Sometimes it takes artists a while to figure out what type of artists they are. Henry James would periodically attempt to be a playwright, but he had to settle for being a great novelist. George Bernard Shaw wanted to be a novelist, but he had to settle for being a great playwright.

Young Stanley Lieber planned to write the Great American Novel some day, so in the interim he used the pen name “Stan Lee” for his work in the comic book world. Eventually, he realized that the Great American Novel he’d imagined was never going to be written — but, as a pretty good consolation prize, he got to be Stan Lee for the rest of his life.

By the way, there was a nice tribute to Stan this month. Marvel comics all had a black banner across the top of the covers, with “Stan Lee * 1922-2018,” and then the first three interior pages were black. The fourth page had a drawing of Stan, on a black background, with his name and dates below.

In addition to that, in a really nice gesture, D.C. Comics (Marvel’s long-time competitor) paid tribute as well. Their books all had a black final page this month, with this text:

With Utmost Respect
from the Distinguished Competition…
In Memoriam
Stan Lee

You can see it here.

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the marvel murder case (part sixteen)

This story started here.

Barbara Arkright was dead. She’d apparently died instantly, shot in the head by one of the two rifle bullets.

The rest of us were at the hospital.

Barbara’s mother, Maureen Arkright, had been sedated and was asleep in a room. Barbara’s brother, Nathaniel, was sitting in the waiting room with his father. They were not saying much.

Sheriff Rhonda White was in a room also, unconscious. She had a bad concussion, at least, and there was talk about further tests she might need in the morning.

The state police had come to the house, again, and were investigating the surrounding area for any clues as to the identity of the murderer.

I had lost track of the lawyer, Mr. Krause. Maybe he was still at the house. We had been interviewed — if you want to call it that — by a young deputy who didn’t seem to know what questions he should be asking, but who wrote down, very carefully, every word we said to him in reply.

The waiting room had a machine that produced really terrible coffee. If you preferred tea, it would also produce hot water, which tasted only faintly like coffee. My employer and I drank the coffee.

There were only the four people in the waiting room — my employer and I, and the two Arkright men — and it was unclear what we were thinking we’d accomplish by being there.

Of course, Mr. Arkright and his son didn’t have a lot of other options. Their house was a crime scene, again, and there were no rooms to rent in town.

Mr. Arkright (the elder) got up and came over to us. “Miss Sleet,” he said slowly, “may I speak to you?”

“Of course,” she said. “Please sit down.” We had already offered our condolences on the death of his daughter.

He sat next to my employer and sighed. He looked much older than he had six hours earlier, which was certainly not surprising. I guess he was technically a suspect, but I did feel sorry for him. Now that he had our attention, he didn’t seem to know what he wanted to say.

“I don’t know for sure,” my employer said finally, “but I would imagine that the state police won’t take too long in your house. Their most thorough searching will be outside, of course — that’s where the murderer was.”

This seemed to help him get himself together. Sometimes people were put off by my employer’s rather cerebral approach to violent crime, but some seemed helped by it.

“My concern…” he began. “Miss Sleet, do you know who did this?”

She shook her head. “If I did, I’d be acting on it.” He seemed to accept this, but I had the sudden impression that it was a lie.

“Do you think… the shooting tonight, that it was connected to the woman who was killed in our house, while we were away?”

“I don’t know. The method was certainly very different.”

He shivered. “My wife… she’d say this was foolish, but the police I’ve seen tonight, the town police…”

“You were not impressed, I gather.”

“I… No. And it sounds like Sheriff White may be laid up for a while… Can I hire you, to look into this?”

“Mr. Arkright, you couldn’t have any more of my attention on this than you already have, and I’m not a licensed private detective. I couldn’t accept payment. No, I think…” Her mouth quirked as she looked out the big window at the parking lot, where a car was pulling in.

A few moments later, the big glass door opened and a gaunt man came in. His hair was going gray, and he used a cane, but he seemed spry.

“Sheriff!” Mr. Arkright said as we got to our feet.

The man smiled, coming over and holding out his hand. “Just ‘Phil’ these days, Tom.” They shook hands as Nate came over. “How’s Mo?”

“She’s been sedated. She…” He waved a hand.

Mr. Baxter took Mr. Arkright’s hand again. “I was so sorry to hear about Barbara.”

Mr. Arkright nodded. “Thank you, Phil.” Mr. Baxter shook Nate’s hand also, before turning to my employer.

“Miss Sleet.”

“Sir.” They shook hands.

“I’m offering my services, if there’s any way I can help.”

She nodded. “I can fill you in on what I know.”

He went up to the nurse at the desk and she said, “Hi, Sheriff.”

He smiled but didn’t correct her. “Hello, Molly. I’m wondering if there’s somewhere we can talk privately?” He gestured at the rest of us, to clarify who he meant by “we.”

“Of course, Sheriff.” She stood up. “Follow me.”

The older men — the victim’s father and the former sheriff — were rather solicitous of my employer as we settled ourselves in the small examination room. This may have been because she was the only woman among us — but it could also have reflected how urgently they wanted her to solve this.

My employer sat in the padded examination chair and the others took straight-backed chairs. She immediately took out a cigarette and I lit it for her. Nobody mentioned hospital regulations about smoking.

Nate was hanging back, saying almost nothing and standing by the door. He declined my offer to go out and find a chair for him.

We described what had happened that night for the benefit of Phil Baxter.

“How much do you know about the earlier murder?” my employer asked the retired sheriff.

“Rhonda has called me for advice a couple of times — I know the general story, and I know who the victim really was.”

She nodded.”That will make it easier.”

To be continued…

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the marvel murder case (part fifteen)

This story started here.

We knocked on the front door, and of course it reminded me of the first time we'd been admitted to that house. But this time it was evening, and the windows were lit, and we could hear voices from inside.

The door opened and a young man greeted us. He looked to be somewhere in his mid-twenties, with short, dark hair and a muscular build. He wore a sweatshirt and jeans, with white deck shoes.

"Sheriff Rhonda," he said, stepping aside to let us in. "And are these two new deputies? And out of uniform, too. I--"

"That's Sheriff White to you," Rhonda said as I closed the door behind us. "This is Miss Jan Sleet and her assistant, Marshall."

"Ah," he said, reaching for my employer's hand, "the famous lady detective. I--"

My employer was not making her hand available for shaking purposes, so I took his hand myself (it was rather limp and sweaty) and shook it quickly, releasing it before he thought of testing my grip. He looked like the type who would try.

"Nate, is that the sheriff?" a woman's voice called impatiently from the living room. "I--"

Nate sort of gestured us into the living room and we saw the rest of the family for the first time.

Introductions were somewhat awkward.

Mr. Arkright -- tall, straight, with short white hair and pale blue eyes -- stood and introduced himself (his first name was Thomas, and he gave the impression that it had been a very long time since anybody had called him "Tommy," or even "Tom") and his wife, Maureen. Then he sat down again, in an armchair that was obviously placed to be at the center of attention. (The furniture had been rearranged since we'd last seen the room, and a couple of additional chairs brought in.)

This left the two members of the next generation, Barbara and Nate, to introduce themselves. Nate was still trying to give the impression that he was witty, and Barbara gave every indication that she didn't want to be there at all and might leave at any moment.

Sheriff Rhonda introduced herself and then my employer and me. As she finished, there was another knock at the door, and Nate went to admit a plump, middle-aged man with very little hair and horn-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, and he turned out to be, as I would have guessed, the family attorney. His name was Mr. Krause. Mr. Arkright greeted him in a perfunctory way, and nobody else reacted to his presence at all.

When we were all seated, Mrs. Arkright appeared to be about to speak, but her husband cut her off.

"I wish to make several things clear," he said slowly, in a deep and sonorous voice. "First of all, to be blunt, we don't care in the least about the dead woman or who killed her. We didn't know her. So, from that point of view, solve it or not, that's up to you. But my son has let me know that she was someone of some notoriety, though I'd never heard of her, so I gather that whenever her identity becomes publicly known, we -- this family and this house -- will be at the center of an enormous public spectacle."

He sighed. "I realize that this is inevitable. The story will come out. So, there are two possibilities: It will come out with the murder solved and all questions answered, or it will come out with the murder not solved. The murder which happened in our home, for whatever reason, will--"

"If I may interrupt," Sheriff Rhonda said, "to be accurate, we have no idea whether the murder was committed here in this house. We don't know where it was committed. We just know that the body ended up here, over twenty four hours after death. Not to be flippant, but the murder could have taken place in Boston."

Mr. Arkright looked ready to resume being slow and sonorous, but Rhonda kept going.

"I think we all want this solved as soon as possible, for a variety of reasons, so I have some questions. Were you all together in Austria?"

Mr. Arkright smiled indulgently. "Yes, we were. None of us committed the crime, unless you think--"

"What about Robbie? He wasn't there, was he?"

"He was not," Mrs. Arkright said. "He lives in California, with his family. He hasn't been here for a visit in some time."

"So, if you were all gone, and since there was no trace of forced entry, the question is who, other than the four of you, has keys to this house?"

They had apparently not been expecting this question. Mr. and Mrs. Arkright looked at each other, Nate frowned and looked at his hands, and Barbara looked out the window. Mr. Krause was impassive.

"Dad," Barbara said slowly, raising her head, "what's--"

She may have said one more word after that. I really don't know.

My employer has always claimed that I threw her to the floor before the first bullet smashed through the window, but I doubt that's true. Either way, though, the next thing I knew, I was lying on the rough carpet, covering as much of my employer as I could with my body. There was a second shot, also from outside somewhere, and my employer snapped, "Lights!"

The little table next to Mr. Arkright's chair held a lamp, and I was close enough to kick it over. Then, keeping low, I made it to the wall switch and turned off the overhead light. That left just enough light from the hall for me to see my employer dragging herself to Sheriff Rhonda's side. She pulled out Rhonda's radio and said, in a loud, clear voice, "Emergency. This is Jan Sleet. There has been a shooting at Thomas Arkright's house, 349 Main Street. The shooter is outside somewhere. Sheriff White is down. We need an ambulance, and every available unit to this address, 349 Main Street. Emergency."

Whoever was at the other end was apparently not ready for this kind of message, and while my employer made sure that the necessary things were going to happen, and immediately, I allowed myself to take stock of what else was going on around me.

Mrs. Arkright was screaming. She'd been screaming for a while, I realized. Barbara was lying on the floor, in front of the sofa where she'd been sitting, and she was obviously dead.

I quickly checked Sheriff Rhonda, who was the other person on the floor. She was alive, unconscious, and bleeding from her shoulder. Her head was bleeding also, I realized as I tried to revive her, apparently from hitting the coffee table on her way to the floor. I decided to leave that to the medical professionals (I could hear sirens approaching).

I thought of taking her pistol, but it seemed possible that the officers who were about to arrive would be young and inexperienced, and I didn't want to be the one person in the room holding a gun when they came in.

As I applied pressure on Rhonda's arm, to slow the bleeding, her eyes flickered open. She squinted, as if trying to get her eyes to work together again, or maybe she was trying to remember who I was.

She reached up, using her undamaged arm, and gripped my shoulder. "What the fuck?" she demanded.

To be continued...

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the marvel murder case (part fourteen)

This story started here.

My employer hung up the phone. “We’re gathering the suspects,” she said. She looked like she was going to start vibrating from excitement.

“Hang on,” I said. “What–“

She made a moue. “Okay, Mr. Literal. They’re not all suspects, and we — you and I — are certainly not the ones doing the gathering. Satisfied?”

Professor Lebrun put down his newspaper. “This gathering — suspects or not — isn’t going to be here, is it?” He looked around the room. “It has been some time since I dusted.”

She smiled. “No, Professor, you don’t need to worry. Various people, including some suspects–” She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye, looking stern. “–are being gathered at the Arkright house, apparently at the request of the family, who are now back in town. Sheriff Rhonda is cooperating with this, presumably for reasons of her own, and she’s sending a car to pick us up.”

The professor leaned back, relieved, and picked up his drink. “I suppose I’m not invited,” he said with a shrug.

She smiled. “You suppose correctly. After all, why would a person like you, who knows nothing about the case beyond what he’s read in the newspapers, who certainly hasn’t heard a word about it from either of us…” Her voice trailed off as the professor picked up his newspaper (not the Claremont Crier) and resumed his reading.

I had begun to think that Monday might have ended up a wasted day, but apparently not.

A few minutes later, much to my relief (since my employer’s impatience was… increasing), there was a brief honk of a car horn outside and we hurried out. The sun was down, and suddenly wished I’d eaten a more substantial lunch — dinner might be a ways off.

To my surprise (mostly, I confess, because I hadn’t thought it through), the driver was Sheriff Rhonda, and there was nobody else in the car. It made sense that she’d want to talk to us alone before the big confab — whatever it was to be. As I say, I just hadn’t thought it through.

I held the door for my employer, of course, and then I got into the back seat. Rhonda pulled out of the driveway and headed down the narrow road back to the highway.

“This is all at the request of the Arkright family,” she said as she waited for a break in the highway traffic, “by which, of course, I mean Mrs. Arkright. They want to have a clear idea of what’s being done, and what’s already been done.” She pulled out onto the highway, and I could see my employer and the sheriff exchange a glance.

“You may be thinking that Sheriff Baxter didn’t set up meetings like this at the request of the victims of a… Well, I guess technically they’re not the actual victims.”

“They’re not dead, and, as far as we know they never knew the victim — the actual victim.” My employer shook her head. “They’re just the hosts.”

Rhonda seemed to be suppressing a laugh as she ran the siren for a second so she could cut across oncoming traffic and enter the town center.

“So…” my employer prompted.

“They know who the victim was — I have no idea how. It seems that if they’re not satisfied that we’re close to wrapping this up, they may release her identity to the press.”

“And you’re thinking that it will help us in solving this if that fact is not generally known?”

She shrugged, pulling into the church parking lot. There were two other cars there near the Arkright house, at the far end from the church itself, and apparently it was accepted by Reverend Deacon that this corner of the lot was for the family.

“I have the idea that it may help if not everybody knows who she was, but my biggest concern is the press. Once it gets out that the famous hellraiser Marvel Phillips was murdered, mysteriously, in an empty house, while attending college here under an assumed name, we’ll have so many reporters here that they’ll outnumber the rest of us. Television, radio, newspapers, magazines…”

My employer smiled as I got out of the car and opened her door for her. “Rhonda,” she said, “I do understand your point, and I think you’re probably right, but please do remember how I earn my living and pay the salary of my excellent assistant here.” She leaned on my arm as I helped her to her feet. “Once this is solved,” she said cheerfully, “you can bet that I’ll be writing all about it. Je suis la presse. Let’s go in.”

She certainly did enjoy the idea of a good gathering of suspects.

To be continued…

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movies, commas, and dreams

1) Klaus over at Ming Movie Reviews has reviewed The Other Side of the Wind, and also They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (a documentary about the making of The Other Side of the Wind). Very interesting to get insights and impressions from somebody who isn’t a Welles obsessive.

[Update: Klaus posted a much more extensive review of The Other Side of the Wind.]

2) Does it annoy you when a cashier at a drugstore or grocery store refers to you as a “guest” (rather than a customer), or when a train announcer refers to you as a “customer” (rather than a passenger)? Well, the Comma Queen is here for you, as always: “Comma Queen: A Grammarian’s Xmas Gripes

3) In case you were wondering, my enthusiasm for Tangerine Dream continues unabated. Here’s the current lineup, in studio, performing “Identity Proven Matrix”:

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