I was recently in a conversation discussing how people treat each other, and it came up that the big problem, these days, is that there is substantial disagreement as to what a human being even is. Ideally, the first question that a person should ask after “how should I treat this thing” is “what is it?” A person should treat a human being, a dog, and a cell phone differently because they are different things. So what, then, is a human being.
The Christian answer, from which one kind of answer about how to treat people follows, is that human beings are contingent beings created out of love by God so that he can give us more, and he put us in the same time and space so that we could take part in the act of creating each other (every time one gives food or knowledge or whatever to another, that is added to his being, and so one is becoming part of God’s act of creating him). Hence we should love other human beings, i.e. will their good for their sake.
The atheistic answer to “what is a human being?” is very different. The more accurate but less common answer is, “A joke with no punchline that no one has told.” or “A pointless illusion that no one is seeing.” More common, however, is to go with the creation myth of evolution (as distinct from the scientific theory of evolution, which doesn’t get enough attention): DNA wants to reproduce itself as much as possible and so it created us to do it. All that we call pleasure and happiness are just carrots that our blind and stupid master dangles in front of our faces to try to get us to do its idiot bidding. He were designed badly and will fall apart into nothing after a while. Fortunately for us, our master is blind, and we can sometimes trick him into giving us the carrots when we only pretend to pull his cart. Contraception is probably the best example of this; we can get the pleasure of reproduction without having to pay the price of reproducing.
So how should one treat human beings, if that’s what they are, and what happiness consists of? Being a human being oneself, obviously everyone else will either be a fool (in which case they are easy pickings) or will be trying to trick one into giving them pleasure without paying for it. So look out for the fools and try to trick them, while at the same time do your best to avoid being tricked by the people more clever than you.
I recently ran into an article on a study which compared the “Green Mediterranean Diet” with the Mediterranean diet and a “healthy diet”. The article begins
The green Mediterranean diet was pitted against the Mediterranean diet and a healthy diet in a large-scale clinical interventional trial- the DIRECT PLUS. Subsequent analysis found that the green Med diet reduced visceral fat by 14%, the Med diet by 7% and the healthy diet by 4.5%.
A bit later, we find out what the heck they mean by “green Mediterranean diet”:
The DIRECT-PLUS trial research team was the first to introduce the concept of the green-Mediterranean diet. This modified MED diet is further enriched with dietary polyphenols and lower in red/processed meat than the traditional healthy MED diet. On top of a daily intake of walnuts (28 grams), the participants consumed 3-4 cups of green tea/day and 100 grams (frozen cubes) of duckweed green shake/day.
The first thing that jumps to mind is that the Mediterranean diet is popular among diet researchers because it is very low in red meat. How much lower could one make it? It is not plausible that a tiny amount of red meat causes enormous deleterious health effects since there’s obviously no corresponding dose-response to higher doses (people who eat a pound of red meat a day don’t die off at 15).
However that goes, worse is that this modification introduces three additional foods. This is the very opposite of controlling variables. Granted, the scientists in question probably think of it only as “introducing polyphenols”, but there’s a lot more in the foods they introduce than just polyphenols. Even worse, in terms of controlling variables, is that they are almost certainly not increasing the calories of the people on the diet, so they’re also going to be removing something or some things, introducing even more variables. You can tell that this is the case from the quote that they have from one of the professors who conducted the study (emphasis mine):
A healthy lifestyle is a strong basis for any weight loss program. We learned from the results of our experiment that the quality of food is no less important than the number of calories consumed and the goal today is to understand the mechanisms of various nutrients, for example, positive ones such as the polyphenols, and negative ones such as empty carbohydrates and processed red meat, on the pace of fat cell differentiation and their aggregation in the viscera
This strongly suggests that specific kinds of foods were removed from the diet at the same time that the polyphenols were added. That is really lousy variable control.
To be fair, it is possible to test many variables at once as a preliminary study to further, actually controlled studies, except that this isn’t a great way to do that unless you’re looking for something like an acute poison. If you design a study where on the one hand you test increasing protein intake and smoking cigarettes, and on the other hand reducing dietary trans-fats and moderate cocaine usage, who knows which group you’ll end up following up with, but either way you’re going to miss out on some important stuff.
Yet another variable in these kinds of studies is that they’re almost never free-feeding studies. By “free-feeding, I mean, “eat however much seems appropriate to you, of whatever food you’re hungry for/seems appropriate to you, whenever you’re hungry.” That is, free feeding is what normal people do. The number of people who actually weigh out all of their meals and eat according to some macro nutrient plan, every day of their lives, is approximately the number of bodybuilders there are. So we have yet another variable going on, which is that people who are watching their macro nutrient intake eat differently than people who don’t.
The reporting on this is also extremely lacking. For example, the summary at the top indicated a reduction in “red/processed meat”, while the professor who did the study referred to “processed red meat”. These are not the same things, and the top one is a much larger category. It includes fresh red meat and processed chicken, while the latter includes nothing that the former doesn’t too.
There’s also no mention of the limitations of the type of study performed. It’s an intervention study on 294 people (no indication if that was the starting or ending number) over 18 months. There’s no way that they had the money to keep the test subjects in a laboratory or hospital for all 18 months and strictly control all food given to them—not to mention, who would be willing to spend 18 months of their life under these conditions—so this had to have been an at-home study with self-reporting of compliance. Compliance rates for those are usually pretty bad, especially after the first month or two, and actual compliance as opposed to self-reported compliance is especially bad.
I’ve seen it argued that how difficult a diet (or other intervention) is to comply with is important, and this is certainly true. However, one of the things that affects compliance is the participant’s belief that compliance will reliably achieve something. Someone who wants to build muscle is far more likely to comply with a regimen of weight lifting because he is certain that if he complies, he will get the results he wants. An experimental method of muscle gain, where no one has any idea if it works, is far more psychologically difficult to comply with. Suppose one were to test out building muscle through twenty minutes a day of staring into the mirror and visualizing oneself with more muscle. Compliance with that will get difficult after the first day or two because there’s no obvious reason to keep going. (The flip side of this is that studies where one keeps participants in a lab and feeds them 100% of the food that they eat have phenomenal compliance, though higher drop-out rates, but they’re so expensive that in general they can only be run for 4-8 weeks and there’s very little of significance that one can find out in that short a span of time.)
The funding section is interesting, too:
This work was funded by grants from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – Project number 209933838- SFB 1052; the Rosetrees trust (grant A2623); Israel Ministry of Health grant 87472511; Israel Ministry of Science and Technology grant 3-13604; and the California Walnuts Commission.
None of the funding providers was involved in any stage of the design, conduct, or analysis of the study and they had no access to the study results before publication.
The California Walnuts Commission being one of the funders will, of course, sound alarms in the heads of the cynical or the conspiratorially minded. And, to be sure, the disclaimer that the funders of the study didn’t get to design it (etc) is no guarantee that the funders had no influence, because of course this isn’t the last study that the researchers are going to do and they will need funding again. By that same token, though, people who didn’t give a dime to this study may still have influenced the study by the researchers hoping to get funding from them next time. There is, as yet, no disclosure of funders who the researchers hope to get funding from in the future. All that said, it’s quite possible that the funding from the California Walnut Growers wasn’t that significant; they might well throw money at anyone who is trying to prove that walnuts are good for one’s health without overmuch worrying about the results of any one study. If you do fund enough studies looking into the health benefits of your product you’ll eventually get the favorable results you want by random chance, if nothing else, and this way your hands will be clean. It might even be cheaper, as it may potentially cost more to get someone with a decent reputation to falsify their results on purpose. But everyone makes mistakes.
There’s a very interesting song called Angel of the Morning. Originally recorded by Evie Sands in 1967, the best known version is a 1981 cover by Juice Newton.
It’s a very pretty song in Newton’s version, though it does have the problem that it is entirely about fornication and is mostly positive about it. It’s not entirely positive, though, and that sad strain in it is where I think it might be possible to rescue it in interpretation.
Most people think of marriage as something done by a priest or some officiant, but marriage is actually a sacrament confected by the people who are marrying. Historically this led to all sorts of problems where a man and woman would dispute whether they were married, quite possibly because one lied to the other in order to convince them that they were not fornicating but rather consummating their marriage. This led to the Catholic Church creating an impediment to marriage that the marriage had to be witnessed by the Church, which at least put an end to disputes about whether the marriage happened at all.
Juice Newton is probably not Catholic, and in any event the main character in the song is almost certainly not Catholic. As such, the impediment does not apply to them and the main character and the man she’s with could morally, if not legally, marry each other in the privacy of an apartment, then consummate their marriage. The song could, then, be a lament that the singer (in character) thought that she was doing that but realizes in retrospect that she was wrong, is taking responsibility for her mistake, and is not trying to guilt him into marrying her. “There’ll be no strings to bind your hands/ Not if my love can’t bind your heart/ There’s no need to take a stand/ For it was I who chose to start”
This is a tenuous interpretation. The lyric, “If morning’s echo says we’ve sinned” are consonant with the interpretation that she thought she was marrying him earlier, but it’s now seeming like it was not the case. However, the second part of the sentence, “Well it was what I wanted now” is dangerously close to trying to make out the sin as good. I do think it’s just possible to interpret it as meaning that she’s taking responsibility for the sin rather than blaming the man, as opposed to saying that she prefers the sin to having been virtuous. (Note: there’s absolutely no way to exculpate him from fornication.)
In support of that, there’s the metaphor about facing the light. From the first verse, “I see no need to take me home/ I’m old enough to face the dawn” and then, in the second verse, right after the lyrics about “if morning’s echo says we’ve sinned,” there are the lines, “And if we’re victims of the night/ I won’t be blinded by the light” — both of these metaphors about facing the light work quite well as meaning that she will not be destroyed by facing the truth that she screwed up big time. The last two verses also support this interpretation:
Just call me angel of the morning, angel Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby Just call me angel of the morning, angel Then slowly turn away I won’t beg you to stay with me
Through the tears Of the day Of the years Baby
In short, it does work if you take it to be a lamentation of sin and the intention to repent rather than to try guilt her partner in the sin into covering it over so that she appears guiltless to the world.
Of course, all of this is predicated upon her not getting pregnant from the actions of the night (fertilization of the egg does not happen immediately, and once fertilized it takes a few days to implant if it doesn’t die from genetic incompatibility, as seems to happen surprisingly often). If she does, there’s a new person who has entered the world and it has a natural right to be raised by its father, and her intention to not try to cover up her sin would then be irrelevant in the face of the child’s rights.
So, yeah. I think it’s possible to save the song, and it’s only a bit of a stretch, and not to the breaking point.
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.
Radio scientist, engineer, author, and interesting guy Hans Schantz has put together his annual black friday book sale which is comprised of hundreds of books from a variety of independent authors. The sale includes my own book Ordinary Superheroes. (Before Silver Empire publishing shut down, my other books would be included too, but I haven’t gotten the time to sit down and self-publish those so I couldn’t include them. Next year, though!)
Hans describes it as the Based book sale, which means that the stories that might be fantastic but are related to reality, so they’re about having fun exploring some aspect of the human condition and don’t involve lengthy lectures about how up is down, right is left, short is long, or communism is good. (I need to write about it; until then I did do a video on the nature of symbolism and how it’s about reflecting the structure of reality, not using a secret decoder ring.)
The sale runs through November 29, so if you’re in the market for trying new fiction from authors who write out of love rather than hate, this is a very cost-effective way of doing that.
Existentialism is the philosophical position that “existence precedes essence,” i.e. that a thing exists and only afterwards determines what it is. Mostly they only apply this to human beings, and basically it’s a fancy way of saying that human beings are not given a human nature, they create a human nature for themselves. It doesn’t withstand scrutiny if you think about it for even a few seconds, but it is none the less quite popular, especially in somewhat limited forms that are selectively applied.
One interesting consequence of existentialism is that, to be a good existentialist, a person must be a bad parent. The actual job of parents is to raise children, i.e. to teach them how to be adult human beings. This presupposes that the child has a nature which they can grow into. The existentialist believes that the child can be absolutely anything it wants to be. The existentialist, therefore, can only help the child if the child happens to choose to be the sort of thing that the existentialist knows how to be. Of course, what are the odds of that? Worse, the existentialist parent can only answer questions about how to achieve specific goals, and those only very conditionally because all goals actually entail a multitude of sub-goals which no one has time to specify. Worse still, it often takes a fair amount of experience to even know what these possible sub-goals are. If a kid wants to paint a picture of a dragon, does he want to do it in pastels or crayons or colored pencils or oil paints? How is the kid even supposed to know?
Existentialism does not, in reality, work for anyone, but to the degree that it works, it works much better for adults than for children, like pretty much everything else that came out of the Enlightenment.
I think I’ll end with a G.K. Chesterton quote from What’s Wrong With the World:
I know that certain crazy pedants have attempted to counter this difficulty by maintaining that education is not instruction at all, does not teach by authority at all. They present the process as coming, not from the outside, from the teacher, but entirely from inside the boy. Education, they say, is the Latin for leading out or drawing out the dormant faculties of each person. Somewhere far down in the dim boyish soul is a primordial yearning to learn Greek accents or to wear clean collars; and the schoolmaster only gently and tenderly liberates this imprisoned purpose. Sealed up in the newborn babe are the intrinsic secrets of how to eat asparagus and what was the date of Bannockburn. The educator only draws out the child’s own unapparent love of long division; only leads out the child’s slightly veiled preference for milk pudding to tarts. I am not sure that I believe in the derivation; I have heard the disgraceful suggestion that “educator,” if applied to a Roman schoolmaster, did not mean leading our young functions into freedom; but only meant taking out little boys for a walk. But I am much more certain that I do not agree with the doctrine; I think it would be about as sane to say that the baby’s milk comes from the baby as to say that the baby’s educational merits do. There is, indeed, in each living creature a collection of forces and functions; but education means producing these in particular shapes and training them to particular purposes, or it means nothing at all. Speaking is the most practical instance of the whole situation. You may indeed “draw out” squeals and grunts from the child by simply poking him and pulling him about, a pleasant but cruel pastime to which many psychologists are addicted. But you will wait and watch very patiently indeed before you draw the English language out of him. That you have got to put into him; and there is an end of the matter.
But the important point here is only that you cannot anyhow get rid of authority in education; it is not so much (as poor Conservatives say) that parental authority ought to be preserved, as that it cannot be destroyed. Mr. Bernard Shaw once said that he hated the idea of forming a child’s mind. In that case Mr. Bernard Shaw had better hang himself; for he hates something inseparable from human life. I only mentioned educere and the drawing out of the faculties in order to point out that even this mental trick does not avoid the inevitable idea of parental or scholastic authority. The educator drawing out is just as arbitrary and coercive as the instructor pouring in; for he draws out what he chooses. He decides what in the child shall be developed and what shall not be developed. He does not (I suppose) draw out the neglected faculty of forgery. He does not (so far at least) lead out, with timid steps, a shy talent for torture. The only result of all this pompous and precise distinction between the educator and the instructor is that the instructor pokes where he likes and the educator pulls where he likes. Exactly the same intellectual violence is done to the creature who is poked and pulled. Now we must all accept the responsibility of this intellectual violence. Education is violent; because it is creative. It is creative because it is human. It is as reckless as playing on the fiddle; as dogmatic as drawing a picture; as brutal as building a house. In short, it is what all human action is; it is an interference with life and growth. After that it is a trifling and even a jocular question whether we say of this tremendous tormentor, the artist Man, that he puts things into us like an apothecary, or draws things out of us, like a dentist.
Looking up something about the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still, I accidentally discovered that the movie was based on a short story by a writer named Harry Bates called Farewell To the Master. It was originally published in the October 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and its plot is rather different from the movie.
There’s a detailed summary on the Wikipedia page, but the short short version is that a man and robot emerge from a space ship, Klaatu and Gnut, a lunatic shoots Klaatu who dies and is buried in a mausoleum, the robot stands still for a few days, then eventually retrieves Klaatu’s body and leaves, intending to make a new Klaatu.
As the robot prepares to depart, Sutherland impresses upon it the need to tell its master, the Klaatu yet to come, that his death was a terrible accident. Gnut replies, “You misunderstand, I am the master.”
In the movie, the robot Gort is very much a servant, if an autonomous servant. It was created by the peoples of the galaxy to ensure peace (by wiping out anyone sufficiently warlike). I wonder how it was the movie came to be based upon the short story. It only has a few things in common.
In a curious chain of thoughts which started with snow that the tribal witch doctor weather service didn’t predict earlier in the day and moved on to Pride & Prejudice, specifically the part that takes place over the winter, it occurred to me that the peacefulness of pastoral life is real, but often mischaracterized. It’s not that farmers don’t have any worries. Like everyone else, they’ve got plenty. It’s that they don’t have a particular kind of worry that’s particularly pressing on a great many non-farmers.
Non-farmers, by and large, are doing things that have contextual value in an ever-changing context. The software that I write today has value today, and almost certainly will next year, but probably won’t in twenty years. As a result, we’re always going somewhere. Then there is looking for promotions and new opportunities… When you put it all together, we don’t really know what success ten years from now will even look like. This also makes it very difficult to raise children, since we have no good way of knowing what future to prepare them for.
Of the various worries of a farmer, this is not one of them. The future is as uncertain for a farmer as it is for anyone else, but he does, at least, know what he will be doing next year: farming. He knows what he will teach his children how to do: farm.
The modern world has, of course, complicated this like it has everything else. Life with modern GPS-guided self-driving tractors is not the same as leading a team of horses to pull a plow, to be sure. Raising cows using sonigram machines to tell how good their meat is and inseminating them all using frozen sperm bought from one of the top bulls in the country is certainly not an identical skillset to what cow farming was a hundred years ago, either. I’m not trying to over-sell the reliable character of pastoral life.
I’m just noting that it does have this character, and especially that prior to the steam tractor it very much had this character. Even now, though, it has far more of this kind of stability that most of the rest of life has. I suspect this is why so many hallmark movies (I’m told) involve the fantasy of leaving the rat race and becoming some kind of farmer, though often with the twist of bringing some skill gained from the rat race to make farming pay better than it often does. It’s a fantasy, but fantasies have to connect with reality at some point, and I strongly suspect this is the point at which this kind of fantasy connects with reality.
The first thing that comes to mind is that these criteria are all things that favor small people, because they’re all based on bodyweight, except for the 7 minute mile and the 24+ inch vertical jump which select for tall scrawny people. I’m not concerned with that being unfair (I’m 6′ tall)—life isn’t fair. What actually strikes me about this is that it’s opposite to what most people want for most tasks in the modern world. If you want something carried, you don’t look around for the smallest guy. If you want something pushed, you don’t look around for the smallest guy. If you need something bent, you don’t look around for the smallest guy. About the only time you’d look around for the smallest guy is if you need someone to climb a tree because your snake is up in it and won’t come down.
To be clear, this is not meant as a slight against small guys. They can still do extremely useful things, especially if they’re physically fit, and you’d be a fool to turn down their help if they’re offering it. My only point is that it’s weird that the fitness criteria given is most easily met by the people who have the hardest time doing the tasks one actually wants strong people for in the modern world.
A cynical person might suspect that this is because the person who posted it is a fitness trainer and thus wants to appeal to a broad market—men who don’t weigh much are rare. A cynical person might also suggest that by tying this to body weight rather than absolute measurements (other than the 24+ inch vertical and the race times) it broadens the appeal because everyone (thinks they) can do things measured relative to their own body. And, of course, a cynical person might well be right.
It would be interesting to put together a more realistic set of criteria. I think that they would include things like being able to deadlift at least 300 pounds, overhead press at least 120 pounds, walk a mile on uneven terrain carrying 50 pounds, and do at least 2 pullups. A man who can do those things won’t necessarily impress anyone, and perhaps that was the point of the original, but such a man won’t let anyone down in the modern world.
I’m not suggesting that a man should aim no higher than this—that’s not the purpose of minimums. For example, my best deadlift is 425# and I’m working on improving it. it can be very good to aim higher than the minimum. What I’m really suggesting is that standards should clearly indicate what their goal is. The list of standards at the top of this post would be excellent as the qualification for entering an intermediate class on doing obstacle courses like the ninja warrior competitions.
It probably wouldn’t be bad as a way to ensure that other men wonder why a single man has a hard time getting a girlfriend.
Recently I made up a recipe for deer stew, and it came out quite well. To be fair, it was based on a recipe I worked out for lamb stew a decade or so ago, but I’m counting this as making it up because I went from memory. I got the idea to try this kind of stew when I made a roasted venison shank in the same way I would roast a lamb shank and it came out very well.
If you’re interested (it should work just as well with lamb, which will probably be more accessible), here’s the recipe:
2lbs venison, cubed
4oz bacon, chopped
1 small butternut squash, cubed
1 large orange sweet potato (“yam”), cut like for mashed potatoes
2 sweet onions, quartered and sliced
Cook the bacon on low in a large stock pot. Once the fat has been rendered but before the bacon turns crispy, add the venison. Turn up the heat slightly and stir frequently, so as to brown the meat a little. Once at some of the meat has been browned (you don’t want to thoroughly cook it at this stage), add in the onions, sweet potato, and butternut squash. I like to add them in that order, and a bit at a time, stirring so as to thoroughly mix things, though that’s probably not essential. If you don’t stir as you put the ingredients in, at least stir to make sure there are no air pockets. Add the smallest amount of water necessary to barely cover the ingredients, preferably with a few bits just poking out of the water. Add the spices (adjust to taste), then stir to mix the spices in and cover.
Cook on low for about an hour, stirring occasionally. The ideal heat will produce the occasional bubble coming to the top after the stew has been covered for a few minutes, but you do not want a full-on boil. The stew will be done when the sweet potato has dissolved into mush and the butternut chunks break apart with slight pressure from a wooden spoon. Depending on the amount of water you added in the beginning, you’ll probably want to uncover it and cook for another 15 minutes, stirring frequently, to concentrate the stew.
Once the vegetables have the right consistency the stew is ready to serve, though for the sake of the skin on the inside of people’s mouths, it’s a good idea to let it cool a little.
NOTE: if you cook the stew on too high a heat (which isn’t very high), it will burn on the stew on the bottom of the pot. You can tell that this has happened because you will feel resistance when you draw a wooden spoon across the bottom, rather than the normal feeling of the spoon sliding across flat metal. If this happens, turn the heat down and don’t try to scrape the bottom up. That part of the stew is lost, but if you leave it on the bottom, the burnt flavor won’t get into the rest of the stew. Be careful when ladling the stew out to leave that on the bottom.
On the twenty third day of October in the year of our Lord 1988, the fifth season of Murder, She Wrote opened with the episode J.B. As In Jailbird. (Last season ended with The Body Politic.)
The episode begins with Michael Hagarty (an MI6 agent) walking through the shadows in a dingy apartment building. He cocks his revolver, then knocks on a door and claims to be the maintenance man, here to fix a bad pipe. A sweaty man (“the Bulgarian”) sitting on the bed tells him to come back later.
There’s a bit of arguing and he tries a passphrase on Michael.
It may snow in the Sierras before the weekend.
This is proper spy stuff. Unfortunately, Michael doesn’t know the countersign, so he just keeps up with the maintenance man act. The sweaty man exits out the window as Michael kicks the door open. The man fires some bullets at the door, then goes down the fire escape. Just outside the fire escape is Jessica getting out of a car.
He man demands the keys from Jessica, but she doesn’t have the keys. When he threatens to kill her if she doesn’t give him the keys, Michael shoots him dead.
Moments later, as James Bond-inspired music plays, a police car drives up. Michael, hearing the sirens, runs away. The cops see Jessica standing over the corpse and arrest her.
The camera moves over to a front business where a British man named Lancaster berates Michael.
It turns out, though, that it wasn’t Michael who shot the sweaty man, it was “The Cobra”. No one knows who he is, and even this time Michael never saw him. His theory is that The Cobra doesn’t like loose ends, and the sweaty man was a loose end, so The Cobra tied him up when he panicked.
The subject then turns to Jessica. Michael ran into her at the airport and thought that she would be good cover for him leaving the airport, so he offered her a ride to his hotel. When Lancaster called him on his car-phone and told him about the meeting, he had no choice but to leave her in the car while he went in to try to fix the Bulgarian’s plumbing. Lancaster is worried that Jessica will talk to the press but Michael says that he’s taken care of that, temporarily.
The scene then goes to the police station where Jessica is waiting to be processed. Jessica talks to a Sergeant, who asks her who she really is. The real Jessica Fletcher reported her purse and luggage stolen at the airport. They book Jessica as “Jane Doe”. Jessica says that her nephew, Grady, will vouch for her.
The scene then goes back to the place with Lancaster and Michael. They are reviewing the case “from a damage control perspective.” In two days, Leonard Matoso will give a speech at Berkeley.
He’s an opponent of his African nation’s government, but he’s too popular for them to assassinate him at home. For some reason that isn’t specified, they can do it in America, however, “with clean hands”. I guess in America any number of people might want to kill him, whereas at home only the government would? Seems a bit backwards, but I’m not a spy. Anyway, this is why there are Bulgarians in this episode—to provide the hitman. Michael suggests that Matoso’s own people might be the ones who have hired the Bulgarians, in order to be the match which sets off the powder keg back home.
Be that as it may, the word from the Bulgarian embassy is that Cobra has accepted the contract. The Americans doubt the British information, and their official position is that their security is adequate for Matoso to come give his speech ad Berkley.
There’s another British agent in the room who’s somehow involved, though it’s not at all clear how. His name is Roger Travis.
He and Michael don’t get along. He implies that Michael killed the Bulgarian contact, while Michael says something about how he (the other agent) was supposed to be guarding someone that The Cobra killed, vaguely implying (I think) that maybe this agent is actually the Cobra. Michael ends up grabbing Roger by the lapels, and Lancaster threatens them both with disciplinary action to calm things down.
The scene shifts to the police station where Grady comes in to identify Jessica, but says that he’s never seen her before in his life. We fade to black and go to commercial break.
We come back to Jessica begging Grady to identify her, and he overdoes it on the denials. After he leaves, he talks with the Sergeant, who explains that she “iced a commie agent” and they have her figured for being an enemy agent.
The Sergeant, whose name is Nash, goes back to his office, where he meets another Sergeant, Joe Santiago, from the Miami PD. He’s here to extradite someone. While he was waiting in the office, he was looking over the file about the Bulgarian. It reminded him of another case that was like this, with a Greek national iced in an alleyway and a woman who looked a bit like their Jane Doe spotted at the scene. He asks to speak to her and Nash says that’s fine.
The scene shifts to Michael and Grady walking along a street and Michael asks how it went. Grady is upset and Michael explains that it’s for Jessica’s protection. He tells Grady a bit about how there’s an assassination attempt in the works and tells Grady to go home and call him if anyone comes nosing around about Jessica.
The scene shifts back to police headquarters where the two Sergeants are interrogating Jessica. Eventually she demands to call her lawyer. They inform her that her lawyer is here now and she can talk to him. Her lawyer is, of course, Michael Hagarty, under cover as a southern lawyer Derek Dawson. I wonder if he showed up and said, “Hi, I’m Jane Doe’s lawyer. We put tracking devices on all of our clients, which is why I’m here without having been called” and instead of blinking an eye they put him in a conference room and asked him if he wouldn’t mind waiting for a few minutes while they interrogate his client without him present.
Anyway, they’re talking, and after a bit Michael drops the act and fills Jessica in on the Cobra.
When Grady goes back to his apartment a strange looking woman is knocking on his door.
Her name is Glenda Morrison, she’s a reporter from “The Chronicle”. She had an appointment to do an interview with Jessica. When Grady indicates some recognition, she says that he might have heard of her from a series she did on the Afghanistan war, or the assassination of a Nicaraguan general. Glenda leaves her number asking for Jessica to call her immediately.
Back at the British spy warehouse, Lancaster and Michael are talking about Cobra. Michael says that the Cobra is too good, like he’s working with inside information. Lancaster mentions that The Cobra made a fool of him before in Kenya. The Cobra managed to blow up a bus full of police. Lancaster wonders whether that was the reason he was exiled to California. He intends to retire in three months, though, and the Cobra will be somebody else’s problem.
They’re doing a good job of spreading around suspicion of who The Cobra is, I’ll give them that. So far it could be any of Joe Santiago, Glenda Morrison, Lancaster, or Roger Travis.
Lancaster then gives Michael a message that Roger took from Grady. Michael goes off to get lunch.
Roger Travis then walks in and talks to Lancaster, saying that his source at the Bulgarian embassy said that the sweaty man definitely took the payment with him. Yet no money was found on the body. Travis says that this is a troubling contradiction if one believes Michael’s version of events. Lancaster warns Travis not to make accusations without hard evidence. They then discuss Jessica, but don’t really say anything of substance.
Michael meets Grady. Grady tells him about Glenda Morrison. Michael is dismissive at first, but then Grady says that he phoned the chronicle and they’ve never even heard of a Glenda Morrison. Michael asks to see the phone number she gave him. While Grady is fishing it out of his pocket, a car pulls up, a tinted window lowers, and a gun with a silencer sticks out of the slit at the top.
Michael notices the gun, grabs Grady, and dives to the ground. The gun fires but doesn’t hit anything and the car speeds away. We see that Grady and Michael are fine, then fade to black and we’re off to commercial.
So far, they’ve done a pretty good job with the spy thriller elements. Suspicion is everywhere and the tension is high.
When we get back we’re at the police station. Kevin Styles, special attorney with the State Department shows up and introduces himself to Lt. Nash. He’s there unofficially, and is asking about the situation. He says that they’ve told the Bulgarians that it was a non-political robbery gone bad. He’s also certain that he’s seen Joe Santiago before. He wonders if it was in Paris last year. Joe says that he was in Paris last year on some liaison work with Interpol, but he didn’t attend any parties, and he says that if they’d met, he’d have remembered. Styles asks Lt. Nash to get him a copy of the file, and not to tell anything to the press without running it by him, first.
Back in the jail cell, Jessica is examining the book she had been holding when she was arrested—she asked if she could have it back and Sergeant Nash was indulgent. She finds a postcard in it.
She’s interrupted in her investigations by Roger Travis, who’s dressed as a uniformed policeman. He talks to Jessica, identifies himself as British counter-intelligence, and asks her to testify against Michael, but she protests that she wasn’t working with him and didn’t see him do anything. Travis tells her that she’ll never see a penny of the half million dollars, but she has no idea what half million dollars he’s talking about. She threatens to call Sgt. Nash to talk this over with him and Travis sneaks away.
The next scene is back at the hotel where Jessica is supposed to be. Glenda Morrison comes to the door, knocks, calls out Mrs. Fletcher’s name, and enters. Michael then tackles her and pins her to the couch. She admits that she exaggerated her resume and she’s just a freelance reporter who was hoping to score an interview with Jessica Fletcher which she hoped to sell to Rolling Stone, but people usually aren’t interested in talking to freelance reporters writing on spec.
Back at the station, Jessica meets with Michael (posing as her lawyer) again, where she tells him about Roger Travis’ visit. There’s some speculation, but the big piece of info is that the money would not have been passed as cash, that would be too bulky. It would have been something like a claim ticket or a swiss bank account number.
Back in her cell, Jessica looks at the post card again, this time taking a close look at the stamp.
At Jessica’s hotel, Glenda Morrison is hanging out in the lobby and Grady is watching her. Lt. Joe Santiago comes in and asks the desk clerk for Jessica’s room. Glenda casually walks up to hear the conversation. He flips his badge and tells the clerk that Mrs. Fletcher reported a robbery at the airport.
Glenda follows him. Grady follows her. Music that’s as close to James Bond music without legally infringing on its copyright plays.
Joe looks around in the room like he’s trying to find something hidden, then notices Glenda and Grady. He pulls out his gun and demands to know who they are. We fade to black and go to commercial.
When we get back there’s a bunch of prevarication but not much that’s interesting, then Joe leaves. Glenda stays and there is some comedic bickering, as well as a scene where Donna (Grady’s wife) calls and hears the voice of another woman in Grady’s room, but of course there’s no chance to explain because Glenda tries to steal the phone to talk (she thinks to Mrs. Fletcher) and accidentally unplugs it. I suppose now that she’s comic relief, we can scratch her off the suspect list.
The next scene is back in Jessica’s jail cell. For some reason Kevin Styles is talking with Jessica.
She explains that she knows a lot of influential people in Washington and needs his help to get out of jail. She points out that if he goes to any bookstore he’ll see her face on the dust cover jacket. He says that he’ll do just that. He asks if there’s anything he can do for her in the meantime, if she wants fruit or anything to read, then notices that she has a book. He proclaims that he, too, is a Zane Grey fan, though he hasn’t read this one.
He examines it very closely with his back to Jessica for some reason, then hands it back to her when Sgt. Nash and a police woman come to the cell door. Styles says that he’ll be in touch and leaves.
The woman in the cell next to Jessica is about to go for her court appearance, so Jessica asks her to make a phone call to Grady. “You might even say it’s a matter of life and death.”
The next scene is back at the spy office, where Lancaster is feeding fish.
Travis explains to Lancaster that he saw Jessica in the police station and it confirms his theory that Michael Hagarty is dirty. Lancaster points out that the interview, based on Travis’ description, provides exactly no support for this theory, but sighs and says that they should get this out in the open. He asks Travis to summon Hagarty, but he’s nowhere to be found.
We then go back to Jessica’s cell, where Kevin Styles returns. His manner is entirely changed. He says that he’s really rather pressed for time and wants the stamp. He pulls a knife out and tells her to give it to him. He adds that “we have your nephew” and if he doesn’t walk out of the cell now, and with the stamp, Grady will die. Jessica says that he’s very persuasive and that it’s in the toe of her shoe. She kicks it off and it lands across the cell.
He picks it up and as he stands up, Michael Hagarty disguised as the woman who used to be in the cell next to Jessica’s reaches through the bars and grabs Styles around the neck, points a gun at his head, and tells him to relax or the next sound he’ll hear is a .38 soft nose crashing through his brain pan.
In the next scene Jessica is being released, and Nash apologizes for the mixup. Jessica is very understanding and tells him that it wasn’t all his fault. Nash asks how she knew that the stamp was the payoff to the hitman. Jessica explains that she didn’t notice it at first but then it struck her that the cancellation marks didn’t run across the stamp, but rather the stamp was on top of the marks. (For those who have never sent a letter, the post office marks stamps that are used to prevent their re-use. The mark not appearing on top of the stamp showed that the stamp was never used to pay for the post-card being used.) So she took off the stamp and replaced it with another one. When Styles came to see Jessica, he was very interested in the book, and after he left, the postcard was missing.
Michael comes up and tells Jessica that all’s well that ends well, to which Jessica enthusiastically agrees. Michael then says that she’ll be at the airport in plenty of time for her flight, and Jessica says that she hates to put Michael to all this trouble. He replies that it’s no trouble at all, but he did promise his chief that he’d pick up some microfilm from an agent in Chinatown, it will only take a minute, and it’s on their way. Jessica then tells Grady to call a cab, and we go to credits.
Well. That was a weird episode to begin the season with. It was, at least, better done than the last episode that tried to be a spy-thriller (Murder Through the Looking Glass). Like a lot of spy thrillers, though, it made a lot of interesting promises and fell apart when it came time for there to be a payoff.
The person who turned out to be the Cobra barely had any screen time and only showed up after the second commercial break. None of the characters doing suspicious things had any payoff, not even a threadbare explanation for the suspicious things that they were doing. I suppose Lancaster is an exception in that (by default) he turned out to just have been embarrassed by The Cobra before and it’s a coincidence that the Cobra showed up here. I suppose that Roger Travis is another exception; we can conclude that he just groundlessly suspected Michael Hagarty because he’s overly suspicious and not concerned with evidence. But what’s the deal with Lt. Joe Santiago?
Did he really just leaf through a report that was on Lt. Nash’s desk to pass the time? Did he really think that a Greek killed in an alleyway in Miami and a Bulgarian killed in an alley in California were actually similar enough to warrant suspicion? Was there really a woman whose description by a cab driver was similar to Jessica’s? Why did he go looking for something in Jessica’s hotel room? So far as he knew it wasn’t Jessica Fletcher who was found with the body. What could he possibly have hoped to find in her hotel room? Why did Glenda Morrison wait in the lobby for Lt. Santiago when she’d never seen him before and had no idea who he was? Why did she listen in to his conversation? How on earth did a freelance reporter working on a spec article on Mrs. Fletcher for Rolling Stone Magazine get a key to Mrs. Fletcher’s room?
None of this is answered, and given the ending, it can’t be answered. It’s all fake mystery.
Not as mysterious, but still something that needs explanation: why did someone (The Cobra?) take a shot at Grady or Michael Hagarty? Which actually was it? If this was The Cobra who shot at one of them, how did he find them? If he followed Grady, how did he know how to do it? This was before Kevin Styles got a copy of the file on the case so he had no way of knowing that the woman in the alley was Jane Doe claiming to be Jessica Fletcher or where she was staying in the city. So how did he follow Grady? Or, if he followed Michael instead, how did he follow Michael? Why did he follow Michael? Why did he take a shot at either of them? How could the death of either benefit the Cobra in any way?
The setup of the episode also bears very little scrutiny. Why did the African nation hire an extremely expensive assassin to take out Leonard Matoso? Why did this involve payment being handled by Bulgarians? Why did the handling of payment by Bulgarians involve sending it through the Bulgarian embassy in America? Why was the Bulgarian embassy in America reporting its handling of funds for assassins to the British intelligence service? Bulgaria was never part of the USSR, but in 1998 it was still within the USSR’s sphere of influence and not exactly on friendly terms with Britain. Or was there supposed to be a British spy within the Bulgarian embassy in America?
For that matter, why did The Cobra shoot the Bulgarian who was supposed to pay him? The Bulgarian had no idea who he was, all he knew was a sign and countersign to recognize the guy he was supposed to deliver payment to. From his perspective, if the Bulgarian got away, he might still get payment when a new location for the handoff was decided on. If he shot the Bulgarian in the alley, it was extremely unlikely he’d ever receive payment because dead men don’t make handoffs. And how did he even know that the guy who just ran out of the fire escape was the guy who was supposed to give him the payment? They were using a recognition code to meeting at a hotel room. Was he walking up and just assumed that a guy running out of a fire escape was the guy who was supposed to give him payment, and so needed to be shot for some reason? Had he memorized the hotel layout ahead of time so he knew which fire escape window belonged to the hotel room he was meeting his payment at? And why was The Cobra there but didn’t pick up the payment? This may come down to the prop and special effects departments more than the writers, but we can see approximately where The Cobra needed to be:
Based on the angles, The Cobra actually should have been in view directly behind the Bulgarian. We can see that there was no entrance wound on the man’s upper back in this shot before he falls over:
So that rules out a shot from above. It almost rules out a shot from behind, too. But if you look at how close he was to Jessica when he was shot, it would have been very hard to shoot from behind her (behind her would be in front of the Bulgarian). Above and behind her might work, but then he’d be in full view of Michael Hagarty.
And, frankly, whether The Cobra was above and behind Jessica or even higher above Michael and the special effects department just got this wrong, neither place makes any sense for him to be when his purpose is to pick up a payment. Taking a sniper position in case a British agent shows up at the hotel door and the courier flees out of the window seems counter-productive to the goal of getting paid.
My point, in all of this, is not to nitpick. My point is that the air of mystery and intrigue which this episode relied on was formed by the hints that all of these details gave. If you got rid of these details, or changed them into other details that didn’t need an explanation, you wouldn’t have much of an episode.
The ending was also extremely strange. Jessica spent the entire episode angry at Michael for getting her into jail and keeping her there. Then, after catching The Cobra, all is immediately forgiven. So much so that Jessica says that she doesn’t want to put Michael to the trouble of driving her to the airport. Huh? Forgiving this quickly isn’t like Jessica at all. Especially since Michael never expressed contrition or even apologized.
And speaking of Michael, what the heck was the ending where Michael was dressed up as the woman in the cell next to Jessica? How did he get there? Jessica indicated surprised to Kevin Styles that he was back so soon. Given that he was just walking to a bookstore to look at the dust cover of a book by J.B. Fletcher, she could not have reasonably expected him to take long. And Jessica’s message went by way of someone going to a court hearing, to Grady, who got in touch with Michael, who came to the police station and… what? If people can just waltz into the cells, it’s not much of a protection for Jessica. Did Michael confide in Lt. Nash and get his cooperation? Would a California police station really let a British spy into their jail with a gun on his say-so?
Overall, this was not one of the better episodes, but it did have good qualities. They did a good job of pacing the hints in the first half of the episode to create a lot of intrigue. They didn’t have to have the thing completely fall apart; whichever writer pitched “instead of paying off anything we suggested in the first half of the episode, how about we introduce a new character and he’s the bad guy, and once he’s caught we pretend that nothing ever happened?” didn’t need to be listened to. Either of Roger Travis or Lancaster would have been a much better Cobra. So, for that matter, would Joe Santiago. Glenda Morrison as someone working for the Cobra would have been a big improvement, and would also explain her garish makeup as a disguise to make her hard to recognize, like a lone ranger mask. (Lone Ranger masks work shockingly well, since we have a tendency to focus on details that visually distinguish someone from everyone we could confuse them with, and an obvious detail like a lone ranger mask or garish makeup would do that, resulting in not paying attention to any other features that the person has.)
What probably would have been even better would be for several people to be “the Cobra.” It would have explained how “the Cobra” was too good. Roger Travis and Joe Santiago working together as “the cobra”, plus Glenda Morrison as a helper, would have been a vastly more satisfying ending and far more interesting. It might have even allowed Lancaster to have done something useful—say, catching Roger Travis—which would have been a cool arc for that character. Lancaster was an interesting character.
Next week we meet Dennis Stanton, one of the better characters of Murder, She Wrote, in the episode, A Little Night Work.
On the eighth day of May in the Year of our Lord 1988 the last episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote aired. Called The Body Politic, it’s about an old friend of Jessica’s whose is running for the US senate in some unspecified state in the middle of America. (Last week’s episode was Deadpan.)
It begins with a black-and-white slideshow of the main not-Jessica character (Kathleen) for this episode as she is campaigning. Over this slideshow the sounds of a convention play as people are enthusiastically nominating someone. Then it fades to color and Kathleen is on a talk show debating with her opponent.
Kathleen’s opponent is Arthur Drelinger. He’s seated on the far right. The man in the middle, Edmund Hall, is the reporter who is moderating the show Face the Issues. We’ve come in at the end, and Edmund asks Kathleen about rumors in a newspaper that she’s sleeping with her campaign manager. She denies it. He then says that five years ago when she was governor that there were persistent rumors that she had an affair with a married man. Before she can substantively answer, he says that’s all the time they have. Drelinger interrupts Edmund’s goodbye with, “Thank you, Edmund. And I, for one, am certainly willing to overlook and forget any of Mrs. Lane’s past indiscretions.”
During the banter, we get a picture of a bunch of the characters for this episode.
On the left is Bud Johnson, Kathleen’s campaign manager, and the man she’s accused of sleeping with currently. Next to him is Nan Wynn, who also works for Kathleen’s campaign. To the right of Nan (our right, her left) is C.W. Butterfield, who runs Drelinger’s campaign. On the far right is Jackson Lane, Kathleen’s husband. Interestingly, James Sloyan, who plays C.W. Butterfield, previously played Lt. Spoletti in the episode Corned Beef and Carnage.
Bud excuses himself to go make some phone calls. The only one we see is to Cass Malone, who is at campaign headquarters.
She gives him the bad news that the speechwriter that they had been wining and dining has quit. Bud is disappointed, but takes it in stride. He then tells her that his wife is taking their children up to the farm for a few weeks, and invites Cass out to dinner. She tells him not to start. (Apparently, they have some kind of romantic history, but it’s long-dead and she wants it to remain that way.)
This does pretty effectively show that the rumors about Kathleen and Bud are false, though it doesn’t put Bud in a good light.
After the show, Jackson (Kathleen’s husband), Kathleen and Edmund talk. They complain about his attacking Kathleen, and Edmund tells Jackson to be glad that he’s digging up dirt on Kathleen and not him. Apparently there are various issues with back-taxes he owes, which he claims to have paid off.
In the next scene Butterfield and Nan talk to each other. There’s a bit of back-and-forth, but the gist is that he offers her a job in Drelinger’s campaign for the main race once he beats Kathleen. (Apparently, this is only the primary race.)
The next scene is Bufferfield talking with Edmund. Edmund says that The Post was fed the story on Kathleen and her campaign manager, but he’d really appreciate it if the next bit of dirty attack material was fed to him. Butterfield tells him that the Drelinger campaign would never smear an opponent, but if anything does get sent to Edmund—no promises—it would come from an anonymous source. Edmund says that he understands perfectly.
Next we get an establishing shot of a large and luxurious-looking hotel:
Jessica is talking to a desk clerk, who says that there is no reservation for her. She didn’t make it herself, so she doesn’t have a confirmation number. Kathleen shows up, warmly embraces Jessica (they’re old friends), and tries to deal with the problem, though she is embarrassed by assuming that the desk clerk would know who she is and he has no idea.
She and Jessica talk about the problems of running for the senate. Then she asks Jessica to write her speech for an upcoming event because her head speech writer just quit. Jessica declines, but Kathleen talks her into it.
Part of this talking Jessica into taking the job is that shortly before she tried to ad-lib a speech and nearly promised maternity leave to a group of veterans of foreign wars. I believe that this is supposed to make her endearing, but it has me questioning her qualifications as senator on several levels.
The scene cuts to a TV station and Edmund Hall gets a call from an anonymous source with dirt. He says that he’s interested, and we cut to a bus station where Edmund hall is waiting dressed in what I can only describe as a spy getup.
A phone call comes in on a pay phone and a muffled voice tells him to check the phone book. He does and in it there is a key. He asks who the guy is and he hangs up. The key turns out to be to a locker, in which there is a manila envelope. Hall opens it and looks at what’s inside (which is out of frame) and his jaw drops open.
In the next scene, Jessica is writing at Kathleen’s headquarters. She asks Bud how the speech is going (she shows him a copy) and they discuss it. Then Nan comes in and says that she left Kathleen at an elderly center, and she’ll be back late because she’s going to see the party chairman who asked her to come over for a meeting.
The scene then fades to Jessica in bed. Before the camera pans over, though, we get an establishing shot of a travel clock:
The time is going to be significant, of course, but it’s interesting how much these sorts of closeups were necessary because of the quality of broadcast TV at the time. If things were going well, on an expensive TV, it might look a lot like the picture above. On the other hand, if one had a cheaper TV, and if one wasn’t in a great place, if the weather wasn’t cooperating, if one’s antenna wasn’t well aligned, or if there was just electromagnetic interference, it might have looked more like this:
The camera pans over to Jessica, who’s reading a book. She then checks the time, sets it aside, and turns on the TV. There is a special broadcast by Edmund Hall. He has obtained photographs of Kathleen and Bud:
There’s a second picture, as well, which looks more incriminating:
“According to campaign sources, her husband was out of the country at the time.”
Jessica tries to call someone but gets no answer, so she leaves her room. She runs into Nan, who also saw the broadcast. She asks if Jessica has seen Bud, who is not in his room. Jessica answers that she hasn’t seen him and that Kathleen is not in her room, either.
The scene shifts to the front of the hotel, where Kathleen is getting out of a sedan as a police car pulls up. A large number of people are milling about an area with police tape around it. Kathleen sees Cass, and asks what’s happened. Cass replies, “Oh Kathleen, he must have fallen from the balcony.” Kathleen looks down and sees Bud on the ground in a bathrobe, he head in a pool of blood. We fade to black and go to commercial.
When we come back, Kathleen, Jessica, and Nan are sitting in a hotel room and Lt. Gowans is interrogating Kathleen. His opening question is whether she had any idea why he might have killed himself. His theory is that he saw the news, knew he had finished her chances of winning the nomination, and ended himself so he wouldn’t have to face that.
Kathleen protests that they were not lovers, but Lt. Gowans asks why he jumped from her balcony. When she can’t answer, he asks her if he recognizes a bracelet. It’s hers, and was found in his bathrobe. She last saw it when she took it off to shower. While she’s answer this question, Nan looks a bit surprised and concerned, like perhaps it concerned her somehow. Lt. Gowans doesn’t notice this, though, and goes on to say that every guest of the hotel is issues a bathrobe, all identical, but hers is missing.
Jackson calls and Gowan says that she can take the call in the bedroom. He’s then called over to look at some evidence in Bud’s room, so Jessica has a minute to inspect the door to the balcony, which a forensics man is busy with.
Jessica finds Lt. Gowans and points out that it’s strange that there were no fingerprints on the handle of the balcony door. Who goes out on a balcony to end it all but wipes his prints off of the door handle first?
Lt. Gowans does some more interrogation of Kathleen. She had gone out to meet the party chairman, but apparently the message got fowled up because no one was there. She waited for a bit, then drove back to town. Gowans points out that since the valet saw her arrive right after Bud’s body was discovered, and he was the only witness she had, she could easily have arrived earlier, threw him off the balcony, left, and came back. Kathleen angrily storms off to her new room.
On the way out of the room Lt. Gowans finds a piece of paper which says “A.D. 53|K.L. 46”. Jessica suggests that it’s poll information. Nan confirms this, saying that they’re preliminary figures from a poll taken this afternoon. Gowans asks if she gave them to Kathleen or Bud, and she didn’t. They were phoned over at 10pm and she brought them to Kathleen but she wasn’t back yet. She knocked and no one answered, so she slipped the note under the door. Jessica finds that odd—how did the note get onto the table?
The scene moves to Jackson and Kathleen talking. She explains that the photos were innocent. She had just beaten Bud at ping pong and he began to pout, so she consoled him. Jackson asks what the score was and she says twenty one to three. He encourages her to continue with her campaign. They go to bed, then the scene shifts to the next day where Kathleen is at a press conference. She denies any impropriety, and will continue running. A reporter asks Jackson about whether he was really there and he says that he was on a business trip in the Bahamas, but has total faith in his wife. He then adds that when she started she was twenty points behind Drelinger but now is only seven points behind. He predicts that Kathleen will win on primary day.
There are some more questions, and Edmund Hall argues with Kathleen a bit. He then asks, if she wasn’t at the hotel, if Bud had his own key to her room. At this, Jackson storms toward Hall to attack him, and it requires four or five people to hold him back. Jessica shakes her head, the scene fades to black, and we go to commercial.
When we come back, we’re at police headquarters. You can tell because the building actually has the words “Police Headquarters” engraved in stone above its entrance:
There’s something fascinating about establishing shots. Somehow a few seconds of the outside of some building and you really believe that the next scene takes place in it. Here’s the Lieutenant’s office, or at least half of it because the camera just panned over from him pulling darts out of a dart board:
As he took the darts out, he told Jessica, “Yeah, it’s murder, and yeah, I think she did it. But proving it: I’m not so sure about that.” Jessica replies, “Meanwhile, she’s being convicted on the front page of every newspaper in this state.” Both intone it as if they agree, but they don’t agree at all. It’s a pretty weird exchange.
Jessica suggests that she’s being framed to destroy her candidacy, and Gowans admits that it’s possible. Jessica tries to bully him into looking elsewhere because Kathleen is incapable of deceit or subterfuge or murder, etc. etc.
On her way back to her hotel, Jessica runs into Edmund Hall. He asks her to come on his Sunday show, and she says that she will consider it if he tells her who gave him the photos. He admits that he doesn’t know, and could hardly admit to getting them from an anonymous source in a bus station locker. She asks if it never occurred to him that it was Drelinger’s campaign and he levels with her—C.W. Bufferfield suggested he had something, but he doesn’t know if it was the photos.
Jessica then talks to Kathleen. She talked to the party chairman, who never asked for a meeting with Kathleen. The message came in through Nan. Jessica then goes off to see the Arthur Drelinger campaign.
Lt. Gowans beats her to it, though. He interrogates Drelinger and Butterfield. They were at the Onyx lodge for Drelinger to receive the man of the year award from 8pm-11pm, but Gowans heard that they left at 10:30. Butterfield clarifies that they were in his car at 11pm, went to Drelinger’s hotel room, and stayed there until midnight. Drelinger confirms this with an air of bewildered surprise, and Gowans says that if he needs anything more he’ll be back.
Gowans runs into Jessica coming on his way out. He says that her speech got to him and he decided to work on those loose ends, but he’s turned up nothing. She goes in to see Drelinger and Butterfield.
She accuses them of the taking the photos and giving them to the press, but they deny it. Then Nan Wynn walks in. She doesn’t notice Jessica and says that new poll numbers are out and Kathleen Lane is officially dead. Then she sees Jessica, the scene fades to black, and we go to our final commercial break.
When we come back, Nan and Jessica are walking in a park and talking. Nan insists that she was not a spy for Drelinger, and Jessica asks about the phone message. The man on the phone said that he was an aide to the party chairman.
Jessica then turns the subject to why Nan has left Kathleen’s campaign. It’s because Kathleen’s polling numbers have taken a nosedive. Jessica objects to polls as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and Nan replies that self-fulfilling or not, they’re taken and thus meaningful. She shows Jessica Kathleen’s polling over time. She started at 20 points behind, then moved on to 12, then 10, then 5. Jessica asks about that, and it was the day Bud died. Jessica points out that the poll numbers on the piece of paper were 7 points apart, and Nan says that that was a mistake. She then says that she told Jessica and Lt. Gowans and no one else.
This makes Jessica realize who the murderer is.
This is curious because there don’t seem to be many options. There are Drelinger and Butterfield, of course, but neither is very likely. Drelinger wasn’t a real character and Butterfield is too obvious. Plus, it’s not obvious that Butterfield had exhausted all his dirty tricks, which he’d certainly do before resorting to murder for the sake of his job. There’s Cass and Nan. Of the two I’d say that Cass would have been the most likely if Bud had fallen off of his own balcony. As it is… I’m not really seeing either of them. It could turn out to be either, as we just need a new bit of evidence to show that Bud tried to force himself on one of them, but we haven’t got it so far. It is possible that it will turn out that Kathleen did it, but that’s unlikely in the extreme. Jessica declared her incapable of murder, and Jessica is never wrong about that. There’s Edmund Hall, but that would make absolutely no sense. The only other character is Jackson Lane, Kathleen’s husband. He’s got no motive and while he’s gotten a fair amount of screen time it’s never been as much of a character. That said, he did make reference to a seven point spread which was the spread on the piece of paper that was the one solid clue found near the scene of the crime, and no one else is connected to it.
Anyway, this is surprisingly early in the episode for Jessica to figure out who did it: there are about nine minutes left. Which makes me wonder how they’re going to pad the episode out.
It turns out that about a minute and a half of that padding is Jessica self-righteously haranguing Edmund Hall about how journalists shouldn’t report on the crimes and bad actions of politicians that Jessica likes. Or possibly that journalists should stick to “the issues,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Kathleen is in favor of spending enormous amounts of money, so perhaps that would mean pointing out that all of the things she’s in favor of would mean either unsustainable debt or huge tax increases? Jessica probably wouldn’t like that either.
I do remember in the late 1980s people expressed a great distaste for “mudslinging” in campaigning. I heard about how awful “mudslinging” was a lot during the Bush-Clinton campaigns. Admittedly, that was actually the early 1990s; 1987 was the Bush-Dukakis campaign, which I don’t remember as well. anyway, there was a great deal of complaining about this, as if big character flaws in elected representatives don’t matter when their actual policies were not that far apart, as they weren’t in the 1980s. This is especially the case in primaries where the candidates will mostly agree. In any event, this has aged very poorly.
It’s also weird that there’s so much complaining about mudslinging instead of focusing on “the issues” but literally the first words out of Kathleen’s mouth in this episode were, “If my opponent can’t find a way to pay back the $600,000 he owes from his last campaign, then how can the voters expect him to do anything about the federal budget?” That’s more of a personal attack than Dilinger’s response, “I certainly wish I had a millionaire spouse like Mrs. Lane, here. Perhaps the fairness doctrine would allow your husband to help repay my debts.” Kathleen’s opener was more of a personal attack and no more about “the issues” than Dilinger’s reply was. I suppose that this is one of those episodes in which if Jessica didn’t have double standards, she’d have no standards at all.
Jessica goes inside the house and finds Kathleen and Jackson. Kathleen says that she’s ending her campaign. She’s found out the hard way that the media has two stories; when she was twenty points behind they built her up as the underdog, when she closed the gap they started tearing her down. She just can’t take it anymore. Her attempt at public service cost her her dignity, her sanity, and nearly cost her her marriage.
She goes out to publicly announce the end of her campaign. Jessica asks Jackson if she can talk with him for a minute. She tells him that she knows who took the photos of Kathleen and Bud and leaked them to Channel 8. Partway through her explanation Gowans shows up, but doesn’t interrupt. Jessica explains that he is relieved that Kathleen withdrew, because his business dealings couldn’t stand the kind of media scrutiny involved in running for office. His slip was quoting Kathleen as having been seven points behind Drelinger when the only place that information ever existed was a mistaken memo slipped under Kathleen’s door.
This clinches it, and Jackson confesses. Bud had found out that he wasn’t really in the Bahamas. When the photos came out, Bud would start to put it together that Jackson was the one who took the photos and was trying to sink Kathleen’s campaign. Then it came to him that Bud’s suicide would finish off Kathleen’s campaign for good. So he got Kathleen out of the way, called Bud to his room, hit him on the head with a hammer, dressed Bud in Kathleen’s robe, and threw him off Kathleen’s balcony.
He summarizes his motive:
The people that I dealt with in those day— well, the people I deal with now… I didn’t get where I am by being a choir boy. And they were getting awfully nervous about those rumors. It wasn’t jail. I was looking at… much worse, and I couldn’t think of what else to do.
Gowans takes him away. Jessica steps out as Kathleen is finishing her announcement,
And now I’m going to step out of the goldfish bowl and once again become Mrs. Jackson Lane—the devoted wife of a wonderful, loving husband.
Jessica looks on and is sad, and we go to credits.
I really did not like this episode. It was an unpleasant subject that was mostly an excuse to complain about politics, and that complaining about politics took up so much time that there was approximately no characterization of any of the characters and very minimal plot.
To be fair, Jackson’s slip-up did at least appear on-screen, unlike the evidence in last week’s episode, but that’s about all that I can say for this. He doesn’t make any sense as the murderer. Even apart from it being absurd that he thought it would be all fun and games for his wife to try to get elected as a senator when he was involved in very illegal things. Just logistically, how did he have access to Kathleen’s hotel room? Her campaign is moving all over the place, it’s not like the hotel is a long-term headquarters that she’d have given him a key. Another weird issue is the casting. Eddie Albert, who played Jackson Lane, was 82 years old at the time the episode aired. Even if he was playing younger, Jackson Lane would be in his seventies, and he certainly didn’t look like he exercised as regularly as, say, Jack Lalanne. Are we really supposed to believe that he killed Bud with a hammer, changed his clothes (changing the close of someone who is not cooperating requires a surprising amount of strength, because it’s awkward) and threw his corpse over a balcony?
And then why on earth did he try to frame his wife when all he was doing was trying to make Bud’s death look like suicide? Sending her on a wild goose chase to keep her away, I get, since he needed her to not be on hand to interfere. But why dress Bud up in her bathrobe, and why throw him off of her balcony? Neither of those things were necessary to get Kathleen to lose the primary. Further, Jackson had a major interest in his beloved wife not being convicted of murder.
It is a relatively minor issue, but once again we also have no obvious way for Jessica and Kathleen to be good friends. We’re not told what state this is, but Jackson identifies it as “middle America.” Five years ago Kathleen was the mayor of her “home town” in this state. I get that Jessica and Kathleen being old friends is just a setup so that we can have this episode, but at the same time the writers could have spent a few seconds explaining how this unlikely friendship between a small-time politician in Middle America and a retired schoolteacher from Maine was formed in the early 1970s. Or between a housewife in middle America and a schoolteacher from Maine, given that Kathleen might not have been in politics at the time and Jessica probably hadn’t retired yet.
The whole episode was badly conceived. Even the opening makes no sense because it’s the sounds of someone being nominated for something, while the episode takes place before the primary has happened. People aren’t nominated to run in their primary. Worse, this episode is about politics. Politics is not merely the setting for a murder mystery, the murder mystery is an excuse for the setting. The complaining about mudslinging in politics gets undermined by the solution to the murder—it turns out that it wasn’t the Drelinger campaign playing dirty, it was Kathleen’s own husband trying to get her to quit. If he hadn’t been trying to sabotage her campaign, there wouldn’t have been all of the mudslinging.
I really wish I could say something good about this episode—that’s why I do these reviews—but I can’t think of anything. Eddie Albert gave a really good performance during his confession scene, but that’s just a credit to him as an actor. Oh well.
Thus ends the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. Season 5 will begin with J.B. As In Jailbird.
I’m extremely fond of the movie A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott. It’s remarkably well done. Out of curiosity I recently took a look at the original upon which it is based. Here are the first few paragraphs:
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.
The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.
Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.
I now see why my father joked that you could tell by his writing that Dickens was paid by the word. Skimming around, Dickens did have a very indirect style. It comes off as humorous, here, though he still seems to be indirect in his writing even during more serious moments. I have some friends who are fans of Dickens, I should ask them. Also, at some point, perhaps I should read G.K. Chesterton’s book on Dickens.
On the first day of May in the year of our Lord 1988, the episode Deadpan aired. It was the second to last episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. (Last week’s episode was Showdown in Saskatchewan.)
We’re in New York for the opening of a play based on Jessica’s book. The play is called Mainely Murder, based on Jessica’s book Murder Comes to Maine.
We then meet our first character.
His name is Elliot Easterbrook and he’s a TV theater critic, and has an impressively negative tone. His first line is, “It has been said that the theater is a temple. If so, it is a temple which has often worshiped false gods. Only time and astute critical judgment will tell if Mainely Murder, which opens here tomorrow night, will honor the gods or, yet again, profane them.”
He goes on to interview some of the major cast members—the cast of the episode, not the cast of the play.
The first is Shayna, the producer of the play.
Elliot says that she has brought the theater such notable works as the musical biography of King Louis XVI titled Heads You Lose. He says it as if the play was terrible, but Shayna points out that it ran for 524 performances.
Jessica is also here. The Elliot remarks in his acid tones that Jessica looks just like one would picture a mystery writer from Maine to look.
Then we meet another character:
The young man is new to writing for the theater, but is the person who adapted Jessica’s book into a play. His name is Walter Knapf. Elliot asks how it was that Jessica, an experienced writer, allowed a neophyte to adapt her play. Jessica answers that Walter was a very talented student of hers. Being a protegé of Jessica’s makes it very likely that the police will suspect him for the murder that will happen this episode, if not outright arrest him for it, poor kid.
Elliot is confrontational, trying to pin Jessica down about predicting the play’s success. She says, “Isn’t it true that the only thing you can predict about the theater is that it is unpredictable?” Elliot replies, “Oh bravo, Mrs. Fletcher. You must have stayed up all night thinking that one up.” Jessica answers, “No, actually. Molière did it for me about 200 years ago.”
It’s a good zinger, but there are a few issues with it. Molière was, if you don’t know, a French playwrite and actor (I had to look it up to find out that he was also an actor). Googling, I can’t find that Molière ever said anything like this; quotes of this episode are the only things that turn up when you search for it. That’s not dispositive but what are the odds that no one has ever talked about this quote other than this episode of Murder, She Wrote? Especially since you can find pages of Molière quotes? Also, and this is a smaller thing, Molière lived from 1622 to 1673. At the time of this episode, the most recently Molière could have said this was 315 years ago. So Jessica’s zinger was made up and off by at least a century. Now the question is: was that intentional? Was Jessica meant to be better educated than Elliot and the writers used fake facts to portray that, or was she meant to be just to be a good actress who could pull off the authority to convince Elliot that he didn’t know a fake quote which he probably should have known? Both would work for their intended purpose, with the former just being a short-cut over real research to come up with a legitimate zinger. It would be interesting to know.
Anyway, the last part of this happens as we watch it on TV:
The camera pulls back to reveal two new characters. I’m going to get to them in a moment, but I find this very interesting. Why would the people who edit Elliot’s show leave this in? There’s no way that something as unimportant and likely to involve downtime that should be edited out as a pre-show interview would be broadcast live, so the presence of this exchange had to be a deliberate decision on the part of the editor. I don’t think that there’s really any way of defending it and it’s just a cute way of segwaying into introducing the new characters—a rival theater critic and his assistant. So, about them:
The theater critic—his name is Danny O’Mara—is the guy in the blue sweater vest. His assistant—Denise Quinlan—is the woman sitting in the chair. He writes a column in a newspaper (“The Chronicle”). Evidently he has a strong antipathy for Elliot. The scene began with him celebrating Jessica’s put-down (“Pow! Right in the kisser!”) and ended with him saying that everyone forgets what Elliot said by the time the woman is on to give the weather. The only reviews anyone remembers are Danny’s.
The scene shifts to a restaurant where Jessica, Walter, and someone we haven’t met before but whose name turns out to be Barney Mapost and whose job is publicist are having lunch. As they discuss how much Jessica doesn’t want to do more interviews Danny comes in and introduces himself. He professes himself to be an admirer of her work, by which he means her putting down of Elliot. When he hears that she will see a dress rehearsal of the play right after lunch, he suggests that—from what he’s heard—it would be advisable to make it a light lunch, his tone implying that the play is quite bad. He leaves, but his assistant reassures them that he’ll give them a fair shot. She then says she’ll see them tonight at the party. After she leaves, Jessica expresses surprise at inviting critics to the opening night party. Barny says that it’s Shayna’s idea, then says that they need to rush over to get to the dress rehearsal. I suppose it was a very light lunch indeed, since they never ordered.
Then we go to the dress rehearsal.
The scene of the play we come into has a farm set, and on it a witch casts a spell.
Double Trouble, Spoil the bubble! Make the haystack Turn to Rubble!
The lights flash, and a pyrotechnic special effect at the top of the haystack fails.
It seems that Danny O’Mara heard correctly.
There is some humorous dialog where various people ask Jessica what she thinks and she tries her best to be diplomatic.
Then we skip to opening night. Walter is nervous and Jessica tries to calm his nerves. Danny O’Mara finds his seat as an announcer says that the part of the woodsman, normally played by Tony Jasper, will be played by Craig Donner. I must confess that I’ve never actually been to a broadway play (once, in middle school, I attended a school trip to a dress rehearsal of a broadway play, but I don’t think that’s the same thing). That said, do they really announce cast substitutions?
Elliot arrives late and Shayna personally ushers him into the play. He remarks to her, “I hope you don’t think by inviting me to your postprandial party you’ll color my reaction to your little play.” Shayna graciously replies, “No, but missing the first scene might,” and opens the door into the theater for him.
I wonder if the misuse of “postprandial” is intentional. “Postprandial” means “after a meal,” and usually refers to something happening right after a meal since human beings eat several times per day and so everything a person does, except in a famine, is normally not many hours after some meal. The opening night party of a play is going to be right after the play, not right after a meal. If anything, it’s likely to have food served at it because it’s been a while since anyone has eaten. “Postprandial” is not the word to use to describe an after-play party.
This reminds me of a joke my oldest son told me recently: “I use big words I don’t understand in order to seem more photosynthesis.”
So, is Elliot Easterbrook the sort of man who would use ten dollar words he doesn’t know the meaning of in order to impress people, or did the writers of the episode just get it wrong? Or did they just not care? In television in the 1980s writers tended to rate accuracy below everything else—it would be easy to imagine them mis-using a word because they figured that 99% of the viewers wouldn’t know what the word meant and would assume it was used correctly. This is actually a bit frustrating as it would shed more light on the character to know the answer. On the other hand, he probably won’t be alive for much longer, so it may not matter much.
We skip to the intermission, where we follow Walter on his way to the bar and pass various people who are complaining about how bad their day was. Walter takes it as a bad sign that no one is talking about the play. Danny O’Mara then walks up to Elliot Easterbrook and tells him, “all you TV blowhards know about theater is makeup and hair.” They trade insults for a while until Elliot leaves. Walter tells Jessica that he needs many more drinks that he just had (he brought Jessica white wine and had ordered, for himself, a “double anything”). He leaves, telling her that he’ll see her at the party.
The scene then fades to the party.
There’s some small talk, then a broadcast of Elliot Easterbrook’s review of the play. I question how influential his reviews can be if they’re are broadcast close to midnight, but in any event I think it’s worth quoting the review in its entirety:
It is always difficult to review a mystery without giving away the plot. This unpalatable witch’s brew is such a muddle of clichés and troll dialogue that it is impossible to figure out the plot. Neophyte playwright Walter Knapf at least has the excuse of inexperience. As for the cast, Vivian Cassell brings her usual long-in-the-tooth charm to the lead. And Barbara Blair shines briefly as a witch. Tony Jasper as the woodsman is appropriately wooden. If you’re looking for a good thriller, walk right by the Woolcott Theater. The only mystery about this one, folks, is how it ever got to Broadway in the first place.
The scene fades to later on with Jessica putting her coat on to leave. Shayna asks her to stay until the early newspaper reviews are out but Jessica protests that it’s after 1am. They then notice that Elliot Easterbrook has accepted the invitation to join the party, which everyone finds surprising. Walter then staggers in, drunk, holding an early editing of the next day’s newspaper. He proclaims that the play will run forever: Danny O’Mara wrote them a glowing review.
Mainely Murder is mainly magnificent, the one must-see of the season. This is a real audience-pleaser, just the kind of show a certain low-caliber, high ego TV critic is sure to hate. You know who I’m talking about. That Live at Five guy who thinks he’s smarter than you. If he hates this show, maybe you should let his TV station know you’ve had enough of his condescending crap.
Jessica’s reaction while Walter reads this aloud is interesting:
This review is indeed quite surprising. It doesn’t square with what O’mara’s warning to Jessica, nor with common sense.
Anyway, Elliot Easterbrook expresses outrage at this review and declares that “someone has to silence this undereducated, ill-informed windbag… permanently.” He then storms off.
The police get a call reporting that shots were fired and dispatch units to the location of the call. Two uniformed officers break down a door, then see the corpse of Danny O’Mara lying on the floor with Elliot Easterbrook standing over the corpse holding a gun pointing at the corpse. They never show the whole thing in a single shot, but I think that the most interesting part is how the gun is being held:
After the camera pans up to Elliot’s face, which registers minor confusion and surprise, we fade to black and go to commercial.
It turns out I was wrong about who was going to get murdered. It’s easy to imagine a lot of people wanting to kill Elliot. Who would want to kill Danny?
When we come back from commercial break, Danny’s assistant, accompanied by Jessica for some reason, show up at the scene of the crime. The detective for the case, Lieutenant Jarvis, is interviewing Elliot.
Elliot claims that he arrived only moments before the uniformed police officers and picked up the gun because he was worried that the assailant was still present. Jarvis isn’t buying it, so Jessica pulls him aside and points out that Mr. Easterbrook left the restaurant only moments before they did and they came straight here, so Elliot wouldn’t have had time to kill Danny. Further, if the shots were just fired, wouldn’t there be a smell of gunpowder and furthermore, why does Danny’s skin have a bluish tint?
Jarvis, who is at the end of a double-shift and exhausted, doesn’t have time to think about these things and directs that Elliot be arrested. As Elliot is being escorted to the police station, he rudely tells Mrs. Fletcher to mind her own business and to leave his defense to more capable hands.
The next scene is back at the theater, where Shayna and the director talk about how wonderful things are, largely thanks to Danny O’Mara’s positive review. There is also some discussion of a positive review by another critic. When Barny is asked if he’d read it, he replies that he wrote it. Writing columns for reviewers in their voice makes their lives so much easier they’re much more likely to give you positive coverage in exchange for saving them the time of doing the writing themselves. Not too much is made of this but it’s clearly foreshadowing of the only possible explanation for why Danny O’Mara wrote such a glowing review of such an awful play.
There’s also some discussion of Shayna wanting Walter to make more changes, and then he privately talks to Jessica to ask for help. She just wants to get back to Cabot Cove, but he reminds her of the theme in her book upon which this play is based—not walking away from injustice. So Jessica resolves to stay and figure out who killed Danny.
This scene is quite weird. I get that Jessica wants to get away from the play as soon as possible but this is the first time I can remember that she ever wanted to desert a place more than to solve a murder, even for a moment. Usually someone is trying to get her to leave and she’s refusing. It feels out of character.
The first stop in Jessica’s quest to satisfy justice is to go to the office at his newspaper. The scene at the newspaper opens with an interesting joke about the former theater critic that Danny replaced. He was a very gentlemanly reviewer and the best theater critic that the paper ever had, but after his stroke he couldn’t handle broadway anymore and so is reviewing television programs. Murder, She Wrote doesn’t often go in for self-referential humor, but this is certainly not the first time. In Steal Me A Story, a producer suggests to Jessica doing a show called The Jessica Fletcher Mystery Hour, about the real-life exploits of a famous mystery author solving crimes. Jessica replies that she doesn’t write fist fights, bedroom scenes, or car chases, so who would watch it?
Like in that case, I think that this joke relates to the Murder, She Wrote theme of old things still being valuable. It’s a bit tangentially; the theater being so much more important than television isn’t going to be deeply relatable. Not many people born in the 1910s or 1920s (and hence be in their 60s and 70s in the 1980s) will have gone to shows on broadway, or even off-broadway. They might, as youngsters, have attended local plays before movies largely replaced them, but I doubt that they’d have remembered those as high art since they probably weren’t high art. People born in the 1930s and after almost certainly would not have gone to any meaningful number of plays.
The gentlemanliness of the former critic is also interesting. Supposing that he was seventy at the time of his stroke, and that this was five years ago, he’d have been born in 1913. The 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s were not a time people were gentlemanly—being modern was the big craze then. So his formative years would not have valued gentlemanliness. People might have tried to be gentlemanly in the 1940s and 1950s, and perhaps into the 1960s, so maybe he adopted it, but that was not a big thing in the 1970s. On balance, I’d guess that this aspect of him having been gentlemanly was pure wistfulness, without any direct reference in reality. That is, it was mere, abstract, “things were better back then”. (Of course, it can be simply explained as individual quirkiness, and need not be taken symbolicly.)
Anyway, Jessica pretends to be doing research for a new book, and pumps the editor for information. It turns out, though, that Danny didn’t come into the newspaper to write his column. He wrote from home. There’s an interesting bit where Jessica asks if it was picked up by courier, and the editor laughs and says that they’re all using computers, these days. O’Mara wrote it on his home computer and send it in via modem. The computers time stamp everything, so he can say that the review came in at 11:15pm.
Jessica next goes to visit Denise at Danny’s apartment. It’s a little odd that she should be cleaning up his effects at his apartment rather than a family member doing that, but it saves on time and casting, and Murder, She Wrote generally fits a ton into a fairly short time, to say nothing of having a cast so large they rarely get to develop a character in more than a few lines.
Denise shows Jessica Danny’s program from the night before, on which he took notes. Jessica looks it over and remarks that it’s odd that the notes are nothing like Danny’s review. Denise says that she didn’t have a chance to look at it, does so now, and remarks, “Well, this is weird. Why would his review be so favorable?”
This is a very strange question for Denise to make, seeing as how she was Danny’s assistant. Barney Mapost introduced her as “Danny’s right hand, his left hand, and entire brain.” She said that this was inaccurate and she was more like the guy who walks behind the elephant in the parade. Either way, it’s weird that she had no idea what he thought of the play since she sat next to him at the opening performance.
At Jessica’s request, Denise then shows her the original review which was on a 5 1/4″ floppy disk.
This is the same thing as what Walter read out loud the night before. Curiously, it contains no reference to Jessica, despite the director remarking in the banter I summarized above that Danny had given Mrs. Fletcher “quite a nice mention.” But there’s plenty of space on the screen below the text, and nothing there. Be that as it may, Jessica looks it over and remarks that it doesn’t square with Danny’s notes.
Denise replies, “I gather you don’t write on a computer, Mrs. Fletcher.” This makes no sense as a reply; writing on a computer doesn’t make people radically change their opinions of the quality of fiction. Instead of pointing that out, Jessica merely replies that she doesn’t, and far prefers her bucket-of-bolts typewriter. It’s noisy, but comfortable. Denise then says that she should consider switching, but Jessica refuses, saying that she’s heard too many stories of people pressing the wrong button and losing everything. Denise then demonstrates that it’s not quite that easy. She deletes the review from the disk, then undeletes it to show that things are recoverable.
Jessica, eagle-eyed as always, remarks on there being two files that were undeleted. They then look at the file which had been deleted before they started:
Denise is perplexed at the existence of this review, so different from the one that published. Why did he change his mind so drastically, she asks in a way that suggests she doesn’t have two brain cells to rub toghter? Jessica theorizes that whoever killed Danny O’Mara also killed his review.
The scene shifts to Police headquarters where Jessica gives his information to Lt. Jarvis. Jarvis says that the substitution of the review doesn’t rule out Easterbrook, but Jessica says that he was on the air giving his review of Mainely Murder at 11:15pm and she checked—it was a live broadcast. I find that more than a bit odd—who would watch a theater review at 11:15pm at night? And why bother broadcasting it live? That first part is probably more germane to the episode as a whole—how influential can a TV theater critic be if his reviews are broadcast live at 11:15pm at night? Granted, New York City is the city that never sleeps, but even so.
Anyway, in the conversation some weird details come out. The police got an anonymous call saying that shots were fired, but O’Mara was killed with only one bullet and no other bullets were found in the apartment. None of the other tenants ever heard any bullets being fired. And the coroner’s report indicates that O’Mara might have died earlier than he was found.
Jessica suggests that the killer must have been someone from the play, but Jarvis says that it’s likely that everyone can alibi each other at the party, and asks her to try to recall who showed up late. (Answer: Walter, but Jessica only realizes what she’s done as she walks out.) Jessica calls Walter from a pay phone at the police station but only gets his answering machine, and leaves a message saying that it’s urgent that she talk to him.
She then goes to see Elliot, who has quite an office.
Are we really to believe that a TV theater critic whose reviews are broadcast at 11:15pm at night has a corner office? Anyway, Elliot has his unpleasantness dialed up to 11, as usual. Jessica asks him if it doesn’t get tiresome being so tiresome, but he just replies in a tiresome way. They hit something of a detente and discuss the case.
Jessica wonders who wrote the fake O’Mara review, and Elliot suggests the director, since O’Mara had panned his last five plays. Jessica goes to talk to him.
The directory, though, is only interested in blaming Jessica for finding the real review of Mainely Murder, saying that now the play is doomed. I have trouble believing that a glowing review could do much to save a play as bad as Mainely Murder is supposed to be, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. The only thing that really comes up is that everyone was at the party, the whole night, except for Walter.
Jessica tries to find Walter at his apartment, but he’s not there. Jessica runs into Barney, taking down the quote from the O’Mara review. She all but accuses him of having written the fake review, but he replies that he never tried to imitate O’Mara because O’Mara wasn’t the kind of critic who appreciated being sent plugs. Walter is in the back of the theater working on rewrites. (I wonder why this theater would have office space for writers, but again this probably just a time-saving thing.)
Walter is saying that he put a lot of the original stuff back in and Shayna actually likes it. With all of the changes that went on, she doesn’t remember what she cut anymore! He thinks this will save the play. Jessica tells him to nevermind the play and to tell her where he was during the cast party. Lt. Jarvis walks in and says that the way he figures it, Walter was busy murdering O’Mara. He arrests Walter, and we go to commercial.
When we come back, Jessica and Jarvis are interrogating Walter in Jarvis’ office. Before anyone can say anything of substance, though, Jarvis sends for Mrs. Rizzo, who after some complaining says that she saw Walter in the hallway. She lives on the first floor of the building where O’Mara lived on the third. It was 11pm—she knows because the news just came on—and Walter banged on her door saying that he needed to speak to Mr. O’Mara. She told him that O’Mara lived upstairs, and Walter went away.
As a side note, I’m really curious how Walter was supposed to know what building O’Mara lived in. For that matter, why on earth did Mrs. Rizzo know that Danny O’Mara lived in her building, two floors up? A lot of people live in her building, and NYC is not a place where people get to know their neighbors, especially not their neighbors who live on a different floor.
Anyway, she leaves and Walter gives his version. He was hoping to find O’Mara and beg for mercy. When he couldn’t find O’Mara’s apartment he realized he was so drunk he couldn’t think straight, so he gave up and went out to get even more drunk. There is some general bickering, and a reference to a different casting for a part gives Jessica an idea.
She visits Martha Blair, who played the witch who, in the play, cast a spell to reduce a haystack to rubble. It turns out that she was romantically involved with Elliot Easterbrook in a very minor way. She had dinner with him, which consisted of four hours of him talking about himself. This was at Shayna’s instigation, so Jessica goes to talk to Shayna.
The conversation with Shayna doesn’t reveal much, but when she is previewing a tape of Elliot Easterbrook’s review in order to pull a few words out of context to seem favorable, it repeats the part where he said that Tony, as the woodsman, was appropriately wooden. This gives Jessica the clue she needs.
Jessica excuses herself to Shayna, saying that she needs to see a man about a play.
It’s interesting how Murder, She Wrote has a visual language all its own. The next scene has Jessica sitting (apparently) alone, on stage. We hear a door close, which means that Jessica has invited the murderer to her impromptu accusing parlor.
She calls out to him. It’s Elliot Easterbrook. She thanks him for coming, and he assures her that it is nothing more than curiosity.
Jessica explains how Elliot did it, though she frames it in a proposal for the plot of a new book. The setting is the theater, and the killer plans his crime meticulously. After the play he kills the victim, then two hours later puts in a fake call about gun shots in order to have the police arrive with him standing over the body and frame himself. Once the time of death is established to have been two hours earlier, he’ll be exonerated and it will be extremely unlikely anyone will look his way again. He created an alibi for himself by transmitting the fake review he’d planted to the newspaper from his own office, rather than from the victim’s apartment.
Elliot says that it sounds far fetched, but like a perfect crime. Jessica said that it would be, except that Molière was right—the theater is unpredictable. There was a last-minute cast change which Elliot didn’t know about because he came late. Thus he got it wrong in his TV review, but, critically, also in the fake review.
Elliot points out that even a fictional jury wouldn’t be likely to accept this as conclusive proof. Jessica agrees, but says that they would be willing to accept his TV station’s phone log. It shows a five minute call to the Chronicle at 11:15pm.
Elliot, crestfallen, says,”Even the finest works of art have their flaws. Congratulations, Mrs. Fletcher. The only thing missing is a motive.”
Jessica says that she’s wondered about that.
Elliot decides to tell her. It’s fascinating, so I’m going to quote it in full:
Imagine a young and impressionable writer who has his first play produced off-off-off Broadway. It’s not perfect, but he has talent, and it’s a start. And imagine a critic from a second-rate newspaper trying to make a name for himself. His review of the play is devastating. So devastating the young playwright never writes another play. No, instead, he becomes a critic himself and vows to best his destroyer at his own game. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to eradicate the pain. Only one thing can do that.
At this point Lt. Jarvis walks in from the wings (Elliot had moved onto the stage, with Jessica) and announces his presence.
Elliot looks at Jessica in surprise.
The detective in the wings, Mrs. Fletcher? I suppose I should have expected a climax so cliché.
The uniformed officers escort Elliot away. Jarvis remains and talks to Mrs. Fletcher. He asks how she knew that the TV station logged its phone calls. Jessica replies, “Well, if they don’t, they ought to.”
And on that note we go to credits.
This was an ambitious episode, so I think its many plot holes can be at least partially forgiven. That said, it has a lot of them. I think, for me, the biggest is that the key evidence—the evidence by which Jessica knew who the murderer was and the only evidence she didn’t make up when she confronted him—never appeared in the episode. At no point when the fake review was read or put on screen did it mention the actor who played the woodsman. This is unusual for Murder, She Wrote. They’re normally better about showing us all of the evidence (that Jessica doesn’t lie about—they could hardly show us that). It’s not like there was any other evidence to lose track of and no excuse can be made on account of time. They put up the text of the review a second time, so they could have put up the relevant section of the review instead of just repeating the part that Walter read aloud at the party.
There’s also the issue that the fake review failing to mention the cast change hardly proves that Easterbrook was the culprit. Anyone who wrote the fake review earlier in the day would have used the name of the actor who had been cast in the role, as would anyone who just didn’t pay close attention to the announcement, was in the bathroom, etc. Since the purpose of the fake review was to be discovered and cast suspicion on someone who would benefit from the play getting a good review it didn’t deserve, it’s not like there was a motive to get the fake review right. Mistakes in the fake review would draw attention to its inauthenticity, and thus help it serve the murderer’s purpose. So, not only did they not show us this evidence, it doesn’t really point to Elliot as the murderer anyway.
The part about Elliot Easterbrook framing himself is hard to know what to make of. On the one hand, framing himself with a fake time of death that will be disproved has some merit as a way of leading suspicion away from himself, but it only really makes sense if suspicion was at all likely to go his way. There was no real connection between him and Danny O’Mara, so there’s no reason why it would have. If anything, O’Mara seemed to hate him far more than he seemed to hate O’Mara. All clumsily framing himself did was connect him to the murder more than he would have been otherwise. That said, he was a narcissist with an obsession. It’s not entirely unbelievable that he loomed much larger in his own imagination than he did in anyone else’s and so he might assume he would be suspected because he assumed that everyone thought about him all the time.
That said, his approach to framing himself was riskier than the episode made it out. Estimating the time of death is not an exact science and it was so close to when he framed himself for that there was no guarantee that he would be exonerated. Indeed, all the autopsy report showed was that the time of death could have been hours earlier. “Could have been earlier” is not a slam-dunk acquittal. The transmitting of the review at 11:15pm would be a stronger alibi, but only if the falsity of the review was discovered. That only happened by accident, and Elliot was in no position to do it himself if no one else did it for him, so this instance of framing himself is particularly weak.
To be fair, though, given that it would have taken the police several minutes, at minimum, to arrive at Danny O’Mara’s apartment after getting a report of “shots fired,” holding that Elliot had just shot Danny would entail him standing over the body, gun in hand, for several minutes. That would be quite strange, to say the least. I suspect that a defense attorney could make a lot of that.
Perhaps oddly, I actually find the motive in this episode to be on the more believable side. Superficially, of course, it’s ridiculous. Who could want to kill a person because they wrote a scathing review of his play twenty years before? And yet, Elliot Easterbrook comes off as a man consumed by hatred. Especially as Dean Stockwell plays him, he is an Ahab character. He cares for nobody and nothing because he’s obsessed with his white whale. Indeed, the part about him dating the young woman who played the witch didn’t add anything to the plot but it did add some very interesting characterization of Elliot—he spent four hours talking about himself. A man who can spend four hours with a beautiful woman talking about himself is the sort of man who can resent a scathing review of his play to the point of murder, and hang onto this resentment for decades. Also, the time frame works well. A man like Elliot wouldn’t go for murder immediately. He would brood for a long time before going there. Having spent decades wrapped up in his hatred, trying and failing to destroy Danny O’Mara through lesser means—that might might work him up to the point of murder. Especially considering how, in his early fifties, he might be starting to reflect on how his quest for revenge deprived him of a wife and children. He would blame O’Mara for that, too. Most people would not react this way, but this sort of hatred is the kind of mistake a human being can make. There’s no such thing as a good reason to make a bad decision, so motives for murder cannot be evaluated on the basis of whether there was a good reason to commit the murder. They can only be evaluated on the basis of there being a human reason to commit the murder. Offended pride, nursed for a long time—that is a human reason.
There’s an interesting question about how this episode falsifies all sorts of details in order to fit things in. For example, there’s no way that a TV theater critic is going to do a live broadcast of his review of a new play at 11:15pm at night. Similarly, there is such a thing as the morning edition of a newspaper, but it doesn’t come out on the streets for purchase before 2:00 am. Mrs. Rizzo knowing where Danny O’Mara lived when she lived on the first floor of her building and Danny on the third is beyond improbably. In NYC people are extremely outgoing if they know who lives in the apartments right next to them. They have no idea who lives on other floors of their building. If Elliot brought the fake review on his own floppy disk, he would have either had to write the “real” review which accorded with Danny’s notes on his program or else he would have had to copy his fake review onto the floppy disk that Danny saved his review on. This would have involved copying it to the hard drive, then removing his disk and inserting Danny’s disk. Further, the name he gave the file relied on Danny misspelling his version of it. Or else he did some weird file renaming. None of which is impossible, but is oddly convoluted and I’m pretty sure was not intended by the writers since Jessica didn’t mention it.
Many of these things were important to the plot, and in fairly irreplaceable ways. On the other hand, many of them were just shortcuts. I think that it’s important to cut Murder, She Wrote slack on these sorts of things because it’s hard to cram so much into 48 minutes as it is. This is something that may apply to a short story, but does not really carry over into novels. Shortcuts are nowhere near as forgivable when time is not so precious. (A big part of what I seek to do in my reviews of Murder, She Wrote episodes is to see what can be learned from them to bring over to my novels; Murder, She Wrote was great in spite of most episodes having fairly large plot holes, so if we can figure out what made it great in spite of them, perhaps we can borrow some of that and have something even better when our novels don’t have plot holes.)
The way that Jessica and Denise find the deleted file may possibly be classed under the heading of “shortcut,” but I can’t help but think it could have been done much better. They segway from the review being irreconcilable with Danny’s notes on his program (to say nothing of common sense) to a demonstration of undeleting files without any kind of natural hook for the change of subject. It’s not even a single change of subject, either. Jessica complains about pressing the wrong button and losing everything, not about how easy it is to accidentally delete a file. Back in the 1980s it was common for computer programs to crash and far too many people didn’t save their work until they were done. File corruption on disk was also a not-uncommon problem. Undeleting a file doesn’t address either. The issue is not that they didn’t take the time to address all possible failure modes on a computer, but that they could have written what they meant in the same time. Instead of “pressing the wrong button and losing everything” Jessica could have said “accidentally deleting the wrong file”. And instead of the business with the program, Jessica could have just asked if Denise really liked working on a computer. I’m not sure Denise being caught completely off guard by Danny’s not liking the show is fixable, though. She sat through the play with him. How could she be under the impression that it was possible he liked it? Even if he didn’t talk about it and she never noticed a single one of his reactions, shouldn’t she have picked up on what he likes and doesn’t like in plays?
Overall, and despite the many plot holes, I think that this episode was a lot of fun. As I mentioned at the start, this was an ambitious episode. It contained a play, drama about the production of a play, and even a layer about criticism of the play. Also, while the story has plenty of plot holes, it also has things which stick together. For example, it actually makes sense that Elliot chose the play that he did to use for his murder. He needed a bad play, but it would help if it had a lot of money riding on it, as, presumably, Mainely Murder did because of J.B. Fletcher’s name would attract investors. I think that what really makes it, though, is the ending. Elliot’s explanation of why he murdered Danny was poignant. Some of this is up to the skill of the actor, of course, but the writing rings true. “It’s not perfect, but he has talent, and it’s a start.” That is how an awful lot of writers starting out feel. And I think his ending, which probably should have been the actual ending, was great.
“The detective in the wings, Mrs. Fletcher? I suppose I should have expected a climax so cliché.”
There is a sense in which this is Murder, She Wrote poking fun at itself, but there is another level to it. Elliot is just a man, and not, in truth, a special man. It is fitting that when he is caught, he is caught as other men are. The essence of sin, in a sense, is the refusal to recognize that one is man. But Elliot should, indeed, have known that.
Next week’s episode, which is the final episode of season four, is The Body Politic.
I was recently listening to an interesting and generally good history of the psychedelic movement when I came up to a part about the summer of love and how Christianity viewed the body and therefore sex as evil, while the hippies viewed sex as good. This is quite remarkably wrong.
Before I begin, I should note that generalizations about Christianity are effectively impossible if one includes the various Christian heresies within the category of “Christianity”. The problem is that since Christianity contains the totality of truth and a heresy consists of taking some things and rejecting others from a religion, there have been Christian heresies which cover literally every possible belief system (with regard to beliefs which are not about history). You can find Christian heresies in which the body is evil, just as you can find Christian heresies in which the body is the only good. There is, therefore, no point in talking about “Christianity” and including all of the Christian heresies since there are no generalities that hold to all of them.
Christianity, by which I mean orthodox Christianity, views neither the body nor sex as evil. In fact, Christianity views the body as unspeakably good since God Himself deigned to take on human flesh. Christianity is an incarnational religion. Further, sex (by which I mean copulation) is something created by God in order to allow human beings to take part with God in the act of creation, and in the genesis account we were specifically told to be fruitful and multiply. Throughout the bible, both old and new testament, children are described as a blessing from God, and there’s only one way human beings make children.
On the flip side, Hippies do not regard sex as good. What Hippies regard as good is not the sexual act itself but rather the pleasure attendant to it. Hippies have so little regard for sex that they want to do their best to frustrate the sexual act from its fulfillment—creating new people. What Hippies really want is not the sexual act, but team masturbation. The bare truth is that a hippy’s look for sex is drug-seeking behavior, with varying degrees of gussying it up as something more. True, the drugs in this case are endogenously produced, rather than being made by a plant or a mushroom or a chemical laboratory, but all they want is a feeling without any attendant reality.
That Christianity holds that sex is good is why Christianity puts so many rules around it—valuable things need to be protected. Christianity has no prohibitions I’ve ever heard of on smearing oneself with dog feces, or on mixing dog feces with cat feces, or really with doing anything with it other than intentionally trying to hurt people with it, and that only under the general prohibition of trying to hurt people for no reason. This is because Christianity holds dog feces in very low regard. (If you really pressed a Christian philosopher they’d admit that dog feces do have some value—since everything God created does—it’s just very low on the hierarchy of being.)
Perhaps the least appealing thing about the Hippies is that they didn’t hold anything in high regard, which is why they never tried to protect anything. Nothing mattered to a Hippy except that he, personally, felt good.
Ironically, by the way, the Hippy was basically a Christian heretic who only held onto Christ’s teaching that we should live in the moment and not worry about the future (a combination of always keeping in mind one’s soul may be required of one at any moment with how the lilies of the field neither sew nor reap but are more splendid than Solomon ever was) in reaction to the heretics before them who only held onto the teaching that Christ would come again to judge the world and establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. (Those heretics were materialists who held that they had to create heaven on earth, but they didn’t get their fundamentally eschatological orientation from nowhere.)
A discussion about periodically evaluating ones means relative to one’s goals, as it’s overly possible in this world to work so long at our means that we forget that they’re just means and take them to be goals.
Ask Alexa, or Google Assistant, or whichever AI you’re impressed with:
How much would could a wood chuck chuck if a would chuck could not chuck wood?
Unlike the more common phrase which asks how much wood the beast in question could chuck under the hypothetical that it was capable of chucking it, this question has a very simple, obvious answer. An answer that, in the year of our Lord 2022, none of the AIs I tested gave.
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.
I recently came across an article about plant-based fake meat (“beyond burger”, “impossible burger” etc) titled After Billions in Investment, Plant-Based Meat is a Branding Catastrophe. It makes some fair points about how the fake-meat companies thought that merely having reasonably plausible fake meat was enough and have utterly failed to market it. However, it strikes me that it misses a bigger problem with regard to marketing fake meat: their target market is mostly into natural food.
When it comes to people who have extra money to spend on food, they don’t generally think that the big problem we have in our food these days is that it’s too real.
There’s a further issue that fake meat doesn’t solve any actual problems. Well, that’s not quite true. It does make it easier for burger places to have a vegetarian option when mostly meat eaters and a vegetarian want to go to a burger restaurant. But that’s about it.
Now, I say this as someone who is about halfway to being carnivorous (on an average day meat makes up half to three quarters of what I eat): if you want to eat vegetarian food, there are plenty of tasty ways of doing that which don’t taste like meat.
The big problem with eating vegetarian food, though, is its nutrient content. I know that there have been endless decades of propaganda about how many vitamins there are in vegetables, but it’s way easier to get most of the nutrients you need, and without absurd amounts of starch, by eating meat. It’s best, of course, to eat a varied diet because that will ensure that one doesn’t miss out on anything for too long, but especially in terms of macro-nutrients, getting a large amount of protein which has a good balance of amino acids without getting a ton of carbohydrates at the same time is just a ton of work. If your diet isn’t going to be primarily composed of nuts (tree nuts and peanuts) you’re going to have to rely quite heavily on processed proteins. In practice, that means eating a ton of soybean-based foods. It’s not hard for that to get old, fast.
Fake hamburgers don’t actually solve this problem. While they do taste a fair amount like meat, they don’t have the nutrients of meat, and while our bodies can be fooled some of the time—especially by sugar—our bodies are actually really good at figuring out what nutrients and micro-nutrients are in foods and making us want them or not want them according to what we need. Soy protein and coconut oil don’t acquire all of the other stuff that’s in animal muscle just because one adds in some plant-based heme which is normally one of the easiest ways to detect that we’re eating red meat.
Which brings me back to the marketing issue: the sort of people who would normally form the market for fake meat are the sort of people who shop at whole foods. But fake meat is not a whole food. Fake meat is a heavily processed laboratory product. It’s not a healthier way to eat soybeans and coconut oil, and if you really want to base your diet on soybeans, you’re probably better off learning how to do it with tofu, which as a fermented food has all sorts of nutrients in it that the original soybeans don’t.
(Fun fact: in the cultures that tofu originates in, it’s not a replacement for meat but often a complement to it, being put in the same dishes at the same time.)
According to this article, it turns out that the song is not about LSD but about a child’s drawing. From the article:
Thus the meaning of this song is rather abstract, but Lennon was adamant about the meaning of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” during his life. Lennon repeatedly expressed that this song was about a drawing that his young son, Julian, created while in school. Julian had drawn one of his schoolmates and friends, Lucy O’Donnell, among a smattering of stars. And when he showed his father the picture after school, he told the elder Lennon that it was “Lucy in the sky with diamonds.”
Inspired by his son, Lennon got to work creating a sonic picture of his son’s drawing. Lennon gave Lucy a story and animated her in a fantastical, whimsical story.
It goes on to say:
Soon after its release, there was a widely held belief that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was a song about the hallucinogenic drug LSD… Lennon, however, adamantly disagreed with his fans. “It never was [about LSD] and nobody believes me,” he said in a 1971 interview.
I’ve run into the sort of person who will shout with adamantine certainty that the song most certainly is about drugs. To this sort of person everything that they like is really about drugs, probably because drugs are nearly the only thing that they like. It goes deeper than this, though; this sort of person desperately wants to affirm that society—or at least the good parts of society—agrees with them.
These sort of people never actually need the song to say anything about their idol, merely mentioning it is enough for them. (This is often necessary in order to make their drug-interpretation fit the song they’re talking about; since they are imputing the drug interpretation there’s no substance there.) It makes sense, though, that these sort of people don’t require that a song actually say anything about the drugs. They are intellectually dead, which is the easiest step to take on the path to their goal—to leave this world. They’re not suicidal (for the most part) in the traditional sense of the word, but they fundamentally don’t want to be here.
There are two things that human beings are given to do in this world, and one of them will persist in heaven. The one that will persist is to love God and enjoy His goodness. The other thing, the temporary thing, is to take part with God in His act of creation. These are what are often called doing good or “good works”, and in our fallen state people often think that they are incompatible with enjoying God’s goodness. (It is hardest to do both at the same time when one misunderstands the cooperation with God in the act of creation as some sort of requirement, rather than a privilege, or worse as the price of getting something good.)
People who really like drugs want to avoid that second thing we’re given to do in this world. They don’t want to take part in creation, they just want to skip straight to heaven. Drugs are, in general, a chemical lie which allow us to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re already in heaven. This is why (with exceptions) people on drugs don’t accomplish anything (while they’re on drugs). This is also why people who regularly take drugs rarely accomplish much when they’re not taking the drugs. At a fundamental level, they don’t want to be here.
It would be bad enough if these people killed themselves slowly, as G.K. Chesterton put it “using the tools of pleasure, not the tools of pain”, but it is worse than that. Like all idol worshipers, they are not content to privately worship their idol. They want everyone else to worship with them. So they go around insisting that everyone interpret art as badly as they do, that is, they go around trying to ruin it for everyone else. They try to talk others out of wanting to be here, too. Their saving grace is that they’re horribly unattractive. After high school, one pretty much never has to interact with them again.
The entire subject of discovering exoplanets is one that does not fill me with confidence. I get the basic approach used, which is looking for regular dimming of stars caused by the transit of a planet in front of the star as it orbits the star. And, indeed, you would expect a planet orbiting a star to (slightly) dim the light coming from that star if you’re lucky enough for the planet to pass right in front of it relative to us. That said, when I say slight, I mean slight. To put it into perspective, our sun has a diameter 109 times larger than the diameter of the earth. In terms of cross-sectional area, that means that the earth’s shadow is about 1/10,000th that of the sun’s. It will block out a little more of the sun than that, since it’s a few million miles in front of the sun rather than directly in front of it, but since we’re observing stars that are light-years away, it won’t be that much more. Jupiter, which is nearly as large as planets can get (as a gas giant’s mass goes up much past Jupiter’s, its gravity causes it to contract), would block out about 1/100th of the sun. So what astronomers are looking for is somewhere between a 1% dimming and a 0.01% dimming.
Even less confidence inspiring, when you look into the actual data, the stars in question are generally around 1pixel big in the images that they’re using. This isn’t always the case, of course, but the stars are never more than a few pixels. In the article in question, when the researchers turned to a much higher resolution telescope, they were able to distinguish the two stars of the binary system where the “waterworld” orbits the larger of the two within the habitable zone. (If you’re not familiar, the habitable zone of a star is the distance away where the heat from the star would result in liquid surface water, as we have here on earth. Too close and the planet will be too hot and the oceans will boil off, too far and they will freeze.) Oh, and these two stars are orbiting each other from roughly twice the distance that Pluto is from the sun. And the high resolution telescope was able to make them out as two distinct source of light.
No one has ever seen this supposed “Water world”. What we have is a periodic dimming of the host star. From the magnitude of that dimming we can calculate the size of the thing crossing in front of it. From the period of the dimming and the time between the dimming we can calculate the orbital period and thus the distance from the star. From the size and orbital period we can calculate the mass, and hence the density.
That last part is the basis of the claim for a “water world” came from, by the way. The density of the planet that was detected is too low to be a rocky planet like earth, and too high to be a gaseous planet. Since it’s in the habitable zone of its star, it’s unlikely to be icy, and so it is a good candidate for being a water world. This in no way justifies calling it a water world, nor does it justify the artist’s rendition of what the surface of it might look like that’s in the article (which is just a picture of the sun setting over the ocean here on earth). It also doesn’t justify the Star Trek like artist’s rendition of the planet near to a sun-like star. The star that the planet is orbiting is a red dwarf. They’re called red dwarves because they don’t put out white light like our sun does. If you look up TOI-1452A (the red dwarf star; TOI-1452 b is the planet) it has a surface temperature of 3185k. It’s not that it puts out literally no blue light, but it puts out very little. This is the dingy yellow-orange light of a low wattage “warm white” incandescent bulb. Oh, and the star only puts out 0.7% of the light that our sun does.
These sort of articles really annoy me because they pretend to have an enormous amount of certainty that we don’t have. What’s actually going on is a little bit of data and a whole lot of calculations. This is interesting, but it does a great disservice to people to pretend that what we have is a lot of data. We don’t.
Moreover, these are all unverified calculations. No one alive today is ever going to set eyes on a photograph of one of these planets to get an independent source of data about their size or composition, or even their existence. It took nine years for the New Horizons probe to fly out to Pluto. Here’s the best picture Wikipedia has of Haumea, a dwarf planet in our solar system:
Haumea is only about 10 AU further away from the sun that Pluto is. (An AU is the distance from the earth to the sun.) Here’s Eris, which is more massive than Pluto, though not quite as large, and which is much further away:
Eris is, at its farthest, about twice as far away from the sun as Pluto. And this is the best picture that we have of it. (Or at least it’s the best picture that Wikipedia has.)
If this is the best that we have of dwarf planets in our own solar system, it suggests that a bit of humility is warranted when it comes to conclusions about planets orbiting other stars. Our galaxy is a big place. There’s no reason to suppose that there is nothing besides exoplanets which will regularly result in the slight dimming of a star’s light. That’s not to say that there’s something wrong with going with what we know—that is, with saying that if the slight regular dimming is caused by an exoplanet, then the exoplanet would have such and such properties. If people are going to get tired and drop the “if”, then perhaps it would be better to stop talking about the subject at all.
I have gone from rags to riches In the sorrow of the night In the violence of a summer’s dream In the chill of a wintry night
In the bitter dance of loneliness Fading into space In the broken mirror of innocence Of each forgotten face
I hear the aging footsteps Like the motion of the sea Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there At times, it’s only me.
I’m hanging in the balance, Of a perfect, finished plan. Like every sparrow fallen. Like every grain of sand.
It’s that last verse, especially, which really captures me. I love the line “I’m hanging in the balance of a perfect, finished plan.” Part of what I like so much about this is that finished and perfect mean the same thing, at least as one of each of their meanings. Perfect, meaning without flaw, is related to finished, in the sense of complete, lacking nothing. Capping it with the line, “like every sparrow fallen” is a phenomenal reference to when Christ made vivid to God’s knowledge of all things, “Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny? And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing. Why, every hair on your head has been counted. So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
This also touches on the Catholic sense of the doctrine of predestination, which is very, very different from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. the Catholic doctrine in no way denies or diminishes free will. I’ve always liked how Saint Augustine put it, in a letter to some monks who were disputing free will and grace: if God knows the choices that men make before they make them, it is not nothing that God knows. We men, in our finitude and temporality can only imagine that if a choice can be known before it is made, there cannot have actually been a choice. As far as we can see, if it can be known beforehand, it was merely the working out of causal necessity. This is true, so far as it goes, because it is only the working out of causal necessity which we can see before it happens. This is because we are temporal beings; our being comes into existence moment by moment, and we can only know what has already been unfolded. God is not in time. He is eternally in the fullness of his being. He does not need to wait for us to make our choices because to Him we are always and eternally making all of our choices. By knowing our choices, God does not prevent Himself from also giving us freedom.
This also touches very much on the Christian idea that we are in the end times. Salvation history began with man’s sin, but in a real sense ended with God performing the sacrifice of Himself to atone for our sins. It is a basic truth of life that a dirty cloth cannot clean anything; if you want to clean something you must use a clean cloth. In like manner, there is no sacrifice we can make of anything in this fallen world which will wash away our own sin. Only God, who is not stained by sin, can wash it away. (In more technical language, we cannot give what we haven’t got and therefore cannot fill up the privation which is sin; only God who can create ex nihilo can fill the gap caused by our sin through an extra act of creation.) This sacrifice by God of Himself to wash away our sin completes salvation history. For the last 2000 years we have been merely in the epilogue of this story.
We are, all of us, hanging in the balance of a perfect, finished plan. Like every sparrow fallen. Like every grain of sand.
As a result of a conversation I looked up the history of Technicolor, and it turned out to be more complex than I thought. For those who don’t know: technicolor was the first technology which was used to create full color motion pictures that were widely distributed. That last part—widely distributed—is where the complexity lies; there were a whole bunch of technologies which came before the technicolor we know and love, but which never became popular. Technicolor was not the first color process, it was the first color process that won. It was expensive and difficult to work with, which was why the black-and-white era didn’t come to a close until (roughly) the 1970s, when Eastman Kodak’s much single-film color process brought the price of color film down so far black-and-white was no longer cheaper. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Technicolor corporation was founded in 1914 by Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Frost Comstock, two recent graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT. The first process used two strips of film and only captured red and green. The basic technology, would persist until Eastman Kodak’s single-film process, was to use a prism to split the spectra of light coming into the camera into different physical locations, which would be used to expose different negatives. Thus there would be a negative which only captured the red light and another that only captured the green light. These would be developed into films with only the respective colors of light on them, which would then be shown onto the same theater screen, superimposed, and so we’d see both red and green.
For those who don’t know, this works surprisingly well because our eyes only have three types of color-sensitive photosensitive nerve cells in our eyes. One is sensitive to green, one to red, and the third to blue. (There are some people, mostly women, who have a fourth, which is a slight variation of one of them, and gives them better color discrimination.) They’re not point-sensitive, they have fall-offs in how much light of different wavelenths stimulates each one. We can see the wide spectrum of colors that we can because for any given photon it stimulates all three to differing amounts, and we can thus reconstruct from how much the three types of nerve cells are stimulated what the original color was. However, it is possible to fool this system by manipulating the light to be made up of just the right amount of red, green, and blue in order to reproduce the other colors; this is what using multiple film strips projecting different colors does.
The original process went with red and green because our eyes are most sensitive to these colors, and so we see most of the brightness of an object from these. It further turns out that since looking at objects is not passive but actually a highly active process, our brains, which have trained for many years on the real world, are good at reconstructing missing information based on what’s available. A film made up of only red and green doesn’t look right, but it looks surprisingly good. Not really good enough, though, and neither this process nor the two that followed it—which were two-color processes that just improved the practicality of capturing and showing movies using them—really took off.
It was the three-color process, which produced a full range of lifelike colors, that would become popular. Technicolor had developed it to the point of it being usable by studios by 1931, and Walt Disney was the first to use it commercially. It was an 8 minute long short film, released in 1932. This three-color process used the same prismatic separation to expose multiple negatives, but this time it was onto three black-and-white negative strips, one for red, one for green, and one for blue. These would then undergo a complicated process that turned them into a single, color, strip of film which could be shown in the same projectors used for showing black-and-white films. This was a huge competitive advantage for Technicolor over its competitors, because they relied on specialized color-only projectors which were expensive and movie theaters didn’t already own.
The other half of this story, though, is why movie studios were willing to invest a large amount of money in making full-color movies. It cost more for the equipment, more for the film, the cameras were huge and bulky, there needed to be a “Technicolor Director” on set to make sure that the color was being captured properly (who had to be paid), and providing enough light to properly capture the color required enormous, powerful, and very hot lights. The heat from these lights was so intense actors needed more breaks, slowing down production. In short, Technicolor might have been the best color process available at the time, but it was way more difficult and expensive than black-and-white. Obviously, color would be the future, but the question is not why did movie studios switch to color at all, but why did they switch to color when it was so new and expensive?
Of course, one part of that answer is that they largely didn’t. Most films would be shot in black-and-white with color films only being a select few big-budget movies until the 1950s, with the introduction of the Eastman Kodak process. That said, another part of the answer is that in the 1930s the Great Depression was going on and movie-viewing was being hit by it. A new and exciting technology seemed like just the thing to get audiences excited to come to movie theaters again. (Always left unsaid, new technologies are much easier to introduce than making good movies is.)
I find it interesting how often I’ve heard that explanation for the adoption of new technologies. It seems that technological progress is often as dependent on someone desperate enough to give it a try as it is on someone clever enough to invent it.
Be that as it may, while this expensive and difficult process got color films off the ground, it was not what would make color the norm. To give a feel for this, there were twelve Technicolor films produced in 1940 and sixteen in 1941. 1942 saw a dip down to eleven Technicolor films. Granted, America officially entered World War in December of 1941, but if we fast forward to 1946, only twenty seven films were made in Technicolor. 1947 bumped that up to twenty nine. Color films being the norm would only come about in the 1950s because of the Eastman Kodak single-film color process.
This was not merely an effect of the Eastman Kodak process being cheaper, it was also vastly easier to work with. It didn’t need nearly so much light, the cameras were much less bulky, film developing could be done in-house—in short, it was significantly better in every way. Also interesting was that in the 1950s television viewing significantly cut into movie attendance, or at least that was the generally accepted explanation for the decrease in movie viewership the industry was experiencing. One of the approaches to combat this and bring people back to the theaters was changing the aspect ratio from the 4:3 which both movies and TV shared to Cinemascope, which was an anamorphic lens technique for recording and displaying movies in an aspect ratio close to the modern 2.35:1. Other approaches soon followed which had similar aspect ratios, as well as compromise widescreen aspect ratios such as 1.85:1 (which is pretty close to the modern 16:9 aspect ratio that TVs and monitors use). These shifts, which were not hard on a single-film camera, would have been very difficult on a prismatically separated three-film camera, and this helped to end the age of Technicolor.
Film would, of course, eventually come to be replaced by digital recording which was another big leap in being cheaper and more convenient, but that’s a story for another time.
I recently read the first Hamish MacBeth murder mystery, Death of a Gossip. It has a certain charm to it, but I must say that it was not in the least surprising that the author got her start in romance novels. I looked at the blurb on Amazon for her first novel, My Dear Duchess, written under the name Ann Fairfax. It ran:
Sloe-eyed, winsome Frederica Sayers, fresh from the schoolroom, married the Duke of Westerland–and set the Ten-thousand a-twitter! All because her social climbing stepsister, Clarissa, missed her chance to snare him, never guessing he would soon claim a coronet. Now the beautiful Clarissa again casts her shimmering nets for his lordship. And jet-haired little Frederica, wed in haste, must win her young Lord’s love…before he succumbs to Clarissa’s golden charms.
(I had to look up “sloe”. “Sloe” is another name for blackthorn, which has deep blue berries. “Sloe-eyed”, I take it, means having deep blue eyes.)
Note: spoilers follow.
While Death of a Gossip is, technically, a murder mystery, it’s really more of a romance novel in which a murder eventually happens and then a murder investigation forms the backdrop for the romance novel plot in the foreground. Except that every romance in the novel ends in disappointment. I haven’t read enough romance novels to know whether that’s common—I’ve only read one—but it’s very disappointing in a murder mystery. Romance, in a murder mystery, is best when it is a counterpoint to the murder. When the romance makes the murder look cheery by comparison, it’s just kind of a downer.
The novel, as a mystery, certainly doesn’t operate on play-fair rules. The investigation happens primarily off-screen, mostly through Hamish making telephone calls. This is a weird thing about the book being set in the early 1980s, by the way—telephone calls are common, but expensive. You will find telephone calls being expensive in mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s, but phone calls are (relatively) uncommon. Also, the 1930s does not feel modern. The setting in the 1980s feels modern, but it’s been a while since the price of phone calls mattered. This is not anything against the novel, it’s just a curious experience while reading the story.
Anyway, back to the play-fair aspect: there’s one clue we’re given, which is a torn photograph found near where the corpse was found that had a picture of a woman’s head with a tiara on it and the letters “BUY BRIT” (they ended at the tear).
For some reason Hamish gathers the suspects together, goes over everyone’s motives for committing the crime, then he reveals who did it. It turns out—Hamish learned this from a phone call—that the letters were not “BUY BRITISH” referring to a campaign in Brittain in the 1960s, but rather were “BUY BRITTELS BEER” which was a local beer made in a suburb of a city that one of the suspects came from. This beer only exists within the novel, of course, but that doesn’t matter because we only learn of the existence of “Brittels beer” during the reveal of who the murderer is.
The amount of luck involved in Hamish gathering his evidence was a bit extraordinary, but in a sense this barely matters because it was also so flimsy that Hamish just made a guess at who the murderer was, accused them, tossed in a fabricated witness, and got a confession.
As I noted in my post about play-fair rules, they don’t really work for their intended purpose of giving the reader an equal footing with the detective for solving the case, but adhering to them does a lot to make the story better because it forces the author to structure the story in a way that holds together relative to the mystery being investigated. Part of this is that, having time to think over the clues, there will be a greater urgency on the part of the author for them to make sense.
For example, in the reveal Lady Jane was murdered where she was because she had decided to torment one of the fishing students with proof of the fishing student’s past—the photograph with “BUY BRITTELS BEER”—in private. But this was at a location over a mile from the hotel, up steep terrain that had everyone exhausted when they went there as a group to fish and discovered the body. This is hardly the place one would go to have a private conversation. With all of the evidence explaining what had happened coming out in just a page or two with the suspects gathered, and Hamish managing to obtain a confession, there wasn’t time to think about that.
Then there are some basic problems with having the murderer be American. How is an American supposed to care what a British gossip columnist writes about an obscure American, in the 1980s? If the gossip columnist had gotten something really juicy about an extremely famous American, I can see this making its way over to America, mostly because someone in England would think to tell someone in America. There was no internet and no google. The London Evening Star (a newspaper which only exists within this book) was not likely to be an international newspaper; when I was a boy in the 1980s my father read a lot of newspapers and I don’t recall ever seeing a British newspaper available for sale in the US. So the odds of some secret about Americans no one in America has ever heard of passing over to the US to influence local elections in the NY metro area is… pretty much zero.
Indeed, it was so far fetched that even the author didn’t quite go there. There’s a line where Hamish says that this wasn’t really the motive, and the murderer admits it, saying, “She messed with me, that’s all. I don’t like no one messing with me.”
Somehow this led to strangling Lady Jane with a fly fishing leader—a strange thing to have on hand during a clandestine evening meeting. I suppose we are to assume the murderer had a fly fishing leader in a pocket even though this was after dinner and everyone had changed out of their fishing clothes. Granted, Lady Jane was found in the pool in her usual fishing clothes, and I suppose that would make some sense to change into in order to go walking into the woods, but why on earth did she go walking into the woods with a person to reveal their deep dark past? All she really needed was a table in the hotel restaurant where she wouldn’t be overheard if she didn’t speak loudly. Some explanation for this would have been nice. Especially since both the murderer and victim were unfamiliar with the area and had no way of knowing where the river pool was. Hiking a mile through unknown mountain wilderness just to tell someone you knew what they did for a living a decade ago is… weird.
A fly fishing leader is also a really weird thing to strangle a person with. It’s a very narrow cord. Very narrow. Looking it up, we’re talking about the thick end of the leader being less than 1/32 of an inch (that’s around .6mm, for people who like their measurements to be power-of-ten multiples of the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second). That’s a little thicker than dental floss, but not by a whole lot. This would cut into the hands of anyone trying to use it to strangle someone else. And I don’t just mean cause pain—unless a person had stout leather gloves on, this would cut the skin, leaving clear marks to be seen the next day.
There’s also the issue of the thin nylon cord being strong enough to do the strangling. Fly fishing leaders can hold a small animal like a trout or a salmon, but the forces involved in trying to strangle a struggling human being who’s well over 100 pounds would snap it. (The force of a struggling salmon snaps fishing lines unless the angler has skill in playing out the line when the fish is pulling, then retracting the line when the fish is tired and resting.)
And once all these problems are dealt with, how did the murder get behind Lady Jane? They’re alone in the wilderness so that Lady Jane could torment the murderer with the murderer’s past. It’s hard to picture Lady Jane turning her back and letting the murderer slip up behind her.
And then, Lady Jane somehow having been killed, the murderer wrapped chains around Lady Jane’s legs and tossed her into the river pool. The motive is straight forward enough but the means make no sense. Where on earth did the chains come from? Are we to suppose that the murderer also just happened to have them in another pocket? It’s not like there was some sort of house or building nearby from which they could have been scrounged. Again, this was a long and difficult hike away from the hotel.
Now, I’m not saying that had the author stuck to play-fair rules that she would have done all this better. I merely think it’s likely that, had she doled out the evidence to the reader at the same time as she gave it to the detective, she’d have thought about it a bit more. If nothing else, Hamish would probably have been forced to talk about it at least a little bit with someone, and one of the characters might have pointed out the problem, forcing the author to notice. (Characters have an annoying way of doing what they want to do regardless of what the author wants them to do.)
I could say more, but I suspect I’ve gone on long enough on that subject.
The character of Hamish MacBeth is also a bit weird. On the one hand, he’s a likable character. On the other hand, he’s a bit of a scoundrel. He routinely breaks the law by poaching. He mooches off of people for things like food and coffee when he’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself. He trespasses into people’s homes and places international telephone calls at their expense, without their permission. He only wanted to investigate this murder because the Detective Inspector who took over the case was rude to him. (And that only happened because the Detective Inspector took offense at Hamish not reacting to a complement with even common politeness.)
Having said all this, it is often the case that first murder mysteries are nowhere near as good as later ones. It is quite common for an author to figure out, when the first book is done, what the best parts of the detective were and to do his best to forget about the rest. I will probably read the next one in the series, Death of a Cad, but I found Death of a Gossip to be a bit of a downer and I suspect that I will need some time to get over my trust issues with Marion Chesney (the real name of M.C. Beaton).
On Twitter a friend complained about writers new to a franchise ruining existing characters rather than creating their own bad characters. I pointed out that this is like 90% less work. Writers who are moved by writing, rather than by their subject, tend to be like electricity: they take the path that requires the least work to go down.
In both cases, because they’re running away, not toward, anything.
In the case of electricity, electricity is the phenomenon of electrons, having the same charge, repulsing each other, and finding paths to get away from each other. It’s not strictly true that they never go towards anything, of course; there are areas of positive charge which attract them, such as the positive terminal on a battery. Of course, it’s not strictly true that writers who write only for the sake of writing have things which attract them, too, such as sex scenes and main characters making foolish choices.
That said, electrons flow when you have an excess of them and they need to relieve the pressure. If you connect an excess of electrons to the ground, which is neutrally charged, they’ll go there. Writers to write only for the sake of writing are also trying to get away from something—usually themselves, as they tend to describe it. These sorts of authors will happily ruin things if it allows them to write. They don’t really care so long as they have their temporary escape. Thus they will frequently be pulled to ruining the works of others because it is an easier way to do what they want to do.
Good books are written by authors who love their subject, and who write because they love the subject so much it moves them to write. The love of their subject matter will make them willing to do difficult things in order to write about it, because they are pulled towards it.
Writers who write only for the sake of writing will tend to be very good at the technical elements of the craft—things like mood, setting, physical descriptions, the vivid drawing of emotions, etc. What they are usually bad at is the heart of the thing—the plot, characters worth reading about, etc. Any fool can create drama about people who have something to lose making bad decisions. It takes quite a bit more skill to create drama about people who have something to lose making good decisions. This is especially true when the decisions aren’t simple. Hence why it’s so uncommon for authors to write about healthy marriages between wise people. If you’ve ever had the pleasure to meet such people in real life, they’re a thousand times more interesting than fools in a bad marriage. This is just the same as how a really skilled basketball player throwing a nothing-but-net three pointer from the half-court line is a thousand times more interesting than watching someone who can barely dribble miss the backboard from five feet away. (And I don’t watch basketball!) In short, there’s a reason why in sports we pay people who are good at them to be good at them so we can watch. The same is true of things like romance. The problem is that while an author can easily give a character physical skills that he doesn’t, himself, possess, he cannot give them wisdom that he doesn’t, himself, possess.
This is why fools write such bad virtuous characters. Not knowing what virtue is, they suppose it to be only the absence of temptation. They write characters who get along because they don’t want anything, rather than characters who can generously negotiate with each other to do their best to get everyone what they want.
Since these writers (most of whom suffer from impostor syndrome) spend all their lives in the constant fear that they will be caught, the only drama they can conceive of is the fear of getting caught—the fear of not escaping the consequences of one’s bad choices. They’ve never tried to do anything out of love, so they don’t know that there is drama in trying to accomplish something that one can do—because it will affect others if one fails.
In short, bad writers write bad books out of the store of badness in their hearts. It’s just a special case of the more general rule about how one comes out of one’s heart is what’s in one’s heart.
We just notice, here, because this kind of bad writer writes bad books so well.
There’s a very interesting song from 1957, most famously performed by the Everly Brothers, called Wake Up, Little Susie.
The premise of the song is adquately described in the lyrics:
Wake up, little Susie, wake up Wake up, little Susie, wake up
We’ve both been sound asleep Wake up, little Susie and weep The movie’s over, it’s four o’clock And we’re in trouble deep
Wake up, little Susie Wake up, little Susie
Well, what are we gonna tell your mama? What are we gonna tell your pa’? What are we gonna tell our friends when they say “Ou la la”?
Wake up, little Susie Wake up, little Susie
Well, I told your mama that we’d be in by ten Well, Susie, baby, looks like we goofed again
Wake up, little Susie Wake up, little Susie We gotta go home
Wake up, little Susie, wake up Wake up, little Susie, wake up
The movie wasn’t so hot It didn’t have much of a plot We fell asleep, our goose is cooked Our reputation is shot
Wake up, little Susie Wake up, little Susie
Well, what are we gonna tell your mama? What are we gonna tell your pa? What are we gonna tell our friends when they say “Ou la la”?
Wake up, little Susie Wake up, little Susie Wake up, little Susie
Rare, for Rock-n-roll, the song is about people who are actually innocent. The song even acknowledges that this is rare in the reaction of the friends. “Ou la la,” when spoken by an American, conveys something positive. It’s not precisely approbation, but it’s pretty far from disapprobation. This is in contrast to little Susie’s parents, who will very much disapprove. Her parents are, by far, the singer’s major concern, but it’s curiously virtuous that the singer is wondering how to convince their friends that they didn’t do anything wrong.
As one of those amusing twisting paths of history, I only discovered this song because I had bought a DVD of Simon & Garfunkel’s concert in central park in 1982, where they played this song. I’m not sure why they did; I believe that all of the other songs that they played were their own. Still, they played it, and I was quite confident that they didn’t write it as it didn’t sound at all like them (though they did a great job singing it).
I prefer the Everly Brothers version, but only a little.
I recently came across a Far Side cartoon (unfortunately there’s no point linking it because they disappear after a few days and they don’t allow any kind of embedding) which was subitled “Cattle Drive Quartets”. In it four tough-looking cowboys are sitting around a campfire playing stringed instruments. One of them is saying to another:
Gus, what the hell you doin’? This is “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” third movement, minueto allegreto, you brainless horned toad!
Part of the humor is, of course, based on familiarity with the tropes of Westerns. These are four tough, grizzled men. They’ve spent many years able to survive on their own or in very small groups, hundreds of miles from civilization. They’ve braved outlaws, desperados, wild animals, and all manner of things. And they’ve endured enormous amounts of solitude.
For a long time, this was standard cultural knowledge. But when I had to explain some of this after showing it to my son, I realized just how much westerns are no longer part of the broader culture. In one sense this is normal enough; trends in entertainment come and go. There are various things that made Westerns especially popular in movies and TV during the 1950s and 1960s—how cheap they were to film near Hollywood, for example. And yet they were no flash in the pan. Something I learned in the biography of William Gillette (“America’s Sherlock Holmes”) was that westerns were popular in plays long before they were popular in movies, and their popularity did not abate before they became popular in movies. They were popular in radio before they became popular in television, as Gunsmoke can attest. Bonanza, which ran from 1959-1973, was commonly available as re-runs on television when I was growing up in the 1980s. For a decent time afterwards, all sorts of shows would feature a western episode, with the characters riding horses in some sort of cowboy getup.
Narrative entertainment hasn’t entirely lost its taste for westerns. In the 1990s you had films like City Slickers and Tombstone. Even as late as 2007 there was 3:10 To Yuma. Though not a western, per se, 2019’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was about westerns, if to some degree about their demise.
Though they’re not gone, Westerns are certainly no longer ubiquitous. I can’t help but think that’s in no small part because the sorts of virtues they make it easy to explore, people are no longer interested in. I suspect that, even more than that, Hollywood is no longer interested in them.
When I was a kid growing up in the New York metro area I would often see a local commercial for a resort in the Poconos (a mountain range in eastern Pennsylvania) called Mount Airy Lodge. My family never went there. So far as I know I never even wanted to go there. Their commercials were extremely catchy, though, and occasionally I find myself singing their jingle because something will remind me of it. I find it very strange that I can be nostalgic for seeing a commercial for a place I was never interested in going to. Granted, the commercial made the place look like fun, it wasn’t really my kind of fun back then (or now, for the most part). Despite all that, the jingle reminds me of my childhood in a non-specific kind of way that can, for a short time, feel nice. (I am not wistful for my childhood; while I had a good childhood I like being an adult far better.)
Nostalgia is a very strange feeling when it is not connected to some form of escapism. When it is so connected it’s quite easy to understand; longing for a time when one was not subject to the stresses one is currently subject to requires no real explanation. This also is not remembering good times fondly. That too requires no explanation. Nostalgia can be for things that were not good times. Certainly, commercials were not why one watched television back then.
According to Wikipedia, Mount Airy Lodge was built in the 1890s and closed in October of 2001. Not a bad run, as these things go. Here’s the commercial which brought up this blog post:
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