the marvel murder case (part twelve)

This story started here.

Sheriff Rhonda leaned way over to one side as I came into her office, apparently trying to look behind me. “No, my employer is not here,” I said with a laugh. “And I don’t smoke.”

She laughed, and I got the idea, again, that the sheriff and the amateur detective were cooperating more out of necessity than from any deeper connection.

Given that, I decided it was politic to let her ask the first question. I had taken the jitney into town that morning — having the hunch that Sheriff Rhonda might be more forthcoming in person than over the phone. My employer, off for a breakfast with “the girls” before resuming her search of the victim’s room, hadn’t seemed to care one way or the other.

“So,” Rhonda asked after I was seated, and after I had politely declined her offer of coffee, “any progress on the campus front?”

I gave her a brief summary of what I knew. She nodded, as if this lack of progress didn’t surprise her (or at least didn’t disappoint her).

“Any word from the family?” I asked. She frowned. “The Arkright family?” I clarified.

“Oh, yes. They’re coming home. At their own speed and in no particular hurry, thank you very much.”

“Anything interesting from the search of the house?”

“Not really.” She was apparently in more of a mood to receive information than to give it.

After a moment’s silence, I said, “Here’s one thing that caught my interest: The family is at least somewhat strapped for cash — based on the fact that they boarded students, perhaps at least somewhat unenthusiastically — but they were able to go on a fairly long skiing trip to Austria…”

She smiled. “You noticed that, huh? Yes, Mrs. Arkright came into some money when her father died, and apparently she decided they all needed to go on a skiing trip, though as far as anybody can remember she’s the only avid skier in the family.”

“I’m surprised that the younger generation went. They’re not kids…”

She shrugged. “Go to Austria for a couple of months, all expenses paid, or spend another summer here in town with nothing to do? I know which one I’d pick, and I’ve never skied or had any desire to.”

“And what about the Marvel side of things? Her lawyers and so on. Have any unexpected relatives started appearing out of nowhere?”

“If that does happen, I imagine it won’t be until her death is publicly announced. The county attorney is in touch with her lawyers. We’ve convinced them to keep her death a secret, at least for now.”

“More time for them to make their plans.”

“And maybe figure out how to peel off some of her cash.”

“It’s not her cash now, and she’s not going to be needing it for anything. If a person was, potentially, being ripped off, that would be one thing–“

“You’ve made your point.” She leaned back in her chair. “Do you know what I wonder?” I shook my head. “We don’t know about a will. Her lawyers don’t know about a will…”

I nodded slowly. “Doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”

“Exactly. The county attorney is calling around to local lawyers.” She shrugged. “She had her dental work done in the area — maybe she had some legal work done, too.”

I waited for her to say more.

“Marvel, two years ago, wild, rich party girl? Not having a will — that fits for her. But Madeleine? Girl trying to change her life around? Serious about her studies, serious, from what you say your boss found, about her businesses… She’d have a will. Now, it’s possible that she just hadn’t got around to it yet, but maybe she had.”

“Good point.”

“I’d say it’s a slim chance, but if it’s true this is suddenly a whole different case.” She smiled. “Sheriff Baxter taught me that. It’s not just how likely or unlikely something is — it’s how big the explosion could be if you’re wrong.”

I snorted, unexpectedly, and I’m not sure what my expression revealed, but she frowned. “What?”

“That just brought back a memory — my employer and I, we were having that exact discussion one time, lying in a ditch, about an unexploded artillery shell. It was about as far from us as that window. We… Anyway, back to the business at hand.”

She nodded slowly. “You know,” she said quietly, “I formed an opinion of Miss Sleet when she was here before, and it’s possible that now… Well, as you say… Do you ever see Vinnie?”

“Her father? I’ve never met him. He lives in Italy now.”

“Really? Family there?”

“I don’t know. She doesn’t talk much about her family — not to me.”

“Ah. Well, if you do meet him, please give him my regards. Now, as you say, back to work.”

I nodded. “Miss Sleet was wondering when she’d be able to search the house.”

“I thought we agreed that the campus–“

“We’re sharing our information, you are and we are. But she has a particular interest in the house — her missing books.”

“And the mystery woman who you met there. Okay, how’s this? The state boys are done. The family won’t be back until Monday night at the earliest. She’s got the house for tomorrow. With the agreement, on the honor system, that she won’t remove anything. Does that work?”

I nodded. “I’d say definitely.”

“And she’ll let me know whatever she finds out?”

“Well, I can’t speak–“

“Tell her that those are my terms.” She picked up a key which had been lying on her desk and held it up, meeting my eyes, and I nodded as I reached for it.

“Agreed,” I said.

Late that afternoon, when I got back to the campus, my employer was sitting on Professor Lebrun’s porch, reading a newspaper.

She nodded and folded the paper as I sat down.

“No muffins today?”

I laughed. “I couldn’t think of a reason to go by there.”

“Shame. So, what did you get?”

I filled her in on the relevant details from my visit with Sheriff Rhonda, including my impression that Rhonda had decided that the mystery woman we’d met at the Arkright house had been our invention, to justify our entering the house in the absence of the family.

“If I’m right, I can see why she would want this to be true — because it would simplify her case. She could focus on the murder — the actual crime. However, putting myself in her place, putting herself in our place, it seems like an unnecessarily complex lie for her to think we would have made up.”

“Cogent,” she said thoughtfully. She shrugged. “The girls want me to go to a crafts show with them tomorrow, but I guess this takes priority.” She picked up her cane and got to her feet. “Let’s go out to dinner. We can’t expect the professor to feed us all the time, and he’s not going to be home tonight anyway. There’s a good seafood place by the pier…”

She regarded me as I stood up.

“You did something else while you were in town, didn’t you?”

Damn, but it was hard to keep a secret from her.

She smiled. “You went to the Catholic church, on top of the hill, overlooking the water, of course, and you said a prayer for Marvel.” She leaned forward and gave me a quick peck on the cheek — a rare gesture indeed. “You sentimental Irishman.”

I had indeed gone to the church and said a prayer, and lit a candle, and I was glad that it had been this unannounced errand that she had deduced, rather than the other one.

Maybe that was the trick to keeping a secret from her: try to keep two secrets, figuring she’d deduce the first one and maybe — just maybe — she’d be satisfied with that and not look further.

To be continued…

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the marvel murder case (part eleven)

This story started here.

My employer, restored to herself (more or less) by a nourishing meal and a cup of strong coffee, lit her pipe and began to tell us what she’d found out.

* * * * *

My first step was to search Marvel’s room. I got a key from the housing office and let myself in. I left the door open, to see what attention I might attract.

(I know, I know, I’ve always said that one principle of detection is to talk to the people before searching the premises, since the conversations may give an idea of what to search for. The problem, in this instance, was that I didn’t have people to interrogate, so I needed to get some, to draw some to me.

(By the way, as far as I could tell, the room had not been searched by anyone before me, though we do have to assume that the killer — or somebody else — has Marvel’s keys.) )

So, I went to the housing office and displayed my letter (I’ll explain that later, Professor) and they gave me a key. They knew all about Madeleine’s death — by which I mean that they knew she was dead — so they were glad to help, as far as I could tell.

And so, I started to search.

The room was… somewhat generic, if you see what I mean. She was playing a part, and, it seemed, trying to live like somebody who had not had servants for her whole life. The room was quite well organized, but impersonal. Clothes in the closet or in the dresser — not all over the floor, school books and notebooks, information from research she’d been doing for her classes, and so on. No diary or personal letters or anything like that.

She was here for the spring semester, as we know, taking Economics 101, Beginning French, Intro to Philosophy, and Beginning Anthro (excuse me — of course I mean anthropology).

(This shows that she was not living entirely on the straight and narrow, by the way, since she was already fluent in French.)

For the summer she was studying James Joyce. It wouldn’t surprise me if she was taking the summer class just so she could continue to live here on campus — this was her life now, and I’m sure she didn’t want to shuttle back and forth between Madeleine and Marvel.

Anyway, there was a briefcase, locked — one of those expensive aluminum ones. It contained legal and financial papers, addresses and phone numbers, and so on — everything she needed to function as Marvel when she had to, to be in touch with her bankers and lawyers and so on. She had a typewriter, and she kept carbons of every letter she sent — or so it seems. No personal correspondence there either.

There was no evidence that she was in touch with anybody from her social life as Marvel — unless she was making phone calls, and there wasn’t a phone in the room. The dorms, as I well remember, only have pay phones, at each end of each hall.

Anyway, not to get distracted (yes please, Marshall — I would like some more coffee),

I didn’t get a chance to go through all the papers in the briefcase because that’s when I got my first — very much desired — interruption. A girl was passing by the door, and as she passed she looked in and stopped.

I’ll spare you all the back-and-forth — she questioned my right to be there, I told her who I was, she had apparently heard my name but couldn’t recall from where, I showed her my letter and explained my mission, she looked doubtful but then another girl, from across the hall, came out to see what all the palaver was about, and she knew who I was, so she vouched for me… Well, modesty forbids, but let’s just say that she was not unfamiliar with me and my work. Meanwhile, I locked the briefcase again and asked if they would be willing to help me with my investigation by answering some questions.

They were very willing, but they didn’t want to come in the room (for the whole conversation, they had stayed in the hall — which I thought was a little extreme, since it’s not like it was even a murder room or anything like that (you still make very good coffee, by the way, Professor) ), but the last thing I wanted to do was to make them uncomfortable. so Penny (the girl from across the hall — the other girl was Linda) said we should go to the lounge, because she didn’t want to talk in her room since her roommate was there and it sounded like they didn’t get along… I’m not sure about that, actually. Not that it matters.

So, anyway, I locked the room and we went to the lounge area to talk. I was afraid that we might be overheard, but there didn’t seem to be anybody else around. Certainly very different than when I was a student here, during the regular academic year.

Neither of them knew Madeleine well, based on what they said, but they had lived on the same hall — except for one girl, Betty, who hadn’t been there during the spring semester (I forgot to mention that she joined us — they invited her as we passed her room, I think mostly because she had some wine).

The general opinion seemed to be that Madeleine had been friendly, and definitely willing to help in different areas — both academic and domestic — but not… familiar, so to speak. They generally wrote this off to her being somewhat older than they were — when you’re that age, a couple of years can seem like a lot of distance.

As far as any of them knew, she hadn’t made any close friends while she was there, and they knew of no romances, or even any casual flings. They were somewhat puzzled by the latter.

Betty, who had apparently been into the wine somewhat earlier than the rest of us, leaned forward conspiratorially at one point and whispered that she’d figured out that Maddy was, for sure, a “dyke.” Then, belatedly, she thought about how I dress and started apologizing, having made the assumption that people seem to make from time to time, just because I carry myself with a certain undeniable authority while wearing very elegant bespoke suits… Where was I?

Oh, yes. Based on my reading, Marvel had been pursued, and not always unsuccessfully, by a wide variety of representatives of the international jet set, including young men from three different royal houses. I’m not surprised that the seduction techniques of the Claremont social elite — fraternity boys and so on — barely attracted her attention, let alone her interest.

Over breakfast, we should consider how to best spend our time tomorrow. It’s a little hard to tell, but I don’t think I got that much from the girls — if I can call them that. I’ll have to go through the room again tomorrow. Then we’ll see what I can find. And I’ll find out if any of her professors are on campus for the summer.

* * * * *

My employer fixed me with a somewhat bleary eye.

“When can I get into the house — the Arkright house?”

“I would imagine–“

“This is, I think,” she said slowly, “not going to be an easy case…”

I took the pipe from her hand before it fell to the carpet, knocked out the dottle into a convenient ashtray, lifted her unconscious form in my arms, and carried her off into our bedroom.

(If that last sentence sends your mind in an inappropriate direction, you should probably be ashamed of yourself. And, based on the sidelong wink Professor Lebrun gave me as I left the living room, carrying the limp body of my employer, who, despite her height, was, as always, very easy to carry, he should have been ashamed of himself also.)

To be continued…

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her previous marriage ended in pharmaceuticals…

1) I stumbled onto this before the print edition of the New Yorker even arrived, and it nearly made me laugh out loud (“nearly” only because I was at work when I was reading it): “Partners,” by Veronica Geng.

2) And, on a somewhat different note, but still funny, is “The Initiation of a Young Irishman,” by Frank McCourt (even all the decades after high school, it still takes some effort not to refer to him as “Mister McCourt”).

3) I’ve figured out at least one or two problems with The Other Side of the Wind. Two problems, really, but from the same source — the fact that it’s come out so many years after it was supposed to. Because, unusual for a Welles picture, it was clearly intended to be very much of its moment, and that moment is long gone now.

The major problem is that there’s a film within the film, also called “The Other Side of the Wind”. The story of the exterior movie (I’m searching for the best way to clarify this) is the last day of the life of the famous movie director Jake Hannaford (played, wonderfully, by John Huston), who is celebrating his 70th birthday and trying to raise enough money to finish his current film (the interior movie of the same name). It’s pretty obvious that the money won’t be raised, even apart from the fact that we know Hannaford is about to die. (Not a spoiler — that information is revealed right at the beginning, a device Welles used quite a few times, for different reasons.)

The interior movie, which we see quite a few scenes from, is clearly Hannaford’s attempt to make a modern, experimental, slow, apparently plotless, sex&drugs&rockandroll movie, something in the vein of Blowup and other movies which were highly regarded while Welles was making this one. Welles developed a style for it — different from his own — but now, decades away from the genre it was copying (and perhaps parodying), it’s just tedious. Wonderfully framed shots, no apparent story, many elements which could have been shocking at the time but certainly aren’t now — my attention wanders whenever it’s on screen.

Which is a shame, since the exterior movie — the story of Hannaford’s final day, and what happens to older directors in general, and all the people around him, with all their different motivations and schemes and secrets — is wonderful.

The other, secondary, problem is also related to the long time between then and now, in that a big theme, gradually revealed, is is that macho, Hemingwayesque Hannaford may actually be attracted to men. He discovers young actors, gets them to star in his movies, and in the process sleeps with their girlfriends (as a way of getting as close to them as he can without stepping over the line).

The idea that Hemingway was way less sexually monolithic than he presented himself was a pretty radical idea at one point, but it certainly isn’t now. Read The Garden of Eden (and I would certainly like to read the unedited version of that book — compared to the heavily edited version that was published long after Hemingway’s death). So, the theme doesn’t carry the weight in the picture that it would have at the time.

Oh, well. It’s much better to have what we have now than to continue to have just a couple of scenes.

4) More of “The Marvel Murder Case” soon, probably tomorrow. A whole chapter in Jan Sleet’s voice — that’s been a rare treat to write, I can tell you.

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the marvel murder case (part ten)

This story started here.

Professor Lebrun lived in a small cottage near the back of the college grounds. When my cab pulled up in front of his house, he was sitting on his front porch, talking with a student. He saw me and waved, standing up and putting his glasses on.

The student stood up also, brushing off her skirt. “Hi, Mr. Marshall!” she called. “Let me help you with those suitcases.”

She trotted over as the professor nodded and sat down again. He was putting us up, in his spare bedroom, rent free, but obviously he wasn’t planning on doing any heavy lifting himself.

Which was fine with me.

“I’m Suzy,” the student said as I put the last suitcase on the ground and paid the driver. “Let me help you with these. Prof has told me all about you.”

She grabbed one of the largest suitcases and headed toward the house. I didn’t point out that “Prof,” in telling her all about me, had apparently misinformed her about my name. “Marshall” is my first name, not my last name.

When all the suitcases were in the small bedroom my employer and I were to share, Suzy said she had a class and left.

Professor Lebrun was sitting at his desk when I came back into the living room after doing my best to unpack some things and put the suitcases where they would be at least somewhat out of the way. He stood up and we shook hands. He motioned for me to sit down, which I did, and he swiveled his desk chair around so he was facing me.

He was maybe in his sixties, with a slight accent I couldn’t place. His hair was short and iron gray, and he had a well-trimmed beard.

“If there’s anything you need while you’re staying here, by the way, please do let me know,” he said. I nodded. “Do you smoke?” I shook my head. “Do you mind if I do?”

I smiled. “Of course not. If I minded smoking, I’d have to find a different employer.”

He laughed as he picked up a pipe from the rack on his desk and started to fill it with tobacco.

“Very good point. How long have you and Janice been together?”

“I’ve been working for her since about a month after she left school here.” (I have been asked that question many times, and I have learned to emphasize, without being explicit, that the relationship is professional. If I try to make that assertion too forcefully, people tend to assume I’m being defensive.)

He nodded. “Do you protect her?” This was not a common question.

“When needed. I’ve saved her life more than once. Vice versa, too.”

“That’s good. She can, at times, as I’m sure you’ve observed, step over the line between ‘brave’ and ‘reckless.'”

“I have seen this. Sometimes it’s more of a leap than a step. How do you know her, Professor? Was she a student of yours?”

He leaned back, his pipe finally going to his satisfaction. “Oh, no. I teach English literature, which was certainly not an interest of hers. No, she… There was an accusation against me, a fairly serious one, and she stepped in and did an investigation, proving that I was innocent.”

He spread his hands wide. “After that, letting her use my spare bedroom for a couple of weeks is little enough for her to ask. You’d be welcome to it for longer, but it’s rented out for the fall semester, to a student, but she’s not arriving for two weeks now.”

He gestured at the doorway. “There are two twin beds, as you saw, but I have double sheets, and people usually push the beds together…”

He gestured, bringing the palms of his hands together slowly.

I made the opposite gesture, moving my hands forcefully and slowly apart, palms out. “Apart, definitely. We’ll need twin bed sheets, if you have them. If not, we will improvise.”

He laughed. “I hope you’re not trying to spare my sensibilities. I–“

I repeated the gesture, with even more emphasis, smiling, and he laughed again.

“By the way, she’s told me a little about that case, the one you were involved with,” I said, not mentioning that, as with most of her stories, I’d assumed until now that it was at least somewhat exaggerated. “She told me that that’s when she knew she’d be good at solving mysteries.”

“I could tell,” he said slowly. “Something clicked into place for her at that time. I’ve been watching her career, casually and at a distance, ever since. I gather that she’s on the trail of a murderer now, but that’s not why you’re here in town?”

I shook my head, aware that, as usual, I wasn’t sure what my employer had revealed or what information I should withhold.

So, I said simply that we were here in town to collect my employer’s books, and that we’d happened to find a corpse in the garage where the books were stored.

He nodded. “Madeleine Pontmercy. I’ve heard.” He shrugged. “I don’t know — didn’t know her. Suzy was just telling me that she and Madeleine had French class together and she was pretty sure that Madeleine knew ‘all sorts of French’ (as Suzy put it), but that she was hiding it in order to get the easy credit.” He smiled. “Which would not have been out of character for a girl as widely traveled as Marvel Phillips.”

He watched me as he said it, and I didn’t bother to suppress my laugh.

“I’ve been sworn to secrecy, of course,” he said.

It was starting to get dark outside, so he went into the kitchen and made us a light supper of sandwiches and soup. He apologized for his limited culinary abilities, but I assured him that the meal was fine and very satisfying (which was true — particularly since I’d had no lunch).

As we were finishing up, the front door opened and my employer stepped in. She and I regarded each other for a moment, until she said, “If you must know, I did have a small glass of white wine, with the girls, in the course of my investigation.”

Professor Lebrun stood and started to clear away our dishes, keeping his face averted so she couldn’t see his expression.

“Perhaps you’d like a sandwich? Or some soup?” I prompted.

She looked thoughtful as I steered her to a chair. “I’m wondering why you’re posing that as an either-or construct…”

“I’ll handle the food,” the professor called from the kitchen. “You can handle the debriefing.”

My employer’s eyes widened and she leaned forward to whisper. “‘Debriefing.’ That sounds racy!”

“So,” I said in a firm and businesslike tone. “What have you found out?”

“Ah,” she said, and she winked at me.

To be continued…

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stilted dialogue and a ludicrous plot

Stilted dialogue, a ludicrous plot: On the pleasures of the vintage whodunit

When I read this I felt like pumping my fist in the air and yelling, “Yes!” (but, you know, I was at work, so I didn’t).

And the article is right, the first Ellery Queen novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, was pretty dismal. The authors admitted that themselves. But later ones were often really good, including The Chinese Orange Mystery, which is mentioned in the article. That was one of my father’s favorites, because the setup is so bizarre: an unknown man is killed in a locked room in a hotel, and all of his clothes are reversed — back-to-front — and every piece of furniture in the room is reversed (bookcases facing the wall and so on), and the reason, which I won’t reveal here, is so simple.

On the other hand, The Benson Murder Case (the first Philo Vance book) is quite good, though some of the later ones were better (and, yes, some were much, much worse).

In the mystery story I’m writing now, Jan Seet’s books start off the whole story, and I can say with some assurance that Ellery Queen, S. S. Van Dyne (the author of the Philo Vance books), John Dickson Carr, and Rex Stout (the creator of Nero Wolfe) are well represented in those cartons which have been stored in the Arkright family garage.

(Of course, now that I think of it, “stilted dialogue and a ludicrous plot” could also apply to quite a bit of Shakespeare.)

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the past is very much with us

I wrote a while ago about works of art (specifically movies) that you can’t easily see.

But they are the exception, of course. And it sometimes seems like everything that never came out before is all available now, or it’s about to be.

I vaguely remember the “White Album” (technically: The Beatles, by the Beatles), but I have no interest in hearing it now, let alone at six disks and over $125. But a lot of people apparently feel otherwise.

More Blood, More Tracks

This one I was somewhat more interested in. The story is that Bob Dylan recorded Blood on the Tracks in New York, with very spare accompaniment, and that version was almost released, but then his mind was changed (one story is that his brother was not impressed with the New York version) and he re-recorded half of the songs with a larger band in Minneapolis. That’s the version which was released — half and half.

But I’ve always been curious, and some of the unreleased New York versions have come out here and there and I’ve been collecting them. My phone has two versions of the album “Released” and “Original,” though the “original” one is still missing one song which has never been released.

Until now.

So, I was interested when this project was announced, but not enough to get the six-disk edition ($114.98), which has multiple versions of every song on the album (and one, “Up to Me,” which was not on the released album at all). And that’s only the New York versions — the alternate takes from the Minneapolis sessions weren’t saved. Otherwise I guess we’d have a twelve-disk edition (“Even More Blood, Even More Tracks”?).

I got the one-disk version, which was interesting to listen to (but there were not, needless to say, any huge surprises or revelations). That was enough for me.

Which is not to say that I’m all about the new and not at all about the old. I’m still thinking about and re-watching The Other Side of the Wind — though that’s old in some ways but not in others, since it just came out this month — and as I was writing this I was listening to some brand-new Tony & Cassandra mysteries (again, old — based on a television show from fifty years ago — but also new since they came out yesterday).

Tangerine Dream

On the other hand, I just discovered something new (at least to me — very far from new in the real world).

Tangerine Dream is a band, a band that has existed since 1967 and I’d certainly heard of them by the early 1970s, but either I never actually heard them, or they’ve changed, or my tastes have changed (or some combination thereof), because I just discovered them, and the past few weeks I’ve listened to little else.

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