—that is very easy to believe of someone raised rich. Treating them in a way that makes them upset with one in the moment? That is far less believable.)
However that goes, this does not tend to make for a really good mystery, however, because the characters are not interesting. Characters are interesting because of their virtues; vices can only help when they serve to highlight virtues. Merely being a failure of a human being is boring, and when there are no characters who are not failures—there’s nothing interesting to read about.
In murder mysteries one of the classic plots is playing a recorded conversation in order to pretend that the victim was alive later than he was. Typically used to allow the murderer to establish an alibi for the supposed time of death, the curious thing about this trick is that as technology makes it easier for the murderer to do, it also makes it harder for the murder mystery writer to use.
Given how many murder mysteries were written shortly after the initial Sherlock Holmes short stories in the early 1890s and are now largely lost to history, making any statements about firsts in a murder mystery is always fraught with peril. That said, the first time that a recorded conversation was used to pretend that a victim was alive later than he was, that I’m aware of, is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackryod. First published in 1926, it used, perforce, a dictaphone which at the time would cut grooves in wax on a cardboard cylinder. The sound quality actually achievable on such a machine would not be great, which makes its believability to listeners somewhat questionable. On the other hand, it was played behind a closed door. The door would muffle the sound, making it harder to tell a recording from a real voice. And then there’s the psychological aspect, which gets to the heart of the modern problem—at the time, people’s voices being recorded was so rare that no one would expect it, so they wouldn’t think to look for the differences. We are used to dealing with imperfect sound and concentrating on the words; without paying careful attention we are likely to ignore the problems we don’t recognize in a recording since we’re not used to hearing them as the characteristic signature of a recording.
These days, high fidelity recording devices are extremely cheap, to the point where they are a standard component of many devices including the cell phones that everyone carries around in his pocket. Decently loud and accurate playback devices are so common that they can be found in novelty birthday cards meant to be thrown away after use. If a killer wanted to use a recording of a victim to create the impression of a later time of death it would be cheap and easy, and the playback would be of such high quality that it would take a trained ear to have a chance of telling whether it was a recording.
Ironically, that’s the problem. Playing the victim’s voice would be so easy that if a reader is presented with someone having merely heard the victim’s voice without actually seeing him, he immediately suspects that it was a recording. Admittedly, the same is true of the low-tech gambit of dressing in the recognizable clothing of the victim and only being seen from a distance, without talking, too. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we get pre-recorded video calls to establish a fake time of death, and some day (when the prices come down, perhaps) a “deep fake” where powerful video software uses images and mapping techniques to synthesize new video of a subject.
The real trick is to make it seem natural to have something in the way of a witness seeing the victim with his own eyes, up close. The moment there is something in the way, the reader’s suspicions will be (justly) aroused. That’s the trick, but it’s a very difficult one. So difficult, in fact, that I’m not sure how to pull it off.
When a person wishes to inherit a title or a fortune (or both) but is several levels of inheritance removed from the object of his desire, it’s a bit strange when the ambitious person kills off the necessary people in the order of succession. It’s odd because this almost invariably means killing them in the order of most plausibly natural causes to least plausibly natural causes.
These thoughts are inspired by the Murder, She Wrote episode, It Runs in the Family, which will do as an example (note: spoilers ahead).
There’s a woman who wishes to be a viscountess, so she murders the 17th viscount, who is 87 years old, then murders the 18th viscount, who is only in his sixties. Granted, he has some sort of terminal condition where he has only a few months left to live, but the morning of the day she murders him the doctor remarks that he’s doing remarkably well and might live another twenty years. He also abandons the wheelchair he had been going around in and walks like normal. This is actually what makes her think to poison the viscount, because she could wait a few months but not a few years. Granted, she makes a lame attempt to frame Emma Magill (Jessica Fletcher’s identical cousin).
Had she killed in the opposite order, where she killed her brother-in-law while he was still merely the oldest son of a viscount, suspicion would not have fallen nearly so directly on her and would more plausibly have fallen on Emma.
This sort of long-game murder is not a foolproof protection for the murderer—or else it could not be used in murder mysteries!—but it would certainly make the murderer less likely to be suspected. There’s a lot to be said for this making the murder more difficult for the detective and thus more interesting for the reader.
One downside, from the perspective of an American writer such as myself, is that this only really works for hereditary things like titles where succession is guaranteed. Playing the long game with something like a chance to be the CEO of a company would be far riskier; boards of directors cannot be relied on to choose a particular person as CEO. Committing murder for a small chance to become the CEO of a company is much harder for the reader to believe.
On the other hand, it would be quite interesting for the murderer to execute this plan on multiple continents. For example, the current heir to the title could be killed in America, where (him not having a title yet) no one thinks that the title is a possible motive for the murder because they don’t know about it and wouldn’t think to ask about because they’re Americans. When the second murder (disguised as death from natural causes in old age) happens, it will take a quick wit or a suspicious person to connect the two occurrences, especially if they’re separated by enough time that they’re not immediately connected. On the other hand, people who commit murder so that they don’t have to wait are not widely known for their patience.
Such a story also has the benefit of being able to bring the detectives across the ocean—in either direction. Also, if an author had two sets of detectives, one in England and one in America, this could work to create a crossover. It could also be used to set up a cold-case story—someone from England could contact the American detectives about the death that happened in America a year or two ago in light of the sudden death, supposedly (but not plausibly) from a heart attack of an old man who was in robust health (or so the person writing believes). There are more than a few interesting possibilities here.
Nearly anything can be a good setting for a murder mystery, but I’ve been thinking of late of how to select fun settings. One of the great archetypal settings for a murder is a mansion. My own survey over golden age detective fiction is that murders in a mansion—especially during dinner parties—are not nearly as common as they are iconic. I think that they’re iconic for two main reasons.
The first reason that a mansion is iconic for a murder mystery is that it’s a closed environment. The ability to exactly identify all of the suspects makes the problem fit in one’s head better, and also promises that a solution is available. The other reason is that a mansion would be a really fun place to visit. One wouldn’t necessarily want to live in a mansion, it certainly has its downsides. But one does not read a book forever. In a book one necessarily only visits, and a mansion would be a ton of fun to visit.
Looked at this way, Murder on the Orient Express, which I think everyone will agree has one of the great settings in murder mysteries, has these properties. A train is a closed environment, at least when between stations. (Yes, a person might slip out of the train, but then someone might slip out of a window in a mansion. It’s even harder in a train than it would be in a mansion.) Equally important, the Orient Express was a piece of high luxury that few of us could ever afford.
Of the two, I think that the second reason is probably more important than the first. A closed group of suspects is interesting, but it is by no means the only interesting possibility. Even if a person is murdered in a crowded train station, one tends to suspect only those people who actually had a connection to the victim. It has a different feel, to be sure, but it makes for perfectly good stories.
And, to be fair, a boring setting can still host a fascinating murder mystery. The Adventure of the Clapham Cook comes to mind as an example—Poirot is called in because of a missing cook and his investigations largely center around a suspicious border in the extra room of this not very interesting house. That said, that even the apparently ordinary can lead to something extraordinary is the theme of the story; its being an exception is not lost on the story itself.
My own two murder mysteries are set in a college campus that’s mostly deserted because of winter break and a large (public) conservatory and botanical garden. The mystery I’m working on at the moment, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake, is set in a camp resort in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York and promises to be a lot of fun. The one after that will be set at a Renaissance faire next to a Monastery, which takes its name from is neighbor, Saint Anselm’s Fair. None of these settings is opulant, but each is interesting, I think. The university on break has something of the feel of a mansion, though the field of suspects is much wider than the guests at a dinner party. The conservatory also has the mansion feel and, if you discount a stranger jumping the fence, does have the closed list of suspects. There is the difficulty that a conservatory is a very visual place, though, which—even if superbly described—doesn’t carry over as well in a book as it would in a movie. The resort camp should be quite a lot of fun. It may not be the height of luxury, but it is certainly the sort of place I would love to go. The Renaissance fair is a bit different, as after all anyone with fifteen dollars plus gas money can go to one, but it should be a really fascinating and fun place to be.
I think that after that I should probably go to someplace expensive, for a change. It will be a minor difficulty that I’ve never personally been to anyplace very expensive, but then most readers won’t have, either, so at least they won’t be in a position to spot my mistakes. It should also be a fun contrast with the friars who’ve taken vows of poverty, investigating.
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