Another Great Nero Wolfe

The Italian Nero Wolfe (2012) is fantastic. Before I go any further, I want to commend the Portland Public Library Inter-library Loan system for being able to get it for me.

I'm a big fan of Timothy Hutton's Nero Wolfe (A&E) starring Maury Chaykin in the titular role. The Italian Series (2012--there is an earlier one) stars Francesco Pannofino as Nero Wolfe and Pietro Sermonti as Archie Goodwin.

The series are remarkably similar in tone and look. They both captured 1950s aura with big band music and clever violin comedy music. 2012 Archie is slightly more sardonic and a tad more serious in comparison to Hutton's more glib and slightly more high-energy interpretation. 2012 Nero yells less than Maury Chaykin's Nero. But there are brothers under the skin.

In fact, if one watches the two side by side, one comes away knowing all the important traditions about Wolfe and Archie: Wolfe's grouchy personality, his office, his orchids, his schedule, his iconoclastic attitudes towards authority, his attitudes towards women, his love of gourmet food. Plus Archie's chivalrous attitudes towards women (despite or maybe because of his confirmed bachelorhood), his interpretation of his role in Nero's life, his detective abilities (some mystery critics maintain that Archie is as much a detective in his own right as Nero Wolfe), his love of milk.

In fact, the Italian Series does something so clever, I wish all "retold" versions of popular characters would do the same. Instead of creating an Italian Nero Wolfe who just happens to share the same name, characteristics, etc. etc. as his American cousin, the Italian Nero Wolfe IS the American Nero Wolfe. He and Archie have come to Rome, Italy to escape badgering from the FBI (these episodes would take place after The Doorbell Rang). They quickly gather around them a private investigator, gourmet chef, and police inspector as well as an intrepid female reporter, who plays Lon Cohen plus all of Kari Matchett's roles.

And it works. It is entirely plausible that Nero Wolfe would speak flawless Italian. It's a little less plausible that Archie would pick up flawless Italian so quickly, but I have no doubt that eventually, Archie would.

And I love the fact that this Archie and Nero develop some of the same quirks and ways of relating that appear in the A&E production: Archie's sweet and protective instincts towards the household chef, Nanni. Nero's tendency to ask Archie questions that assume that Archie has also guessed the answer to the mystery (and often, he has). Archie's tendency to manhandle rude guests. Nero's ability to be gentle with a frightened individual.

Another great addition to the Nero Wolfe television collection! 

Dry as Dust--In a Good Way: The Comic Actors of Barney Miller

Often, a sitcom will have a straight man (or woman) who throws out dry quips in the face of the other characters' craziness. Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons comes to mind.

Barney Miller has an abundance of dryly witty characters. Too many dry characters, of course, can backfire. But considering good-as-gold Wojo, pushy Levitt, talkative and aggrieved Frank Luger plus the stunning number of nutcases who weave in and out of the second floor of the 12th Precinct, "dry" is the best coping tendency.

Many of the regular characters deliver dry witty lines. Barney is usually more composed, calm, and assertive than sarcastic. However, he often mutters soft lines of rebuke accompanied by raised brows. The "look" leads to confessions, often from his own men!

Fish is more grumpy old guy (and very, very good at it). But he has moments of dry reflection:
Fish: You won't believe this, but according to their records I'm deceased.
Barney: It's probably a mistake.
Fish: I wonder.
Driscoll: You know, you look exactly like Boris Karloff.
Fish: That's because we're both dead.
Ron Glass as Ron Harris is more endlessly amused than dry. He has an astonishing supply of insouciance, however. When the entire squad gets high(ish) on hash, he responds to Barney's request to get the hash-laden brownies examined by digging into the brownies, provoking Barney to snap, "Not that way!" He has the ability to stand back, hand in pocket, and ponder the weirdness of his fellow cops.

The award for "regular cast member who delivers dry lines" goes to Steve Landesberg as Arthur P. Dietrich. The character--as well as the actor--is so dry that he outwits the lie-detector test, much to Scanlon's chagrin. In fact, in the end, nobody in the precinct isn't entirely sure that Dietrich may not BE an alien (the lie he told during the test).

In the Season 3 episode "Moonlighting," Barney asks Dietrich what he would do if he died and found himself facing a theological reality for which he was not prepared.

Dietrich thinks, then says, "Whoops."

Landesberg has some competition for dry wit, often from regular guests. John Dullaghan is one of my favorites. Dullaghan plays a few suspects/criminals in the early seasons, settling into Ray Brewer, the recovered alcoholic in later ones. One of his funniest roles is as Harold in Season 4 "Copy Cat," especially when he informs his pontificating you-too-can-be-just-like-amazing-me AA sponsor, "You're borrring."

Great Acting Gig: Jim on Blue Bloods

Not Jim but Sgt. Walter Harriman--keep reading
One of my favorite characters on Stargate SG-1 is Sgt. Walter Harriman, played by Gary Jones. He's the guy who sits at the controls and announces the Stargate's status. He has a few lines now and again. Sometimes he's window dressing. The actor is well-known enough to be beloved and do the sci-fi circuit, but not so well-known, he has to wear a ball cap when he goes grocery shopping. 

I love these actors. I'm so happy for them when they get regular gigs like this. It's the kind of career I'd want to have in Hollywood.

Detective Nuciforo on Blue Bloods falls into the same category--with a difference. Detective Nuciforo is part of Frank Reagan's detail. He is that guy. Every now and again he has lines. Most of the time, he's just there--behind Tom Selleck, off to the side, doing his thing, keeping the commissioner safe. It's an awesome gig.

Here's the difference. James Nuciforo (real name) is a technical advisor on Blue Bloods where he is also a producer. He is also a technical advisor on Elementary.

It's one way to become a regular stand-in on a show! 

As far as I know Gary Jones isn't a technical advisor and doesn't know how Stargates actually work. Although maybe . . .

It's still a very, very cool way to be an actor.

The Awareness of Bewitched

Humans have a wired need to make comparisons. In an episode of Brain Games, people found differences between pairs of jeans despite the jeans all being from the same manufacturer (of course, that doesn't mean the jeans weren't different--nothing manufactured is ever exactly the same).

Unfortunately, the search for differences often leads to the insistence that once upon a time society was "more than" or "less than" it is now. The 1950s was more conservative and more traditional and more invested in middle-class suburbia than 2019.

There is some truth to that. Just watch end-of-war-propaganda videos in which women are instructed to return to their homes now that hubby is returning from war.

Here's the thing: many of the women in factories worked before the war (only at more domestic jobs). The women who could return home to care for their children mostly belonged to the suburban middle-class. And not everybody's hubby came home.

In other words, as Tom Wolfe repeatedly points out in The Right Stuff, every age has a Victorian gent who decides what the "norm" of that age should be. And yes, the 1950's had that. (And yes, the Mercury astronauts were expected to live up to it.)

The error is in believing that people of 1950s and 1960s weren't utterly aware of their own culture. The search for differences unfortunately often evokes the insistence that THEY were not like US. THEY had all these cultural absolutes that people were suppose to strive for UNLIKE US. It the dumbness of Rent, only slightly more understandable.

Bewitched (1964-1972) challenges social assumptions about what people "back then" understood. Bewitched is as fully aware of what it is using/spoofing as any Joss Whedon episode. It is not entirely tongue in cheek--the tone is slightly different--but that awareness is as consciously cultivated as a Monty Python raised eyebrow.

Samantha--who knows very well that the television
repair man was planning to cheat her.
The result is more than a series of political statements (after all, why should 1960s writers/actors/audiences be political for our sakes?). When Samantha instantly cleans up her kitchen, this is not 1960s female wishful thinking (Oh, if only I could be liberated!). This is indifference to any sort of work ethic at all. When she demolishes the reputation of an arch-rival, she isn't clinging desperately to her husband; she's throwing anarchy into the way of flirtation.

"Just one big happy family," Endora says dryly, looking at her normally sanguine husband, Maurice, who lost his temper at learning that Darrin (Donald, Darwin) is mortal; her daughter, Samantha, who threatened to never speak to Maurice again; and her son-in-law who was recently disintegrated by Maurice. 

Now, granted, Bewitched aired at the very beginning of the sexual liberation movement in America. But television is never that prescient (despite its claims). For the sake of entertainment, the writers were tapping into attitudes and awareness that already existed.

See Norman Rockwell's wry cover above. Or google "1950s magazine covers," even, specifically, "1950s women magazine covers"; it is amazing how few of them include pictures of women in kitchens. Women of the time were reading about actresses and women travelers and fashion models and female sports figures and the Queen of England as much back then as they do now.

It reminds me of my master's program during which fellow students insisted that lower class people believe everything they see on television; they are victims of advertising (unlike "us"). The assumption was as aggravatingly naive and condescending as assumptions about the 50's: They couldn't possibly be as wise to the ways of the world as we are. It's not all that different from the 10-year-old who insists that he is so much more sophisticated than the 8-year-old--or, rather, the 10-year-old insisting that he is so much more sophisticated than other 10-year-olds.

We all exist in a social context full of trends and attitudes and values. We might rebel against that context. We might accept it. We might ignore it. We might think it is pointless to fight it. We might use it.

The reason why people make different choices regarding social context is a post for a different time. But it isn't usually due to lack of awareness.

(Thanks to Joe for putting me back in touch with Bewitched!)

His in Herland Revised and Updated

In preparation for an upcoming history course, I recently revised His in Herland, my response to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland.

The original His in Herland was intended as a response to literary utopias. They are so attractive on the one hand, yet so entirely problematic on the other--especially since they always seem to depend on the constant grinding work of invisible people behind the scenes.

As so often happens with a text, the conflict of the main character, Alim, rather took over. What makes him a "him"? Nurture? Nature in the genetic (inherited) sense? Or biological sense? Or evolutionary sense? How much of his personality is a "him" and how much of it is specific to Alim as Alim (as opposed to Bob or Gary or Charlotte)?

I don't try to answer all those questions--quite frankly, I don't think I can. But they are out there.

The pictures indicate how much a young male can change between the ages of 15 and 21. So human development also plays a role.
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21

Wild Wonder of Language 2: We are Not Victims of Lingual Programming

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker tackles the idea of linguistic determinism, the idea that language determines how people think. If our culture uses the phrase, "Where no man has gone before," we have no choice but to be sexist! We are only saved from our sexist thoughts when some inventor suggests, "Where no one has gone before."

Pinker points out the utter absurdity of this. He starts, naturally, by focusing on basics. Nearly all cultures have words that relate to fundamental colors ("black, white, red, etc."). People in varying cultures tie the words for those fundamental colors to the same external colors (i.e. everybody picks the same crayon for "red"). In other words, the differing words for the colors don't create a differing understanding of color. Human wiring precedes language.

Pinker tackles the myth that the Eskimos have ever so many words for snow. First of all, the myth is false. The Eskimos have as many differing words for frozen falling water as, well, everybody does (snow, sleet, blizzard, etc.). Pinker quotes from an extremely funny essay by Geoffrey Pullum, who points out how utterly non-amazing this apparent cultural glorification of snow would be--if it was even true:
Horsebreeders have various names for breeds, sizes, and ages of horses; botanists have names for leaf shapes; interior decorators have names for shades...printers have many different names for fonts. [Take] the earnest assertion "It is quite obvious that in the culture of the Eskimos...snow is of great enough importance to split up the conceptual sphere that corresponds to one word..." Imagine reading: "It is quite obvious in the culture of printers...fonts are of great enough importance to split up the conceptual sphere that corresponds to one word..." Utterly boring, even if true. 
C.S. Lewis's Boxen images
Language accommodates human need, not the other way around. Our thoughts are in fact more tangled than what language can satisfy.

In proof, Pinker points out that many people trace their process of thought--a process that ends with lingual communication--backwards NOT to language but to an image. Two examples (from my own reading) are C.S. Lewis who reported that he began the Narnia series with an image of a faun in the snow. And Stephen King who compares writing  novels to uncovering the buried bones of a dinosaur.

Faraday
A stunning number of scientists would agree. The few mentioned in Pinker's book include Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Nikola Tesla, Friedrich Kekule, Ernest Lawrence, James Watson & Francis Crick, and Albert Einstein. All of them "saw" solutions as images before writing them down in the available language. Based on my own research, mathematician Alicia Boole Stott apparently also visualized and crafted dimensions before she wrote down her theories and discoveries in the language of mathematics.

A geometer
Pinker doesn't make the comparison to religion (at least not in the particular chapter that I read) but the gap between what one "sees" (through dreams, visions, revelations, what-have-you) and what language is available to the writer (dreamer, visionary, revelator, etc.) explains a great deal of scripture, including the Book of Isaiah. It is far easier to understand such passages if one actually doesn't let the so-called left brain get in the way. Listen to Handel's Messiah first. Then try to reason it out. The part of the brain that understands without attaching a label to everything might actually get there first.

The point is: Our brains are not comprised of a bunch of refrigerator word magnets that were inserted into our brains by our culture. Language is way too symbolic, at its core, to reside in the brain quite so literally.

Since it is the Christmas season . . .

The Trope of the Interfering Matchmaker (and Why It Shouldn't Be Used)

A popular trope in romances in the interfering matchmaker--this is the friend, parent (mother/father), sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent . . . who decides to bring a couple together (whether they want it or not).

It is a powerful trope with a long history. The 1940 version of Pride & Prejudice dropped the original intransigence of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in favor of this trope: her descent on Elizabeth isn't clueless outrage but clever information gathering.

Austen knew: romance is private, not public.
Austen herself backed away from this device. She dumped the original ending of Persuasion which relied on well-wishers forcing Ann and her captain to meet and talk. She used the impressive and now-iconic letter scene instead.

Austen was wise. The problem with the interfering matchmaker is that it shares a problematic coin with the interfering naysayer. If people are judged by action rather than intent, the machinations and pressures of the matchmaker don't look all that different from the machinations and pressures of the villain (different side of the same coin). In both cases, someone believes that he or she knows best! The only distinction becomes whether or not the couple wanted the result.

Human nature being what it is--sometimes, people aren't sure. For all we know, a not-dead and wiser Juliet may have thanked God that interfering Friar Laurence's "help" didn't work out while her parents' interfering "commands" did. I can't believe that I fell for that immature Montague. I'm so much happier in my marriage to Count Paris.

The freedom sought by Austen and Bronte--for women and men to choose their own mates--is a freedom worth preserving, at least literarily. A novel full of pushy, designing friends and family may be clever. In the long run, it may not bode well for a movie/book's primary relationship. 

Hilarious Christmas Moment: Vicar of Dibley

One of my favorite Vicar of Dibley moments is the Tinselitus joke. Sure, it's an oldie-but-goodie. What amuses me to no end is how Alice (Emma Chambers) responds to the joke.
Gerry: What do you get if you eat Christmas decorations?
Alice: I don't know. What?
Gerry: Tinselitus!
Alice: Oh, dear, I'd better be careful, then.
Gerry: What about?
Alice: Eating Christmas decorations - I'd no idea it was bad for you.
Gerry: What?!
Alice: You get tinselitus!
Gerry: Yes, which is a made-up disease!
Alice: Oh, It's all very well YOU saying it's all in the mind, but for people who have tinselitus, it's painfully real.
Gerry: Stop right there, Alice.
Alice: Of course they shouldn't eat the Christmas decorations in the first place, but once they have wolfed down a couple of Santas, society shouldn't punish them.
Gerry: Are you interested in being alive on New Year's Day?
Alice: I can't bear to think about it actually. It always happens at Christmas: everyone else is happy, and there in the loneliness of their bedrooms, with little bits of bauble and angels sticking out of their mouths--the forgotten millions, the victims of tinselitus, or TI as we call it.
Gerry: I'm beginning to think that, Herod had the right idea - kill 'em when they're young. It's the kindest thing to do.
The hilarious bit, of course, is Alice's hysterical reaction: "TI as we call it . . . little bits of bauble and angels sticking out of their mouths." In fact, Alice's deconstructions of Gerry's comedy is largely the point of the jokes.

The Wild Wonder of Language, Part 1

My chosen book for the 400s in The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, and it is so packed with ideas and insights that I will be posting about it in parts.

Pinker's basic argument is that language acquisition--how people learn and use language--is the ultimate pro-nature defense. Rather than being a skill imposed from above through education (nurture), children come equipped with the wiring to not only acquire but improve language.

Children brought up in households where the language is grammatically limited improve the language beyond the ability of their parents. Here are two stunning examples from the book: a child brought up by two parents who spoke pidgin, did not in fact speak pidgin but altered the language of his parents to speak creole (which includes more grammatical complexity). Likewise, a severely deaf child brought up by two parents with rough ASL skills, nevertheless improved and surpassed his parents' limited sign language.

Ah, but those children must have had contact with a peer group! is the nurture argument. However, in the last case, the child was almost entirely limited to what he received from his parents. Pinker does acknowledge that children need exposure to language in order to be able to effectively utilize it (for the same reason that adults have so much trouble learning a language later in life). The point is: even the mildest exposure results in the child's ability to go further, to make the language what the child needs it to be to communicate a range of needs and ideas.

All the imposed education in the world cannot do what the brain's wiring does naturally and effectively. Likewise, human beings still struggle to create a computer program that can produce language as naturally and effectively as the brains of the humans creating that program (though Google mail sure is trying). As Pinker states, "Higher percentages of grammatical sentences [were discovered during the study] in working-class speech than in middle-class speech. The highest percentage of ungrammatical sentences was found in the proceedings of learned academic conferences."

Weird Random Stuff: Word and Pinterest

I still own a copy of Roget's Pocket Thesaurus--
which has an excuse for its coyness.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who has noticed that Word's thesaurus does not have "dirty" (salacious) or "mean" (inconsiderate) words--

Nope, using Word's thesaurus, you can't get synonyms for "sex" (other than "gender") or "breast" (yup, I'm serious), and if you try the word "jerk," you will get all the words related to the action but nothing related to obnoxiousness.

I guess Word doesn't want to get hate mail from parents convinced that their child only learned the word from Word. 

For more complete dictionaries/thesauri, check out Google! And Onelook.

* * *

When I hunt for images in Google, I negative Pinterest.

Yup, I use "-Pinterest" in the search to avoid getting pictures from Pinterest. I'm sorry, Pinterest users, but good grief, that site overwhelms any image search.

The problem being, Pinterest post-ers don't cite their stuff. A Pinterest post will claim that an image is a picture of Queen Victoria when she was three, but there is often zero corroborating evidence.

It's highly irritating.

Wikipedia Commons is a much better bet.

More on Edith Thompson: Alma Rattenbury

An interesting contrast to Edith Thompson is Francis Rattenbury's wife, Alma. Her overwrought 18-year-old lover, Stoner, hit Mr. Rattenbury over the head with a mallet out of jealousy. 
The household had an unconventional arrangement--Mr. Rattenbury was more or less aware that his wife had a lover or at least a kind of cicisbeo.

Alma was over 15 years Stoner's senior (32 years younger than her husband) and prone to melodrama. As the affair wore on, and Stoner proved to be more peevish and demanding than swooning and understanding, she tried to break up with him. She took him back because she believed his (false) story that he was on drugs,  and she wanted to cure him. It is entirely likely that she knew Stoner was full of it. But, eh, it was exciting.

The entire household was rather like the sitcom Soap come to real life--an endless parade of arguments and sensation that the people involved rather took for granted.

The difference to Edith Thompson is that Alma Rattenbury took full responsibility for Stoner's behavior. She knew exactly why he'd done what he did, the petulant brat that he was. She knew that although she had never promised Stoner anything, her waffling and spoiling had created a monster of jealousy and entitlement. She wasn't executed (and shouldn't have been). Yet she sadly killed herself within days of her acquittal. 
It's odd to think of criminals in history getting
older but Stoner was released from prison
in 1942 to fight in the war. He died in 2000.
Laura Thompson naturally blames the mean, mean court for Rattenbury's suicide as well as the public's social outrage at Stoner's supposed youthful innocence. However, it is obvious from the police reports and court transcripts that right off the bat, Mrs. Rattenbury was a suicide risk. She didn't see the murder coming. The moment it did, she felt awful and faced quite honestly her part in things.

Unlike Edith Thompson, Mrs. Rattenbury likely would have listened to outside intervention, someone saying, "Oh, my gosh, dump that boy already. What are you doing?!" Social pressure in Mrs. Rattenbury's case may have done her a great deal of good.

I think Edith Thompson would have gone out and found herself another Bywaters.

Great-Sit Com Moment: Frasier Again

In "Caught in the Act," Frasier's ex-wife Nanny G, played by the hilarious Laurie Metcalf (who plays Sheldon's mom on Big Bang Theory) shows up to complicate Frasier's life. Frasier and she are nearly caught in flagrante delicto right before her children's show (the episode is very Italian opera--yup, even the silly bits!). They improvise (Frasier plays a baby), but the husband catches on.

What I find absolutely hilarious about this episode is not just the baby improvisation (though that moment proves that all great actors are capable of playing utter fools) but the moment during the end credits. Frasier is hiding from the husband in the area beneath the stage. The actors from the children's show are hanging out there playing cards. They protect Frasier and shake hands with him as he leaves.

The reason I find this so funny/insightful is the ordinary reality of it all. Despite the glamor imposed on the business, acting--even as a panda, kangaroo, and bunny--involves ordinary human beings.

I'm not referring to intentionally salacious and SHOCKING rumors about childhood icons (Mr. Rogers was a Green Beret! Barney deals drugs!). Such rumors don't interest me as much as the normal, day-to-day reality of any group of people working on any show. They might love their jobs. They might be pure and endlessly sweet-tempered. They may also be ordinary individuals who work hard and behave like people usually do from the good to the silly and mundane. 

I'm reminded of a commentary in which an actor complains about directors who show up and more or less "phone in" their time on the set. The myth of the passionate, edgy director is so prevalent, it's easy to forget that directing is, in fact, a gig. I'm being paid to . . . Not only are some directors better than others, some can actually be slackers.

Along the same lines, it's easy to forget that actors don't automatically have the same relationships off-screen as the ones we see on-screen every episode. That doesn't make the actors bad people. It simply means that to them, the script and lines and such are a job. It's a bonus if everyone likes each other. It's not the end of the world if they don't.

In fact, it's a bigger end if they lose the job. Even when an actor is fairly bad at acting, I'm still sad when he or she gets killed off (let go). I always worry, Will they find another job? Soon? 

Thanks to Frasier for reminding us, Actors are people too.

Weird Bones Grammar Moment

In the episode with the dog (one of my favorites since, well, dogs; plus Cesar Millan shows up),
Bones and Booth visit the murdered veterinarian's office. Bones and the assistant have the following exchange:

BOOTH: So you slept together?
KAREN: He's divorced, I'm single. There's nothing enervating about it.
BRENNAN: Oh, for future reference, that word doesn't mean what you think.

This exchange is evidence that scripts are written by people who love language and love to argue about it. (Can't you see a bunch of staff writers arguing over periods and word choices in a studio backroom? I can).

Because nobody says "enervating" at all. Nobody. I've never heard an ordinary person on the street use it, no matter their educational background. Not even people who read a ton.

It sounds like an insider writer's joke to me!

Thanks to my dad's research, here is a cute poem from Merriam-Webster (composed for the edification of all word lovers):
There once was a term which could vex,
Bewilder, and really perplex;
This word, enervated,
Is close to deflated;
Once you get it it’s not so complex.
He's actually a very nice dog...He reminds me of you...
He's got warm and reassuring brown eyes, and he's capable of great violence.

The Problem with Theory: Laura Thompson and Edith Thompson

I enjoyed Laura Thompson's biography of Agatha Christie. And I enjoy true crime analysis. So I decided to give her The Tale of Two Murders about Edith Thompson a try.

Edith Thompson supposedly incited her lover, Frederick Bywaters to kill Edith's husband, Percy. Think To Die For, only the incitement is the unwitting letters of a self-dramatizing, imaginative egotist rather than the more concrete and deliberate manipulations of a cold-blooded killer.

Laura Thompson's perspective is that Edith Thompson was hung due to hysteria and prejudice. She is correct. There was no evidence-based reason to hang Edith Thompson. Bywaters stated quite emphatically that the letters had not motivated him. He never really believed in them anyway (Bywaters appears to have been remarkably insightful regarding the nature of his lover).

Freddy, Edith, and Percy
Laura Thompson approaches the murder and its background through the lens of an overarching theory, namely that class and gender assumptions mingled to create a failure of imagination and understanding by the public, the jury, the judge, and the British legal system. Again, she isn't wrong. By the time of the Rattenbury case approximately 12 years later, public opinion acknowledged that Edith Thompson's hanging had been a mistake. It was the result of mass condemnation rather than legal consideration. 

The problem with A Tale of Two Murders is not the main argument. Rather, the book illustrates what occurs when theory overrides sense. At one point, Thompson (the author) relates the reaction of Edith's sister, Avis, to hearing her sister's letters. In particular, Thompson references a letter where Edith invented a dramatic quarrel between family members (over Bywaters) that never occurred.

The sister's reaction several decades later: "I just couldn't believe that my sister...could have lent her name to anything like this. I--disbelieved her writing the letters...It was her writing! I saw them. That was the only thing that convinced me. Because I said--she never wrote those letters. I said so...I couldn't lift my head up. I couldn't believe it. It knocked me back to such an extent."

Ha! Ha! proclaims Laura Thompson. Evidence of class pressure!
That was the reaction of her class, sad and humbled and ashamed, hopelessly in thrall to the opinions of other people whom one cannot escape. (70)
In fact, Sayers' The Documents in
the Case does a fantastic job capturing
the irresponsible cluelessness of an 
Edith Thompson.
At which point, I could no longer take The Tale of Two Murders seriously.

Yes, class played a part in the whole matter. But I'm not a fan of reducing people's statements to knee-jerk class reactions. I think it is small-minded and patronizing, the opposite of insightful.

I take Avis seriously. Every time I read her words, what strikes me is the sheer devastation of her reaction: "I--disbelieved her writing the letters...It knocked me back..."

Edith Thompson was not writing her letters filled with fake  quarrels and poisoning for anyone but Bywaters. Unlike Dorothy Sayers--who objectively turned her personal, private scandal into a book (Strong Poison)--Edith Thompson was not writing for posterity, as Laura Thompson rightly argues. Edith was barely writing for Bywaters. She was writing entirely for herself, sending off her letters (emails) into a void. Nearly eighty years later, she'd have started a Facebook account. Or tweeted. Or something.

That doesn't make the shock of what she wrote any less real and painful to a family member. Edith didn't invent entirely new stories to gratify herself. She used the people around her--a real lover, real parents, real husband, real sister--as fodder to feed her needs. She put words into Avis's mouth. She made her own sister a player in Edith's personal, private, dramatic theater.

There is a slipperiness here, a lack of basic honesty that would confuse any relation. The bright, flirtatious, fun-loving sister becomes a cipher, a person without definite edges. Do I even know her?

Consider family members who bring accusations of abuse that all other family members deny. Consider Yul Brynner whose outrageous deceits about his past went unprotested in the Hollywood of his day yet created for his son a sense of unreality. Who exactly was my dad? Consider Mary McCarthy relating quite matter-of-factly in Memories of a Catholic Childhood the failure of several siblings to remember events that took place years earlier even though they were all present at the time. McCarthy reflects on the problem of memory, why agreement would matter--or not.

Edith Thompson's "creativity" didn't evoke pleasure. It evoked confusion, even atavistic distaste. This type of reaction is basic, human, real. Avis's reaction is heartfelt, comprehensible. "I--disbelieved her writing the letters."

Yet Laura Thompson missed it.

Perhaps she would argue (as so many people in my student college courses did) that oh, sure, yes, the human element is important but it's the social-political reality that makes the difference.

I contend that it is the other way around. I think people reacted to Edith Thompson as a self-indulgent egotistical liar at an utterly base, human level, then went looking for social and political excuses to condemn her. Condemning people based on dislike is hardly legal--or ethical. But a failure to acknowledge how and why Edith Thompson's behavior and letters disturbed her family and others at a human level doesn't help. And a failure to hold her to some (any) account (Didn't she care at all what Bywaters might believe?) doesn't help women at all. We're responsible human beings, not mere class/gendered products to be patronized or defended. 

Maybe Laura Thompson gets there eventually, but it's a long book to not get there quicker.

Even When They're Bad Guys, I Like Them

Of course, it could make a
difference that I met Ted Levine
as Captain Stottlemeyer before
I watched Silence of the Lambs.
When I watched the first season of Without a Trace, I despised Anthony LaPaglia's character Jack Malone. I thought I would never like the actor in anything.

Then I saw Anthony LaPaglia as Simon Moon in Fraiser. He was hilarious!

Still, Anthony LaPaglia as Malone and Anthony LaPaglia as Simon remain entirely separate in my mind.

And then there's the amazing John Noble who always chills me. And John Glover, who always kind of creeps me out. And let's face it: they play chilling and creepy characters.

Every now and again, however, there's an actor I love no matter what role that actor plays: bad, good, whatever.

Here are three examples:

David Zayas makes appearances as a good guy and a bad guy, namely the talkative landlord in Person of Interest and an episode's murderer in Elementary. I adore him. I love his voice. He could show up as an elevator man, and I would be happy. (And yes, I even like him as the unlikable politician on Blue Bloods.)

Bruce Altman was one of Law & Order's regulars. He also shows up in Elementary. He tends to play ambiguous, sometimes amoral characters. He always strikes me as subtly sympathetic, no matter whom he plays.

And yes, he is also a politician on Blue Bloods (hmmm, I'm beginning to note a pattern here).

Ato Essandoh--who was born in my birth place of Schenectady, New York--is a fantastic actor. He plays Elementary's Alfredo, Sherlock's first sponsor and a definite good guy. On Blue Bloods, he plays Reverend Potter.

Reverend Potter is not exactly a bad guy. The writers give him more complexity than that. I generally dislike manipulative political characters (in real life too). With Essandoh, I listen a little closer because, well, its Essandoh. He has this captivating warmth that fills the role.

People who hire actors for even minor parts are well-aware of their reputations and prior roles. Whom they hire communicates a long-term vision or desired effect: do they want us to secretly love the character no matter what? That means something.

Great Psych Language Moment

Television scripts (even more than movie scripts) are written by people who love language. And they are constantly commenting on it.

In the episode "Bounty Hunters!" (with the exclamation point) from Psych, Sean and Gus get into a discussion on what to call the thing- that-people-carry-that-usually-contains-business-papers.
Satchel?
Bag?
Attache?
Briefcase?
It's not just about denotation--the actual definition. It's about connotation--the word's associations. Does "attache" sound more refined than "bag"? What comes to mind when a person hears "satchel"? What about "briefcase"? Or is that just too generic and uninspired?

It's a very cute moment. And instructive!

Television We Recognize: The Workplace in Leverage

To a greater extent than makes us sensitive humans comfortable, we rely on cliches--or at least tropes--to understand the world. Humans create culture. Culture creates repetitive behavior. Recognizing that repetitive behavior brings people together either to protest or laugh.

One of my favorite examples of tropes being used for laughter occurs in the first season of Leverage. In a single episode, "The Mile High Job," Hardison (Aldis Hodge) enters a workplace (with fish), starts break-room gossip, holds a meeting full of pointless jargon, has a birthday party, and gets fired.

It's utterly hilarious because it is so entirely recognizable.

The break-room gossip? About video games and who likes whom.

The meeting with pointless jargon? A PowerPoint with a graph and Hardison proclaiming growth for the next year.

The birthday party? Hats and cake--what else?

The firing? Hardison stands in the hallway yelling at an invisible boss while carrying a box of "personal" items.

"Oh, I always liked him," says one employee as he leaves.

"I didn't," says another.

He has been working at the place less than 8 hours.

Meanwhile, the audience nods and sighs and says, "Been there! Done that!"


Halloween Picture in Portland, Maine

I love this celebration of Halloween in Portland, Maine! Everyone should have a dragon on the roof!!


Using the Domestic to Illustrate the Profound: Fusco on Person of Interest

So I am watching Person of Interest, Season 1 for the hundredth time (actually, more like the fourth time). And I've been struck by how similar Fusco is to Reese.

Like Reese and the CIA, Fusco was drawn into his life as a dirty cop almost by accident. Just as Reese signed up for service in the CIA out of loyalty to his country and then found himself dragged further and further into darkness, Fusco agreed to help fellow cops out of loyalty and then found himself dragged further and further into petty corruption.

Like Reese, Fusco would prefer to be good and has an instinctive understanding of it. Unlike his fellow dirty cops, he doesn't rationalize his behavior--he knows what he is and what he has done. He knows HR is corrupt. He even attempts to undermine it in subtle ways.

Like Reese, Fusco accepts that his past behavior may come back to haunt him. At the end of "Blue Code," Fusco delivers one of the most gosh-darn heroic noir speeches in all of television. Speaking to Davidson, he states, "You ever been shot? Craziest things go through your mind. Glad I put on clean underwear, hid that stash of porn. Sorry that your son had to find out that his old man was a dirty cop. Then you realize you're gonna die. And try to go down doing something good."

And at the end of "Matsya Nyaya," he says to Reese, "I got this one. I shot him with her gun . . . I was always good at this. That's why you picked me in the first place. Remember?"

Reese is immediately catapulted back in time to when he was betrayed by the CIA and his own partner. Looking at Fusco, he realizes that he has used Fusco in much the same way he was used, that he intends to go on using Fusco, and that Fusco fully accepts the reality of his situation (moreso even than Reese did).

It's remarkable characterization and accomplishes something I always enjoy with mysteries: the thematic elements of the large case (which most of us can't really relate to because we aren't billionaires and we don't get messages from omniscient machines) are reflected in the ordinary and everyday. Fusco is Reese at the mundane level--which makes him a character par excellence.