the stuy, the flea, and related matters

When I applied to Stuyvesant High School, as far as I can remember, it was all boys.

The test was for all three New York City high schools that specialized in math and science (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech). Having passed the test — about which I remember absolutely nothing — I could have gone to Bronx Science (co-ed), or one of the other two (all boys). I suspect that my preference for the Stuy was geographical. Other than one trip to the Bronx Zoo, many years before, I had never been to the Bronx, and the few times I’d been to Brooklyn it had proved to be very far away.

The Stuy was in Manhattan, in a neighborhood that I knew.

At some point after I took the test, it was announced that girls would now be admitted to the school. This was not surprising to me — many organizations which restricted their memberships in various ways were making these sorts of decisions at that time.

It’s interesting now to read about how it actually happened: “How a Thirteen-Year-Old Girl Smashed the Gender Divide in American High Schools

My sense at the time that “this is the sort of thing that happens,” as opposed to “this is the sort of thing that can happen when people raise a ruckus” may be connected to the fact that the girl who initiated the ruckus didn’t end up attending the school (if she had, somebody would probably have pointed her out at some point).

The first year was a little odd — a small squad of girls embedded behind enemy lines with an approximately infinite number of boys — but after that it was just a regular co-ed school.

Looking back now, the thing that really puzzles me is why I was attending a school focused on math and science in the first place.

In other news, I’m very much enjoying re-reading the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers. I started it because I read a review of the current adaptation.

I’ve given up on actually seeing the adaptations, as I have talked about before. As I said then:

…adapting Henry James for the screen is a sucker’s game. There is no substitute for that authorial voice, and showing the plain events of the story without it is pointless.

So, when a new adaptation comes out, I re-read the story instead.

In this case, the story is particularly pertinent to this moment, because, to quote the New Yorker review linked to above:

What James delivered, in 1888, was not some dusty antiquarian fable but a warning call against the cult of celebrity that was already on the rise, and against the modern insistence that artists and writers can—or should—be prized out of their work like cockles from a shell, for public consumption.

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the marvel murder case (part eighteen)

This story started here.

“I blew it,” my employer said as we sat on Professor Lebrun’s front porch and watched the sun come up. “I should have been able to stop Barbara and Rhonda getting shot.”

“Do you know who shot them?”

She nodded, with none of the coyness which questions like that usually generated. “Yes. And who killed Marvel, and why.” She caught my expression. “I have no evidence — that’s been the problem. And now, in order to get some, we’re going to have to do something illegal.”

“If I had to guess, I think I’m about to be breaking into someplace I’m not supposed to break into.”

She smiled, a little. “No, both of us, this time. Maybe they’ll let us share a cell.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

She shrugged. “First time in this country, for whatever that’s worth. And no, we’re not going to get any sleep first. We need to move quickly now, before there’s another attempt.”

“On Rhonda? I saw you talking to the deputy–“

“Yes, Rhonda is being guarded, but consider this… Close your eyes and remember the shooting. Barbara raised her head as she turned to look out the window, and she was shot pretty much square in her forehead. If she hadn’t raised her head at that moment — putting herself, unintentionally, into the line of fire — who would that bullet have hit?”

I turned and regarded her.

“That’s where I blew it,” she said quietly. “I had figured it all out, and I thought I had a little time to come up with a plan for finding evidence. But I hadn’t calculated… You think my ego is too big, I know, but this time it wasn’t big enough. I didn’t see that my being here, in town, on this case… that changed the whole equation. So, yes, now we need to move, and quickly, as soon as I get my Irregulars together.”

“You have Irregulars?” I asked, wide-eyed. I knew that would help to cheer her up.

At seven forty-five that morning, someone broke into Madeleine Pontmercy’s dorm room and stole two bikini bathing suits and a locked aluminum briefcase. One of the women in her dorm called the police when she noticed that the door to Madeleine’s room had been left open and the bedding all pulled off the bed.

At eight o’clock, Professor Ernst Lebrun also called the police, to report that he’d heard a noise behind his house and that, upon investigation, he’d discovered an aluminum briefcase on the ground, open and empty.

Sheriff Rhonda White was still in the hospital, heavily sedated (and guarded), so retired former sheriff Phil Baxter agreed to help out, and he went from the town to the college campus in one of the police cars.

Several hours later, when Phil Baxter returned to his house, we were waiting in his kitchen.

We’d found three guns in the house — two handguns and a rifle. They were lined up on the kitchen table, with the bullets and magazines beside them. He was a pro, after all, and I wanted him to know, immediately, that there were no loaded weapons in the house.

Other than mine, which was in my hand.

Also on the kitchen table was Marvel’s wallet, and, on one of the chairs, the clothes she’d been wearing when she’d taken the jitney from the college to the town, six days earlier, the day of her murder. The clothes and the wallet had been hidden in the basement.

As I say, he was a professional — he didn’t waste time with irate questions or futile protests. He admitted nothing.

To be continued…

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the marvel murder case (part seventeen)

This story started here.

My employer and I described the “gathering of the suspects” (though not using that phrase, of course), and the aftermath.

She did not emphasize that I had possibly saved her life — her crediting me with clairvoyance came in later tellings, in more social settings. This was business.

“How is Rhonda?” the former sheriff asked when we were done.

I shrugged. “They’ll know more in the morning. They may decide to transfer her to Mass General.”

He nodded slowly.

“Phil,” Mr. Arkright said, “I asked Miss Sleet to work on this, and I’m hoping you can help also. Those deputies I met today…”

Phil Baxter shrugged. “I’ll do what I can, of course.” He turned to my employer. “I’m sure he didn’t have to work too hard to convince you.”

“No, of course not. It’s been slow going so far, though.” She shrugged. “And I don’t know what Rhonda may have found out, or figured out, that she’d decided not to share with me.”

He sighed. “And probably nobody else does either. Do you think that’s why she was shot? Because she knows something?”

My employer stubbed out her cigarette in a small basin that I’m sure wasn’t intended to be an ashtray. “That’s quite possible. I’m more puzzled by Barbara’s death. The Arkright family was together in Austria when Marvel was killed, and they had just returned home a few hours before the shooting — so it seems unlikely that Barbara would have been a threat to anybody. And even if she was a threat, how would the killer have found out about that threat?”

Mr. Arkright looked up. “Do you think this was some sort of… random violence? Some lunatic or something? After all, we didn’t know the murdered girl, and…” His energy seemed to fizzle. “Maybe it’s all just a coincidence.”

My employer nodded. “That’s quite possible. Someone had some reason to want Marvel dead, killed her somewhere and dumped the body in your house — maybe the only unoccupied house in town.” She leaned forward. “But then where are her clothes, and…” She turned to Nate. “One thing I do need to clarify. As I said, Marvel was found wearing a bikini that was evidently not hers. Bright green. You know where that came from, don’t you?”

Nate looked like he didn’t care one way or the other. “It was on my closet door, hanging from some… What do you call them? ”

“Thumb tacks.”

“Yes. I… Last summer, I met this girl at the beach. We… Well, we got along, and there was a sudden thunderstorm as we were walking to Arturo’s — I was going to buy her lunch. She… to get out of the rain, we went to the house…”

He was not looking at his father, who was hanging his head, apparently barely listening.

“Later, when she left, she wore some of my clothes — her bikini was still wet. She said she’d come back for it, but she never did.”

My employer lit another cigarette. “So, you kept it, hung it up as something of a souvenir, or a trophy.”

He shrugged.

She gestured. “This illustrates the… apparent lunacy of Marvel’s murder. Even if we buy the idea that Marvel’s clothes and ID were taken in order to conceal her identity — which seems very unlikely, given her fame — why put a bathing suit on her? Why not just leave her body naked?”

Phil Baxter frowned.” Do you think it was some sort of sex crime?”

She shrugged. “Her body was thoroughly checked — there was no evidence of recent sexual activity, consensual or forced.”

“Of course,” I put in, “whoever killed her may not have known her as Marvel at all — maybe only as Madeleine, or maybe just as a pretty woman on the street.”

My employer nodded. “Very true. And that would make it even harder to solve.”

To be continued…

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everybody knows that the captain lied

I liked this, from the New Yorker:

Clues that You Are the Unorthodox Detective in a Murder Mystery

These caught my attention in particular:

“Your sidekick, if you have one, is a lovable doofus.”

Okay, Archie Goodwin was not a lovable doofus. Neither, for that matter, was Dr. John Watson (or Marshall).

I think the “lovable doofus sidekick” trope can largely be traced to the late Nigel Bruce, who played Dr. Watson in many Sherlock Holmes movies and radio shows. His Watson was definitely a doofus (“lovable” is a matter of taste), but it is not canonical.

“You often will let innocent people remain in prison, despite possessing exonerating evidence, until it serves your purposes to have them released.”

Jan Sleet has never done this, as far as we know, but she totally would.

“Everyone that you meet has at least one dark secret.”

It was a maxim of Nero Wolfe’s that everybody has secrets, and everybody lies. Finding out who committed a murder is not about figuring out who is lying or hiding secrets.

I don’t think Wolfe ever said this explicitly, but his general premise was, “If all that was needed to expose a murderer was to figure out which suspect is lying, then anybody could do it. You wouldn’t need a genius (like me).”

(Wolfe would have said it better, of course.)

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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 investigator. 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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