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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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.”

“But–”

“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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