in which i read some blog posts from 2015

One thing about having had this blog for so long is that I sometimes find old blog posts and I only barely remember writing them. It seems I was on a pretty good roll back in late spring of 2015.

First I searched for what I had written about Coherence, an excellent low budget (almost no-budget) science fiction movie. It struck me that it was rather appropriate to the pandemic and quarantining. I wrote about it here (along with “performative statements,” which are cool).

I started to poke around right before and after that blog post, and I found these:

1) “Blew up the Internet”? In your dreams (in which I talk about artists and related subjects).

2) Ten-Sentence Flash Fiction (in which I write a really short story, much to my surprise)

3) Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), which then led back to this one from 2014:

4) Neil and Ornette and me.

I think my mother’s thoughts about artists from #1 and mine from #4 (taken from Ornette Coleman and Neil Gaiman) go together pretty nicely.

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the heron island mystery (part thirty-two)

This story started here.

Rhonda shook her head and leaned back in her chair. “So, you don’t know who killed Manfred or Mary?” she asked.

My employer shook her head. “If I did, I’d say so. The point of identifying murderers is to stop them, after all. But let’s simplify things. How about this: Let’s assume, for the purpose of this conversation, that Kim is on the level. She killed Mary, and she killed Mary in revenge for Mary killing Manfred, because she thought, for some reason, that Manfred’s death meant she’d lost out on a chance to become rich.

“Now, I’m not saying Kim was correct about any of those statements, but let’s assume she was sincere — that she really believes them, whether or not they are objectively true. Where does that take us?”

“If that’s true,” I said, “then Kim was apparently Manfred’s accomplice in the house. The Latin dictionary is actually a legitimate clue — it wasn’t planted in her room to implicate her.”

“But then why try to spook the girls at Heron House?” Rhonda asked. “Why not their neighbors, some of whom are actually wealthy? Manfred could have soaked them for a lot more than he could get from anybody at Heron House.”

“According to Mary’s notes, Manfred had worked the same scam with one family recently — the Palmers — but they were the only other house without an electronic security system. He put on quite a show for them, apparently, driving out their supposed ghosts.”

“But does that equate to Kim using Manfred to become wealthy? Can you really become wealthy fleecing people — even rich people — by pretending to get rid of their ghosts?”

My employer shook her head. “You cannot. Manfred, as far as Mary had been able to tell, was basically broke, living scheme to scheme. There must have been some other prospective source of income — something we don’t know about yet.”

The sheriff sighed. She seemed to be getting impatient. “I really feel like we need to solve Manfred’s murder. Everything else seems to flow from that — like we can’t definitely explain anything else until we can prove who killed him.”

My employer nodded. “I think that’s true. And I have an idea about why Kim blamed Mary for that. If I may lay it out for you?”

Rhonda shrugged.

“This appears sort of circular, so I’ll start with the fact that Mary was not on the island, according to all the evidence, when Manfred was murdered. I believe that this is why — bear with me — Kim was sure that she killed him. Let’s look at what Mary did.

“She came to our house, in the middle of a storm, with a very puny reason for urgency, apparently expecting me to rush out into the weather with her to lay a ghost, or to expose a ghost hunter. If I hesitated even for a few minutes, as any reasonable person would have, it would have been too late, as indeed it was. The island would have been cut off until the morning.

“Her plan was apparently designed — almost guaranteed — to fail to get me to act. But it also established that she was off the island for the night. And then she was waiting with us in her car when the road became passable again in the morning.”

“She gave herself an alibi for the murder.”

“Exactly. She did everything necessary to give herself an alibi. And Kim, seeing how carefully and deliberately Mary had worked to give herself an alibi, apparently assumed this meant she was guilty of Manfred’s murder, and, a fortune having — she thought — just slipped through her fingers, she decided to act.”

“Okay,” the sheriff said slowly. “But was Kim right? Did Mary kill Manfred?”

“I don’t know for sure, but I… I was going to say that I doubt it, but I can’t back that up.

“Here are the two questions. One — the simple one — is motive. I have read all of Mary’s notes and article drafts, and I found no hint of a motive. There may well be one, but I have no idea what it might be. She wanted to expose Manfred as a con man — that’s not a motive for murder. He hadn’t conned her, at least as far as we know.

“Two — and this is the rough one — concocting and carrying out an elaborate plan to give yourself an alibi for a crime does not constitute evidence that you committed that crime. If you’re going to hang this on Mary, posthumously, you’ll have to get her onto the island after the road was cut off but before the murder, and then back off the island before the road was passable again. You’ll have to figure out where Manfred was — presumably he wasn’t wandering around on the island all night in the storm, and it seems pretty obvious that he wasn’t at Heron House. Was he staying at another house on the island? I have no idea.”

“It’s a good thing you have Kim on attempted murder for the attempt on Elsa,” I put in. “Trying her for Mary’s murder, in revenge for a murder where you don’t even have any suspects and where Mary has a convincing alibi — and where’s there’s no real evidence that Kim is deranged — that’s going to be hard.”

Rhonda shook her head. “I’m glad I’m not a lawyer.”

My employer nodded. “And I’m not a psychiatrist — needless to say — but everybody here seems to be rational. Not always smart, goodness knows, and often gullible, but everybody involved had a reasonable goal, as far as we can tell.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “Kim wanted money, and she was being manipulated by an expert. Manfred, the expert manipulator in question. also wanted money. Mary wanted a good story, to get a good grade.

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part thirty-one)

This story started here.

Rhonda sighed. “Well, here’s what I know. I have no idea why Manfred was on the island during the storm, or even if he was there at all, as opposed to being dumped on the beach from a boat. We’ve talked to the other homeowners on the island, but nothing has come from that. Without a lot more than I have now, I can’t get a warrant to search anybody’s house or property.”

“And the people who live on Heron Island are…”

“They have money, and influence, and more than one of them has made it pretty clear to me that they didn’t think I was up to the job of replacing Sheriff Baxter in the first place.”

My employer nodded. “I understand. Do you know where Mary spent the night?”

Rhonda shook her head. “No idea. To tell the truth, until now, until Kim Daniels’ accusation, I hadn’t been giving that question very much attention. Your own statements place her off the island the night Manfred was killed. You didn’t ask when you saw her in the morning?”

“No. It did not occur to me at that moment that she would end up being either a murder victim or a murder suspect, let alone both.”

(And, of course, she’d been busy being grumpy about having to get up early, but I didn’t mention that.)

My employer leaned forward and tapped her ash into the ashtray. “What about Kim’s theoretical lover, the professor?” she asked. “Does he exist (and is he a ‘he’?), and was she with him the night Manfred was murdered? “

Rhonda nodded. “He exists. I know his name, but I want to withhold that, since I gave him some assurances about protecting his identity if I could. His wife is out of town, and he says that Kim did spend the night with him, at his home, but there’s no direct evidence supporting that, as far as we know so far. So, it’s not much of an alibi.

“And I remember you asked about the evidence on the deck. Nothing that pointed toward Manfred or his jacket.”

“And the deputies? Where were they staying?”

“Why does that matter?”

My employer shrugged. “Testing one of my ideas.”

“Which you’re not sharing. Fair enough. They were in an unmarked van, parked in a small lot near the road to the mainland. Well, the ‘lot’ is actually just a little clear area where people park during the day when they’re going clamming. That’s it?”

My employer stubbed out her cigarette. “For now. What do you want from me?”

Rhonda smiled and turned to me. “It’s what I want from both of you. Marshall, I’ve read your statement. Was there anything you observed while you were in the house which you left out of the report?”

My employer held up a hand. “That’s too general.” She smiled. “Marshall observes a lot. You remember his testimony during the Emily Armstrong trial. We’d be here all day.”

Rhonda made a face. “Okay. After you handcuffed Kim Daniels, did you search her room?”

“Yes, I did,” I replied, after getting a signal from my employer.

“Did you find anything that seemed pertinent?”

“A few notes from a lover — signed with a pet name, but, based on the content, probably from her professor lover. A couple of clippings from the college paper, and one from the Crier, from a few years ago, about Manfred. A Latin textbook, though her class schedule didn’t list any classes where Latin would be involved.”

“I’ll put something together with that,” my employer said. “Mary was a journalism student, and she was doing research on Manfred so she could write an article about him, for the college paper. He was such a notorious character around here that she thought it would make a good story.”

“I didn’t see anything like that in her papers. I admit I didn’t read everything…”

“She didn’t keep any of that material at Heron House,” my employer explained. “She kept that research in her old dorm room, because she was suspicious of her roommates and their possible connections to Manfred. I read it all today, and I read Manfred’s book as well.”

“Does any of this tie in with Kim’s statement that Manfred was going to get rich?”

“Mary was pretty sure that someone connected with Manfred was doing the spooky manifestations in the house — the footprints and the Latin writing and so on — with the idea that one of her roommates could be suckered into hiring Manfred to ‘lay’ the ghost. He’s provided that ‘service’ to the gullible and prosperous in this area before. She didn’t know who the accomplice was, but she was pretty sure it was one of her roommates. So, I assume that’s why she stored the papers related to this particular assignment in her former roommate’s dorm room.”

“That makes sense.”

To be continued…

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the heron island mystery (part thirty)

This story started here.

“Is she deranged?” Rhonda demanded.

Ordinarily, my employer would have pretended that she had no idea who the sheriff was referring to, but Rhonda had slid an ashtray across her desk as we’d had seated ourselves, so she was grateful for that. This was the first time Rhonda had relaxed her rule about smoking in her office, so it was no time to be pedantic (or at least not that pedantic).

“I don’t know,” my employer said. “That’s not my area of expertise.” She waved a hand. “I’m not convinced that Kim killed Mary, either, although everybody’s stories certainly don’t rule her out. But proclaiming that you’re guilty of a crime which you did not actually commit does not necessarily indicate mental imbalance. It can be a very sane and clever move, under certain circumstances.”

“Mr. Barris is hoping that I — we — can give him more information so he can decide how to charge Kim Daniels.” Elsa looked up. “I know she tried to attack you, Miss Peabody — and threatened to kill you — but it’s complicated by her confession that she killed Mary Sanders, which as far was I know we can’t prove. And she said she killed Mary in revenge for a murder that I can’t see how Mary could have committed.”

“Since I’m here,” Elsa said, “can I say what I’m wondering?”

Rhonda nodded. “Please do.”

“Sitting where I’m sitting — figure of speech — I’m worried about what’s going to happen next, much more than who’s going to prosecute who for what.” She paused before continuing. “There was a murder near my house on Monday night, there was a murder in my house on Tuesday night, and one of my friends tried to kill me last night. To be honest, I don’t know if I want to go home tonight. And I’m scared for my roommates. The ones who are left.”

Rhonda leaned back in her chair. “I can understand that. I had deputies on the island last night, and I’m considering having someone inside the house tonight.” She tapped the papers on her desk. “I have your statement about last night, Miss Peabody, and I will be in touch later today. But first I want to talk to Miss Sleet and Marshall, to pool our information.”

Elsa put her hands on the arms of her wheelchair. “I understand. Please let me know what the plans are for tonight.”

She started to turn, but my employer said, “Elsa, here’s one fact that might be helpful. What you seem worried about sounds like a serial killer. Serial killers are quite common in movies, for obvious reasons, but they are very rare in real life. This is, apparently, a series of murders, but I very much doubt that someone is methodically and systematically murdering, or attempting to murder, the inhabitants of Heron House.”

Elsa nodded. “Thanks. That is helpful, actually.” She turned and wheeled toward the door, which I held open for her. She winked, visible only to me, as she left. I closed the door and resumed my seat.

My employer took out her cigarette case and I made sure I had my lighter ready. “What I said to Elsa is true,” she began, “but I am also worried about possible future violence, so, to anticipate your question, I am willing to share things that I know. The ones which you may not know, which may or may not be relevant. I have, needless to say, some ideas as well, but they don’t lead anywhere conclusive and I’m going to hold them for the moment.”

Rhonda nodded. “Okay, let’s put Mr. Barris and his job to the side. He’s been county attorney for a long time — he can figure out his own problems. I was elected to prevent the things that have been happening at Heron House… God, I sound like I’m campaigning, don’t I?”

“I know what you mean, and you’re right. Nobody elected me to do anything, but I’ve been in that position, looking down on a corpse that I could perhaps have prevented if I’d done something differently, and I don’t want to be there again.” She held up a finger. “But I do have some questions myself, five in number, which I’m hoping you will answer for me, if you can.”

“Can you list them for me?” Rhonda asked.

My employer smiled and took out a cigarette, which I lit for her. “Of course. Some of them have more than one part.”

Counting them off on her fingers, she said:

“One: Why was Manfred on the island on Monday night, during the storm? Assuming he wasn’t wandering around in the rain all night, where was he staying?

“Two: Where did Mary spend that night, the night of Manfred’s murder?

“Three: Where did Kim spend that night, the night of Manfred’s murder? Was she with her professor lover, and does her professor lover really exist?

“Four: On the night Mary was killed, was there any physical evidence on or around the deck to support the idea that somebody in Manfred’s clothes — Manfred or not — had been on the deck?

“Five: Your deputies, the ones who were on the island last night, where were they?”

To be continued…

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thursday three

These days I mostly wake up with a Taylor Swift song in my head.

It’s pretty random which one, as far as I can tell, between her last two albums, folklore and evermore (I only know a few songs from her earlier albums). It’s usually not my most favorite songs, or my least favorite — it’s almost always one of the others (which is most of them). Some days it takes me a minute to even figure out which song I’m listening to — I have to wait to get to the chorus to know.

You have to remember that I’m only half awake when this is going on.

One day it was “Love Story,” her very first hit single (the “Taylor’s version” re-recording — google it for the details as to why it exists), sliding into the song “happiness” from evermore. That was a bit of a shock — it’s a rough jump from Romeo and Juliet getting a happy ending (“I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress. It’s a love story, baby, just say yes.”) to: “I pulled your body into mine every goddamn night now I get fake niceties.”

It woke me up, though, so there’s that.

(Today’s was “Champagne Problems,” by the way.)

I liked this interview with Noomi Rapace where she discussed a scene she refused to play in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Apparently the screenwriter had a scene where Lisbeth Salander (Rapace’s character) details to Mikael Blomkvist (the other main character) her long history of rape and other sexual abuse.

The novel, as I’ve written about before, has its flaws (in fact, it basically screams “I’ve never written a novel before!”), but it doesn’t have any scene like that, nor should it have. Rapace’s idea was that her performance would make all the important points (and she’s right — she’s magnificent in the movie), and also audiences don’t need or want to know everything anyway.

In addition, in this specific story, you have to take into account that people who had been systematically abused do not, to the best of my understanding, start detailing it all to someone they have only recently met, or to anybody.

That’s (as my father used to say) phony baloney. Stieg Larsson (the writer of the book) had a lot of clumsy “info dump” chapters, but he knew enough not to do one about Salander, let alone with her doing the telling herself.

At the TV Tropes website, I found this useful article: “Continuity Lock-Out.”

“Continuity Lock-out” is defined as “The writers have let the mythos they’ve generated get so thick and convoluted that a newcomer has very little chance of understanding the significance of anything. They are ‘locked out’ of understanding the story by all the continuity.”

It usually applies to TV series, or series of novels, or movies (especially in the modern world of millions of Avengers and X-men movies).

The media where it exists most extremely, however, are comic books and soap operas, which can go on for decades. I read X-men comics for a long time, since the very first issue in the early 1960s. Then I stopped for a few years (maybe in the 1980s), and then, on impulse, I picked up an issue, and I couldn’t follow the story at all. I couldn’t even figure out what was happening.

So, that’s an important question with any sort of serial fiction: How much of a priority that is to build in ways for new readers to jump on midway through the story?

I remember the Lord of the Rings movies, for example. The first started with a big “This is how we got here” narration, but the second movie, The Two Towers, starts completely in medias res. So, after the success of the first movie, they obviously decided they could assume that the entire audience for the second movie, or almost all of it, had seen the first movie.

These days, I stay away from stories, in any medium, which have that sort of complicated continuity (well, except for Dark Shadows). Even with Legends of Tomorrow — it’s part of the “Arrowverse,” the universe of TV shows centered around the show Arrow, but I just watch Legends and ignore the others, because I know none of the other shows are as deliriously goofy as Legends. In fact, some of them look like they might be a bit grim.

This applies to my own writing, too, since the stories which take place in U-town depend on at least some knowledge of what U-town is, and to really understand that you need to read U-town, the novel, which is somewhere around 272,000 words long. One of the chapters is almost novel-length by itself, plus it’s written in hypertext. I’ve tried, in the more recent mystery stories, to give as much background information as is necessary, but it can become awkward.

So, that’s one reason that I started to write the current series of mystery stories (“The Marvel Murder Case,” “The Town Hall Mystery,” “The Heron Island Mystery“) outside of and before U-town. I can concentrate on the detective and her assistant and the mystery itself, without having to explain a very small teenage head of state who happens to have superhuman strength, or a mass murderer who lives a quiet life with her musician boyfriend and their talking dog.

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the heron island mystery (part twenty-nine)

This story started here.

I didn’t want to get involved in a conversation with Li and Becky at that moment, so I followed Elsa to the front door.

“Come on in,” I said to the deputies. “I’m the one who called the sheriff. My name is Marshall O’Connor.”

I had never met these deputies before, and they didn’t seem particularly interested in meeting me now. They had a perp to pick up, and they wanted to get it done.

I led them back to Elsa’s bedroom. I could hear Elsa talking to Li and Becky behind us, but I couldn’t make out the words. That was fine with me.

Kim was still sitting on Elsa’s bed, her legs folded under her, and she didn’t look up as we came in. Her expression was somewhere between stoic and fierce.

One deputy, who seemed to be in charge of this two-man operation, asked for Kim’s name and she gave it. He handcuffed her, and then stood aside for me to remove my handcuffs, which had been keeping her attached to the bed.

They took her out, one walking in front of her and one behind. Li and Becky were sitting on a sofa, talking to Elsa, but Li jumped up and ran over as soon as Kim came into view. She tried to talk to Kim, but her friend was still as blank-faced as before and kept walking forward, her eyes on the back of the deputy in front of her. I was starting to wonder if her defense for her actions was going to depend on a claim that she was insane. (Which is not to say that I had some kind of worked-out proof that she wasn’t insane.)

In desperation, Li grabbed a pen from a small shelf by the door, yanked up Kim’s shirt sleeve, and wrote something on her arm. The deputies paused to allow this, and then they left with their captive.

I started to wonder where exactly the deputies were taking Kim, since the road to the mainland was going to be under water until morning, but I caught Elsa’s expression and I knew there were more important things to deal with now.

Li plopped herself back onto the sofa, looking upset but determined. Her thin face was sharp and angular in the light from the table lamp next to her. Becky was looking up at the ceiling, tears welling in her eyes, and Elsa was giving me a look that was somewhere between a demand and a plea that I come and help her out.

I pulled a chair over next to Elsa’s wheelchair.

“I wanted to help her,” Li said defensively. “I gave her my lawyer’s number.”

“But she tried to kill Elsa,” Becky said. Tears were dripping down her cheeks, which were creased with sleep wrinkles, and she still wasn’t looking at Li. Other than me and Elsa, nobody seemed to be making eye contact with anybody.

“She was probably confused,” Li protested. “She thought that Elsa killed Mary–“

“No,” Elsa said patiently, “She said she — Kim — had killed Mary because she thought Mary had killed Manfred.”

“But–” Kim began, but Becky turned to me.

“Mr. Marshall, do you know what’s going on?” She squinted at me and wiped her face with her sleeve. “Can you explain all this?”

As I started to explain, at least the parts I was willing to explain, I interrupted myself. “What about Jo?” I asked.

“She’s probably got her ear plugs in,” Becky said. “With those, she can sleep through anything.”

I hesitated. “Can you run up and check? It’s up to you whether you want to wake her up, but the way things have been going, I want to make sure she’s okay.”

Becky nodded and made for the stairs, ascending into the darkness. Our little corner of the dark living room was illuminated by two small table lamps — it felt almost like were were huddled around a camp fire together.

Li brought her legs up her chin and wrapped her arms around them. “You think Jo is dead, too?” she asked in a tiny voice.

“No,” I reassured her. “That is, I have no reason to think so, but this is not the part where everything gets explained. I don’t want to take anything for granted.”

Becky padded back down from the second floor and rejoined us in our little circle of light. “Fast asleep and snoring,” she reported as she sat next to Li again. I noted that she was wearing glasses now. “She has the covers pulled up over her head.”

Elsa caught my eye, her puckish grin starting to come back. “We must have been keeping her awake, poor thing.”

Becky looked a question.

“Mr. Marshall and I were in my room together earlier, loudly pretending to have sex. When Jo has a guest over, I can sure hear everything that’s going on up in her room. I guess it works the other way, too.”

I could tell that calling me “Mr. Marshall” was amusing Elsa, and it seemed to be helping to lift her mood, so I didn’t complain.

Li grimaced. “Forget all that, please,” she said, waving her hands. ‘Why did those cops take Kimmy away? What did she do? How can we help her?”

Calmly and matter-of-factly, I laid out what was known:

1) Manfred had been murdered, by person or persons unknown, his body dumped on the beach below Heron House during the storm on Monday night. The weapon had been a knife, which had been left in the body.

Mary was not on the island on Monday night, and Kim claimed that she hadn’t been there either.

2) Mary had been murdered, by person or persons unknown, on Tuesday night, her body left on the deck of Heron House. The weapon had been a knife, which had been left in the body.

3) Tonight, Wednesday night, Kim had threatened to kill Elsa, with a knife, claiming that she (Kim) had killed Mary the night before. Kim had apparently believed that Elsa knew this and was a threat to her. Kim said that she had killed Mary because Mary had killed Manfred.

I shrugged. “Did Kim really kill Mary last night? I have no idea. I’m no detective, but I’m not aware of anything that rules her out. If she did kill Mary, was it for the reason she said? I have no idea. If she did think Mary killed Manfred, why did she care enough to seek vengeance? That I’d rather not say — I have no direct evidence.” I didn’t glance meaningfully at Elsa, but I was pretty sure she was paying attention to what I was, and was not, saying. Whether she was going to follow my lead or not was another question, of course. “And here’s the real stumper. If Kim does think that Mary killed Manfred, how is she getting around the fact that Mary was not, as far as anybody can tell, on the island at the time of the murder?”

To be continued…

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