Freeman Wills Crofts was an Irish mystery writer during the golden age of mysteries. His most famous detective was Inspector French. According to Masters of Mystery, he worked on a railroad and included his extensive knowledge of railways systems and places that they visit into his stories.
What I didn’t realize, until I recently read an article about him, was that many of his stories, and especially his earlier stories, were inverted detective stories. That is, rather than being whodunnits, they were howcatchems. I was surprised to learn that style of story (one can’t quite call it a mystery) was popular so early on. (Crofts sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his novels.)
The same article in which I found this out also said that the novels featuring Dr. Thorndyke, the detective of R. Austin Freeman, were also howcatchems rather than whodunnits. In fact, the Dr. Thorndyke novels were supposed to be so entirely about how the culprit was caught that scientific experiments—all of them performed by the author himself prior to writing about them—were (apparently) the chief amusement of the books.
Prior to learning about these detectives, the only inverted detective stories with which I was familiar were the episodes of the TV show Columbo. I never gave it much thought, but while if I was forced to make a guess I’d have guessed that someone had done an inverted detective story prior to Columbo, I never realized that it was actually popular prior to Columbo. It’s curious how much, in the circle of people I know, the earlier examples faded into obscurity. Though sometimes the characters are preserved longer than their authors.
I cannot recall having encountered, in my own time, anyone talking about Freeman Wills Crofts, nor have I heard anyone talk about R. Austin Freema. Dr. Thorndyke, however, is referred to fairly often in at least one of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, and if my memory doesn’t deceive me, more than one. In the banter between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, they sometimes talk about what Dr. Thorndyke would make of what they’ve found.
I find it a bit surprising to learn that Dr. Thorndyke wasn’t in mysteries but rather howcatchems. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, though. It was only a howcatchem from the reader’s perspective. From Dr. Thorndyke’s perspective, he was every bit as engaged in trying to solve a mystery as Lord Peter was.
The references to Dr. Thorndyke and learning more about him are also a curious vantage point onto popular culture references aging. The first few times I read the stories I had no idea who Dr. Thorndyke was except what was implied by how he was referenced; he was a brilliant Sherlock Holmes type. Past that, I knew nothing. Now that I know more, it is curious that the reference doesn’t really mean more to me than it did. Perhaps that would change if I were to actually read the Dr. Thorndyke stories—I can’t really say without having read them, of course. (I did just order the first book, The Red Thumb Mark, off of Amazon to at least read the first chapter.)
I think that this does point to popular culture references, if done with enough context to explain them, working reasonably well. It is handy, for example, that Dr. Thorndyke is a doctor; the prefix helps to clarify that the name refers to a person and not a company or a place, for example. Having the other person respond in some fashion also helps, because the response will, itself, help to fill in some of the knowledge necessary to understand the reference.
Popular culture references also adds something interesting to track down and to discuss with one’s friends. It’s curious what little tid bits of history get preserved by offhand comments from people who only ever existed in a writer’s imagination, prompting others to research these things and write down what they were.
There is a story in my family about my grandfather, which comes from the 1950s or perhaps the 1960s, when he was not a grandfather but only the father of three girls. It’s not a long story; they had a television and would sometimes watch it. He had a habit of occasionally, and out of the blue, telling his children to put Tarzan on it.
They would then explain, once again, “but Daddy, you can’t just put Tarzan on. You have wait until they broadcast it.” The way the story is told, I suspect that he knew it perfectly well, and was only teasing his children. In my own experience young children never grow tired of telling their parents things that their parents already know, and a parent pretending to not know something makes for a game that’s a little bit like a baby bird learning to flap its wings.
The very curious thing about this story is how dated it was. When I was a boy, the story required no explanation, for television was still broadcast over radio waves at the time, on a schedule, and if you missed a broadcast you had no way of seeing it again. (Incidentally, when I explained that format of watching shows to my then-five-year-old son, the look of horror on his face was priceless.) This story made perfect sense to me without any explanation.
From what I understand there are still companies using the broadcast television model, though mainly over cables rather than over radio waves, though even that is, so I hear, still going on a little bit. However, the predominant way in which children watch video these days is all video-on-demand over the internet. Whether it’s Netflix or Amazon or Disney+ or YouTube or one of several others, the dominant way a child watches a cartoon is to think of what cartoon he wants to watch, go to the appropriate player, and hit play. Not everything is on streaming services, of course, which is why the DVD and Blu-Ray disks exist; they require a bit more exercise to put into the blu-ray player, but, barring one having a more important obligation, one can still watch whatever one is in the mood for, at approximately the moment one wants to watch it.
This is a story that I will no doubt pass on to my own children, but it is curious that I will have to include an explanation that what will sound perfectly natural to them was actually a joke at the time.
Thinking over the settings for the golden age of detection fiction, it was relatively common for a detective to run into a mystery while on vacation. I think that this served two primary purposes, which I’d like to consider in turn.
The first function of encountering mysteries while on vacation is to spread the murders out, geographically. You can see the reverse of this problem in Murder, She Wrote when Sheriff Metzger asked, after the third or fourth murder since he moved from New York City to get away from the constant violence, whether Cabot Cove was the death capital of Maine. Unless you put your detective in a huge city, as Sherlock Holmes was in London, it is rather limiting to have to set all of his cases locally.
That said, a consulting detective can be called in by someone who does not live near him, just as Sherlock Holmes often was. Vacations, then, serve another purpose, too. Vacations give us interesting places as settings.
This is related, I think, to Lord Peter being very rich. It’s worth looking at the quote from Dorothy L. Sayers on why she did this; the detective’s vacation fulfills a similar function:
Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.
There’s an element of this which I think applies to all writers, or at least almost all writers. We are not a bunch known for actually going on many vacations. Fictional writers do, of course. They travel to book signings the world over to meet legions of adoring fans who wait in long lines to see them for a few seconds. (To be fair, book tours were a thing, once, though like the Wild West they may have lasted longer in fiction than in reality.) Be that as it may, since giving up their personal secretaries and learning to type for themselves, real writers spend a lot of time alone. That’s how the books actually get written.
Sending one’s detective on a vacation can be a good substitute. It also does away with many of the disadvantages of traveling. Plane rides are something to be endured, not enjoyed. The Caribbean may be beautiful, but it is hot in the sun, and for some of us, at least, sunburn is not a highlight of one’s day. No one enjoys donating blood to biting insects. All these inconveniences, and more, can be placed onto the shoulders of our long-suffering detective, while we, in our imaginations, can enjoy only the highlights of the vacation.
What is true of the writer is also true of the reader; it is a pleasure to read about places that incur inconvenience to actually go to.
This question of setting is one that I think mystery writers (though not the great ones) sometimes neglect. That probably sounds like a more sweeping generalization that I mean it; to stand on firmer ground: I, at least, am prone to neglecting it. I tend to be very plot-focused, and as a result think of the setting primarily as it impacts the plot. Obviously, a setting does need to work with the plot and not against it, but I suspect that a good starting point for a mystery is an excellent setting, and then one can consider what sorts of plots would work well in it. At that point selecting characters becomes easier because one has the guidance of the question: who would do such a thing, at such a place? Then just add in some eccentric acquaintances, a romantic sub-plot, and you’re good to go!
In The Well and the Shallows, Chesterton has a chapter on writing styles and egotism. (It is called An Apology for Buffoons, for those interested in reading the whole thing.) In it, he talks about style and what is true egotism; the problem comes up that people are amusing may seem to be drawing attention to themselves, when actually they are drawing attention to the their subject. Conversely, there are people who may seem to be not talking of themselves and yet talk of little else. The second part contains the quote I’m writing this post to to quote, but the first part is worth mentioning.
As an example of someone who draws a great deal of attention to himself through his wit, the purpose of which is to draw attention away from himself and onto his subject, Chesterton uses Mr. George Bernard Shaw. The paragraph where he does is worth quoting in full, because it sets up the last sentence very well.
It is not an idle contradiction to say that Mr. Shaw is flippant because he is serious. A man like Mr. Shaw has the deliberate intention of getting people to listen to what he has to say; and therefore he must be amusing. A man who is only amusing himself need not be amusing. Generally, when he is a perfect and polished stylist, he is not. And there is a good deal of misunderstanding about the relative moral attitude of the two types; especially in connection with the old morality of modesty. Most persons, listening to these loud flippancies would say that Mr. Bernard Shaw is egotistical. Mr. Bernard Shaw himself would emphatically and violently assert that he is egotistical; and I should emphatically and violently assert that he is not. It is not the first time we have somewhat tartly disagreed. And perhaps I could not more effectively perform the just and necessary public duty of annoying Mr. Shaw than by saying (as I do say) that in this matter he really inherits an unconscious tradition of Christian humility. The preaching friar puts his sermon into popular language, the missionary fills his sermon with anecdotes and even jokes, because he is thinking of his mission and not of himself It does not matter that Mr. Shaw’s sentences so often begin with the pronoun “I.” The Apostles Creed begins with the pronoun “I”; but it goes on to rather more important nouns and names.
Now that Chesterton mentions it, there is something very interesting in the fact that the Apostles Creed, as too does the Nicene Creed, starts with the word “I”. In fact, the Nicene creed has it more than once. And yet it is the very opposite of egotistical.
This is related, I think, to how the most momentous things a human being can do is to subsume himself into the mass of humanity. In a strange way, a man becomes most individual when he is in a group of people and reciting the same creed, word for word, all of the other men are reciting too, and which Christians have recited for many centuries.
Be that as it may, it’s really the second part—the disguised egotist—which is why I’m writing this post. Chesterton introduces this with:
Father Ronald Knox, in his satire on Modernism, has described the courteous vagueness of the Oxford manner which …. tempering pious zeal Corrected, “I believe” to “One does feel.”
It is quite true that “I believe” is a statement about other things, though admittedly with a bit of a caveat as to who the authority is. “One does feel” is just a description of an experience, if, still, in this more original form, a somewhat generalized feeling. In our own times it has become “I feel.” There is much that can be said about the move from thought (“I think”) to emotion (“I feel”). Suffice it to the moment, though, the timidity which drives it does change it into something that is about the person speaking far more than about the thing spoken about. And the epitome of this is what Chesterton calls, “the essay,” though that term now refers to other things. It is well known, even, now, though. It is a thing with great style and no substance, though often the pretense to substance. The style is unmistakable, and Chesterton imitates it rather well:
“The pond in my garden shows, under the change of morning, an apprehension of the moving air, hardly to be called a wave; and so little clouding its lucidity as to seem rather vacuity in motion. Here at least is nothing to stain the bright negation of water; none of those suburban gold-fish that look like carrots and do but nose after their tails in a circle of frustration, to give some sulky gardener cause to cry ‘stinking fish’. The mind is altogether carried away upon the faint curve of wind over water; the movement is something less solid than anything that we can call liquid; the smoke of my light Virginian cigarette does not mount more unsubstantially towards the sky. Nor indeed inaptly: it needs some such haven of patriarchal mildness to accent sharply the tang of mild tobacco; alone perhaps, of all the attributes of Raleigh’s red-haired mistress, rightly to be called virginal.”
As I mentioned, I’ve been working on the story for He Didn’t Drown in the Lake (the third chronicle of Brother Thomas). I have the “what really happened” written out, and it’s about 5000 words. And I realized I need more.
The first thing I have to do is to add to what-really-happened and include what was going on until the Brothers arrived. There’s a whole bunch of characterization that will happen in those hours between when the police arrive to view the body and when the brothers arrive. In theory, I could just make notes of that, but I tried a bit and it seems like there’s no substitute for actually writing out the story as if it were a novel, even though it won’t (directly) go into the novel.
The other thing I need to write out, in addition to the outline I’m working on, is a schedule for the camp. When does paddleboard yoga happen every day, when are the horseback rides every day, etc. The camp would have a schedule, and I can already tell that I’m going to get horribly lost unless I come up with one, too.
At least I have one paragraph of the actual story written.
Today I received a hilarious spam message. It was from “firstname.lastname@example.org” (almost certainly wasn’t, of course) and had the subject “OHFVQO3N51RUEBV3”. This was, of course, promising. Then I opened the email and couldn’t help but laugh. Here’s the body of the text (I cleaned up the punctuation):
Hi, how are you? I write with with firm intention, if only you would be interested in this letter. Call me Aimeny. Im a very gentlemanlike person. Its not a new for me I look pretty. Have you ever heard about Azerbaijan? Its country I live in. I a just a 25 year old lady. Why am I here? I need a friend! To be honest I want to find a betrothed. Its time to start a family. My best personality traits are sense of humor and kindness. Do I deserve a chance to talk to you? I know that I may be not interesting for you. You can just delete this message. However it would be pleasure to talk to you. I am open for conversation. Ask me anything. Interesting, what will you say to me? It would be great if this is the beginning of something magical. Stay safe, my friend! I will wait for you! Sincerely yours
So, according to this email, Jose Ferrer, who has a German email address, he lives in Azerbaijan and wants me to call him Aimeny. (For what it’s worth, there is an attached picture of a woman in far too much makeup.)
I do understand that these things often are implausible as a feature, to filter out the non-gullible so that the crooks on the other end of the spam don’t need to waste time on people who will figure out what’s going on, but this one seems like it’s taking that to extremes. Even if some lonely man is so desperate he would fall for the body text hoping against hope that it’s real, why would he open the email with a man’s name?
Also, what on earth was the sentence, “Its not a new for me I look pretty” supposed to mean?
One of the problems that detectives investigating complicated murders have is that there is all sorts of evidence that probably exists which it would be convenient for them to have which they don’t. It would be great to have a recording of every phone call every suspect made, for example. Better still would be 24/7 surveillance footage of all suspects. Of course, these would make for very boring detective stories, so no detectives have these.
There is an intermediate case, though, which is the police; the police have broad powers to obtain evidence which ordinary people cannot use. Police can get phone records, they have a network of people to track the movements of an individual, they can compel banks to give them bank records, etc. Sometimes the detective has these advantages because he is a police detective; sometimes he has these advantages because he has a friend on the police force. Perhaps one of the more creative examples was Lord Peter Wimsey, who was able to obtain all sorts of privileges because of his prefix.
There is a curious interaction of these special privileges with the fair play principle. Of course, strictly interpreted any such privilege is fair play if the reader is given the same privilege by being given the information that the detective is, but in another sense this violates part of the spirit of fair play because it takes from the reader the possibility of imagining himself doing what the detective did, under similar circumstances.
This is, for all its flaws, one of the great triumphs of Encyclopedia Brown. His proofs are often pedantic or trivial, and occasionally factually incorrect, but they are all proofs that anyone who has read a lot of non-fiction books could make. The glory of Encyclopedia Brown is that, allowing for the fact that in real life no one would go to the Brown Detective Agency, anyone who reads the books could open their own Brown Detective Agency and make a go of it.
I should also note that I think that this is one reason why some detectives resort to criminal means (more generally, things unavailable to the police) to obtain evidence. This is, essentially, a sort of special privilege for the detective. I suspect this is one of the reasons why I think that such behavior—and, in a sense, lying to witnesses to obtain their testimony—is not as good as the alternative. By doing things which the reader cannot or should not do, the detective gains special privileges which help to explain his special success.
I do not think that there is anything wrong with a detective with special privileges—there have been many great ones—but I think that the great detective without special privileges is a difficult ideal worth being aimed at, at least.
For those who are interested, Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral has gone into wide release, and is now available on Amazon.com. (That’s the kindle version, the paper version isn’t merged yet, and is here.)
At the time of writing the kindle edition is on a promotional sale for $0.99, but will revert to its regular price soon ($4.99 kindle, $14.99 paperback, and $29.99 hardcover).
A common enough plot device in murder mysteries is the murder being taken to be an accident or a suicide. This often follows from the murderer trying to disguise the murder as an accident or suicide; any number of things may lead to it being taken that way. The ones that I particularly have in mind, though, are the ones where the detective is unsure of whether it was murder or not.
The problem with this is one of genre—what with the story being a murder mystery, something has gone wrong if the murder isn’t actually a murder. Granted, this does come up from time to time, but such stories are almost invariably disappointing. They can be partially redeemed by the accident or suicide being disguised as murder as part of an attempted murder (framing an innocent person for the not-a-crime, or at least not-their-crime in the case of suicide). However, even this is only tenuously in the genre of murder mystery. The worst, though, is where a series of accidents served to obscure some evidence, which then led the detective to think that this was the one clue which didn’t fit. I get why such things exist—if something is never an alternative, there is no suspense—but it’s deeply unsatisfying for the detective to unravel a problem which he created. It’s not good when the best case is equivalent to the detective having stayed home and taken a nap.
Anyway, whichever way this goes, there is a further problem of genre: unless the book is in the wrong genre, we the reader know that the accident wasn’t an accident. This reminds me of something that James Cameron said in a conversation with his co-writer of Terminator 2. The quirk of the movie is that this time the terminator from the first movie is sent back in time by the human faction to protect a kid from a more advanced terminator sent back in time by the machine faction. However, this is only revealed about 20 minutes in to the movie; they shoot all of the scenes with the original terminator in an ominous way, as if he’s the bad guy. But, as Cameron pointed out, the problem is that in the leadup to the movie Arnold Schwarzenegger was doing hundreds of promotional interviews that started with, “So, Arnold, this time you play a good guy”—that is, it’s not like the audience was actually going to be fooled. So what’s the point?
And that’s a good question. I’m not sure that such pretenses really have a point. They can be a plot device to put the detective in an antagonistic position with the police—especially when the detective is himself the police, leading to the chief of police saying “you have 24 hours to prove this was murder”. They can be a plot device to put the detective in an antagonistic position with the family or other witnesses and suspects. But it just doesn’t work for the detective to be unsure that the death really was murder, because from the point of view of the audience it’s not an open question. If the detective is trying to figure out whether the death was murder, the reader is in the position of having to wait for the author to get to the good part.
Something I can’t recall ever having seen, which I think would be very interesting, would be a murder mystery in which the first “murder” was an accident but the second “murder” was a genuine murder. With the murderer hiding in the shadow of the accident which people take to be murder, he would probably be putting himself out of the reckoning because he has a forged steel alibi for the first “murder”. Only once that death was discovered to be an accident would his breakable alibi for the second murder come under real suspicion.
Given the sheer number of murder mysteries already written, I’m sure that this has actually been done. What I think is more common is a variation on it, where one person commits a murder, then a different person commits a copycat murder, hoping to hide in the first murderer’s shadow. I know I’ve seen that, at least in an episode of Numb3rs. Stretching the concept slightly, you can also see it in the Brother Cadfael story One Corpse Too Many. This is definitely an interesting plot for a murder mystery. It makes things nicely complicated. So complicated that it really can only be done in a mystery novel, not a short story. (The episode of Numb3rs, being a TV show and therefore structurally a short story, managed this with a multiplicity of murders that just made a single villain impossible and further had the solving of the individual murders happen off-screen.)
That said, I think it would be an interesting variation to have a murderer stumble onto an accidental death that he had an alibi for and set it up to be a murder, then during that investigation—or better yet, I think, once it has concluded in frustration—to commit another murder with the same modus operandi and other clues pointing to it being the same murderer.
I’m working on the what-really-happened story for the third chronicle of Brother Thomas, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake. (As I’ve mentioned before, I think of a murder mystery as a story-within-a-story, except that the interior story is told backwards; I write that interior story first to ensure consistency.)
I’m up to about 3,000 words so far. The murderer killed the victim and the search party is out looking for the murdered man (because he didn’t come home for hours from his short evening walk). It’s coming along well and I’m happy with it so far, but man is it a lot of work, on a per-word basis.
The reason it’s a lot of work is, of course, because it’s compressed. I’m only describing the parts that will be relevant later, and so I’m having to make a lot of decisions per sentence. To give an example, how does the search party split up? That will certainly come into play later, and having influence on suspicions. Another big one I had to decide was whether the search party found the body that night, or in the morning. That determines whether the footprints down to the lake where the body went in are easy to find, or not. The problem is, since the search party doesn’t know that this is a murder investigation, if the footprints are easy to find they will be mostly obliterated by the search party walking over them. If they’re in good condition, it will be because the search party didn’t find them—but then the body will have drifted in the lake and the spot where he went in will be hard to find. Both of these are very workable, but I have to decide which one to go with. (I’ve about 95% decided on the search party finding the footprints.)
This decision also affects the timing of the story; the police need to be called in and some suspicion of murder has to arise before the brothers can be called in. I have a preference for them to be called in sooner rather than later, since the evidence will be fresher and guests won’t have left yet, etc.
For all of the jokes about people dropping like flies wherever Jessica Fletcher went, it certainly saved a lot of time and effort over having to have an excuse for her to be called in.
One White Rose For Death is the fourth episode in the third season of Murder, She Wrote.
It’s not one of the most memorable episodes, probably because the setup of Jessica being used to help a classical performer from behind the Iron Curtain to defect while on an American tour was used in the first season (Death Takes a Curtain Call) and had the extremely memorable Major Anatole Karzof of the KGB. That said, this is a fun and interesting episode.
The plot is very different; instead of a former Russian defector and relative of the performer, who brought Jessica to the theater, being the one to help the couple, it’s a British secret agent they met at the theater, and instead of hiding out at Jessica’s house they end up hiding out at the British embassy in whatever country they’re in (most everyone has a British accent, but they hide out at the British embassy so the one country they can’t be in is Great Britain). It’s this later part that makes the episode so interesting: since the murder is committed inside of the embassy, it becomes a closed-mansion mystery.
There is the added tension from the defection story; only the brother (Franz) defected—he had been a spy for the British after the secret police murder his wife—while his sister (Gretta) was dragged along and isn’t happy about it. Then they find out that the East German secret police is holding their parents hostage. This spy-thrilleresque thread vies with the murder mystery thread to be the main plot; it keeps the tension up for the entire episode.
The murder victim gives us a clue—his dead hand clutches the titular white rose.
Jessica overheard the victim asking spy headquarters for information on a mission that had been called White Rose. Fortunately, Michael, the spy who got Jessica into this mess, knows what it was about—it was a failed mission to protect an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, ten years before. (The activist was assassinated.)
The victim was also a spy, in fact Michael had recruited him into the spying business, so he took the murder very personally. He came from a long line of stuffy bankers and his “banker’s face” made him perfect for the spy businesses. The most important thing about being a spy is to be able to pass oneself off as anything, such as a tradesman.
Fortunately for everyone, not least of all the audience, because everyone in the embassy is a suspect, the diplomat in charge of the embassy gives Jessica free run to investigate the murder. I didn’t quite follow his logic, here, but it’s always more pleasant when the detective has the right to investigate, so I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Initial investigations turn up that:
the doctor had ties to anti-apartheid activists in South Africa
the diplomat’s wife is from Rhodesia
the victim’s fingernails and eyes show “moons”. He was killed with a fast-acting poison, which Jessica takes to mean a poisoned weapon.
#3 means that the murder weapon was probably professional; not many people besides professionals carry poisoned stabbing weapons. With the white rose connection, it seems likely that the victim recognized the assassin from operation White Rose. #1 gets dismissed fairly quickly because he was on the wrong side to have assassinated the activist being protected in operation White Rose. #2 bears more investigation, which happens fairly quickly.
The diplomat and his wife come clean.
While she came from Rhodesia, she was the daughter of a light-skinned servant who had been raped by one of her white masters. She was taken from Rhodesia as a child and grew up in England; she hadn’t been near South Africa in over a decade when the assassination happened. The diplomat was stationed in Hong Kong back then. They had been secretive and not forthcoming with their alibis because they wanted to keep the wife’s background a secret due to the diplomat’s needing social standing for his job. After this is revealed Michael walks in with the news that the doctor can be ruled out too because he was in prison (for having participated in a peace march) the day that the activist was killed.
Michael declares the theory that the victim was killed because he recognized the assassin a bust. “I mean, what would a professional assassin be doing here at the embassy?” This question is the spark which gives Jessica the answer. “Unless here is not where he was supposed to be,” she replies.
At this point we can figure out who did it by simple process of elimination. There’s no way it could be the East Germans, so the only person left is the literary agent who met Jessica at the airport and accompanied her to the concert.
There’s a brief scene at the beginning where we meet the literary agent who escorts Jessica and he apologized for the person, Jeffrey, who she expected wasn’t able to meet her because he got tied up in some meeting. Jessica reveals that she just called her agency and they knew nothing about Jeffrey being on any sort of assignment. The police went to his apartment and found him strangled in bed.
The literary agent pulls out his pipe, which the secret agent grabs from him. It turns out that there was a secret stiletto blade in it, presumably poisoned. Later on, we see him arrested. Jessica complains to the British spy that the faux literary agent used her to try to get at the Prime Minister to assassinate him, and it would have worked had the British spy not brought them to the embassy at gunpoint.
The setting of this episode is really excellent. Especially when it comes to a TV show, the embassy of a reasonably rich country like Great Britain makes for a spectacular setting. It’s one of the few places where you can have an ornate, old-fashioned mansion outside of England. Even more, it’s one of the few places where you can have a sealed mansion in America that’s not on a private island. It’s a really great setting. It’s not surprising that embassies are a popular place to set a murder. Really, it’s only surprising that they’re not more popular. After all, there are a lot of embassies in the world.
The construction of this episode is interesting. The dramatic event of an East German trying to defect to the west is merely the setting for the murder. This complicates the plot and serves as an excellent distraction. Further, it does a very good job of hiding the murderer to have him brought along at gunpoint to where he would rather not be. As Chesterton put it:
A great part of the craft or trick of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime. Many mysteries fail merely by leaving him at loose ends in the story, with apparently nothing to do except to commit the crime. He is generally well off, or our just and equal law would probably have him arrested as a vagrant long before he was arrested as a murderer. We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious.
Now, the device of the murderer having to improvise a murder because he was recognized by someone he was thrown together with by chance fulfills this criteria exceedingly well. It does so with a trade-off, of course. That trade-off is that there is exceedingly little that could point to one person instead of another as the murderer. Structurally, the murderer could be anyone since he has an entirely secret relationship to the victim. There is no alternative to examining each person in turn and arriving at the correct conclusion by a process of elimination.
The best the author can do is to eliminate all of the suspects, in which case there is some deductive work to do in figuring out which suspect should not have been eliminated. The second best one can do is what was done in this episode, where it merely seems that all of the suspects have been eliminated because there was one we never thought of.
There is a difficult question which comes up here of giving the murderer an opportunity to murder the victim. This is difficult precisely because it must be done in a way that the reader sees, but not in a way that he notices.
That was done in this episode by an exchange where the faux literary agent demanded to leave and when he was told that he was not yet free to leave no matter who in the home office he knows, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. This exchange was colorful and mildly humorous, which seemed to explain its presence. It did put him alone for a time, which gives him opportunity, but it didn’t give him much opportunity. The body is discovered about two and a half minutes later in the episode, which is close to what it would have been in the story. There’s only one scene break, and it’s Jessica going to find Gretta—they discover the body together after their conversation. This gave the faux literary agent very little time to find his man, stab him, and make his escape. Other than that very brief time, he was always in the lounge, at least as far as we can tell, and always with one or more others there with him. It was enough time, but only if he was lucky and ran into his man, alone, almost immediately.
One thing that was never explained—and possibly because this would have been difficult, never questioned—was what the victim was doing in the garden. We last saw him trying to dig up information on operation White Rose on the telephone. There’s no obvious reason for him to go into the garden. And the body was not hidden, so it pretty much had to have been killed in the garden. If the body was moved to the garden, it would have been hidden. The last thing that the faux literary agent wanted was for the body to be found. The garden was clearly large enough to hide a body such that it would take a while for people who weren’t looking for it to find it. Where it was, Gretta only found it by tripping over an extended foot. (Also, had the body been moved, the killer would presumably have removed the white rose which pointed to him.)
The final thing to discuss, I think, is the choice of killer and victim. The killer was a professional assassin and the victim a professional spy. Granted, the professional assassin murdered the victim only in order to protect himself from being recognized and not because he was being paid for it, but it still removes the murder from those ordinary motives and passions which make murder mysteries morality plays. It’s just difficult to relate to someone being able to identify one as a professional assassin when one has never killed for money.
(Also, come to think of it, how on earth did the victim recognize the killer? The activist who was killed during operation White Rose was stabbed to death, but the assassin escaped into the crowd “before anyone knew what had happened”. That’s not really the sort of circumstance under which one will get a really good look at the assassin, to recognize him 9 years later in a completely different context. And, given that the victim did recognize him, why did the victim let him get within stabbing range in the garden? He was stabbed in the chest, not in the back. A solitary garden, even in the dark, is a sub-optimal place to sneak up on a man to stab him in the chest. I suppose he could have sneaked up on the victim from behind and at the last moment the victim heard him and wheeled around, too late to defend himself.)
Overall, I think that the plotting and structure of this episode are above average for Murder, She Wrote. It’s a fun episode, though of course part of that is the setting. That said, the setting is a choice, and it was a good one. A good setting can go a long way to making a good plot easier to pull off.
I first watched Murder, She Wrote when it aired on television and had seen more than a single season before reaching my tenth birthday. Most episodes, though enjoyable, are not all that memorable, but some really stick with me. One such episode is The Night of the Headless Horseman.
It’s an episode in the middle of the third season and borrows heavily, as the title implies, from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s a very interesting episode and I’m going to discuss its plot and characterization, but first I’m going to give a brief recap of the plot in the reader has not watched this episode recently.
We begin by being introduced to Dorian, a tall, gaunt poetry teacher in a rural boarding school/horse riding academy. He is very much Ichabod Crane. He is reading a poem to the lady he’s courting, Sarah, who is the daughter of the wealthy owner of the school/riding academy. She, too, is very much Katrina Van Tassel (Ichabod’s love interest, if you don’t remember).
The school is set in the south, at least to the degree that the actors can do southern accents (it varies), so we even have the plot element of Dorian being a Yankee outsider (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Sleepy Hollow it was a Dutch settlement). Further borrowing from the famous story, as Dorian walks home, he is comes to a covered bridge:
And then, to pay off the title, out of nowhere a headless horseman carrying a jack-o-lantern rides up.
The rider chases Dorian onto the bridge and throws the jack-o-lantern at him. As the rider rides off, Dorian shakes his fist and exclaims, “Damn you, Nate Finley!”
So far, we have a remarkable homage to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. We’re only about three minutes in, however, and things will begin to diverge, as they must, when Jessica arrives. Speaking of which…
The scene now changes to Jessica arriving from Cabot Cove via the train; Nate picks her up at the station. They begin to catch up, then in what is ostensibly an explanation of what Dorian is doing at the prestigious Wenton Academy (the school/riding academy), we get some obviously important backstory.
Dorian has the job because over the summer the previous poetry teacher, a beautiful young woman named Gretchen, died under mysterious circumstances. The daughter of the Academy’s stable master, she drowned in the river, and—hint, hint—rumor has it that there was a man with her who was the one behind the wheel. If you can’t guess that the earlier mystery will drive the murder we haven’t seen in this episode, you clearly haven’t been watching Murder, She Wrote for long. They do work it in as backstory and gossip well enough that you can feel clever for spotting it, though.
Next, Dr. Penn Walker, the town dentist, shows up:
In this encounter we learn two major things:
The doctor has a strong interest in jewelry; it’s a hobby of his.
He thinks that Jessica is Dorian’s mother.
On the car ride from the train station, Dorian tries to stall Jessica with conversation, in which we learn that the good doctor was engaged to Gretchen, the poetry teacher who died under mysterious circumstances. Also, he was in Europe when it happened. (This simultaneously clears the doctor of being the man behind the wheel and also sets him up with a very strong revenge motive.)
After these important details, Jessica forces Dorian to come clean, and he admits that he’s fallen in love but his intended fiancé’s father has a fixation with pedigrees and so, being an orphan, he wanted to present at least one parent and so lied that Jessica is his mother. This conversation is interrupted by Nate Finley, who rides his horse in front of their car for no reason, then laughs at them.
Clearly, we’re not meant to feel sorry for him when he turns up dead.
(Nate Finley does match the character of Abraham Van Brunt, in being the other suitor for Sarah’s hand and a far better physical specimen, though less socially adept. His character does depart from Van Brunt’s, though, as we’ll see.)
Jessica and Dorian get to the school where some awkwardness ensues as Jessica isn’t sure whether to play along with the lie of being Dorian’s mother. We then get introduced to a trio of boys who play a prank on the stablemaster (driving the horses off, out of the stable). The stablemaster appears to be German; he is named Van Stottard and has a thick German accent, anyway.
Nate Finley happens to be around and threatens the stablemaster that he will find a new stablemaster if the current one cannot keep control of the horses. It’s a noble effort on the part of the writers to distract from the characters just introduced by highlighting what a bad guy Nate Finley is, but one of the problems that Murder, She Wrote writers labor under is that they don’t have the budget for unimportant characters. That said, they do at least have the freedom to make characters important for surprising reasons, so we don’t really know what part the boys play in this.
Dorian accuses Nate Finley of being the headless horseman, which he doesn’t deny. Finley then rides off.
In the next scene, we get the owner of the school telling the headmistress that he wants Nate Finley fired.
This is an unusual move for a television show; ordinarily bullies on TV have the unconditional support of authority figures. The headmistress tells him to calm down; he knows as well as she does that Nate Finley is as good as they come in the saddle, and their riding program is, for some reason, of the utmost importance to the school. Why, is never explained. Even in the 1980s it was a bit of a stretch that wealthy parents would choose to send their children to a boarding school primarily on the basis of its riding program.
The headmistress surmises that the owner is afraid for his daughter, and suggests he should look out for the new English teacher instead. Some more introductions are made and the stablemaster barges in holding all three boys we met earlier. He charges them with committing pranks and they do not deny it; the headmistress says that she will deal with them later.
That night, the headmistress interrupts Nate Finley saddling up his horse to tell him to stay away from the owner’s daughter.
“I want you to stay away from Edwin’s daughter. Satisfy your needs elsewhere.” “Is that an order, or an offer?”
This dialog is a bit odd in that we learn moments later that the two were involved with each other; she threatens to fire him if he doesn’t stay away from the owner’s daughter and he threatens to tell the owner that they were together. Either way, though, Nate Finley clearly deserves the murdering he’s about to receive, and I suppose that this scene serves to establish the headmistress as a possible culprit.
The next scene moves to a restaurant in which the wait staff dress up in period costume for some reason, and we meet the waittress, Bobbie.
She seems to be set up almost as a love interest for Dorian, except that he never really pays any attention to her. The dentist comes in and sits down with Jessica and Dorian. He notices Bobbie’s neclace, and asks where she got it. She replies, “Nate Finley, Doc. Guess he figures it will get him somewhere, which it won’t.” And before anyone else has a chance to speak, Nate Finley walks into the bar. Jessica warns Dorian not to start anything, but in vain, because Finley starts it.
Finley tries to warn Dorian off of Sarah, but Dorian punches him in the mouth. They fight for a while, and Dorian gets shoved against the wall where he knocks down an old saber. He picks it up, as several of Nate Finley’s friends are standing around him.
If you think that there’s any chance that Dorian isn’t holding the murder weapon, you haven’t seen Murder, She Wrote before. Nothing happens here, though, because the Sheriff—who had been conveniently on his way to dinner, I suppose—breaks up the fight.
The fight over, Nate mentions that he thinks he broke a tooth, and a raw nerve in his mouth being exposed, he does the logical thing and asks for a stiff drink from the bartender.
Dorian leaves. As Jessica leaves, she notices the leader of the three trouble-making students feeding Nate Finley’s horse. She says hello to him, but he just walks off.
Dorian goes to Sarah’s house, but no one is home. On his way back, right before the covered bridge, Nate Finley’s friends show up in a yellow pickup truck. He asks them for a ride back to the academy but instead they give him the murder weapon.
They drive off. Dorian only makes it a few more steps before the headless horseman rides again. Dorian tries to defend himself with the sabre…
…but only gets knocked down. His head hits a rock and he falls unconscious.
The next day the stablemaster and headmistress are concerned about Nate Finley’s horse. He had been ridden hard but not cleaned. The sweat has dried into his fur. (This is a problem for horses because the tack the wear—bridle, saddle, etc—will tend to rub the sweat into their skin, causing irritation. Any good horseman will always clean his horse after riding him, for the horse’s sake.) The attentive viewer will infer that Nate Finley has finally been murdered, though the characters don’t catch on just yet. This does yield an interesting problem for the viewer, though, since as far as we know Nate Finley was the headless horseman, and the headless horseman was the last person we saw alive.
Dorian stumbles into the stable and announces his intention to get even with Nate Finley. No one knows where Finley is, though.
Jessica, out on her morning bike ride, runs into the police who have found Nate Finley’s body. The Sheriff asks if Jessica knows where “her son” is, but she doesn’t. No sooner has she said this than a car pulls up with the headmistress and Dorian in it. Dorian launches into a complaint at the Sheriff about how Nate Finley had attacked him the night before. The Sheriff is interested, and asks questions that don’t seem entirely related. Jessica puts two and two together and realizes that Nate Finley has been killed. They see the body under a tarp, or possibly a black cloak. Jessica notices something about the feet:
The boots are on the wrong feet! I’m not giving anything away here, at least by more than a few seconds, as Jessica starts pointing this out to anyone who will listen almost immediately.
It is revealed that Nate Finley was decapitated, so the Sheriff arrests Dorian as having recently threatened Nate Finley with a saber. Curiously, it never occurs to anyone to ask whether a wall decoration at a restaurant was actually sharp. It’s actually pretty rare for wall decorations to be kept in fighting condition. I suppose we’re meant to assume that it was, since the saber is later referred to as “bloody”.
Jessica argues with the Sheriff, pointing out problems with his case, and finishes with the fact that Dorian has sworn that he didn’t do it. That’s supposed to hold weight because Dorian doesn’t lie. When the Sheriff points out that of course she thinks that, being his mother, Jessica accidentally admits that she’s not his mother. As he puts Dorian into the jail cell, he tells Jessica that it’s encouraging to hear that Dorian doesn’t lie.
In the next scene, Jessica and Dorian talk over the situation.
A little bit is added to what we already know. Dorian saw the owner of the school driving off from his house in a hurry. When Jessica talks to Sarah about it, Sarah claims to be the one who drove off, but is obviously lying. The owner comes out and admits to being the one who nearly ran Dorian over. He had gotten an anonymous note that the headmistress was embezzling funds, so he waited until his daughter was asleep and drove off in a hurry to confront her. He did, she denied it, the owner said he would retain an independent auditor, then returned home. (The owner also asks her to tell Dorian to stay away from his daughter or there would be another killing.)
Back at the academy, Jessica runs into one of the three boys, but he runs off when he’s questioned. She runs into the stablemaster, but he refuses to answer questions, except to say that he had no reason to kill Finley but there are others who did. He walks off when Jessica asks if he meant the headmistress, perhaps. So, on to the headmistress.
We get a small scene of the three boys in a secret room at the top of the stables, where one says that they need to tell someone, and the ringleader says that they won’t tell anyone. What won’t be told is, of course, suggestively left off.
When Jessica talks with the headmistress, she says that there is a problem but she’s not the thief. Jessica wonders who knew about the problem and the headmistress gets defensive, asking if she’s trying to implicate her in Nate Finley’s death. Jessica deflects by asking if she’s seen the note.
The spelling is so bad it could even be written by a German! (The stablemaster, you will recall, is German.)
The next scene takes place at the restaurant; it turns out that Dorian has been released from jail, though whether on bail or what is unclear. The waitress, Bobbie, comes over and tells Dorian that she believes that he’s innocent, but if he did kill Finley she could totally understand. It comes out that Bobbie saw Nate riding through town with his black cloak and black floppy hat pulled down low. This was at 11:30, but the Sheriff said that Nate was at the restaurant until 10:30. What happened in that missing hour?
Dorian then breaks a took on an olive, which necessitates a trip to the dentist.
It turns out that he only loosened a cap, which the dentist can re-cement for him. Jessica asks if the doc noticed anything odd about Nate’s dress last night, as he was found with his boots on the wrong feet. The doc observed it would be hard to walk like that; perhaps he had gotten undressed and re-dressed in a hurry. He heard Nate did that quite often, usually with an irate husband in the vicinity.
Jessica then notices a picture on the Dentist’s bureau.
(The inscription reads, “Love Forever, Gretchen”. It’s curious how often people in TV murder mysteries give each other signed headshots as keepsakes.)
That night we see a fight between the owner and his daughter, then one of the three boys spies the stablemaster burying something in a horse stall.
The next morning Jessica is with the headmistress, who tells her that it is the stablemaster who stole the money. Jessica goes to talk to him, but can’t find him. She does, however, hear the boys in their secret loft in the stables, and goes to investigate. She uses the secret knock she heard earlier, then as she opens the door tells them, “When I was a little girl, if you knew the secret knock it entitled you to enter.”
She talks to the boys and they admit to having been the headless horsemen who harassed Dorian the first time, but had nothing to do with the second time. Also, one of them saw the stablemaster bury something (he took to be Nate’s head) in a sack.
In the next scene the Sheriff has his deputy digging up the spot. As the Sheriff goes to open the box that had been buried, Jessica shields the boys from the terrible sight, but it turns out that the box contains only money. The stablemaster had been embezzling money in order to pay a detective to investigate the death of his daughter. He hands over the file that the detective had assembled. There was nothing of value in it, but for some reason it did include another headshot of Gretchen.
Luckily for Jessica, this time Gretchen was wearing a necklace. Jessica recognizes it and solves the puzzle.
In the next scene the dentist comes to visit Jessica in the restaurant which hasn’t yet opened. Dorian told him that Jessica wanted to talk to him.
This can mean only one thing. If you hadn’t figured it out from the clues or by simple process of elimination, the doctor is the killer.
She realized that the necklace Gretchen was wearing in the headshot was the same necklace that Nate Finley had given to Bobbie. The dentist, who makes jewelry as a hobby, had made it and given it to Gretchen and recognized it when it was on Bobbie’s neck. He couldn’t help but know what it meant—that Nate Finley had been the man with Gretchen when she died. (Presumably he snatched the necklace off of her neck before swimming to safety and leaving her to drown.)
Finley had complained of a busted tooth after his altercation with Dorian, and presumably went to a dentist about it. A lot of things in the case didn’t make sense, like the severed head, unless there was something about the head that would instantly point to the killer, such as fresh dental work.
The dentist broke down and told Jessica what happened. Finley did come, and, seeing the picture of Gretchen, started laughing and telling the dentist all about how he had been drunk and drove the car into a lake and abandoned Gretchen to die. Finley was apparently very drunk, because in the re-enactment, he found the whole thing very funny.
At his bragging about leaving Gretchen to die, something snapped in the dentist and he jammed a pick into Nate’s neck. He died quickly. The dentist then figured that he had to make it seem like Nate died elsewhere, so he stripped Nate, put on the clothes, and rode Nate’s horse out of town, making a lot of noise to ensure he would be noticed. He ran into Dorian and knocked him out, then got the idea to frame Dorian using the saber Dorian was holding. The rest, we already know.
The use of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow setting is definitely very interesting, but it faded pretty quickly. Really, after the first few minutes the only thing that was left was the headless horseman. To some degree this was inevitable as they made the horseman the victim, rather than the murderer. That is simply unrelated to the original story.
Now, variation from Sleepy Hollow was inevitable, since that was not a murder mystery. However, I can’t help but think that they didn’t really make as much use of the headless horseman as they could have. First, I’d like to explain why, then I’d like to talk about how they could have made more use of it.
The big problem that the writers had was that in the original story, Ichabod Crane was not the hero. He was wooing Katrina Van Tassel for her money, not out of love. Worse, Katrina didn’t love him, either. The original story isn’t explicit, but it is very strongly hinted that Ichabod proposed marriage to her and she rejected him. It is further implied that her reason for encouraging Ichabod was to stoke the interest, by jealousy, of Abraham Van Blunt. Van Blunt is not as smart as Ichabod, nor as socially graceful, but he was the man Katrina wanted. This, coupled with Ichabod’s mean motive for wooing Katrina really make him a thoroughly unsympathetic character. So right off the bat, making Dorian the underdog-hero of the story creates a lot of distance from the original.
Further, the structure of the story just isn’t paralleled, because the headless horseman (a decapitated Hessian soldier) was a local legend and Ichabod Crane was an extremely superstitious man. Van Blunt used the legend and Ichabod’s cowardice and superstition to drive him out of town. Indeed, for all of his quicker wits, Ichabod was in a way the intellectual inferior for being superstitious. It’s an evocative story in which a pretentious man was shown up for what he truly was. Except for the way that Dorian is a bit full of himself—which is portrayed in a sympathetic way by the writers—none of this comes forward.
To now consider how it could have been used: the more traditional approach to dealing with this sort of thing is for the murderer to try to use the legend or story which everyone knows and to use it to divert suspicion onto the person who most fits the villain of the original legend or story.
If this were a Scooby Doo episode, then someone could pretend to be the headless horseman in order to try to get people to believe that it was actually the headless horseman who committed the crime. Since this isn’t Scooby Doo, we would need the Ichabod Crane figure to be the victim and the Van Blunt character to be the suspect.
Now, obviously the setup in this episode is nothing like that, but that’s why the episode didn’t really live up to its first few minutes. In fact, they stuck to it too closely at the time of the murder—it really makes no sense for the victim to have knocked the killer unconscious immediately prior to his own murder.
There is, admittedly, something interesting about the idea of the headless horseman turning up to be really headless, but I don’t think that idea can really be made to last any longer than the words necessary to describe it.
The other typical way to handle something like this would be to have someone who rides as the headless horseman then try to frame the victim as the headless horseman, and frame someone else for the murder, as revenge.
This approach would still entail a large divergence from the original story, but it would at least keep up the appearance of being related to the original story, and on purpose. The killer would need to benefit from getting rid of both the victim and the person he frames for the death, of course. This motive would be obscured behind the bigger grudge between the victim and the one framed.
This approach could have been made to fit much better with the setup, though it would need to be the horse instructor who was Jessica’s friend, not the Ichabod character. The doctor, instead of seeking revenge for his dead (unfaithful) fiancé, would be in love with Sarah, too. The doctor would have ridden as the headless horseman, possibly two or three times, then would have killed the Ichabod character. The riding instructor friend of Jessica would then come under strong suspicion of the crime, and she would need to clear his name. The gullible Sheriff could actively point to the legend of sleepy hollow, and how it pointed to the riding friend as the guilty party. If they wanted, they could even have made the parallel stronger by making the death accidental, with the doctor only meaning to scare off the Ichabod character and instead frightening the coward into jumping into the river, where he drowned because he couldn’t swim, or the river was too fast, or whatever. His original plan could have been to just frame the riding instructor for being mean to the poet, and using that to make Sarah dislike him as a suitor, with the homicide and subsequent framing of the riding instructor for murder being accidental.
All that said, this is a very memorable episode, owing largely to the first few minutes and how well they remind one of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. However much they could have done better, it is a testament to the power of being evocative that this episode sticks with one.
Give people something to remember you by, and they will probably remember you.
I’ve mentioned before that my general approach to mystery writing is to first write out the murder from the murderer’s perspective, including whatever mistakes the murderer made. This is basically a prose story of only mild interest in this form—what makes it interesting is being told (more or less) backwards, from the detective’s perspective. He starts with the murder and the clues and works back to what happened before and during the murder, then eventually to further back about why it happened.
I’m currently on that stage in (the tentatively titled) He Didn’t Drown in the Lake. I’d love to talk about how I’m working it out, except I can’t really do that with anyone who might actually want to read the book, since it would spoil the book. That leaves me with people who wouldn’t want to read the book, but they probably don’t want to read it because it doesn’t interest them. So there’s really no one to talk about it with.
That’s not quite 100% true, as I do have a nerd friend or two who are sufficiently interested in biology and chemicals and what-not that they will discuss the very narrow aspect of poisons, if I wanted to go the route of poisons.
Just as an aside: one of the real problems with poisons, from a mystery writer’s perspective, is that getting reliable information on dosing and effects is very hard to come by. Take this like from the Wikipedia page on nicotine poisining:
Standard textbooks, databases, and safety sheets consistently state that the lethal dose of nicotine for adults is 60 mg or less (30–60 mg), but there is overwhelming data indicating that more than 0.5 g of oral nicotine is required to kill an adult.
The other problem is that poisons almost require being passed in food or drink. Aside from skin-contact poisons, which are rare, hard to get, and dangerous for the murderer, other routes of delivering poison will let the victim know, and it takes a while to die or pass out from any sort of reasonable dose. This gives the victim a lot of time to call out for help or mark the murderer, both of which are sub-optimal from the murderer’s perspective.
As I’m getting started on the third Chronicle of Brother Thomas, He Didn’t Drown in The Lake, I can’t help but think of one of the classic Murder, She Wrote episodes. I’m not entirely sure why, but I still have fairly vivid memories of the first time that I saw A Lady in The Lake.
I’m going to discuss the construction of plot of this episode, but because I suspect most people don’t remember it as well as I do, I’ll give a brief recap of the plot so everyone can follow along.
Jessica goes off for a writing retreat at a lakeside resort near Cabot cove. There she meets an assortment of guests—a wealthy, older, overbearing husband (Howard Crane) and put-upon younger wife (Carolyn Crane), an older man who is devoted to bird watching (Burton), a young woman who loves to run naked in the forest (Joanna), and a younger husband and wife where the husband (Kyle Jordan) likes to go fishing and the wife (Betty Jordan) likes to fool around with the boat house manager (Jack Turney) while her husband goes fishing. Not entirely surprisingly, at least given how much screen time the overbearing husband gets, while on a morning bird-watching walk that Burton invited her to, Jessica sees Howard and Carolyn in a boat, wrestling with each other. She calls out, but the wrestling continues then Carolyn goes into the water.
Apparently she doesn’t come back up; what happens in the immediate aftermath happens off screen. Sheriff Tupper arrives soon afterward and looses no time in jumping to the conclusion that Howard Crane murdered his wife.
Jessica isn’t so sure, but doesn’t say much. Kyle Jordan approaches the Sheriff and gives some damning evidence. He had asked the Cranes to go fishing many times, but the they always declined. He thinks Howard couldn’t have meant to go fishing otherwise the Jordans would have come with them; clearly this meant Howard needed them out of the way to commit the murder.
Worse, the previous night Kyle and his wife overheard the Cranes having a loud argument in their room. Carolyn wanted a divorce but Howard said that she wouldn’t get a penny of his money.
After this, Sheriff Tupper goes to the room where Doctor Hazlet is tending to Howard Crane (he jumped in the lake after his wife, which apparently requires medical attention for some reason) to interview him.
Doctor Hazlet gave him a sedative (apparently, getting wet in a lake takes a lot out of you and rest is important), so the interview will need to be short. Howard says that his wife just went crazy and jumped out. He jumped in after her and tried to save her, but he can’t swim so he had to keep a hand on the boat and thus couldn’t reach her. In answer to a question, he says that not only could Caroline swim but she had actually won medals for it in school.
Jessica and Sheriff Tupper confer, and Jessica thinks that Howard’s version makes more sense than the idea that he tried to kill his wife. Inspiration strikes and Jessica goes to look at the boat. In the boat room she finds Betty Jordan and Jack Turney kissing. Betty is bold, saying that her husband doesn’t mind how she amuses herself so long as she doesn’t disturb his fishing, but Jack hopes that Jessica won’t mention it to Betty’s husband. Jessica assures him that she has no intention of telling anyone, anything. She then examines the boat and finds a hook on the bottom of it.
Jack has no idea what that’s doing there, nor when it got there. Some time passes and Sheriff Tupper and Jessica confer. Sheriff Tupper’s research confirms that Carolyn was a champion swimmer, which he takes to mean that Howard must have held her under the water.
Jessica points out that it’s implausible that a non-swimmer would try to kill a champion swimmer by drowning her in a lake. It occurs to Jessica that another explanation would be that Carolyn had made the thing up, to pretend that her husband tried to kill her in order to get a big divorce settlement. This tête-a-tête is broken up by the discovery of Carolyn’s body. It was on the north side of the lake, which apparently is pretty far away from where the resort is (they never say that they’re on the south side of the lake, nor how big the lake is). Sheriff Tupper says that this blows Jessica’s theory out of the water and clearly Howard killed as Tupper had been saying all along. Jessica asks him how the body got to the other side of the lake so quickly, to which Sheriff Tupper has no answer.
Some time later, Jessica is investigating something in a bird book.
What she is looking up we are almost conspicuously not told. This leads to a conversation with the owner of the hotel, who we find out is also a widow. Jessica asks to look at the reservation book, and makes an interesting discovery: Joanna and the Cranes both made their reservation from the same telephone number. Jessica goes and confronts Joanna.
It turns out that Joanna was Howard’s mistress. Howard had been talking like he was going to divorce his wife and marry Joanna, but then this trip came along. It turns out that the trip was actually Carolyn’s idea, and Joanna made the reservations for Howard to prove that there were no hard feelings. She did, however, make reservations for herself and come up early, to disguise her connection to Howard.
Jessica surprises Burton, who was taking (poloroid) pictures of birds, and asks to borrow one that also has a picture of Jack Turney in it. They then see the Sheriff arresting Howard, and Burton says that Howard won’t like jail, as he can’t stand to be cooped up.
Jessica accompanies the Sheriff and Howard Crane back to Cabot Cove. On the car ride it comes out that Howard is claustrophobic, and he accuses Jessica of having talked to his psychiatrist.
It also comes out that Howard is indeed rich, but has no living relatives. He was an only child and his parents are dead. His only uncle and aunt are dead. Even his cousin Arthur died a few years ago, or at least so he’d heard.
Back in Cabot Cove, Jessica, Dr. Halzet, and Sheriff Tupper confer over the autopsy report.
It turns out that Carolyn Crane did indeed drown, but she hand mud in her lungs. Further, she had bits of glass embedded in the skin of her skull. Also, she was wearing a bathing suit under her dress.
At this point a deputy comes in with the information that Jack Turney is a wanted man, for blackmailing married women with whom he’d had affairs and even for assaulting one of them.
We then jump to a scene between the Jordans.
It turns out that Mr. Jordan tried to surprise Mrs. Jordan on her bike ride, only to find out that no bicycles had been taken out that day. He asks her what is going on, then figures out that she’s having an affair with Jack Turney. Apparently, he does actually care how his wife amuses herself while he’s fishing.
There’s some very unimportant events that happen where Jessica and Sheriff Tupper talk to the owner of the inn, where it turns out that Jack Turney is her brother and she’s been protecting him, but didn’t know the extent of his crimes. We then move to the boat house where Mr. Jordan is threatening to kill Jack Turney.
Sheriff Tupper and Jessica arrive, and we have the denouement. Jessica explains the whole thing, though only after a series of misunderstandings and jumped conclusions by Sheriff Tupper.
It turns out that scuba equipment was missing, which Jack Turney had forgotten to mention. Carolyn Crane had a lover, with whom she had planned to fake an attempt on her life by her husband. She had attached the stolen scuba gear to the bottom of the boat via the hook she had installed, then when she was sure of her witness she wrestled with her husband and jumped out of the boat. She put on the scuba gear under water and leisurely swam, under water, to the north shore of the lake. There, her lover met her, but instead of love and support he killed her. He hit her with a pair of binoculars, the only weapon he had to hand.
It turns out that Burton is actually cousin Arthur—that’s how he knew that Howard was claustrophobic—and had planned the whole thing from the start, including killing Carolyn. Howard’s father had accused Burton’s father of embezzling money and had stolen the family business from him. Burton went through the whole elaborate murder scheme in order to get the money he was owed back.
Later on Jessica is asked what made her suspect Burton was not just an innocent birdwatcher, and she replies that he said that he would look for the nest of the yellow bellied flycatcher in a tree. They nest on the ground, she confirmed in the book on birds in that scene where she conspicuously didn’t say what she found.
This is a very fun episode, and takes advantage of what may be one of the cardinal rules of murder mysteries: have a beautiful setting that the reader (or viewer) would love to visit. It’s also got a great setup, and takes a number of well-paced twists and turns on its way to the ending. Something is clearly up with Jack Turney, and they play out the discovery of this at a fairly good pace to distract from the main murder investigation. The reveals on Jack Turney with Betty Jordan work especially well in this regard, as it does hint at the possibility he might have been involved with Carolyn, too. Additionally, the simple human drama of it is distracting.
Speaking of human drama, I didn’t hit on it much in my plot summary, since I was focusing on the murder, but there was a sub-plot in which the widow who is renting the hotel is trying to figure out what to do with her life and whether she wants to run the inn. It’s done sparingly, but comes up often enough to introduce a thread of human interest which pretty clearly as nothing to do with the murder. This is a good move, I think, because it helps to leaven the murder story. It keeps the story more anchored; murder mysteries tend to be better when real life goes on during the murder investigation.
The big problem is the ending. It doesn’t make sense, and ignoring that, it has a significant plot hole in the murder. Ignoring that, a key piece of evidence is very contrived.
I’ll start with the contrived evidence, which is Burton saying, as he and Jessica watched Sheriff Tupper taking Howard into custody, “Howard is not going to like jail. He can’t stand to be cooped up.” There was no earthly reason for him to say this. No one likes jail. It was just volunteering information, that he shouldn’t have had, for no reason whatever. It’s almost on par with the bad guy in Encyclopedia Brown saying, “I never looked inside the kid’s box. I certainly didn’t eat the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies with just a hint of cinnamon that were in it!” It’s one thing when the murderer reveals something he should have known to further his own ends, such as telling a fact he shouldn’t know that implicates someone else in the murder. The distraction of framing the other person can cover for the fact that he shouldn’t have known it. At the very least, there was some temptation for him to do it. Here, there was no reason for Burton to have said anything.
Let’s move on to the plot hole. According to Jessica’s theory of the murder, Cousin Arthur, that is, Burton, planned the whole thing before any of them ever got to the inn. He was, therefore, fulfilling his plan to murder Carolyn when he met her at the shore. Why on earth were his binoculars the only weapon to hand? Had he only put a single minute into the planning, he could have picked up a rock or a stick. Several minutes of planning might have yielded a better weapon still. When it comes to murder weapons, one’s own pair of binoculars, which one not only has been seen with but even drew attention to, is a terrible choice. And without the binocular glass embedded in Carolyn’s skin, there would have been no physical evidence linking him to the murder.
The other problem with the ending is even harder to get over—why on earth did Cousin Arthur kill Carolyn? Both Jessica and Burton seemed to talk as if he would inherit Howard’s money, now that the only other possible heir was dead. The problem, however, is that Howard Crane was still alive, and would presumably remain so for decades. The worst that would happen to him would be that he would be convicted for murder and go to prison for a long time. A person going to prison keeps their money. It does not get disbursed to heirs. (For those curious, the state of Maine abolished the death penalty—for the final time—in 1887.)
In Maine in the 1980s, framing Howard for the murder of Carolyn would mean that Cousin Arthur would never see a penny of the money he believed to be rightfully his. In fact—assuming he didn’t murder Howard—the only way for Cousin Arthur to have gotten his hands on any of Howard’s money would be to keep Carolyn very much alive and marry her after she got a large divorce settlement.
This feels almost like someone ripped the plot off from a British golden age detective story in which a man being convicted of murder would mean that he was hanged within a few weeks and thus framing a man for murder was an effective means of inheriting money from him. In that context, this ending—apart from volunteering private information about Howard and using binoculars as a murder weapon—would make sense. In Maine in the 1980s, it’s quite a head scratcher.
As I believe I’ve mentioned before, the third Chronicle of Brother Thomas is set in a resort camp in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. I’ve begun work on the setting, which in this case means drawing a map of the resort.
This is just my first sketch and everything is subject to change, but here’s where I am now:
Please pardon the terrible handwriting. I’m thinking that once I’ve settled on a map, I’m going to draw it over on unlined paper and include it in the book. I’ve always liked mysteries that included a map in the beginning. That said, we’ll see what I actually have time and energy for.
Presently available on my publisher’s website (and, in print, generally cheaper there after it goes to wide distribution), I’m pleased to say that Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral is now in print!
It’s even available in hardcover, though admittedly it’s a bit pricey in that form. But it’s a nice hardcover where the cover art is printed directly onto the book itself and there’s no dust jacket to rip or lose, or as so often happens, rip then lose.