the town hall mystery (part two)

This story started here.

My employer, Jan Sleet, usually attracted some amount of attention when she walked down the street in Claremont. This was partly because she was becoming (she would have said “was”) a local celebrity — the town’s resident amateur sleuth. She had initially gained this reputation by her exploits while in college, and it had been cemented by her solution of the murder of Marvel Phillips a couple of months before.

There was also, of course, her appearance, which was unusual almost anywhere, but strikingly so in a seaside college town like Claremont. She had lank brown hair and a tall and spindly body, and she wore large horn-rimmed glasses and an elegant three-piece suit. She used a cane for her limp, which was especially pronounced when she was moving quickly, as she was at the moment, steaming down the block toward me. She never even looked at the burning Town Hall across the street, and she brushed by the sheriff without acknowledging her.

A more sentimental employee than I am, seeing her intensity, might have concluded that she was concerned about my safety — what with the fire raging across the street and a body falling to the sidewalk and all, but I had a pretty good idea that it was irritation that I knew a lot of things about recent events that she did not know, at least not yet.

She managed to slow her forward momentum enough to (barely) avoid crashing into me. She didn’t have to ask — I gave her a very brief update on what had happened — enough to make it clear that if this had been an accident it had been a very odd one. Then she bent over to look at the corpse.

When I had first seen the body, I had moved quickly to check for signs of life. When it had been obvious that I wasn’t finding any, most of the onlookers had turned their attention back to the fire across the street. The few who were now watching the (moderately) famous detective were distracted by a crash from across the street as the second floor of the Town Hall fell in, smoke and sparks and debris going in all directions. One of the two trees on the lawn in front of the burning building was on fire now, too.

I had expected the noise and had been prepared, but my employer’s attention had been on the corpse, so she jumped. Unexpected explosions had that effect on both of us from time to time, because of our experiences overseas.

I took her elbow and steadied her, steering her gently toward a small alley between the news store and the thrift shop. She tolerated the contact, and I released her before she could decide to pull back.

She met my eyes and nodded. “Tell me all,” she murmured.

Things got chaotic around us for a while, but we stood in our alcove, her hand on my shoulder, and I told her the whole story, very quietly.

As I told the story, I saw the sheriff look in our direction. She met my eyes, but she was obviously willing to wait until I got my employer up to speed. Meanwhile, she continued to direct her deputies in controlling the crowd and evacuating the buildings closest to the Town Hall. There was almost no breeze, and the smoke in the air was starting to sting my eyes.

When I was done, my employer straightened up and took out her cigarette case. Her first words were, “So, it was the man who fell, rather than the woman?”

I might have known that she’d figure that out. You can only get so far with fudging pronouns.

She squatted then and started to examine the body in detail. After a few moments, she gestured behind her with a forefinger, and I moved about a foot to my right. If the sheriff turned around again, it would be better if she didn’t see my employer quickly and methodically going through the victim’s pockets.

Then, as I helped my employer to her feet again, the sheriff did come over and look down at the corpse. She looked at me, then she wiped her sweaty forehead with her sleeve. “I know she just got here,” she said, meaning my employer, “but did you see any of it?”

“At ground level, I saw it all. I have no idea what happened on the roof.”

She called over her shoulder to one of her deputies, “Brian, I’ll be in the Wheel.”

“Do you know what I think?” Sheriff Rhonda White asked.

“No, please tell us.” My employer managed to hold back most of her sarcasm, since she already knew what the sheriff was about to say next. It was so obvious that I’d figured it out too.

We were sitting at a front table in the Wagon Wheel, so the sheriff could keep an eye on the situation outside. The waitress, Dot, came over and Rhonda waved her off, but not before my employer said she would like a cappuccino.

Rhonda leaned back in her chair, deciding not to be annoyed. She almost tented her fingers in front of her but then she stopped herself.

“Please tell me what you saw,” she said to me.

I obliged — we certainly had no reason to hold anything back. I told it to her exactly as I had told it to my employer, except that I didn’t bother to play at pronouns. I made it clear that the first person, presumably now deceased, had been male, and the second one, now missing, had been female.

By the end of my story, when my employer was about halfway through her cappuccino, Rhonda had decided that being annoyed was entirely reasonable.

“So, Marshall,” she said, “a man shoved past you and into the store, looked around, ran up on the roof, and then a few moments later, another person, a woman this time, in the same clothes, with the same hair, did the exact same thing, and then the man fell or was pushed or jumped off the roof, cracking his skull on the pavement?”

I nodded, simply to keep this process moving forward.

“Other people saw him, especially the people in the store, and they all said it looked like the same person. And if there were two people, male or female, the one who didn’t die has vanished.”

My employer nodded slowly. “So, if this one person pushed in, ascended, returned to street level, pushed in again, and then fell, jumped, or was pushed–“

“Jumped is my guess. Determined to commit suicide — for whatever reason — started, chickened out, climbed down to the street, got his gumption back up, and then carried it out.”

My employer wanted a cigarette. She could have pointed out that the story didn’t make a lot of sense, or that suicidal jumpers seldom jump from the roofs of one-story buildings, or that it would have been a very odd lie for me to have told in the first place. (What benefit could there have been for to me to have invented a woman who didn’t exist in this situation?)

If we had challenged the sheriff on that, she could have pointed out that, in her firm opinion, we had invented a woman before, in the Marvel Phillips case, so why wouldn’t we have done it again?

As my employer said later, she mentally played through every possible conversation that this could have led to, and none of them could have been useful to her. She glanced over at me before bidding the sheriff goodbye, and instead she said, “Marshall has a question.”

“The Town Hall,” I said. “Did everybody make it out safely?”

Sheriff Rhonda nodded. “As far as we know, based on the reports so far. The staff are definitely all okay. We… the ruins will have to be gone through. It sounds like it started upstairs, in the library rest room, but we don’t even know that for a fact. The staff apparently moved quickly and efficiently to clear the whole building. The building itself is a total loss, of course, except for the safe… “

Here eyes narrowed as she stood up. “Keep in touch,” she said, not looking at us as she made for the door. My employer finished her cappuccino, looked out the window, and winked at me. I turned to see a reporter from the Claremont Crier, the local paper, talking to one of Rhonda’s deputies. I was sure that Rhonda would step in to speak with the reporter herself.

My employer took her cane and got to her feet. She looked down at the Sunday Times, which I had placed at the extra chair at our table.

“All the sections are there,” I assured her as I put some money on the table.

To be continued…

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the town hall mystery (part one)

On Main Street in the town of Claremont, Massachusetts, there is a general store, called the News Store. It’s across the street from the Town Hall, and down the block from the Wagon Wheel, where my employer and I ate quite often. Directly next to the general store on one side was the thrift store and, on the other side, there was the town’s pharmacy.

Before we’d moved to Claremont, we’d stayed in a hotel in New York City for few weeks. During that time, my employer had decided that the Sunday edition of the New York Times was an essential part of any weekend. So, every Saturday evening I had to go to the News Store and make sure we were on the list to receive a copy of the Sunday Times, and then I’d return on Sunday morning to pick it up.

The man who ran the store was named Mickey. He gave the impression that he’d been behind that counter forever, but of course that could have been an act, for the tourists.

And there were still tourists now, although it was well after Labor Day and getting steadily cooler, especially in the evenings. The tourists tended to be older now, mostly retired, probably attracted by the lower prices and the early bird specials in the restaurants.

Mickey was always there on Saturday evening when I went to confirm our Sunday New York Times reservation, and to collect the weekly shipment of my employer’s preferred brand of imported cigarettes.

He was never there on Sunday morning, though. The task of assembling and selling the Sunday papers was left to his children, Mark and Millie, who were apparently in their twenties. Mark handled most of the actual assembly, while Millie worked at the counter.

Mark always gave me the impression that this was not his preferred way of spending every single Sunday morning. Millie, on the other hand, though she might have shared her brother’s apparent disdain for this family responsibility, was always pleasant, even with all the customers who thought it was very amusing to call her “Minnie.”

One evening, after a good dinner at the Wagon Wheel, my employer and I walked past the News Store on our way home. Millie was out front, pumping up the rear tire of her bicycle. She saw us and greeted me, and we chatted for a moment before we strolled off and Millie resumed her pumping.

As we turned the corner, my employer gave me a sidelong glance, conveying, “You know, she is much too young for you.” She enjoyed my frustration because, of course, since her comment had not been spoken out loud, I was stymied in my desire to protest.

On this particular Sunday morning, I was waiting on line, holding my Times, when we heard the noon siren — only it wasn’t noon, and that meant there was a fire.

Millie yanked off her apron (I had never been exactly clear why she wore an apron, but I guess the big pockets were convenient), tossed it at her brother, and zipped out the door, yelling, “Take over, Marky!”

He made a face about being called Marky, and he ignored the apron as he stepped behind the counter. I hadn’t known that Millie was a member of the town’s force of volunteer firefighters, but there she was, pedaling off down the block at high speed toward the firehouse.

I paid for my newspaper and moved toward the door, to allow the woman behind me to step to the counter and pay for her purchases (a local paper, a pack of cigarettes, and a small tube of toothpaste). I needed to make sure before I left the store that my paper had all the vital sections. (Actually, my employer considered almost all of the sections to be vital, but I might have been forgiven if I’d arrived home without the sports section or the classifieds.)

Then I heard the sirens approaching. I looked up to see, and smell, the smoke. The Town Hall, directly across the street, was on fire.

I stepped out onto the front step of the store and watched as two fire trucks pulled up, on opposite sides of the Town Hall. Three firemen quickly unfurled hoses to start spraying water on the two-story structure. Three other firefighters charged into the building through the front door, carrying all sorts of equipment.

There was a lawn in front of the building, leading down to the sidewalk, and pavement on the other three sides (a parking lot to the left and behind, and a driveway to the right), so at least the fire was relatively contained. There did not seem to be a lot of wind. So far, the fire seemed to be concentrated on the second floor — smoke was pouring out of the windows and I could see some flames, too.

Then I remembered that the second floor was the town library, and that was a shame. I’d mourn the loss of the town’s books much more than the town’s paperwork. There was a cluster of people on the lawn in front, moving slowly down towards the sidewalk, and I recognized one town clerk and two librarians, so maybe all the people had made it out safely.

I watched for a few minutes, still glancing down to check the newspaper sections. A crowd was gathering on the sidewalk in front of the store, of course, but I was on the raised step and could easily see over their heads.

Another fire truck pulled up, and I saw Millie among the new arrivals, rushing toward the fire in a uniform that seem to be too large for her. Were women a new addition to the force? I looked around. Was she the only woman?

My woolgathering was interrupted when a young man pushed through the crowd in front of me. He shoved past me and hurried into the News Store.

I corralled my Sunday Times, which I’d almost dropped, and turned, with a momentary atavistic impulse to go back into the store and pop the guy in the nose, but I didn’t see him for a moment. Then I saw his feet, vanishing as he ascended the steep metal ladder that led to a trap door to the roof.

Mark looked at the guy’s feet as they vanished, then he finished ringing up the next customer. He couldn’t deal with a strange man on the roof, or the fire across the street, but nobody was getting out of the store that day without paying what they owed.

I turned back to watch the fire again. It didn’t seem to be going well. I had the urge to pitch in and do something, but there didn’t seem to be much that a writer’s assistant could add to the proceedings, other than possibly getting in the way. I hoped Millie was going to be okay.

Then a familiar figure emerged from the crowd and shoved past me into the store. Same cap, rough brown jacket, wavy dark hair and jeans as before, and the same lack of manners.

I turned, again struggling to regain control of my Sunday Times, trying to remember how deja vu works, as the new arrival looked frantically around the room, then ran to the ladder and started for the roof.

Mark watched this, as did the remaining customers, and then he sighed and made the universal face that said, with a visible sigh, tourists!

Okay, this demanded a response from me. The fire was being handled, though it appeared that the Town Hall might not survive. Traffic was obviously blocked. The sheriff and her deputies were controlling the crowds. And I was going to be open to severe criticism at home if I didn’t find out what was going on up on the roof.

Then there was an odd, loud, disturbing noise from the sidewalk in front of the store, accompanied by screaming. I looked out and saw a limp figure on the sidewalk, wearing a rough brown jacket and jeans, cap on the sidewalk, brown hair spread out, eyes open, motionless.

To be continued…

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facing the facts (sigh)

I have a visceral negative reaction to some things (which I’m sure isn’t unusual). Certain Jim Steinman songs, for example. And the movie The Wall (my then-wife and I looked at each other halfway through and then we got up and walked out of the theater without saying a word — we were in tune on some things).

My mother was that way about Tom Cruise — “boyish” men who were no longer boys gave her the willies.

Anyway, I’ve always had a very bad reaction to the term “cozy mystery,” which is, according to Wikipedia, “a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.”

Which could sort of describe Jan Sleet solving mysteries in U-town, but the trappings there were eccentric enough to make that connection rather harder to see. Most writers of cozy mysteries probably don’t write about a small, socially intimate community that includes a mass murderer, three siblings who are apparently aliens, a superhero, a woman who lives her life as a dog, and a very small teenage girl with superhuman strength (who’s the head of state).

(But there may be something to it anyway, since this is why “The Apartment Mystery” ended up getting booted from the Jan Sleet Mysteries collection — as one astute beta reader pointed out, it was much bloodier than the other stories.)

Anyway, U-town aside, now that a much younger Jan Sleet is plying her trade in the resort/college town of Claremont, Massachusetts? I’m afraid it’s no longer possible to refute the description (not that I’m going to use the term myself, but I find I don’t have any real arguments against it).

Well, Wikipedia does say that the genre is “an attempt to re-create the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” And I’ve never denied that I’m doing that.

So, starting very soon, “The Town Hall Mystery.” Which sounds like a Hardy Boys book, an association that doesn’t bother me (though I much preferred the Rick Brant books when I was a lad).

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i have my finger far from the pulse

When I was married — a very long time ago — my wife and I would sometimes check out new TV shows, usually sitcoms. Mostly we didn’t care for them, but occasionally there was a new show that we’d think was really funny. After the first episode was over, we’d try to figure out how long the show would last before it got canceled.

Four to six weeks — I seem to remember that was usually about it. One show was so wonderful that it got canceled immediately — there never was a second episode.

So, I was not surprised when I watched the first episode of the DC Universe show Swamp Thing, thought it was good enough to continue to check out, and then it was immediately canceled.

I’m not heartbroken. I only subscribed to the app because of Doom Patrol, which had a whole season and which was really good. Since I already had the app, I decided to check out Swamp Thing — another show based on a terrific 1980s comic book.

The first episode was okay, though definitely a step down from Doom Patrol. There were some clunky moments. It’s the sort of show where two characters meet, express to each other, clearly and repeatedly, how much they want a drink, so you know that at some point they will share a bottle, not bothering with glasses, and reveal all sorts of past trauma for the benefit of the audience. One of the good things about Doom Patrol was how slowly it revealed the past traumas of the main characters, and how the revelations were solid enough to make them worth the wait.

But it’s not only that Swamp Thing was axed (though apparently they are going to show the rest of the season). Now there are news stories that the entire DC Universe app thing will be going away to be replaced by a big Warner Brothers app (Warner owns DC Comics). Sort of like how Marvel used to have a bunch of shows on Netflix, but now they’re pulling those shows back in order to start their own Marvel (or Disney) app thing.

I do have to wonder if all of this is good business, if this is the best way to build an audience, by getting people to subscribe to one app, and then to a new one, because you canceled the first one, and then a newer one, etc.

Which, given my track record (see above), probably means this will all be a huge success. After all, I’m the guy who skipped Avengers Endgame and the Game of Thrones finale (in fact, the entirety of Game of Thrones) in order to follow a group of misfit heroes who have had to deal — often unsuccessfully — with the Bureau of Normalcy, a variety of disembodied butts, a muscle man who accidentally gave the entire team an orgasm by flexing the wrong muscle group, and a super villain nemesis who also narrates the episodes, complaining constantly about how slow the plots move and how tedious and character-focused the show is.

Entertainment conglomerates should just monitor what I’m following and put their money on the opposite.

Unless they’re doing that already…

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lane changes aren’t always signaled

I’ve been following, at a polite distance, all the disappointment (and outrage) about the end of the Game of Thrones TV show. It’s been interesting, since failures of storytelling are always good to study. For example, I’ve ended up with some quite detailed thinking about how Suicide Squad (excuse me, that’s “Academy-Award-winning Suicide Squad“) could have been improved.

With Game of Thrones, the reactions seem to generally come down to: 1) everything that happened was mostly the wrong stuff, and 2) it was the right stuff, at least mostly, but it wasn’t told properly (meaning, among other things, that the final seasons were too short).

And, of course, there’s always the assumption that the original text is better than any adaptation, and the TV writers ran out of original text to adapt a while ago, so they’ve been on their own.

But then I read this, at Scientific American: “The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones

I can’t really speak for Game of Thrones, obviously, but the overall thinking on different types of stories is persuasive.

The show did indeed take a turn for the worse, but the reasons for that downturn go way deeper than the usual suspects that have been identified (new and inferior writers, shortened season, too many plot holes). It’s not that these are incorrect, but they’re just superficial shifts. In fact, the souring of Game of Thrones exposes a fundamental shortcoming of our storytelling culture in general: we don’t really know how to tell sociological stories.

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

This relates, as the article goes on to describe, to not only whether the later seasons were well written (it takes as a given that they were not — with examples), but that there was also a lane shift, from sociological to psychological (which is the overwhelmingly dominant way of writing for TV, obviously).

Referring to the early seasons, and why the show was so popular, the article says:

One clue is clearly the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, early and often, without losing the thread of the story. TV shows that travel in the psychological lane rarely do that because they depend on viewers identifying with the characters and becoming invested in them to carry the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the society, institutions and norms that we interact with and which shape us. They can’t just kill major characters because those are the key tools with which they’re building the story and using as hooks to hold viewers.

This reminds me of all the writing blogs that I’ve explored where it’s taken as a given that a story must have a protagonist, and that if you can’t identify a protagonist in your story either you don’t understand your own story or you’ve written it wrong.

I wrote a novel some time ago, called U-town, and it did not have a protagonist. It had a lot of characters, and they definitely did “evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them,” but no protagonist — and I don’t think that means it was written wrong.

Anyway, all this made me think. Since U-town I’ve been doing psychological stories, more or less, but I think sociological stories require length (the Game of Thrones novels are famously long, and there are quite a few of them). U-town is 270,000+ words, and I don’t think I have another of those in me.

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my sleeves have more lace than I thought

The best writing has no lace on its sleeves. (Walt Whitman)

Good writing is like a windowpane. (George Orwell)

These two quotes came to my attention recently. I saw the first one in the New York Review of Books, and I forget where I saw the second one.

It was the Orwell quote that caught my interest first, since it reminded me of when I started to write more seriously. Back then, I used to say the same thing (I have no idea whether I got it from Orwell or just made it up on my own).

I wanted my writing to be transparent, so it wouldn’t distract the reader from the story. I still feel that way sometimes, particularly when I read blog posts by people in the “literary” genre who talk a lot about “voice” and “developing your voice” and whether things are “voicey,” which is apparently a compliment.

All of which is a consistent critical stance on my part, but, particularly with the story I’ve just finished (“The Marvel Murder Case“), where the decades of backstory have been cleared out, it has become increasingly obvious that I’m not as “transparent” a writer as I used to think I should be.

I’m actually rather mannered. I use quite a few fancy words. I often use longer sentences, with a lot of (very precisely deployed) commas. Plus dashes, and parentheses. There may even be some semicolons in there.

(Okay, I checked. No semicolons. The next story will include at least one semicolon.)

So, is this a failure on my part? Of course not. Foolish consistency and all that.

It probably reflects two things:

1) Jan Sleet. I’ve been writing about her for most of my life, and while I’ve influenced her I’m sure that’s gone both ways. And, while she doesn’t have literal lace on her sleeves, which would look silly, she is very precise in speech and, yes, somewhat mannered.

2) I read a lot of detective fiction, most of it between 50 and 100+ years old. And I write about a detective (see #1 above) who has based her life on some of the same books (her taste is not identical to mine, but it’s close).

So, for your reading pleasure, here’s “The Marvel Murder Case,” in HTML, ideal for reading on a computer, or on a tablet, an e-reader, or a phone. Complete with commas, dashes, parentheses, and words like “calumny,” “dottle,” and “bespoke.”

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