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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the heron island mystery (part thirty-nine)

This story started here.

The most immediate problem was that the dirt road I was on didn’t go to Heron House. It would eventually meet the road to Heron House, along with the road to the mainland and the road to the other houses on the island (which I thought of as “the rich people’s houses”), but if I traveled by that roundabout route “Manfred” would definitely make it to Heron House before I did — if that was where he was headed — and that was not acceptable.

So, as I walked quickly along the road, I tried to keep one eye on the road itself, so as not to trip on a root or something, and the other eye to my right, looking for some sort of path through the thick trees to the other road.

Then I saw it — at least it looked like a rough path. It could have been just a natural gap between the trees, but I took it. It was difficult to follow, especially since the sky was getting darker and darker, but I’d committed to this course, so I pushed forward.

I knew I was going in the right direction. The worst that could happen was that I’d miss the Heron House road (which ended at Mrs. Bannister’s house) and run right off the bluff and fall down to the beach below.

Well, that seemed rather unlikely, and then I saw a light ahead of me, so I walked faster.

The light was from Mrs. Bannister’s house. Her car was in the driveway, but there were no other signs of life.

I reached the road and turned left, trotting up the hill to Heron House.

Most of the front windows in Heron House were lighted (except for Mary’s room, of course), but I didn’t want anybody to know I was there, so I ducked around the vehicles parked in front of the house and tiptoed down the path that went beside the house toward the deck and the water. I didn’t go onto the deck, though, but I walked beside it, keeping low, until I was near the edge of the ground, where it fell off abruptly toward the beach.

The deck lights were on. I had no idea if that was going to be a good thing or not, but at least nobody was on the deck.

Holding still for a moment, I heard a noise from below. It sounded like somebody climbing the rickety “stairs” from the beach to the deck. I wanted to peek over the edge, but the sky was not completely dark yet, and there was too much chance of my being seen.

One thing in my favor, I thought, was that even if “Manfred” was armed after all, he wouldn’t have a weapon in his hand when he reached the deck — he’d have needed both hands free to hold on while he climbed up from the beach.

Then he appeared, poking his head up cautiously to see if anybody was on the deck. He looked at the house, at all the various windows, then he eased his way up onto the deck, moving slowly and carefully.

I was quite close to him, keeping still and controlling my breathing as I crouched beside the deck, and at this distance his wig and makeup were pretty obvious. I’d never seen Manfred when he was alive, but this was pretty obviously a phony.

Once he was away from the edge, before he could turn and see me, if he was going to, I fired a shot into the air.

He turned so quickly that he slipped and half stumbled, grabbing the railing to steady himself.

I hadn’t bothered to come up with something clever to say, so I kept quiet, my eyes steady on his. I held my gun in both hands, pointed at his heart. He raised his hands, and I stayed where I was. He tried to say some things, or ask some questions, but I wasn’t paying attention to that.

It did occur to me that it was probably to my advantage that he had no idea who I was. I was just a man with a gun.

The door opened and people came out on the deck and said things, but I didn’t look at them. I kept my eyes on “Manfred,” who was also not looking anywhere but at me.

Breaking the stalemate, a welcome figure, tall and spindly, limped forward, ordering everybody else to stay back.

She searched “Manfred” carefully, standing behind him and reaching around so as not to come into my line of fire. She pulled out a small knife and a wallet and keys, plus some other small items, all of which she put into her own pockets. Then she looked at me over his shoulder and smiled, a broader smile than she usually allowed herself.

“Marshall,” she purred. “It’s very good of you to join us, and so thoughtful to bring Professor Drake with you. You have exceeded my expectations.”

  To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part thirty-eight)

This story started here.

I heard the man take the box into the other cabin. There were no windows on that side of my cabin, so I couldn’t see him, but he couldn’t see me either.

I quickly made sure I had everything packed up and ready to go. When he moved, I wanted to be ready to follow him, if at all possible.

Then I sat at the table in the middle of the room and considered four questions.

1. Was this going to break the case?

2. If this was going to break the case, is that why my employer had sent me here? Was this all part of her master plan?

3. If this was a coincidence, and it broke the case anyway, was she going to pretend that it had all been part of her master plan?

4. Was this guy armed? I couldn’t be sure but I thought about how his wet clothes had clung to him as he’d waded ashore and pulled his boat onto the beach. I thought I would have seen the shape of a gun, the way I’d seen evidence of a wallet, keys, and some other small items. And I knew there wasn’t a gun in or around the cabin he was in.

There was no sound from the other cabin and I wondered what he was doing in there. Had I left any evidence of my search?

Then, somewhat belatedly, I realized what he was probably doing. He was waiting, as I was. I was waiting for him, and he, not aware of me (I hoped), was waiting for it to get darker.

If, as seemed likely, he was making himself up to look like Manfred’s ghost, that apparition would have a lot more impact after dark.

Why he was doing this (if he was) was beyond me to figure out. Manfred had wanted spooky events to happen so he could make money by making them stop. That didn’t seem to be a viable scheme anymore.

Then, I heard something from the other cabin. It sounded like the front door opening and then closing again.

I glanced out the glass door to the beach and I didn’t see anything. The sailboat was still there. I went to the front door, opened it a little, and looked out. I wanted to be cautious, but all the caution in the world wouldn’t be much consolation if I let him get away.

I saw nothing moving. I stepped outside and looked toward the other cabin. The door was closed, and my eye was not being drawn to any motion anywhere.

Okay, this was a potential disaster. I would literally never hear the end of it if he got away from me.

I stepped away from the cabin, and I saw a dark-clad figure vanish around a bluff, walking along the beach.

I couldn’t follow him that way — there was no cover, and if he’d turned around for any reason he’d have seen me. I decided to assume that he was on his way to Heron House, and I quickly trotted up the dirt road in that direction, moving as quietly as I could.

  To be continued…

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papa (reporting back, as promised)

Well, I said I would report back on the Hemingway documentary.

I watched slightly more than an hour, which was about my limit. It was slow-moving (“ponderous” is a little strong, but it’s tending in that direction), full of platitudes, and, for me at least, full of information that I already know. (In fairness, I’m probably not the target audience, since I’m already very familiar with both Hemingway’s writing and his life story. I get the impression that this was intended as “Hemingway 101.”)

I did come upon this, though, which is wonderful, and less than five minutes long:

The thing I like particularly is Welles’ lack of hokum when talking about Hemingway’s suicide. He (Hemingway) had a mental illness, which culminated in him killing himself. He was also, at his best, a great artist. There is also substantial evidence that he was sometimes a crappy human being. He was also a celebrity, which, especially these days, encourages people to draw facile connections between the first three facts.

In a New Yorker piece about the documentary, this question was asked:

But why a film about Hemingway now, and not, say, Faulkner? Is Faulkner not a more vibrant figure, who prefigured in his Snopes stories and novels the age of Trump and Derek Chauvin’s trial, and the Gordian knot of race that continues to choke large portions of our country?

The piece doesn’t answer the question, probably because the answer is too obvious.

Hemingway will get a lot more eyeballs watching. Not that he’s more often read these days than Faulkner (I have no information or opinions about that), but I’ve met a lot of people who have strong opinions about Hemingway despite never having read a word of his writing. Everybody I’ve ever met who had strong opinions about Faulkner had actually read his work.

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the heron island mystery (part thirty-seven)

This story started here.

When I was done searching the second cabin, I decided to have another serving of coffee and another sandwich while I considered my next move. It was late afternoon, starting to get darker (and even colder), and undoubtedly the cutoff time for access to the island was approaching.

And the idea of walking back to the mainland, and probably all the way to the college campus, was not appealing. And, of course, I would be welcome at Heron House…

I returned to the first cabin, where I’d left my knapsack. Coffee and a sandwich would help me figure this out.

As I opened the door, I heard a sound from the other side of the cabin, from the beach. It was a sound I was familiar with, but I was not happy to hear it now. It was the tink, tink, tink of a rope (or whatever holds a sail in place on a sailboat — a “line”?) against an aluminum mast. I rushed into the cabin, grabbed my knapsack from the table, and ducked into a corner, out of sight of the beach.

Wide glass doors that go from the floor to the ceiling are very pleasant when you want to look out at a pleasant scene in your back yard, but not very convenient when you’re worried about somebody in your back yard seeing you.

Counting on the gathering dusk to offer me some concealment in the unlighted cabin, I lay down on the floor, and squirmed forward, keeping well back from the glass.

I saw a young man, muscular and tanned, sailing up to the beach in a small sailboat. He was wearing a faded T-shirt, cutoffs, and flip-flops.

And here I was, lying on the floor of a cabin where I had no right to be. I muttered an imprecation which would have raised my employer’s eyebrows, or at least one of them, if she’d heard it.

Well, maybe this muscular young man was just parking his sailboat here for convenience. Maybe he’d go right past the cabins and head up the road to Mrs. Bannister’s house. or to Heron House. Maybe he’d find me here and call the police (not that either cabin had a telephone). Maybe my situation would be made even worse by the gun in my pocket (although I am licensed to carry).

If I did have to fight this guy, I decided I’d go in as fast and dirty as I could. Those muscles were impressive.

He hopped out of his boat and pulled it up farther onto the sand. He didn’t look at the cabin I was in, but he seemed to glance at the other one.

“Yes,” I thought, “that other cabin is much more interesting than this one, fella. Just head on over that way. Nothing to see here…”

He’d reached the other cabin, out of my line of sight. and I heard a series of noises that, more and more, sounded like someone shimmying under the cabin and pulling out the wooden box that was secreted there.

Okay, that changed everything. Now I was glad that I had my gun, because what I’d found in that box had been a black jacket with silver threads running through it, a matching pair of trousers, black dress shoes, a wig, some stick-on facial hair, and makeup.

In other words, a do-it-yourself Manfred kit.

  To be continued…

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