the marvel murder case (part two)

This story started here.

The house was next to a Presbyterian church, with the church parking lot in between. It seemed fairly typical: two stories, painted white, peaked roof, set back from the street with a nice lawn in front of it.

Beyond the house, on the far side from the church, was a smaller house, with a corny sign in front of it. Even here, near the center of the town of Claremont, there was a comfortable amount of space between the buildings. The houses and stores were mostly painted white (was there a town rule?), and most of them could have been a hundred years old. If so, they were well maintained (maybe there was a rule about that also).

“Is there a rule, do you think?” my employer asked as we walked up the hill toward the house. “That all the buildings need to be painted white? I always wondered about that.”

I shrugged. Given the number of suitcases I was carrying, even that was an effort.

She stopped and breathed in. “It smells even better than I remember,” she said as she pulled out her cigarette case.

I put down the suitcases and took out my lighter in order to light her cigarette.

She looked around as I picked up the suitcases again.

“It sure has changed,” she said thoughtfully, probably attempting to convey the idea that she’d lived and matured quite a lot since she’d left college and moved away, all of three or four years before.

As we got into motion again, a couple of people across the street noticed us. My employer glanced at them, and then at me. I shook my head and she shrugged.

She’d had an idea that she was being recognized as a famous and intrepid gal reporter and amateur sleuth, but the truth, as far as I could tell, was that she was attracting attention simply for being, in the context of Claremont, Massachusetts, a very odd looking woman.

We climbed up on the front porch and she knocked on the door. There was no response.

She pursed her lips, disgruntled. She knocked again. “I had hoped,” she said quietly, tapping her cane very lightly on the wooden floor of the porch, “that they might still rent rooms, and that they might have a room available for us. It would be so much easier to stay and visit here for a few days and go through the books here… Oh, well, no matter. Let’s go and get some lunch, and then we can come back.”

“We should leave a note,” I said.

She nodded. “Excellent idea.”

I had already put down the suitcases, of course, so it was easy for me to open her attaché case and hand over a pad and a pen.

I sat down on the porch swing, knowing that this might take a few minutes, and she leaned against the wall of the house, looking thoughtful.

Walking down the hill to the center of town, there was a clear sky and a pleasant breeze, but I wasn’t really enjoying it, since I was getting a bit tired and sore, what with all the suitcases.

“The Wagon Wheel!” she said happily, as if it was a tremendous surprise that her favorite restaurant was still there after all the many months she’d been away.

She sailed happily into the small, rustic restaurant, remembering at the last minute to hold the door open for me.

It was the middle of the afternoon, so the place was pretty empty. A waitress came over slowly, regarding us. I thought her hesitation might have been about to lead into a “Janice!”, but instead she just said, “May I help you?”

“We’d like a table, please, somewhere where my assistant here can put our luggage so that it won’t get in your way?”

There was a little side porch on the building, with about five tables, all of them empty. I piled our luggage around the rear most one and we sat at the next one. The porch, which seemed to have been added some time after the building was built, had screens rather than windows, so it was clearly for summer use only.

The waitress had taken our orders, and we were waiting for our food when I asked, “Do you really think that going through the boxes will take several days, or is that time to solve the mystery? Or is it just because we don’t really have anyplace else we need to be?”

She frowned. “I have two questions that I want to answer while we’re here. One is what happened with my books, or to my books (and why and by whom and so forth — that’s all one question). The other – the more important one, I must add — is whether there are other options for getting the book published. I don’t intend to give up on that until I’m sure I’ve exhausted all of the options.”

She caught my expression, and the words I was about to speak. “Not that there are any options here in town — well, there might be one — but it’s going to take some thinking to figure out the best way to proceed, and we can almost certainly live here more cheaply than we can staying in a hotel room in New York City.”

She looked at me with what I’m sure she thought was a stern expression. “And you’re not going to distract me from that, even with a mystery about my missing book, or books.”

Having learned at least a thing or two over the course of my employment, I did not bother to protest my innocence of this vile calumny.

To be continued…

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the marvel murder case (part one)

My employer looked up from her morning newspaper and regarded me. “Do you believe in coincidence?” she asked after a moment’s thought (or it could have been a dramatic pause).

When she asked a question like this, it was always a minefield. She put down her coffee cup and took a drag on her cigarette, waiting for my response.

“Two things which are apparently related in some way, happen at the same time, or nearly the same time, giving the impression of–“

She nodded. “Giving the impression.” She pursed her lips and drank some more coffee.

Something was nagging at her, I knew. This was more than her usual sporadic attempts at morning chit-chat. And I knew she would get to the point when she was ready, and not before.

We were in New York City, waiting (hoping, really) for a meeting with her publisher. Well, they weren’t “her” publisher — they’d just expressed interest in publishing a book of hers. Interest which now seemed to be waning, based on the number of meetings which had been postponed, or canceled.

That afternoon, in Central Park, we were demonstrating, at least to ourselves, that we were not so eager to get published that we were going to stay in the hotel room all the time, tethered to the telephone. Instead, we sat on a bench and watched people go by.

She was smoking a cigarette. I was eating a hot dog.

“I’ve been thinking about my books,” she said, looking at a skyscraper in the distance.

“Books?” I asked.

She saw two girls — teenagers, one wearing a college sweatshirt from a distant college, the other wearing a colorful T-shirt advertising a band that I’d heard of but never heard — and she winked at me.

The girls recognized her. They were looking and trying not to look, giggling while trying to make it clear that they were too old to giggle because they were seeing a celebrity.

This had happened a few times before, but it was still rare enough that my employer got a kick out of it. She kept a mental list of the times that it happened, and I could tell when those occasions came back to her.

Jan Sleet was well known already, at least in certain circles, circles often located among college students. Magazine writers and reporters are not often celebrities, but it does help when they report on topical events, in a striking way, and when they develop a distinctive persona.

She was six feet tall, thin to the point of emaciation, and she always (always meaning always — even when cowering in a bombed out hotel in a war zone in a foreign land) wore a man’s three piece suit, shirt and tie, with a display handkerchief carefully folded in her pocket. Her rather narrow face was dominated by her large, horn-rimmed glasses. Her left leg was lame, and she used a cane to walk.

Turning back from her two admirers, who were apparently not going to approach us to ask her for an autograph, she repeated herself, which she hated to do.

“My books,” she said. She frowned the frown she always made when she was dissatisfied that my brain didn’t work as fast as hers. “‘A bookish girl’ — that’s how I’ve described myself growing up. You can’t be a bookish girl without books.”

I nodded, catching up. “So, where are these books? Where have they been since…”

“Since I left college and hired you. Exactly. When I left college, I packed them all away, carefully sorted and cataloged, of course. But now that we’re back in the United States, maybe…”

“Maybe we’re settling down, a little. If the book gets published.”

She nodded and took out another cigarette. I lit it for her, and, in that moment, we knew that the book was not going to be published. We were not going to be settling down after all.

We could stay in the hotel for as long as we wanted to, or for as long as we could afford it, but there was never going to be an actual meeting.

“However,” she continued, “while I thought we were going to be settling down, relatively speaking, I was thinking of going home, and collecting my books, or just having them sent to us…”

“Where are they?”

“At home, where I grew up — well, where I went to college. My father stayed after I left, for a while, but then he left also. When he was still there, the boxes were in his basement. When he left, he had them moved into a neighbor’s garage.” She pulled an envelope from her pocket and handed it to me. “Where one of the boxes has now been opened, and, perhaps, something removed from it.”

“A burglary? A book theft? Is that really…” Once again I was lagging behind her, but this was different. She was holding something back. And she was not going to let me know what it was until she was good and ready.

Being that we were, once again, not going to be published in book form, we were once again, as usual, needing to watch our expenses, so I bought us two bus tickets, from New York City to Claremont, Massachusetts, where my employer had gone to college.

To be continued…

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starting tomorrow: the marvel murder case

As I’ve written recently, this story is set somewhere back in the earlier days of Jan Sleet’s career as an intrepid gal reporter and amateur sleuth. Less baggage (at least metaphorically) and less history to explain. Which makes it easier to focus on the mystery itself, and the relationship between the great detective and her soon-to-be-long-suffering assistant.

A side note: When I wrote the first Jan Sleet mystery, I called it “The Apartment Murder Case.” This was a reference to the Philo Vance mystery novels, which were always “The [ABCDEF] Murder Case” (where the second word was always six letters — I decided not to try to be that restricted).

When I ended up writing more stories, though, this became a problem, since some of them were mysteries which did not involve murder. And, of course, if I used a different naming system for those stories, readers would know in advance whether or not to expect a murder.

So, I retroactively renamed them all to be Mysteries, rather than Murder Cases.

With this story, though, I decided to just admit up front that there will be at least one murder.

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attention great novel shoppers

Someone mentioned this:

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany, one of the great novels of the 20th century, is available as a Kindle book for $1.99.

My advice? Rush out and buy it (well, you don’t have to literally “rush out,” of course — it’s a Kindle book).

I immediately went to buy it, but Amazon reminded me that I own it already.

I have at least two hard copy versions as well, including the rather battered paperback which I bought way back in 1975.

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mrs. watson? which one?

If you’re the sort of person who worries about that sort of thing, the timeline of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries is really tangled. For example, when was Watson married and how many times was he married? Internal evidence is not possible to reconcile.

Most readers don’t seem to care — Holmes and Watson are still (by far) the most popular fictional characters in the English-speaking world over the last 120+ years.

Some people, of course, do obsess about these sorts of things (I can see The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, by William Stuart Baring-Gould, two large volumes in a slip case, from where I’m typing this), but Arthur Conan Doyle obviously didn’t.

He just wanted to tell a good story.

In a recent blog post, I talked about the freedom I felt once I decided to hop back in time to an earlier period in the mystery-solving career of the great detective Jan Sleet and her loyal assistant Marshall. I’ve already written about 7,000 words of a new story (a few notes but mostly scenes — I’m not much for notes).

I’m not going back to reread A Sane Woman either, and I’m not even sure if this story happens before that book or after it. I’m just writing.

On another subject, I really enjoyed reading this interview with Paul W. S. Anderson: “How the Mastermind behind ‘Resident Evil’ Kept the Franchise Going For 15 Years

Here are some specific quotes that struck me:

I always had it in my mind that we would eventually come back to The Hive and kind of give away the secrets that I’ve been holding for 15 years now, the truth about the Alice character. The truth about her face, about the Red Queen, the real agenda of the Umbrella Corporation. These are things that I was aware of when I was writing and making the first movie.

I was pretty sure that the big reveal about Alice had been planned for a while, but even I didn’t realize that Anderson had thought of it right at the start. He hadn’t even told Milla Jovovich (the series star and his wife) — I’m sure because he didn’t want her to play the part with certain facts in mind.

I’m really, really proud of the movie. I think it delivers not only the big action that people have come to expect from the franchise, but it also has these great narrative reveals, and as a result of them, I think it also has an emotional undertow that people might not normally associate with a Resident Evil movie. Even me, as a kind of stiff upper lip, repressed British person … I’ve seen the movie 100 times. I still start tearing up at the end of it.

I kind of do, too, I will admit.

I had a strong female lead back in the day when that was absolutely not acceptable in mainstream Hollywood movies.

Always worth remembering, now that everybody else seems to be, finally, maybe, starting to catch up.

And, as I’ve pointed out before, the really great thing about these films is the number and variety of women in them. In the fifth one, the top six actors in the credits at the end are all women, and in this one Anderson obviously decided to have the major heroes all be women and the major villains all men, maybe to see if anybody would notice.

(To be precise, one of the “women” referred to in the last sentence above is gender-fluid actor Ruby Rose, whose character wears a T-shirt saying “Not All of Us Are Under Control” — a very Resident Evil thought. The link is to a video that you probably shouldn’t watch if you’re at work.)

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a brouillade, obviously

“Do you like eggs?”
She laughed. She looked at me, so I laughed too.
Wolfe scowled. “Confound it, are eggs comical? Do you know how to scramble eggs, Mrs. Valdon?”
“Yes, of course.”
“To use Mr. Goodwin’s favorite locution, one will get you ten that you don’t. I’ll scramble eggs for your breakfast and we’ll see. Tell me forty minutes before you’re ready.”
Her eyes widened. “Forty minutes?”
“Yes. I knew you didn’t know.”

—Nero Wolfe, conversing with Lucy Valdon, in The Mother Hunt, chapter 17

I enjoyed reading this article, for a few reasons: “It’s Not Fake French, It’s Frenchette

One reason is that it reminded me of this song, which I always sort of liked.

Also, it answered the question that I’ve always wondered about: Why does it take Nero Wolfe 40 minutes to scramble eggs while he and Archie Goodwin are hiding out in Lucy Valdon’s house? Clearly, I now know, he was making a brouillade:

For each order of brouillade, a pan of eggs has to be stirred constantly over a small flame for a long time, until they look like grits. (There’s a reason you don’t see brouillade on many menus.) Dropped on top are a few excellent snails in parsley and garlic, a buttery garnish for very buttery scrambled eggs.

(Rex Stout, who wrote the Nero Wolfe mysteries, was a gourmet in real life — I was sure there was a real dish behind this casual mention.)

My father (to switch gears) taught me that there are only two kinds of writing: good writing and bad writing, and you should appreciate and enjoy the good stuff wherever you find it.

These, also from the “Frenchette” article, made me smile:

The dining room is in back, behind a pair of arches and up a step so slight that its only conceivable purpose is to raise the insurance premiums; every time I approached it a worried server materialized to tell me to look out.

The entire roast chicken is juicy without tasting of brine, a rare thing these days. Hidden under the drumsticks and thighs are rafts of baguette that sat under the rotisserie, imbibing every drop that fell from the bird. Some diners might say bread wet with drippings is too homespun for a dish that costs $68. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

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