information, some more useful and some less

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of information about the current situation, and I found this to be particularly clear and helpful:

How to Practice Social Distancing

And it links to this:

How to Wash Your Hands

 
Other than that, I’m working at home, and going out for walks when I can. Keeping informed without drowning in information (I learned that after 9/11 — keep the radio on for a while, then turn it off for a longer while). I thought I’d want music when working, and sometimes I turn it on, but I’m also fine with silence.

I’m still thinking about my new story, and I plan to start posting it soon.

 
One thing I’ve been enjoying is a movie called Clue. The TV Tropes website said it’s “[q]uite possibly the best movie based on a board game ever made in 1985.”

What can I say — sometimes you want a carefully constructed, thoughtful, well-acted murder mystery. Other times you want to see Martin Mull get hit on the head with an ironing board.

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file cards are fun

I’ve written using file cards before, and it never lasts. I buy a stack of new file cards, sometimes in different colors, and use them to write plot points and scenes and ideas, which I can then sort and reorder as the story develops. Vladimir Nabokov wrote at least some of his novels this way.

It never lasts with me — at least so far. I always set up a system with the cards, sometimes a fairly elaborate one, and then I move on, often right away, to develop the project on paper or on the computer.

But right now I’m getting a lot done with a new set of file cards (and a couple of nice new gel pens, too). I’m working on the third in my current series of Jan Sleet stories, set in Claremont, Massachusetts (check out “The Marvel Murder Case” and “The Town Hall Mystery“).

We’ll see if I stick with the cards this time. So far I’m getting a lot done on the new story (which does not yet have a title — it involves a possibly-haunted house).

Oh, and the reason that my first comment above is crossed out is because I really like to reserve “I have a love/hate relationship…” comments for situations that really involve love and hate. “Some dislike/some dislike” may be less catchy, but it’s often more accurate.

(I also reserve “LOL” for situations where I actually laughed out loud.)

 
As I was writing this, Kristan Hoffman wrote a post on her blog about Les Misérables, so of course I had to respond. I’ve written about Les Mis a few times here in its various forms, though I admit that my plan to read the book hasn’t panned out — at least so far…

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three interesting articles

1. “Do you remember LiveJournal? It was an essential part of my teenage identity.

I wasn’t on LiveJournal (though I read the journals of friends there), but this definitely describes the experience of blogging in the years before social media exploded. Writing a blog post was writing, and a lot of bloggers took it very seriously. And your blog post would be read, even if only by other bloggers, and readers would often write thoughtful responses, too.

(This was before WordPress added a social-media-style “Like” button — back when you had to actually respond in words.)

 
2. “My Ex-Boyfriend’s New Girlfriend Is Lady Gaga

The article is redundant — it’s pretty much all there in the headline — but I did notice this paragraph:

“Social media in 2020 is so ingrained that it’s no longer a supplement or even an addiction. It’s just an accelerated extension of the way humans have always behaved. We live in a culture of constant updates. You want to unsubscribe? Well, you can’t.”

A little buzzer should go off when you’re reading the last sentence, as if you were on a game show and you just gave a wrong answer.

 
3. “Wikipedia Is the Last Best Place on the Internet

Just shows how people used to think the web was going to lead to positive things, and how, in a very few places, it actually did.

(In that same issue, there’s an article called “The Notebook.” The blurb is: “In the early days of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg kept his plans for world domination in handwritten journals. He destroyed them. But a few revealing pages survived.”)

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knives out

I’m a member of AARP, for obvious reasons (though I’m not retired), and so I get various AARP magazines. They sometimes have articles about movies, which are usually, “Here are some movies for grown-ups!” (you know, with no superheroes or zombies or space ships).

Even though I’m old enough to be a member of AARP, I obviously don’t have the hang of this “being a grown-up” thing, as I tend to prefer movies with one or more of those elements – particularly if they’re also funny.

(I am, however sufficiently grown up to cringe whenever anybody uses the word “adulting.” In case you were wondering.)

However (back to the movies) I did just see, and thoroughly enjoy, a movie which probably falls neatly into the “for grown-ups” category: Knives Out.

It’s a wonderful “classic” mystery story, with a tricky plot (which generally holds together), wonderful characters (most of whom are terrible people, as many wonderful characters are) and solid acting throughout.

Daniel Craig plays the detective, a very theatrical private investigator named Benoit Blanc, and he carries it off wonderfully. He plays Blanc with a very strong Southern accent, and, as a measure of how much Blanc himself is performing the role of a “gentleman sleuth,” if there’s another Benoit Blanc movie I would not be at all surprised if he uses a completely different accent.

Here’s a good review, and a trailer.

Another thing I like is that it’s self-contained. There’s nothing like seeing a bunch of franchise series films (and TV shows) to make you appreciate a nice, efficient, one-off story. (I’m reading that there may be a second Benoit Blanc movie at some point, but it probably won’t have much connection to this one. Mystery series are mostly standalone stories — unlike series in fantasy and science fiction.)

That’s one thing I like about the mystery stories I’m writing now — I’ve gone back into the early days of my detective and her assistant, so I don’t have to worry about any of back story established in the other novels and stories. These stories happen before any of the others (and I’ve already decided that these stories may end up going in an entirely different direction and never meet up with the other “continuity”).

There’s a reason that Arthur Conan Doyle never bothered with establishing a consistent history and continuity for Holmes and Watson. When was Watson living at Baker Street, and when was he off living with his wife, and how many times was he married, and if his given name is “John” why does his wife call him “James” in one story, and in which limb did he get shot in Afghanistan? The point was to tell a good story.

I’ve been writing about Jan Sleet, in one form or another, for fifty years now (and for exactly thirty years in pretty much exactly the form she’s in now). It’s nice to strip out all the surrounding stuff that’s built up over all those decades and focus on the detective herself, and at a point in her career when she was a bit less confident and experienced.

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the town hall mystery (conclusion)

This story started here.

 
“Any predictions?” my employer asked the sheriff as we zipped along the dark, shrouded road back to town. I felt that Rhonda might be driving a little too fast, but she obviously knew the road very well, and oncoming headlights would have been visible some distance away. We had the road to ourselves.

“Predictions?” the sheriff said slowly. “Just between us, Patricia probably won’t go to trial, but it will be up to her kids when they get here. They are now — or will be very soon — the biggest landowners in this town. Plus, they’re Devanes, which would carry weight around here no matter what. There was a clear plan to commit a crime, but no legal steps were taken… We’ll see.

“Emily will be tried. I make no predictions about how that will go. Fingerprints establish that she was on the roof, but exactly what happened up there…”

“Unfortunately,” my employer said from the back seat, “admittedly for obvious reasons, all of the potential witnesses on the street below just happened to be looking the other way, at the fire.”

I could feel my employer’s disapproving look on the nape of my neck. “Including me, of course,” I admitted. “Speaking of which, what about the fire?”

“Accidental, as far as anybody can tell,” Rhonda replied. “It was an old, wooden building, filled with paper and books, a careless cigarette tossed into a wastebasket in the rest room.” She shrugged. “No evidence of anything other than that, from what they tell me.”

“I do have one more question,” my employer said as we turned onto Ocean Drive.

“Okay…” Rhonda said, obviously knowing that my employer wasn’t just suddenly remembering something she’d forgotten earlier.

“Your house. You said there was a story about it.”

She nodded. “At one point… We started to investigate what it would cost to complete the house. The cost wasn’t unreasonable, but it turned out that there was a never-resolved disagreement about exactly where the town border is, so it was possible that the other half of the house might turn out to be in Dover.”

“And then you would only be half eligible to be our sheriff.”

She pulled up in front of our home. “Exactly.”

 
“I do have to thank you,” my employer said quietly as she took off her tie and hung it up on the rack.

“For what, specifically?” I asked, untying my shoes.

“For stopping me after I deduced Phyllis’s current career. Otherwise, I might have gone on to mention her criminal history. That could have been awkward.”

 
That was all except the tail. As the saying goes, every mystery, like a kite, has a tail. The tail to this one had three sections, the first two public and the last one private and unspoken.

Section one was Emily Armstrong. She was tried and acquitted on all charges in connection with the death of her lover, Tom McQueen. I venture no opinion on her guilt or innocence, and I might be equally baffled if I had been looking toward the News Store when he fell, rather than at the fire across the street.

I tried to keep my testimony as straightforward and accurate as possible — I’ve been very thoroughly trained in how to report observed phenomena without bringing in opinions and speculation.

Millie testified, too, of course, as did many other people, but only the defendant had been there and only she knew what had happened, and she gave powerful, emotional testimony that caused my employer to comment later that it was surprising that Miss Armstrong hadn’t had more success in her chosen profession.

The biggest factor in her exoneration, however, was her attorney, a lawyer from out of town named Tamara Nelson. She clearly outclassed Mr. Barris, the county attorney, at every stage of the trial. We had more dealings with Miss Nelson later.

The tail’s second section was Patricia Devane. She was not tried, and, after her children arrived to claim their inheritance, she left as soon as she could, to return to California. I have no idea what happened behind the scenes, of course, but I’m fine with that.

The tail’s third section was private.

Why had my employer tried her stunt at the News Store? She had said that there were “dangers in letting things remain status quo” — but what were the dangers she’d been seeing?

There didn’t seem to be any immediate danger of another death.

The Devane money might have been in danger of going to a bunch of impostors, of course, but I couldn’t imagine her being worried about that. And that didn’t make it urgent — money that goes to the wrong person can be shifted back where it belongs later. It’s not permanent — not like death.

But she had seen that Millie and I were becoming friends, and she had deduced that Millie was involved in what was going on. She didn’t know the details, and so, fearing further progress in the friendship, she had tried a stunt to expose the truth.

As I say, this has never been mentioned.

 
The End

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the town hall mystery (part fifteen)

This story started here.

 
My employer looked at Rhonda and shrugged, clearly asking, “How did I do?”

Rhonda nodded. “Patricia Devane is really Patricia Devane, and the rest of them are frauds, as you figured. We’re still finding out things from the West Coast, but apparently she got involved with some rather shady characters when she was trying to raise money to keep her company going. Two of them, the couple, were actors, though they weren’t very successful at it.

“Emily Armstrong, who had been impersonating Felicia Devane, is under arrest for the murder of Thomas McQueen, who had been impersonating Barnabas Devane. The charge is that she threw him from the roof of the News Store to his death. The trial is scheduled to start next week.”

“She has to find a lawyer, of course,” Phyllis put in. “Rance Palmer has said that he is not going to represent her. Knowing Rance, this may possibly be related to the fact that suddenly nobody in the whole business has any money.”

My employer nodded. “Or any immediate prospects of any. What about Patricia Devane?”

Rhonda shrugged. “Palmer is still representing her, at least for the moment. There have been no charges filed yet. She says she had no idea the murder was going to happen — which is probably true — and she denies any attempt at fraud. She may get away with it, since she hasn’t actually taken any legal steps to claim that the impostors were her real children. The will hasn’t even been read yet.”

“Do her real children exist?”

“Oh, yes. All three of them. They’re on their way, and nothing will happen on the legal front until they are here and have local representation.”

My employer glanced at me and I went to pour her some more coffee.

“What was the connection to Millie?” I asked over my shoulder.

“Thomas, the dead impersonator, met her at a party in Dover one night. They apparently… um… hit it off…”

“We get your drift,” my employer said.

“It turned out to be more than a one-night stand, though. They stayed in touch. There were some long phone calls between the pay phone by Sunshine Housewares and Mickey’s home phone, usually at times when Mark and Mickey would have been at the store.”

“What did Millie say?”

“She liked him. He’d given her a fake name, and told her that he was living with a girlfriend, so he couldn’t give her his phone number. She didn’t know anything about the con, or so she says, but she could tell he was into something bad.”

“Beyond just infidelity,” my employer put in.

“Exactly. Something he didn’t want to tell her about, though she urged him to share it with her. According to her.

“Anyway, she says she has no idea why he was trying to see her in the store that day, but perhaps he’d decided to tell her everything.”

My employer nodded. “And his girlfriend was after him, either because she’d found out that he was cheating on her, or because she was afraid that he would reveal the plot they were partners in.”

“Or both,” I said.

“Right. We’ll have to see what comes out at the trial.”

“But why did she have a wig that so resembled her boyfriend’s hair?” I asked.

Phyllis laughed. “That was my question. And wait until you hear the answer.”

Rhonda shook her head. “Well, we don’t have a definite answer on that yet…” My employer raised one eyebrow, something she saved for special occasions, and Rhonda continued, speaking slowly and apparently struggling to continue to be serious and professional.

“As I say, we don’t know for sure, yet, but here are the facts. They were struggling actors, and at some point it was noticed that their facial features and manner of speaking were similar. They were even close to the same build. Perhaps because of this, it seems that, recently, they took a job acting in a… in an adult movie, playing a brother and sister…”

“Whose sibling affections went somewhat beyond the norm,” Phyllis finished. “Repeatedly.”

“The local police in LA have obtained a copy of the film in question. They have apparently been studying it carefully, but they need to watch it a few more times to be sure of its exact relevance.”

“Ah,” I said after a moment.

My employer nodded. “So,” she said, “where is everybody now?”

“Patricia Devane is still at the house, at least for the moment. She’ll be arrested if she tries to leave town, and the house is, for now, technically between owners. Emily is in jail, held in connection with the death of her boyfriend. Nancy Williamson, the fake Deirdre, has apparently skipped town. We have bulletins out on her, but…” She shrugged. “We’re not really focused on her. Patricia’s real children are on their way, as I said. We’ll see what happens when they get here.”

My employer pulled out her pocket watch. “This has been very enjoyable, and dinner was excellent, but we shouldn’t tax your hospitality any longer. We can call a taxi–“

Rhonda wouldn’t hear of that, so she drove us home after we said good night to Phyllis.

 
To be continued…

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