Much to the annoyance of Anna Livia, I am fairly good at guessing pretty early on who will turn out to be the murderer. My primary method for doing this is to look for the character who does not belong, whose presence in the story seems unnecessary, who does not seem to be having any direct influence on the plot. Typically it will be a relative of the victim other than a spouse, or a neighbor, or a vicar, or a retainer – someone with a decent number of speaking lines who drifts in and out of the foreground.
Sometimes, of course, there is no such character or there is more than one or I simply have been unable to spot him or her. However, once I do identify the person who does not belong, almost invariably he or she turns out to be the murderer.
Recently an old high school friend of mine, Doc G, visited us for a week. Doc G’s television watching is rather primitive; he doesn’t have cable or satellite, much less access to Netflix, and only sees whatever he can pick up with his rabbit-ears antenna.
While he was visiting, Doc G watched Inspector George Gently with us. Not very long into our second evening with the show, Doc G announced that he knew who the murderer was. “It’s the porter,” said Doc G. “There’s no other reason for him to be there.” He had spotted it before I had and it turned out that, as usual, the character who did not belong was, indeed, the murderer.
Anna Livia was astounded – not because Doc G correctly guessed who’d done it, but because Doc G used exactly the same criterion as I. I was pretty amazed, myself. Doc G and I had never discussed our theories about murder mystery villains. In fact, while Doc G and I have talked about many, many things over the last sixty years, murder mysteries was not one of them. Anna Livia said, “It must be Poughkeepsie High School.” I felt there might be some truth in it.
Last night Anna Livia and I watched another Inspector George Gently. It soon was obvious to me who was the character who did not belong and, sure enough, he or she (not to give it away) was the murderer. The plot involved a school, teachers and teen-age students. In one scene, a class on Antony and Cleopatra, the teacher poses the question: did Cleopatra commit suicide because of her love for Antony or because her reign was ending and her world falling apart?
Of course, this was a scene written by screenwriters and played by actors, but it seemed like a good question to put to high school students: not too complicated, but requiring some thought, some analysis. It sounded like just the kind of thing which a real teacher in a real school might come up with. Not, however, in Poughkeepsie High School in the 1950’s.
Antony and Cleopatra was assigned reading in perhaps our Junior year English Class. I distinctly remember that what we discussed about the final scenes, about Antony’s and Cleopatra’s suicides, was not their intentions, but Shakespeare’s.
What was pointed out to us by Miss Torgesen, although it might have been Miss Cotter, was how Shakespeare built up to the final suicides with a flurry of death: Antony, believing she has betrayed him, vows to kill Cleopatra. Cleopatra, in order to win him back, has Antony sent word that she has killed herself out of love for him. Antony asks an aide to run him through with a sword. When the aide – oddly named Eros – instead kills himself, Antony follows suit. He does not make a clean job of it, though, and lives long enough to die in Cleopatra’s arms. Finally, a few scenes later, Cleopatra and her attendants finish themselves off. The question Miss Torgesen, or perhaps Miss Cotter, posed to us was along these lines: Why did Shakespeare create this crescendo of self-inflicted death? What dramatic effect was he aiming for? What idea, if any, did he want to convey?
We were being taught to pay more attention to the form of the play than its content. It was taken for granted that the most important character in Antony and Cleopatra was Shakespeare, and the most important activity when it came to the play was not what occurs on stage, but what occurred in the writing of it. That being the thrust of pedagogy at Poughkeepsie High School when Doc G and I were students there, it is not surprising that in trying to dope out the solution to a television mystery we should put ourselves in the place of its writers, not its detectives.
Most of the teachers at Poughkeepsie High School in the 1950’s were elderly spinsters. Miss Torgesen was rumored to have had a true love who died in the war – the First War, it was assumed – and never to have gotten over it. We knew that Miss Cotter and Miss Stephens, who taught “speech” and coached the debating team, lived together and that there perhaps was something a little peculiar about that.
A case might be made that spinsterhood – whether by inclination or imposed by fate – might have had something to do with the Apollonian attitude of our English teachers, that their emphasis on the formal aspects of literature arose more from a rejection of, a turning of their backs on, the romance which is at the heart of any plot, than from an innate interest in craft. Certainly, by the time we encountered them, our teachers, married or single, seemed too old for romance.
But I am going to reject that as a simplistic Freudian brainstorm. Besides, is anyone ever too old for romance?
Now that I think about it, while many of our teachers seemed to go out of their way to be crabby, and even Miss Torgesen’s intellectual rigor sometimes morphed into imperiousness, Miss Cotter, willowy, soft-spoken, reticent, was never testy and always wore a kind of dreamy smile, and Miss Stephen, as willowy as her housemate, but unusually (for any teacher that we knew) direct and engaging, no matter how stern she tried to appear, was never without a twinkle in her eye.