The Value In Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

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.

Another way to put characters above suspicion

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.

Coincidences in Mysteries

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.

Ingenious Murders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugly Detectives

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.

Odd Character Voices

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.

  1. Make the unusual speech more subtle.
  2. 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.

Characters Above Suspicion

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.)

An Interesting Covert WW2 Assassination Pistol

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.

Murder She Wrote: Curse of the Daanav

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 is played by Larry Linville, best known for playing Frank Burns in M*A*S*H.

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.

Next week’s episode is Mourning Among the Wisteries. Jessica is off to the south to visit a playwrite friend of hers.

Dr. Thorndyke’s Scientific Wizardry

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.

Multiple Murderers

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.)

Clichéd Beginnings Can Become Irrelevant

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.

Reviewing Murder, She Wrote

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.

There Will Be Math, or, Choices Have Implications

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.

Heroes and Success

In a recent blog post Mary says:

Our hero is returning in triumph from his quest and going from success to success —

No.

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.

I’ve Made a Map!

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.)