the heron island mystery (part forty-four)

This story started here.

“I have a question,” Elsa said.

I wondered how things would go if her question turned out to be something like, “Miss Sleet, why do you always call me ‘Miss Peabody’ when you’re on a first-name basis with everybody else?” but I needn’t have worried. After my employer nodded in her direction, she said, “You mentioned that Kim thought that Manfred would somehow get her a lot of money. I know Kim is… she’s always looking for money, but why would she think Manfred would get it for her?”

“That’s a good question. Manfred was known to promote the idea, in various indirect ways, that he was an illegitimate son of the Loomis family. This theory is visible in his book, too, if you read between the lines. My opinion is that he told Kim he was going to be rich because of that connection.”

Elsa frowned. “Is that true?”

“That he was going to become rich? Of course not. Even if he were a relation of the family, legitimate or not, that wouldn’t automatically entitle him to any money. And it wasn’t true, as far as I can tell. If it had been true, I think he would have tried to do more with it. He was not one to let any opportunity for profit slip by him.”

She looked around. “Are there any more questions?”

Li shrugged. “What happens to Kim now?”

My employer gestured at the sheriff, ceding the floor to her.

Rhonda sighed. “She’s in jail. I don’t know beyond that. We’ll have some investigations to pursue, based on what I’ve just learned here, and then I imagine she’ll be charged. That’s all up to the county attorney.”

Li frowned, and Becky turned to her. “Li-Li,” she said softly, “Kim killed Mary, and she tried to kill Elsa. She was our friend, but…”

Li nodded, looking down at her hands, which were folded in her lap.

“If I may,” I put in, “it might be helpful to consider that she, your friend, is suffering from an illness.” I shrugged. “I’m not saying she’s insane, and I’m certainly not proposing insanity as a defense — I’m neither a psychiatrist nor a lawyer — but in human terms she’s clearly not very well connected to reality at the moment. She murdered Mary in revenge for something which Mary didn’t do — and there was absolutely no direct evidence that Mary was guilty — and which would not have justified Mary’s death even if it had been true.”

Li nodded, still not looking up. Becky reached over and took her hand.

Elsa turned her wheelchair to face me. “Mr. Marshall,” she said, “you said ‘which wouldn’t have justified Mary’s death even if it had been true.’ Does that mean you think that there are circumstances which would justify murder?” She managed to raise her eyebrows in question and to wink (with the eye which only I could see) at the same time.

Rhonda glanced at Cheryl, and the deputy said, “Excuse me, ma’am, but we should think about leaving now, or we’ll be stuck on the island all night.”

I winked back at Elsa.

  To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part forty-three)

This story started here.

Elsa looked up. “But if that guy on the deck killed Manfred, why did he do it? What was his motive?”

“Professor Drake — he’s an adjunct professor, really — was Kim’s lover. And Kim was Manfred’s accomplice — responsible for all the weird footprints and Latin writing and spooky stuff, here and in other places. She thought her association with Manfred was going to make her a lot of money (that’s a long story) but I don’t know if they were lovers. For the purposes of this explanation, it doesn’t matter.” She looked at the sheriff. “You’ll have to look into this, but I believe Professor Drake found out about Kim’s affiliation with Manfred, and he assumed that his lover was two-timing him.”

“We’ve seen some of his letters to Kim,” Rhonda put in, “and… well, they are love letters, but they do sound like he was pretty serious about her.”

“I expect you’ll find that he was distressed to discover that his young girlfriend was attached to a shabby middle-aged con man. And he decided to remove that part of the triangle.”

“But Kim always told us that her professor was married,” Becky pointed out. “That’s why he could never come over. He had to hide their relationship from his wife. And of course it could mess up his career.”

My employer nodded. “It’s true — he is married. I have sources, and friends, on campus, and it was fairly easy to figure out which professor was Kim’s lover. When I started to investigate Professor Drake, I found out about his wife, and I also learned that he has a sailboat, and a small rowboat. Which made me think that Manfred was never on the island on the night he died. Professor Drake killed him, and then dumped his body on the beach below this house, probably as a message to Kim.”

“But then why did he come back the next night, dressed like Manfred, and kill Mary? That makes no sense,” Li protested.

“That would make no sense, I agree. And that’s not what happened. Kim killed Mary, as she confessed to Marshall and Miss Peabody, because she blamed Mary for Manfred’s death. Professor Drake was going to show up and freak Kim out — he may have thought that her professed belief in the supernatural was sincere — to get back at her for betraying him with Manfred.”

“Of course,” Jo said slowly, “Professor Drake was married, so him feeling betrayed by Kim’s ‘infidelity'” — she stuck her hands out from under her quilt for a second to make finger quotes — “was hypocrisy. Definitely.” I could tell that she was making a mental note of this, filing it away for her own writerly purposes.

My employer nodded. “Hypocritical, yes, but, from his point of view, understandable. But imagine his surprise upon ascending to the deck here, in his Manfred disguise, and finding a dead body. That was certainly not part of his plan. And then he heard Kim scream, because she’d seen a ghost in the middle of her crime scene, which was certainly not part of her plan. It’s no wonder he got out of here quickly at that point, relying on the fact that nobody likes to use those stairs down to the beach. Let alone climbing them in pursuit of a dead man.”

“But then why did he come back tonight? Kim’s not even here — she’s in jail.”

Rhonda shrugged. “We haven’t released that information to the press. He probably doesn’t know.”

“And he may have been scouting around to try to find out what’s happened. He and Kim must have had some way to keep in touch, since they couldn’t call each others’ homes. But whatever they had set up, she’s not available now, and he was probably wondering where she is.”

  To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part forty-two)

This story started here.

My employer looked around the room, apparently confirming that nobody else was going to interrupt, and then she began.

“I’m going to start with Mary, because that’s how the case started for me, and because she did some research which helped me to figure it all out. And because I made a mistake about her, at the beginning, which I want to explain.

“As you all know, Mary came to our house — Marshall and I — on Sunday night, in the middle of the storm. She wanted me to drop everything and rush over here because she said there were ghosts, and Manfred was trying to ‘lay’ them (I believe that’s the technical term).

“Because of the hour, and the storm, and the ridiculousness of the whole idea, I declined, but I agreed to come here on Monday morning. As you know — Jo and Li — we were waiting in Mary’s car when the road became passable, and you told us that there had been a murder.

“I saw immediately what this sequence of events had accomplished. It had given Mary an alibi for the time of the murder. I thought that she had concocted a complicated scheme to murder Manfred and to use me as her alibi, since she had been with me at the moment when the road became impassible for the night, and she was with me when the island was again accessible in the morning.

“To use me in this way would have been audacious, but that was not what actually happened.

“Mary was taking a journalism course, as I’m sure you know, and when she met Manfred, and learned things about him, she decided to write an article about him, exposing him and his various schemes. I’ve read all of her notes, and some of them were written rather cryptically, but it’s pretty obvious that her first plan was to write the article and expose him in that way. But then she thought of a better plan, one which would have made for a better story and which would really have got her noticed.”

She sighed. “What if Manfred was exposed, not by some unknown journalism student at a small liberal arts college, but by a… an internationally known amateur detective and war correspondent, who happens to be living in this town at the moment. Mary’s visit on Sunday night was not to get me to go to the island right then — it was just to start the process of getting me hooked so that I would be the person who would eventually expose Manfred for the fraud he was. After all, if I had decided to drop everything and charge out into the storm to fight the brave fight for science and rationality that night, I would have found that Manfred wasn’t even on the island, or at least he wasn’t here performing any sort of ‘ceremony’ or anything. But she’d been pretty sure I wouldn’t come, and I didn’t.”

  To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part forty-one)

This story started here.

So, there we were in the living room of Heron House. Becky and Li were sitting together on a small love seat. Li looked nervous and Becky looked tired. The sheriff was on the sofa by herself. Jo sat cross-legged in a large armchair, a quilt wrapped around her. She looked cold, and even smaller than usual. My employer was sitting in a straight-backed chair I’d brought in from the dining room for her, and I’d made sure she had an ashtray within easy reach. Elsa had placed a chair next to her wheelchair, apparently for me, so I thanked her as I sat down. She had a bottle of soda, and the rest of us had coffee.

There was a deputy standing by the door — the same woman who had come with us in the boat two nights earlier. Her name was Cheryl, but I didn’t learn that until later.

My employer lit a cigarette and was about to begin when Li said, “Miss Sleet? I…”

She seemed to fold in on herself as everybody turned to look at her, but my employer nodded in her direction.

“Yes, Li?”

Li seemed unable to speak for a moment, but then she gathered herself up and said, “This has all been very confusing — and terrible, mostly terrible — but… I know it’s complicated, yes?”

In other circumstances, my employer would have held forth for a while on the difference between “complicated” and “complex,” as she enjoyed doing, but now she simply said, “Yes, Li, it is quite complicated. Would you like the short version, the simple version, first?”

Li nodded.

“On Sunday night, Professor Drake killed Manfred and left his body on the beach below this house. Nobody from Heron House was involved. On Monday night, Kim killed Mary on the deck here, and then later pretended to discover the body. In between those two events, entirely by coincidence, Professor Drake appeared on the deck, disguised as Manfred. Last night, Marshall and Miss Peabody staged a performance on the deck to convince Kim that they knew she was the killer — Mary’s killer — and she attacked Miss Peabody and was apprehended by Marshall.

“There were two murderers and both of them are in custody. There is not now, to the best of my knowledge, any danger to anybody in this house. And, if it needs to be said, nothing that has happened has been the result of supernatural forces.”

  To be continued…

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death is the only ending

I thought this article had an interesting premise about TV shows.

In brief, it talks about the “dangerous myth — the unwritten rule that the season finale has to be the most ‘exciting’ episode.” The article draws the comparison between the Marvel TV shows, which apparently tend to hit maximum action at the end, in contrast to Game of Thrones, “which consistently put its shocking, action-packed events in the penultimate episode of each season. This became a trope of its own, but it crucially gave each season finale room to deal with the aftershocks, add some much-needed pathos, and set up what comes next.”

I haven’t seen any Marvel TV shows (well, I think I saw an episode of Jessica Jones once), but I have seen the last few seasons of Game of Thrones, and this is certainly how that show worked, and sometimes it was very effective.

I think this applies, in a somewhat different way, to mystery stories, since the solution to the mystery, or even the explanation of the solution, isn’t the end of the story. As Rex Stout had Archie Goodwin say once, every mystery, like a kite, has a tail. (I cheerfully swiped this and used it here.).

It can be setting up the future, but you also have to wrap up the stories of the characters, particularly the ones who were affected by the crime (or whatever the thing was which needed to be solved) but who weren’t guilty of anything.

And, in the mysteries I write, I quite often end up with mysteries which are not solved, and may never be. The last story in The Jan Sleet Mysteries ends with the Golden, who I have never explained (and I probably won’t — they may be my Tom Bombadil). The last two stories have ended with Marshall reflecting on various ways that his employer is still a mystery to him.

I remember one Nero Wolfe mystery where the suspects were gathered, the solution was revealed, the murderer was taken away, and then everybody left.

Story over? Definitely not.

Archie proceeded to explain to Wolfe that everybody else may have been fooled, but Archie wasn’t. He knew that Wolfe had figured out the solution several days earlier, but he’d withheld it until the last possible moment because he disapproved of the organization which had hired him and wanted to cause them the maximum possible public embarrassment (without risking losing his fee, of course).

And then, after that, Inspector Cramer, Wolfe’s longtime adversary on the police force, came in to give him an orchid, because of the way Wolfe had chosen to expose the murderer (Cramer had, for once, been concentrating on the correct route to the solution, but his superiors had disagreed and had exiled him to Staten Island — Wolfe had made sure that they’d known that Cramer had been right and they’d been wrong).

Then the story was over. Because when you’re writing, you pick the point where it should end — there is no preset moment. Unless all the characters are dead, they’ll continue to do things the following day, and maybe showing those things would help this particular story, and maybe it wouldn’t.

Later: The title of this post came from Robert Altman, but it took me a while to find the actual quote (even though I was searching for it on my own blog, and it was here — it just took a while to find because it turns out there’s a lot of blog posts here which mention Robert Altman):

“Mr. and Mrs. Smith get married, they have problems, they get back together, and they live happily ever after. End of the movie. Two weeks later, he kills her, grinds her body up, feeds it to his girlfriend, who dies of ptomaine poisoning, and her husband is prosecuted and sent to the electric chair for it — but here’s our little story with a happy ending. What is an ending? There’s no such thing. Death is the only ending.”
— Robert Altman

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the heron island mystery (part forty)

This story started here.

I was fairly sure that there were deputies on the island, which was one reason I fired the shot. Of course, it could have put me in a bad position, at least for a while, being the one who was armed (with a licensed firearm, I hasten to add) and threatening another man. But I did not want to let the fake Manfred get away, and when I pulled the trigger I’d had no idea if my employer or anybody else knew who this guy was.

Two deputies showed up a few moments later, at a run, and, fortunately for me, the sheriff was with them. I immediately surrendered my gun, and submitted to a body search and a careful examination of my pistol license.

While this was going on, I could see my employer and the sheriff talking quietly, and then the three of us adjourned upstairs to Mary’s room, where Rhonda closed the door and asked (“demanded” might be a more accurate verb) to hear, in detail, how I’d been spending my afternoon.

While I told the story, my employer sat at Mary’s small desk, smiling and looking out the window, doing her best to give the impression that everything I was saying was old news to her.

Rhonda made a face at my employer’s back at one point, having perhaps guessed that this was at least somewhat false, but she didn’t say anything out loud.

When I was done, the sheriff turned to my employer. “Are you going to lay it all out now — can you explain everything?”

My employer turned from the window. “Yes, I can, and we should go downstairs for that. I think the remaining residents here should learn why this house has been the center of so much trouble.”

Rhonda stood up. As she left the room, she said over her shoulder, “You just want a bigger audience for your performance.”

My employer used her cane to her to her feet, moving more slowly than usual. She didn’t react or respond to Rhonda’s comment, but her expression told me that she wasn’t entirely pleased with her handling of the case.

Mary had come to us for help, she’d been turned away, and now she was dead. It was a lot more complicated than that, of course, but those facts were true nonetheless.

The great detective was not so distressed, however, that she didn’t take a moment before we left the room to study her reflection in Mary’s dresser mirror, to make sure that her hair, her necktie, and her pocket handkerchief were all in proper order.

  To be continued…

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