screens, endings, and beginnings (and dreams)

So, I’ve been somewhat remiss about posting. I’ve thought of some things to post about, but (obviously) didn’t get around to posting them.

So, here they are:

1) What we miss on screens

I thought of this when Dick Dale died. One thing that many obituaries mentioned was how loud he played — beyond a lot of the equipment available at the time. Which of course you don’t get by seeing things on YouTube, like the clip I link to above. And volume is actually an aesthetic element — loud music is not just quiet music with the volume control turned up.

It’s like watching a movie on the TV screen (even if you have a monstrously big television set) versus seeing it in a theater — versus watching it on your phone. They’re actually different experiences — not just more or less.

When I saw the Mona Lisa, I remarked (as many people do) on how small it actually is. Picasso’s Guernica wouldn’t be the same if it was Mona Lisa-sized, but when you look at them on Wikipedia, they seem about the same.

I think of that in relation to Tangerine Dream, too (I’m still listening to TD to the exclusion of pretty much any other music, by the way). They’re also reported to be very loud in concert — though listening to them on headphones there are some songs which might fool you into thinking they’re background music.

2) Endings

Maggie over at Maggie Madly Writing recently wrote about a book she read which was redeemed by its ending. I’ve been thinking about endings a lot recently, I guess because of Avengers: Endgame (which I haven’t seen, though I’ve seen a lot of the movies which led up to it), and the final season of Game of Thrones (which I’ve never watched). People seem generally satisfied with the Avengers movie, and I’ve seen a variety of reactions to the episodes of Game of Thrones which have aired so far, some quite negative.

People have devoted a decade, more or less, to these two franchises. If the ending fails you, does that make the whole thing wasted time? (Well, I guess to a lot of people these days no bad experience is totally wasted if you can then go on the internet and gripe about it.)

I’m thinking of that in relation to Doom Patrol (still the only “TV” show that I’m watching). Some episodes are great, some are just good, and I do wonder how it will all end (just three more episodes to go). If they screw up the ending, will that weaken the whole experience? I’d say not, but an investment of 15 weeks is very different from 10+ years. But the best episodes (such as “Jane Patrol,” where we actually go inside Jane’s brain and meet quite a few of her 64 personalities in their natural habitat, as it were) are good enough that I’ll still go back and watch them even if the ending stinks.

Of course, the general trend these days is for things (popular things) to go on forever anyway. There will be more Marvel movies, with at least some of the same characters, and I’ve heard there will be Game of Thrones prequels, in some form.

3. Writing

Going slowly, but I’m fine with that. I’m still polishing “The Marvel Murder Case,” and I have several ideas for what will come next. And I have one opening scene written already, because it came to me in a dream.

So, here’s a little more Tangerine Dream, since Linda Spa was pretty under-represented in the two clips I posted before:

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the marvel murder case (part twenty-one)

This story started here.

Somewhat later, after Ms. Stapleton had departed, we were sitting on the front porch of Professor Lebrun’s house. It was probably mostly inertia that kept us — at least those of us who had not slept the night before — from going back to bed.

Professor Lebrun gestured with the stem of his pipe. “May I make a comment, and ask a question?”

My employer smiled. “Of course, Professor. I may not answer the question, obviously.”

“Understood. I did want to mention that I enjoyed how you told Miss Stapleton the story out of order, blurring cause and effect…”

“In order to avoid saying, to an officer of the court, that Marshall and I had deliberately committed a crime by entering Mr. Baxter’s home without his permission. Yes, that seemed prudent.”

He waited for more. She sat, very still, waiting also. He and I exchanged a couple of glances (my employer delicately averting her eyes), and then, with a very small shrug, he changed his mind.

I had been afraid that he would blow the gaff, but he held firm and moved on to a less controversial question instead.

“So,” he said, “I guess you’re planning on staying in the area here, at least for a while?”

“We’re witnesses in a murder trial, or we will be. It seems that we won’t be prosecuted for entering Mr. Baxter’s house without permission, but it was made clear to us that we are expected to be available when we’re needed.”

Professor Lebrun coughed delicately. “As you may remember…”

“Your new tenant is about to arrive. Next week, I believe?”

He nodded.

She turned to me. I waved a hand. “That’s taken care of. I made a call.”

“Ah,” she said thoughtfully. She smiled. “Your friend, the muffin lady?”

I nodded. “I got a good price when I told her we’d be living here in town for a while.”

So, she had shifted the narrative, eliding the possible book theft and especially the mystery woman who had admitted us to the Arkright house.

I hadn’t mentioned any of this because my employer hadn’t wanted me to. And because I already knew the answer, or at least part of it.

On Friday, the day I’d gone into town to fetch our luggage, the day I’d gone to the Catholic church to light a candle for Marvel, I’d also done something else, something my employer hadn’t deduced (or, if she had, she’d kept it to herself — which was always a possibility with her).

I’d gained access to the Arkright house and checked the open carton of my employer’s books in the garage. The books had all been there, according to the inventory, but one book was not lined up neatly with the rest. It was shoved down in the side of the box.

It was not a published book. It was a journal, about half full, written by someone named Alex (for Alexandra) Ross.

I had skimmed through the contents. There were some fairly conventional journal entries, some poems (well, they seemed to be poems), and a fair amount of gibberish.

It had ended, abruptly, a couple of months before my employer’s birth date. The last few entries had been rather apocalyptic, though with no explicit mention of pregnancy. There had been some hints about Alexandra’s fear of some sort of pursuit, but it hadn’t been clear, at least to me, the extent to which this had been metaphorical, or literal.

The reporters — regional, national, international — who were probably already en route wouldn’t know, or care, about the unidentified woman who had been in the Arkright house when we’d arrived there, and who had pretended to belong there. Sheriff Rhonda had apparently already decided that the woman had been a fiction. Professor Lebrun was obviously not planning to mention her. Thinking back, I didn’t think that the Arkright family had ever even heard that part of the story.

So, as always, my employer solved mysteries, and provided new ones. Specifically, why were we staying in town, apparently indefinitely? How much of her decision had been:

1) A desire to comply with the law and avoid any risk of getting into trouble,
2) A desire to ensure that justice was done,
3) A possible desire to make sure that Sheriff Rhonda, once she recovered, kept her tendency toward political ambition under control or,
4) A desire, for whatever reason, to locate the mystery woman again.

The End

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the marvel murder case (part twenty)

This story started here.

Professor Lebrun stood up. “Miss Stapleton, would you like some soup, and perhaps a sandwich? It would be no trouble at all.”

She hesitated, and then nodded. “Thank you, Professor.”

He bowed and headed to the kitchen, taking his wine glass with him.

“Ms. Stapleton was Marvel Phillips’ attorney,” my employer explained to me.

“Her personal attorney — I had nothing to do with her businesses. Miss Sleet, I heard a rather confusing report on the radio last night about Marvel’s death. Your letter had given this phone number, so I called and got no answer. My next step was to call the sheriff’s office. I spoke to someone there and learned that the sheriff is in the hospital and the former sheriff is under arrest…”

“So you decided to come here yourself. Quite reasonable.”

“Do you know why Marvel was killed?”

“Yes, or at least I know who did it, and I have a very solid idea of why. The suspect has admitted nothing, at least so far.”

“Can you please fill me in?” She reached into her attache case and pulled out a legal pad. “I hope you don’t mind if I take notes.”

“Of course not. I’d recommend it. Perhaps we should adjourn to the kitchen where there’s a table, and probably some nice sandwiches coming, and, I hope, some coffee!”

The last few words had been pitched to be audible in the kitchen (and quite possibly down to the highway).

The professor brandished a full, and very welcome, coffee pot as we entered his small kitchen.

With a mug of coffee on the kitchen table in front of her, my employer settled back in her chair. “The murder of Marvel Phillips had nothing to do with Marvel herself,” she began, “or the college here, or the family in whose house her dead body was left. It was all about the former sheriff and the current sheriff.”

She sipped her coffee. “Being a detective, if I may pontificate for a moment, is mostly not skulking around alleys and peeking through transoms. There is some of that, of course, but a lot of it is research. The first thing I did when Marshall and I got here was to read all the issues I’d missed of the Claremont Crier, the town newspaper.

“The one thing that struck a wrong note in everything I read was that Phil Baxter, who had been the sheriff here for a long time, and who, in my experience with him, very much enjoyed the job, had retired. That was a discordant note — he wasn’t that old, and there was no mention of a reason.” She shrugged. “But that didn’t immediately suggest a motive for murder, so I filed it away, and turned to the question of figuring out who might have had a motive.

“One way to do this is by using the old adage ‘follow the money,’ but that didn’t seem to apply. Marvel had enormous wealth, but she died intestate and without living relatives…”

Ms. Stapleton correctly interpreted my employer’s pause at this point. “Both of those statements are, to the best of my knowledge, true.” She had dated the sheet of paper in front of her, but so far she had taken no notes.

My employer continued. “I understand that the county attorney, Mr. Barris, has been checking with lawyers in this area to see if Marvel had a will drawn up while she was here. But, in the absence of that, and in the absence of a previously unknown relative, I decided to look beyond simple financial benefit.

“That didn’t produce any immediate results either. Marvel apparently wasn’t that close to anybody around here — to inspire a more visceral reason for someone to take her life — and, in theory, nobody from her earlier life knew she was here.

“I searched her dorm room, and I interviewed some of the other students who knew her. I got no hints there either.

“And, no matter what the motive, why would anybody set such a bizarre scene?” She described how the body had been found. “He, the murderer, might have taken the clothes because they contained some kind of clue, and the wallet might have been taken to make it harder to identify the body, but why then go to all the trouble of squeezing her into that bikini that didn’t even fit her properly? Why not just leave the body naked? And, if the murderer had known who she really was, he must have realized that her identity would come out no matter what, and probably soon.

“And that’s when it started to fall together in my mind.

“Cui bono.”

She was aching to define “Cui bono” (Latin for “who benefits?”), but, since her audience was a college professor and an attorney, she managed to restrain herself.

“I began to see that Phil Baxter stood to benefit, at least potentially.

“He had been the sheriff here for four terms, and, as I say, he’d liked being the sheriff. He’d had to deal with a few rather difficult crimes, but he solved them, in some cases with my help. To be blunt: I made him look good while I was attending college here.

“But then he was diagnosed with heart trouble — specifically a bad valve, and some related problems. He needed surgery, and the timing happened to coincide with the next election. He didn’t want to postpone the surgery — he was having increasing trouble getting around, and there was always the possibility that he would simply keel over and die. Plus, knowing him, I imagine he didn’t want to appear weak. I’ve read his medical files — that’s how I learned all this.

“Besides, he’d been elected for four straight terms, the last one running unopposed. He probably assumed that the election would be pretty much a formality.

“But he had a deputy, Rhonda White, and she had not only competence but ambition — more than he’d realized.

“I don’t know if he confided in her, or if she deduced what was going on with him (I suspect it was the latter — they weren’t close), but she started positioning herself, appearing in his place at public events, sometimes when he couldn’t attend because of tests or other procedures. She let people know — without ever saying so explicitly, of course — that he was starting to slow down.

“And suddenly editorials started appearing in the Crier, saying that maybe the baton should be passed to the younger generation, new blood needed, that sort of thing.”


“To anticipate your question: What does this have to do with Marvel? After the election, and his surgery, Phil Baxter was no longer sheriff, and he was not happy. He was recovering, slowly getting his strength back, and increasingly angry about having been outflanked in his moment of weakness, as it were. But what could he do? How could he get back to where he’d been? Back to the place where he was, from his point of view, entitled to be.

“Then, based on what I found — what we found — he had his idea. He had, as I’ve said, quite a good reputation for solving difficult crimes… so, he would present his successor with a crime that she would not be able to solve. He would kill Marvel Phillips, a huge celebrity, in a way that made no sense, and let the international press descend on our town and highlight for the whole world how baffled Rhonda was. Better even than defeating her in an election — he would show her up.”

“Excuse me,” Professor Lebrun said, serving the canned soup he’d warmed up. “How did he know that Madeleine was Marvel?”

“Phil Baxter is very good friends with the dentist who did the work on Marvel’s teeth.” A look passed between my employer and Ms. Stapleton, and it was obvious that the lawyer knew about her late client’s recent dental work, and why she’d needed it. “She had paid his fee with a check — probably trusting to his professional ethics.” My employer shrugged. “It doesn’t seem surprising that Dr. Gregg would share a piece of information like that with his trusted friend, the retired sheriff.

“But then, something happened that threatened Phil Baxter’s plans. Completely by coincidence, I came back to town, and I, of all people, discovered Marvel’s body. I… I’m going to have to risk being immodest here — I would not be surprised if he’d been afraid that I’d solve it right then. But I didn’t — murders like this, with these apparently random elements, they’re common in fiction, but not in reality. I’ve never seen a murder in a real locked room, for example.

“So, I had a theory, but no evidence.”

Then she described the return of the Arkright family, and the shooting.

“The first bullet was intended for me, obviously, but it hit and killed Barbara Arkright instead. Marshall had thrown me to the floor and covered my body with his, so I was protected. Did he — Mr. Baxter — then shoot Sheriff Rhonda out of frustration, realizing that his plan of defeating her politically was probably not going to be possible? Was he afraid that she’d spotted him in the dark across the street? I don’t know, but she was drawing her sidearm when she was shot.”

Ms. Stapleton frowned. “The sheriff — the current sheriff — is she alive?”

“Yes. I believe she will recover.”

She looked out the window at the dark sky, apparently composing her thoughts. “So, this was all… I’m sorry, it just seems so pointless. She — Marvel…”

“Madeleine Pontmercy.”

She nodded. “I really felt that her life — her adult life — was just beginning.”

I could see my employer weighing whether this was the time to bring up the book she was hoping to write, but she didn’t mention it. Ms. Stapleton was apparently feeling rather strongly about Marvel’s death, and the worst thing would have been to risk appearing opportunistic at that moment.

To be continued…

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free patrol

1) Still very much enjoying the Doom Patrol TV show. The moment I realized I was hooked was this one:

Not because of the scene, although it is good, but because of the song, “Lazarus,” by David Bowie. It’s from Blackstar, the album he made when he knew he was dying, and it was the last single he released during his lifetime. Blackstar is an intense, wonderful album (which I almost never listen to), and I feel very protective about it. But this scene, and this show, lives up to it.

If any of this encourages you to check out the show, the first episode is now available for free, for a limited time.

2) As I’ve talked about before, I’m very suspicious of absolute rules about writing (avoid passive voice, always write in third person, never have a prologue, eliminate all adverbs, etc.). This piece was inconsistent, but it had this wonderful advice:

“Always write in the third person. The third person is Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve. Every novel must be from his perspective.”

I love rules for writing, because it can be so much fun breaking them. Now I have to go find that draft I wrote once that started with “It was a dark and stormy night.”

To quote my father: There is only one rule for writing. Write well.”

3) In other news, Mary Norris, the Comma Queen, has clarified some things about the “royal we.”

This, in particular, amused me:

Elizabeth II once corrected herself after using “we” in reference to herself and Prince Philip, clarifying, “by that I mean the both of us.”

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the marvel murder case (part nineteen)

This story started here.

We were in town for most of the day.

We were never actually under arrest, and when we were threatened with arrest there was some confusion about what we might be charged with. As my employer pointed out, we were not burglars, since we had not used force to gain access to the former sheriff’s house, and we had not entered the premises to commit a felony (rather the opposite).

I had been armed, of course, but for no purpose beyond possible self-defense (and I am licensed to carry).

The answer, of course, was unlawful entry, but we weren’t about to volunteer that information.

The deputies were hampered both by the absence of their boss, the sheriff (who was still in the hospital), and also the absence of the county attorney, Mr. Barris, who recused himself, with evident relief, because he was a long-time friend and associate of the accused. And, of course, for most of the deputies, the accused was their former boss as well.

I had called Professor Lebrun when we’d arrived at the police station, just to let him know why we hadn’t been at the house when he’d got up, and to let him know that there had been, to say the least, developments.

That afternoon, when all of the paperwork had been dealt with, at least for the moment, we had a late lunch at the Wagon Wheel. We ate mostly in silence — we’d been awake since the previous morning and we were both about ready to collapse.

In addition to the exhaustion, there was also the letdown of having the mystery solved, and the feeling of adrenaline seeping away. I had been pretty keyed up in the house of the former sheriff, waiting for him to come home. In those types of confrontations, it’s never possible to be entirely sure how things are going to go, no matter how carefully you prepare.

After our meal, we took the jitney back to the campus. Professor Lebrun wasn’t home, so we decided to get some sleep. My employer’s exhaustion was shown by the fact that she went right to bed, without showering or taking a bath.

One thing she did do before bed, though, was to leave a note for the professor. I peeked at it when she was done. It said:

Dear Professor,

The case is solved. A woman will come to see me this evening. If I’m not up yet, please entertain her while I get some much-needed sleep.

Thank you.


I awoke, and not for the first time, to the feeling of my employer’s long, bony forefinger poking at my shoulder.

When I got my eyes open, wondering what time it was (and guessing that it was not — unfortunately — going-back-to-sleep time), she held her finger up over her lips and gestured at the living room with her eyes.

Through the wall, I heard the professor, his voice rather closer to a purr than usual, and a woman, who was chuckling warmly.

It seemed that this might be the sort of evening where our sudden appearance in the living room might be unwelcome, but there was no other way out of our bedroom except for the window.

My employer gripped my arm and leaned over to whisper, “Don’t worry. I’m very popular.”

She dressed with even more care than usual, and when she was done she raised an eyebrow and asked, “How do I look?”

I scrutinized her. “Immaculate,” I admitted.

She smiled and gestured with her cane that I should open the door so she could sweep (well, sweep with a pronounced limp) into the living room.

I wondered who she was planning to impress, and why.

The visitor was probably in her forties, wearing wire-frame glasses. She wore a dark brown pantsuit, no vest, and the collar of her cream-colored shirt was open. My experience working for my employer told me that her clothing was very expensive indeed.

“Miss Stapleton,” my employer said, extending her hand as she limped forward, “I’ve been hoping to meet you. I gather you’ve met Professor Lebrun, who is our host, and this is my assistant, Marshall. I’m sorry I wasn’t available to greet you upon your arrival. I hope your flight wasn’t too taxing?”

A brief round of handshaking ensued (Professor Lebrun’s eyes twinkled as he toyed with the idea of shaking my hand), and then we all sat down. The professor and his visitor had glasses of wine, but he didn’t offer us any.

Ms. Stapleton (she had indicated, during the handshaking, that she preferred this honorific) smiled at my employer. “I’m somewhat impressed that you know my name. Are you also going to deduce what I had for dinner?”

My employer smiled also. “That is, of course, a trick question, since you’ve had no dinner.” She turned to me as Professor Lebrun got to his feet, apparently stricken that he hadn’t offered any food to his guest.

To be continued…

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reporting on the world, writing on the screen

1) I’ve written about Hilde Lysiak before. Glad to find out that she’s still at it: “An Arizona cop threatened to arrest a 12-year-old journalist. She wasn’t backing down.

2) There’s an interesting piece by Tim Parks in the New Yorker (I’ve linked to his writing before: here, here, here, and here): “Do We Write Differently on a Screen?

This was well timed (for me), because I’ve just been noticing in my last two stories, the ones where I wrote them pretty much entirely on my phone, that I’ve been writing too fast.

Not too fast in the sense of posting a lot (it’s pretty obvious that I’m not doing that), but rushing through the story. With “The Bus Station Mystery” I had to go back after it was all posted and fill it out, giving it more room to breathe. I’m now thinking that I’ll need to do that with “The Marvel Murder Case” as well. I’m tending to think that this may be related to writing exclusively on screen.

The exciting development now is that I’ve figured out how to print from my phone. So, I’ve started to print out my drafts again, marking them up and adding new scenes in pen, and then going back to the screen later. I think it’s helping a lot.

Like Parks, I go back to the typewriter days, so I appreciate the ability to rewrite without retyping. I’ve never had the problem he refers to (“What an invitation to obsession!”) — I am not at all a perfectionist, so the overwriting he refers to, where you edit and edit and edit a piece until you’ve driven it into the ground, has never been a problem for me.

And I very much appreciated the points he makes about instant feedback and endless distractions — for both writers and readers. I think that’s a huge problem, for writing and everything else.

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