the deacon mystery (part thirteen)

This story started here.

When I returned to the table, I was sure that my face told at least part of the story. Elsa nodded as I sat down.

"Your boss?" she asked. "Time to go to work?"

"No, and yes. There's been a murder, and my presence has been requested. Immediately, if not sooner. (In fact, 'requested' is not really the most accurate word.) But that wasn't Miss Sleet – it was the sheriff."

"So, where are we going?" She waved a hand. "Of course I'm driving you. There's been a murder, everything is urgent, and you're going to wait around for the jitney? Besides, I can't go home now anyway – the island is cut off for the night. Where are we going?"

I looked at my half-full bottle of beer and sighed. "The Presbyterian church. In town."

"You'll have to give me directions," she said as I took out my wallet. She caught my eye. "I'm a Quaker – how would I know where it is?"

I smiled at that, and I placed some bills on the bar as we headed for the door.

At least we hadn't got around to ordering dinner.

Elsa opened the door of her van and hoisted herself up into the driver's seat. She reached down, lifted and folded her wheelchair, and slid it into its usual position. I had watched this process before, more than once, and this time it seemed somewhat less smooth than usual.

I went around and opened the passenger door. "Are you okay to drive?" I asked.

She smiled as I climbed in and fastened my seat belt. "Probably. We'll find out, won't we?"

A few minutes later, as we were barreling through the darkness, I thought of suggesting that perhaps I should drive, but I wasn't exactly completely sober either, and her van was modified so that she could drive it, so I didn't say anything, even as she careened out onto the highway, narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic, yelling, "Whooo hoo!"

I consoled myself with the thought that the "Whooo hoo!" had probably been deliberate, designed to see how I would react. I remained, to the best of my ability, stoic.

"Any details you can share?" she asked as we zipped along.

"I have none at the moment, shareable or not. There's been a murder, and apparently a rather bloody one. Sheriff Rhonda was trying to reach my employer, and she didn't believe me when I said that I had no idea where she was or how to reach her. So, she was not in a forthcoming or bantering mood."

There were several vehicles parked around the church. including two police cars and an ambulance. Elsa pulled up in front of the building, which did not have any visible accommodations for a wheelchair user.

"I think I'll go get something to eat," she said.

I nodded. "The sheriff did say that the scene in there is pretty bloody. Thanks for the ride."

"I'm going to try, once again, to see if I can find a decent roast beef sandwich in this town."

I got out and closed the door. "If you succeed, let me know."

She nodded and drove off.

Two deputies stood on the wide stairs which led up to the front doors of the church. One held up his hand as I approached. He started to say something, but I said, "Marshall O'Connor. Sheriff White asked me to come."

He shrugged. "ID?" I showed him my driver's license and he jerked his finger over his shoulder. "Upstairs," he said. "The padre's office."

I climbed the narrow stairs and went through a swinging door into a gloomy hallway. There were several doors, but only one was open, so I went there.

It was a small office, full of books and papers, and there was a dead body slumped on the desk. I knew the body was dead because nobody was paying any attention to it.

I assumed it was Dr. Deacon, the priest. This was apparently his office, and the top of his head and the dark clothes looked familiar. The cause of death wasn't immediately apparent, but there was a lot of blood on the desk blotter.

Sheriff Rhonda looked up. "O'Connor. You were at the Rat, right? By the college?" I nodded. "Then how in God's holy name did you get here so fast?" She seemed prepared to be outraged that anybody had the nerve to drive through her town even more recklessly than she did.

"Miss Peabody drove me."

"Miss..." She shook her head. "Never mind. Are you still maintaining that you can't reach your boss?"

"I believe I was quite clear on the phone, sheriff." I tapped a Bible on the desk. "I'd be willing to swear on this, if it didn't have blood on it."

To be continued...

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the deacon mystery (part twelve)

This story started here.

"I was surprised that you called me," she said.

I sipped my beer. "Really?"

She smiled. "At the last minute like that – that's what I mean. I barely made it off the island before the water drowned the road. I always picture you as planning everything well in advance." She shrugged. "Of course, I guess you're always reacting to your employer's schedule."

"'Schedule,'" I repeated, using finger quotes.

She laughed. "Oh, is she secretly wild and unpredictable? She doesn't dress like somebody who's wild and unpredictable."

When I didn't respond immediately, she leaned forward and regarded me, stroking her nonexistent beard.

"Ah, I get it now," she said slowly. "You're not here to talk about her. You're here to not talk about her." She smiled. "So, please tell me all about your day, dear."

"There is a new case–" I began.

"A new case?" she demanded. Her face crumpling. "So soon?" She sniffed. "So, you've forgotten about us already, just moved right along to something else?" Her shoulders sagged. "I just can't..."

"Mr. Fred Deacon," I patiently explained as she squared her shoulders and winked at me, "the younger brother of the local Presbyterian priest, has vanished. Perhaps kidnapped. My esteemed employer is, officially, not investigating. Or she is investigating, depending on who you talk to."

"Well, I'm talking to you, dear, her assistant, who probably knows the actual facts." She finished her beer. "Or not."

"As far as I can determine, I'm investigating the case."

"Ah. While she's off on a bender? Or having a fling?"

"Well, as far as I know, she's not doing either of those things."

She leaned forward and spoke conspiratorially. I could barely hear her in the noisy college bar. "By the way," she murmured, "if she ever does feel like having a fling in the local area here, I have several classmates who obviously find her to be... interesting. Male and female, depending on her preference." I sipped my beer. "When people found out I'd met her, there was quite the buzz."

She studied her empty beer bottle carefully, and then she turned and made her way to the bar. I quickly finished the bottle I had in front of me.

The bar was called the Rat (short for "Rathskeller," of course). We had chosen it for our get-together for several reasons, including the fact that, contrary to its name, it was not in a basement.

When she returned to the table, expertly piloting her wheelchair across the uneven floor of the bar while carrying two open beer bottles, I decided to be responsible. "It's getting dark outside," I said. I sipped the nice, cold beer she had just handed me. "We should start thinking about having some dinner."

She nodded. "That seems responsible. They have chili here, and burgers."

"Which is the better option?"

"The burgers are inconsistent," she said judiciously. She drank some more beer. "The popular theory is that on the weekends there's a different cook." She tilted her head. "No, I haven't done any investigation of this." I didn't attempt to hide my smile. "I'm happy with the one fact that I do know, which is that the chili is a better bet. More reliable."

She gestured that it was my turn to talk.

"We saw Mr. Deacon's daughter this morning," I said. "She told us what had happened: her father not coming home, the phone call about the ransom, and so forth, and then I was dispatched to do research, at the palatial offices of the Claremont Crier."

"Real research, or get-Marshall-out-of-the-way research?"

I shrugged.

"Did you find out anything interesting?" She caught my expression. "Between us, of course."

"Well, I've done a fair amount of research in my life, but the archives at the Crier are organized according to a system which I have never encountered before." Her eyelids started to droop. "It was apparently devised by the editor's wife, who is a rather imposing personage in her own right, and it utilizes file cards in a variety of sizes and colors..."

By this time her chin was resting on her chest and she was snoring.

"Also: money!" I announced.

She perked up immediately.

"I think money may be the key," I explained. "Mr. Deacon talks and acts like he has money, but everything about his personal circumstances suggests the opposite. Now someone claims to be holding him and demands money from his daughter, who doesn't have any either."

"Who does have money?"

"His older brother, the priest. Their family money all went to him."


"Exactly. And, as far as I could determine from my research, Dr. Deacon is not overly blessed with the virtue of charity, at least as far as his family goes. Also, it seems that the older sister's boyfriend may have money."

She was giving me a strange look, so I stopped.

"Are you drunk?" she asked.

I did a quick self-assessment. "Not beyond reason, under the circumstances."

"Then I must be really fascinating, because the bartender is calling your name and you're not reacting appropriately."

I turned in that direction, and the bartender waggled a telephone receiver at me. He didn't look happy.

To be continued...

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more ulysses (part three)

Two more points on Ulysses by James Joyce (plus one added later).

1) I did go to see the exhibition “One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses” at the Morgan Library and Museum.

It was really good. It was all in one large room (the walls were painted with the blue and white of the Greek flag — the colors on the first edition of Ulysses itself). There were exhibits on the walls all around the room, but there was also a central structure, with other displays on its exterior and interior walls. The result was that the entire exhibition appeared to be organized chronologically, but the time scheme seemed to be going in several directions at once, on several levels — very appropriate for Joyce and this novel.

Some parts of it were more interesting than others (to me). Photographs of Joyce and members of his family were okay, but I think that was mostly for newbies. There were some interesting artifacts, such as the order J.P. Morgan’s nephew (I think that’s who it was — I didn’t take notes) mailed in to purchase his copy of the first edition.

But the best parts for me were 1) several wonderful displays showing Joyce’s influence on the visual arts, and 2) actual manuscript pages, and heavily edited and rewritten galley proofs. It was something to see the handwritten originals of the beginning and end of the novel. And, yes, the first and last letter of the book are the same (“s”), which is almost certainly not an accident (hey, his next book began and ended with fragments of the same sentence).

I also had a further thought about the different editions of Ulysses that I talked about before. I think another reason I’m not all that concerned about all the typos in the original edition is because I’m not aware of any evidence that Joyce cared very much about them. He was certainly aware of them, but he didn’t pursue any sort of project to get them fixed (unlike Henry James, for example, who, late in his life, revised much of his body of work for the 24-volume New York Edition).

As far as I know, Joyce wrote Ulysses, he managed, with some difficulty, to get it published (on his 40th birthday, as he’d wanted), and then he moved on.

I have great sympathy for this approach. As I wrote once about Robert Altman:

Once, years ago, he was asked how he felt about that the fact that, at that time, many of his best movies weren’t available on video. He said, “What can I do? I make another movie.”

2) I’ve thought periodically, over the decades, that I need to really study Ulysses and understand it better than I do now.

One thing that’s always held me back is that I haven’t read enough and I don’t know enough. Professor Owens, for example, who I referred to in my last post, said that, in order to write about Joyce, he made sure that he’d read everything Joyce had read before writing Ulysses, including newspapers, and books in several languages (Joyce was fluent in five or six languages).

But, to be honest, the biggest obstacle has been that I’m always being distracted by my own writing projects. Writing is more fun than studying Ulysses (although not always more fun than reading Ulysses, I admit).

3) I’ve been watching videos about Joyce and Ulysses, and I just saw one which clarified why I’m always drawn to Ulysses rather than to Joyce’s earlier works, even though they’re a lot easier to read.

Ulysses is funny, sometimes wildly funny. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are not funny.

I think it’s that simple.

I’ve been listening to readings of Ulysses, and there are points, in the “Cyclops” episode in particular, when I’ve laughed out loud. I never laughed out loud at Dubliners or Portrait — and I imagine that I’m in the majority.

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all or nothing (ulysses part two)

Following up on my last post, I found this very interesting video: “Great Big Book Club – James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’.”

The presentation, by Joyce scholar Coílín Owens, is very good, but one of the questions particularly caught my attention. One of the members of the book club asks, very approximately, “Doesn’t the complexity of the words and the wordplay and the references and so on come in between the reader and a powerful human story, particularly in the second half of the book?” and Professor Owens’ answer (again, very approximately) is that a lot of people feel that way, and some think that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is actually a superior work, and (this is the key part) a lot of the academics who defend the book are making a living in the Joyce industry — teaching Joyce or writing about Joyce or both — and therefore their judgement might be questionable on that basis, which was nice to hear, particularly because Professor Owens himself taught Joyce for many years, and, after his retirement, wrote two books about him.

(Full disclosure, my favorite thing Joyce ever wrote, that I’ve read, is The Dead, the last story in the Dubliners collection, which is one of my favorite things ever written by anybody.)

As I say, I’m up and down on Ulysses, although there are some parts which I really like. But that’s not always an “acceptable” stance these days, on anything. For example, I’m very much enjoying the Netflix adaptation of the comic book The Sandman, but some people online appear to be starting from the idea that the comic book series was a masterwork beyond compare. I read the comics when they were coming out, all 75 issues, and some issues were good and some were great, and some were just okay. Which is a pretty good ratio, but it’s nowhere near perfection.

And, as a matter of fact, the movie adaptation of The Dead actually improves on the story in one way, as I talked about here (and, as I say, the original story by Joyce is a masterwork far beyond The Sandman).

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Well, as I (semi-)predicted a few posts ago, I’m dipping into Ulysses again.

1) There’s what looks like a very interesting exhibition about the book’s 100th anniversary at The Morgan Library. I plan to go.

2) I studied James Joyce in college. As I recall, it was a summer course, the only course I took that summer, meeting four times a week — so it was a fairly intense few weeks.

Since then, when returning to Ulysses, I’ve tended to dip in and pop around, re-reading my favorite episodes and avoiding the annoying ones. I feel somewhat guilty about this, or at least I think (sometimes) that I should feel guilty about it, but I have college credentials which attest to the fact that I did read once the whole farkakte book from beginning to end.

3) Speaking of annoying, as I get older I find Stephen Dedalus more and more intolerable. What an angsty boy.

On the other hand, Leopold Bloom is as wonderful as ever — maybe even more so as the years go by.

4) My favorite episode is probably “Wandering Rocks.” Every new writing project I’ve started has included a note to think about doing a version of “Wandering Rocks.” This is usually impossible, because I’m so often in first person (and I think I’m done with novels now anyway), but I did a sort-of version once, in the middle of the novel U-town.

5) There are many editions of Ulysses. The original edition, published in 1922, by the bookstore Shakespeare & Company in Paris, was apparently typeset by compositors who didn’t speak English (let alone English as it was practiced by James Joyce), and who also reportedly drank wine with lunch. It has a lot of errors.

There have been attempts since to fix those errors, in various newer editions, but reports are that each attempt has also introduced new errors.

I like to read the original version. Exact duplicates are available, with the classic blue cover, and I’ve found that accidental typos made by francophone typesetters, perhaps a bit buzzed in the afternoon hours, are easier to catch while reading than the sorts of errors which can be created by well-meaning professional editors.

Plus, the original pages are pleasant to read. The typeface is good, and there are appropriate margins. One more recent edition I have appears to have been laid out during a paper shortage, since they seemed to have been making every effort to cram as many words as they could onto each page — readability be damned.

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the deacon mystery (part eleven)

This story started here.

On the other side of Pine Street, Main Street stopped being "Main Street" and turned back into a regular Claremont street with modest houses, trees, and a narrow sidewalk which, after the first block or so, petered out completely.

The headquarters of the Claremont Crier, which was about four blocks from Pine Street, did not look very Claremont at all.

The house next to it, for example, looked like it had been there for at least a hundred years (a bit longer, actually, as I found out later). Dark wood, tall windows on the ground floor, ornate front door, decks on three sides – it reminded me a bit of the Devane house, but much smaller and more inviting, surrounded by several tall trees.

I made a mental note of the small sign planted next to the path to the front door: "Used books for sale. Tuesday through Thursday – 2-6pm."

The headquarters of the Claremont Crier, however, was a flat, uninteresting structure of poured concrete and cinder blocks. It was painted a rather dull color. The sign next to the front door was small and white. The building needed more windows, I thought.

Aesthetics aside, my biggest concern was cars. There was a narrow parking lot in front of the building, just a row of cars side-by-side facing the building (well, one car was cleverly parked facing out). As I got close to the front of the building, still walking across the street, slowly, I saw a secondary lot to the right of the building, mostly containing delivery trucks.

I strolled to the corner and crossed the street.

I was looking for Kate Lane's car, which wasn't visible anywhere. That was good. My employer had led her to believe that we had no interest in the Deacon case, so I preferred not to run into her while I was doing my research.

She would find out eventually that we were investigating a Deacon case (although, of course, not the exact case she had asked about). My employer had told her the truth, technically, but I preferred to deal with that issue later (or, preferably, let my employer deal with it – this was all her plan, after all).

I went up to the front door and tried it. I thought it might be locked, but it opened.

The small office I stepped into was unoccupied. There was one desk with several issues of the Crier, some rather haphazard stacks of paper, including unopened mail, and a variety of telephones. I could hear a low, steady hum from elsewhere in the building.

There was only one other door in the small room, and it was a dutch door. The top half was open and the bottom half was closed, so I felt ambivalent about proceeding further.

"Marshall O'Connor!" boomed a voice from behind me, and I turned to see a man with short, iron-gray hair come in from outside, carrying a small, greasy paper bag.

I have a good memory, and I was reasonably sure I'd never met this man before, but he switched his greasy bag to his left hand and firmly (and greasily) shook my hand with his right. His short-sleeved white shirt was a bit too snug and his necktie was a bit too short.

"Saw your photograph in the ones we took at the Devane trial." He circled his desk and sat down. "Didn't publish it, of course. Your boss lady sells more papers." He leaned back in his chair, which creaked. "I imagine you're here to do research on the Deacon family, for the case which your boss is not investigating."

I raised an index finger, for some reason, but he continued. "I get–"

One of his phones rang and he picked it up, motioning me into the inner precincts of the building.

To be continued...

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