paul temple, and more papa

Paul Temple

As I mentioned a couple of times ago, I’ve been listening avidly to the Paul Temple radio detective series. I was trying to find a way to describe it, but then from this article I found this:

In the words of the entertainment historian Keith Howes: “All the plots were hugely convoluted, usually set in and around shady nightclubs and studded with murders and attempted murders, halting deathbed revelations, breathtaking escapes from gunfire, flooded mills or burning boats, [and] a final episode gathering of the suspects.”

That’s an interesting mixture of genre elements, since the show has all the “gentleman detective” fixtures (the sophisticated detective and spouse, the comfortable lifestyle, the banter, the cocktails, the cigarettes, and the gathering of all the suspects at the end of the story — often for cocktails) but there are also all those exploding booby traps, and cars with the brake lines cut, and snipers.

And, unlike most “gentleman detective” stories, the bad guys are almost always criminal gangs, often drug smugglers or blackmailers (or both). So, the solution at the end often has two stages: 1) Of all the characters introduced, which ones are in the gang, and 2) Which one is the head of the gang?

It makes me think of the Ellery Queen stories, where a gangster sometimes appeared as a suspect, but experienced Queen readers always knew that this was a red herring. In one story, the police had actually arrested the gangster, and at the end, when Ellery explained the whole crime, he gently pointed out that they really needed to release the crook, who was, in this case at least, completely innocent.

More Papa Hemingway

In addition to reading Across the River and Into the Trees, as I talked about before, I’ve also reread Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, by A. E. Hotchner. So, I’m reading Across the River…, and simultaneously reading about the (mostly negative) reaction when it was published.

(By the way, I don’t think Across the River… is actually good, but it’s certainly not the worst book he ever wrote.)

The Hotchner book also brings out what Orson Welles talked about — Hemingway’s deteriorating mental condition when he killed himself. Some of that, especially the helplessness of the people who cared about him as they saw him slip further and further away from reality, is difficult to read.

That part had stuck with me from when I read the book the first time (some decades ago), but I had not remembered the amount of alcohol in the book. Up until the last portion of the book, when Hemingway’s health was bad and he was strictly limiting his drinking, everybody seems to be nearly drowning in booze. I had that in mind when I read this article in the Guardian: “Time to face the brutal truth: there’s no glamour at the bottom of a glass.”

Not that I’m against drinking in general (although I haven’t had a drink since the pandemic started), but the romanticized connection between drinking and writing (most of it by non-writers) is ridiculous.

The Guardian article starts:

When I was 21, I decided I should make a proper effort to be a writer. I knew what I needed: countless films and television shows had told me. I needed a typewriter, fags and a bottle of whisky. I acquired them, and set myself up at the kitchen table. Yep, I thought. Now I am the business. I was Dorothy Parker, Carson McCullers, Raymond Chandler. So I would die miserably – who cares? I was 21, and still immortal.

As always, I go back to my father’s words: “There is only one rule in writing: Write well.” I think Hemingway would have agreed with that.

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death in a box

I’m in the middle of reading two books which have made me think about death — and specifically death in murder mysteries (although neither book is a murder mystery).

One book is Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway. After I wrote about “Papa” a few weeks ago, I decided to read Across the River… (although the general opinion seems to be that it’s lousy) — just because it was the only Hemingway novel I’ve never read (not counting the posthumous ones). It’s very much concerned with death — the protagonist, Colonel Richard Cantwell, has a heart condition and knows he’s going to die very soon.

The other book is The Girl in the Back, by Laura Davis-Chanon, a memoir of her days in a New Wave band called the Student Teachers. The Student Teachers were all around sixteen years old, and they were quite successful on the local New York scene, and then beyond.

At one point in the book, Laura is the drummer in an increasingly successful band, basically homeless, attending her high school classes but not always keeping up with her assignments, and seems to be surviving on a diet of White Russians and occasional lines of cocaine.

Being familiar with rock & roll and its related lifestyles, it’s easy to tell that trouble may be on the horizon. (Also, full disclosure: Laura and I are not friends, but we were acquaintances back in those days and we had friends in common, so I know that something else bad is on the horizon for her, too, not related to drugs and alcohol.)

So, both books have a certain ominous quality. They are different, of course, since Colonel Cantwell is clearly going to die, and Laura Davis is obviously going to survive since she recently wrote the book. Plus, one book is intensely concerned with being old, and the other is about being very young. But they both have a similar mood in the middle of the book — I want to find out what happens next, but I dread it a little, too.

Murder mysteries are obviously concerned with death, but they tend to have the death at or near the beginning (unless they have more than one), which means they often don’t have that same quality of dread. This is probably not an original thought, but in reading these two books it occurred to me that this is why murder mysteries can be so much fun, even though they’re centered on death. The death is contained and relatively safe, like seeing a dangerous animal in a zoo, or in a movie.

And another point is that, in murder mysteries, there is generally the expectation that the death will be explained at the end. It won’t be random or capricious or impersonal, as it often is in real life.

After all, how else is it possible that there could be “cozy” mysteries (which is sort of what I’m writing these days)? There aren’t “cozy” post-apocalyptic disaster stories, or “cozy” zombie horror stories (to mention two other death-centered genres).

It’s good to think about this now, since I’m currently tossing around ideas for the next story in the series I’m writing. In a series of stories like this, there needs to be variety, but there also seems to be some consistency in the underlying assumptions.

If you’re reading a book of Sherlock Holmes short stories, it doesn’t work if in one story he’s solving a mystery on the moon.

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story is “done” & writing is fun

Story is “done”

I think I’m done with “The Heron Island Mystery,” at least for now.

Since I posted the last part of the story, I’ve printed the whole thing out and read it through twice, and I’ve also had it read to me by my tablet (also twice). This revealed a lot of embarrassing typos and other mistakes, as it always does, and they are fixed.

There were a lot of short doubled words this time (“was was,” “the the”), plus the usual errors (“though” when I meant “through,” for example). At least nobody had their name changed suddenly halfway through the story — I was afraid that “Diana” might have slipped into being “Diane” at some point (which would be especially easy with a character who never actually appears in the story), but she was consistently Diana.

So, it’s time to let it sit for a while before I think about some possible areas for improvement (as opposed to blatant errors).

The big question with mystery stories is always how much to explain at the end, and how much to leave unsaid. Explain too little, and readers can start to wonder if it all holds together. Explain too much, and everybody dozes off. (Hitchcock always referred to the scene at the end of Psycho where everything is explained as the “hat-grabber.”)

It is always important to remember the lesson of The Big Sleep, both the book and the movie: There was never any explanation of who murdered the Sternwood chauffeur, and nobody has ever cared. Nobody even noticed the omission until the movie was in production, and someone (I’ve read that it was Bogart) asked the question. A wire was sent to Raymond Chandler, and he realized that he had no idea either.

I’m sure there are still typos in this story (I just found, and fixed, an obvious one in “The Marvel Murder Case“), but I think you never really get rid of every single typo anyway. Inherent Vice — a book by a major author, published by a major publisher — has at least three.

So, I have a tentative list of eight to ten questions to answer, but the answers will be better if I wait a bit to ask the questions.

Writing is fun

As I’ve described before, writing is a very exciting process.

Last time I talked about the question of italicizing foreign words, which is a fascinating subject (and I didn’t even cover “pied-à-terre” or “en masse”).

This week, I had to wrangle with a different question, in “The Heron Island Mystery (part two)“:

I calculated how long it would take for her to arrive, factoring in how fast she could drive, and quickly trotted across the road to the cafeteria. I bought a cup of coffee and a danish and carried them back to the car as I heard a siren approaching. I got into the car and started it up.

So, the question is the word “danish.” Capitalize, or not? Webster’s doesn’t recognize “danish” at all — they prefer “Danish pastry.” Well, for a pastry purchased in a college cafeteria, quite possibly one of those ones which are displayed on a metal rack, sealed in plastic, with absolutely no legitimate provenance which can be traced back to Denmark, that seems pompous.

(Webster’s does prefer to lower case “french fry,” though they allow for capitalizing “French” if you prefer — which I don’t.)

So, I kept it as it was (“danish”). But it was fun figuring that out.

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things i like (may 2021)

1. Office Supplies!

I completed my current story a couple of days ago, so now it’s time for reviewing and correcting mistakes (particularly punctuation).

Therefore, first thing this morning, I scooted out and bought new pens, loose leaf paper, loose leaf dividers, page tags, and paper clips. (Well, okay, I admit that paper clips really aren’t that exciting.)

Office supplies are a family tradition. Any new project, or any new stage in a project, requires new paper and pens and so on.

2. The Heron Island Mystery

I started the story on May 4, 2020, so it took over a year to finish. It’s currently around 35,000 words, which means it’s a novella. It still needs some polishing, as I indicated above (hence the urgent necessity of acquiring new office supplies).

I’ve already gone through all my printouts and made some changes in almost all of the episodes (mostly 1-3 corrections per episode, though I think one episode was clean). This is mostly just replacing a word here and changing punctuation there.

For one example, I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of italicizing foreign words. The general rule is that words which have become part of the English language to the extent that they are in the English dictionary (which is a huge number of words, after all) are no longer italicized, but foreign words which are not in the dictionary should be italic. But in this episode I used “sotto voce” and it seemed to be funnier in italics, so that’s what I did, even though it is in Webster’s. On the other hand, the final sentence in the story is in Italian (in this episode) and it seemed to be overkill to italicize it, since it’s a complete sentence, and a complete quotation, in Italian, rather than a word or two of Italian in an English sentence, so I left it in roman.

In other (other) hand, in this episode, Jan Sleet reminds Marshall to “Comporto-se” (which I hope is Portuguese for “Behave yourself” — if it’s not, then that just means that the great detective’s mastery of Portuguese is not as solid as she thinks it is), and that definitely had to be in italics.

Anyway, the next step is to make a file out of the whole thing and have my tablet read it to me. There’s nothing like a completely artificial and unforgiving electronic voice to show up awkward word choices, for example, or just plain wrong words.

3. Paul Temple

I’ve found a new (new to me) fictional detective in audio form. Quite enjoyable.

4. Miley Cyrus

I’ve been aware of Ms. Cyrus for a long time, as everybody has, and my general thought has always been: “What a voice! Call me when she figures out what it should be used for.” Well, based on this, she’s figured out a damn good answer:

5. From the New York Times: “The Punchiest Punchlines (Subway Vax Edition)

I laughed reading these jokes about the fact that now you can get a COVID vaccine shot in some New York City subway stations.

“Because if there’s one thing everybody thinks in the subway, it’s, ‘I wish I could have a medical procedure down here.’” — STEPHEN COLBERT

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the heron island mystery (conclusion)

This story started here.

Professor Frederick Drake was convicted of second-degree murder, among other charges, and the jacket was a key piece of evidence. Manfred had owned two of them, and they’d been custom-made for him, by hand, by an admirer (a lady, as she was described during the trial), and the fact that Drake had been apprehended while wearing the second one had helped to place him in Manfred’s rented room, where the evidence indicated that the murder had taken place.

Professor Drake had insisted, however, that he had only gone to Manfred’s room to confront him about his relationship with Kim Daniels, and that Manfred’s death had happened as a result of the struggle between the men, with no premeditation. Which might have been true, of course.

Kimberly Daniels was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Mary Sanders. Now that Manfred’s murder could be explained, it was pretty straightforward, since means, motive, and opportunity were established, plus there was her confession, and her attempt on Elsa’s life. Mary’s murder had clearly been premeditated. Li offered to pay for a lawyer for Kim, but she declined, using the court-appointed attorney instead.

After Elsa’s testimony in Kim’s trial, she had been annoyed to find out that one wire service report had described her as a “crippled girl.” She made several attempts to register a complaint about this.

I heard from Elsa that the financial situation at Heron House was becoming untenable, and it looked like the other homeowners on the island might finally get their wish to be rid of the college students in their midst. The four remaining women in the house couldn’t manage the rent alone, and, after two murders, it seemed unlikely that any new students would want to move in.

More importantly, the mood in the house was getting worse, too. Li was still conflicted about Kim, and Elsa, who had come close to being Kim’s second victim, was not sympathetic. Becky was stuck in the middle, and apparently Jo stayed in her room as much as she could, with her headphones on, typing away.

I told Elsa that if she needed to move that I would help her to find a new place which would suit her needs.

When my employer and I arrived home after the end of the second trial, she sat at her desk for a few minutes, looking out the window, and then she turned her chair around to face me. “We need to talk,” she said, “about the… the plan. The variation on the plan — my plan — which you and Miss Peabody apparently, from all reports, from your own report… Well?”

“We performed–“

“You performed — apparently ‘performed’ is being used here in the theatrical sense — a sexual act, or a series of sexual acts, while putting her in the position — a ‘position’ … In any case, that was not part of the plan. My plan, as you and I discussed it.”

“Elsa — Miss Peabody — felt–”

“You know, of course, that I never interfere in your personal life.” She made a heroic effort to say this with a straight face, and I graciously allowed it to pass without comment. “But I should point out that she was, at that moment, a suspect. Well, not in the attack on herself, obviously, but in two murders.”

“I think it amused her,” I said carefully, “to imagine the conversation which you and I are having at this moment.”

“You and she have discussed–“

“Of course not. But she has apparently been speculating.”

“Well, she can speculate away.” She sighed and drew her glasses down her nose, regarding me over the rims. “Moving on,” she said firmly, “the case is now closed. I think that it would be appropriate for us to have a celebratory dinner this evening, don’t you agree?”

I nodded. “I do indeed. That’s why I called and made a reservation at La Serata.”

She looked surprised, since I had always vetoed the idea of eating there before, because of the cost.

Then she smiled. “Che pensiero meraviglioso.”

The End

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the heron island mystery (part forty-five)

This story started here.

It was dark, and I stayed close to my employer in case she lost her footing on the dirt road. Rhonda and the deputy were apparently slowing their pace to match ours.

My employer turned to the sheriff. “Are we about to have another thrilling boat ride?”

Rhonda smiled. “Sorry to disappoint you. The boat was here, but they used it earlier, to take Professor Drake to jail.”

“A worthwhile purpose,” my employer said with a smile. “And traveling by automobile is fine with me.”

We reached the spot where the main road split into three, and, a short distance past that, there was a small clear area to the right, where a van and a car were parked. Cheryl the deputy unlocked the van and turned to look at Rhonda.

Rhonda waved. “I’ll take Miss Sleet and Marshall. You can drive the van back and sign out for the night.”

Cheryl nodded and climbed into the van. She turned on the engine as Rhonda unlocked the sedan and got behind the wheel. I helped my employer into the rear seat and then sat beside Rhonda.

The road from the island to the mainland was still dry, so obviously we’d had plenty of time. Cheryl crossed first in the van, and once we were on the paved road she quickly pulled away from us.

Rhonda smiled. “She’s in a hurry because once she drops off the van she gets to go home. I’m in no hurry, because as soon as I get to headquarters I’ll have a lot of work to do.”

“And you may have a question or two for me,” my employer put in.

“Well, the girls at the house were mostly concerned with Kim, and with Mary’s murder, understandably. But what about Professor Drake? How did you find out about him…”

“Or did Marshall produce him through his own magical efforts, and then I managed to create the idea — after the fact — that both the rabbit and the hat were actually mine? To be honest, I had no idea that Marshall was going to run into Professor Drake, let alone deliver him to Heron House as masterfully as he did.” Rhonda glanced at me, and I adopted as modest an expression as I could muster up on short notice.

“You didn’t want to reveal his name, at least to me,” my employer continued to the sheriff, “but Claremont is a small school, and it wasn’t too difficult to find out which professors were sleeping with which students. When I saw you earlier today, I already knew his name.

“I sent Marshall to search the two cabins because they were the only buildings on the island which could be searched, and I wondered if they were being used for anything scurrilous during the off-season. To tell the truth, I was thinking of assignations, not disguise storage. By the way, when you were trying to establish where Kim was on the night Manfred was killed, you called Professor Drake?”

“Yes. And I asked him — after making it clear that the fact that he’s involved with a student was no concern of the police department — if he knew where she’d spent the night on Monday night. He immediately said that she’d been with him, and that his wife was out of town for a week.”

My employer laughed. “He took a risk, but it was a good move on his part. After all–“

“I’d just handed him an alibi for himself. Obviously.”

“Well, it might have exploded in his face, but it was a good gamble.”

“And, besides,” I put in, “if it was established later on that Kim had actually spent the night somewhere else, it would just look like he’d been lying to protect his lover.”

I felt something touch my right arm. I glanced over and I saw a long, bony forefinger, with which I was very familiar, pressing the side of my arm for a moment and then retreating.

“At the risk of stating the obvious…” I began after a moment.

“Oh, go ahead,” Rhonda said. “Take the risk.”

“I examined that jacket pretty carefully — the Manfred jacket — when I found it under the cabin. I’m not an expert, but it looked to me as if it had been sewn by hand, very carefully, by somebody who knew what they were doing.”

“That was exactly my conclusion,” my employer said, “about the jacket Manfred was wearing when he was killed.”

“So,” Rhonda said as she pulled out onto the highway, “it looks like Manfred had two — or at least two — of those jackets, and one of them somehow ended up with Professor Drake. That is interesting.”

  To be continued…

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