Prelude To Murder: Answers And Comments

In my last post, I asked my readers to spot all of the clues/mystery tropes/mystery genre conventions in the passage below.  I said, rather mysteriously, that I counted between 12 and 16 of the things myself.  I now present you with my own list of Clues, Tropes, and Genre Conventions.  This is Cheating, as I wrote the passage myself, so I know exactly where the things are hidden (rather like hiding Easter Eggs and then finding them all yourself- Not Cricket), but… well, there it is.  Mouse over the footnotes, or scroll down to the end of the post, to read my explanations. 

Note: One or two of the footnotes aren’t working out perfectly on Mouse-Over.  Most of them do seem to work though, and all of the notes are also at the bottom of the page.

The Festering Blisters of Bleeding Hall

The party gathered at Sir Humphrey Blister’s ancestral estate that Christmas was ill-assorted and uncongenial. 1)#1.  The Ill-Assorted Gathering, Or, Why Has He Brought Us Here? Why indeed?  It is almost as if our host has some secret, sinister design…  It was almost as if Sir Humphrey had selected his guests from among the relations and connections of the large Blister clan at random- or, rather, not.  Random selection might have produced a certain amount of discomfort; this gathering was redolent of malice.  All participants in every really bitter family quarrel of the last thirty years were at Bleeding Hall that Christmas.  And we Blisters are grudge-holders.  That first afternoon saw each new guest, catching sight of a hated relative, diving into an empty room and staying there, sullenly awaiting the summons to tea.

And it was at tea that Edward Blister arrived.  This was very terrible.  You see, Edward Blister had been lost at sea almost seven years ago, 2)#2.  The Seven-Year Hitch.  Seven years is, at least in fiction, the time which must elapse before a missing person can be legally presumed dead.  Edward is thus being very unobliging, being alive after all just as his Heirs Presumptive have decided what new hats and things they’ll be getting with Edward’s money and we’d all thought him dead.  Edward was Sir Humphrey’s nephew, and, as Sir Humphrey was childless and the estate was entailed, Edward was also Sir Humphrey’s heir. 3)#3. The Missing Heir Returns.  This is almost always an antisocial thing to do, and is frequently a catalyst in murder mysteries  Edward had a small fortune of his own, and had never, so far as it was known, made a will.  4)#4. Intestacy! Edward was about to be presumed dead, and he hadn’t made a will; he would therefore have been assumed to have died Intestate, a situation much beloved by mystery writers   He was also a ghastly little tick whom nothing save Death would ever reform.  And there he was, alive, and obviously Edward Blister in the flesh.  Edward had inherited all of the less beautiful of the Blister physical characteristics, and the combination of these various disfigurements on one face was a sort of stamp of authenticity that could not be forged.  So there Edward was, and there was poor Augustus Blister, the heir that would have been, disinherited, and crying quietly into his tea, while Maude Fitzblister, a kind of cousin, and Augustus’s fiance, glared murderously at the interloper.

At dinner, our host was provoking even for a Baronet. 5)#5. Baronets, Forsooth! See B is for… Baronet for more information on The Baronet Problem

“Mercer,” he crowed at his abruptly-summoned solicitor, 6)#6. The Abruptly-Summoned Solicitor.  Solicitors are summoned to family gatherings for but one reason in mystery novels: to re-write wills.  Someone has annoyed Sir Humphrey, and Sir Humphrey is determined to annoy them right back  “Since you’ve been brought down here on such short notice, we’ve had to put you in the Tower Room.  It has, I fear, bats.  A great many bats.  Ha ha!  Edward, you will have the best bedroom.  Augustus, you may sleep in the Blue Room.” 7)#7. The Bedroom Shuffle.  When a host goes into detail about sleeping accommodations, and especially if the details include a Change of Plans, look out for a corpse in the morning.  The Bedroom Shuffle may have any of several different rationales and effects.  Sometimes The Wrong Person will be killed; in this case, the intelligent sleuth will look for the man who didn’t know who was sleeping where.  Sometimes a Secret Passage leads to one of the bedrooms, though that is a bit Old Hat.  Sometimes a Potential Victim will swap bedrooms with someone else in order to evade assassination. And Sir Humphrey turned his attention to his curry, 8)#8. The Heavily-Spiced Dish.  Curry is generally stuffed with poison in murder mysteries- the intense flavor masks the taste of the poison. which he ate greedily.

Augustus went pale.  “But Uncle- it is haunted!” 9)#9. Haunted!  Ghosts are part of the fabric of a particular sort of mystery novel.  This is probably a lingering tendency from an earlier tradition, the Gothic Novel, in which the eerie and the murderous are all part of some innocent heroine’s Very Bad Week-End In The Country.

Sir Humphrey nodded abstractedly.  “Yes, yes.  Oh, yes.  Very haunted.  Dangerously haunted.  Funny thing, that.  Most ghosts nowadays don’t seem to be able to swing a battle-axe for toffee.  Letitia,” and he scowled at Lady Blister, who sat, pale and beautiful, at the other end of the table, “you will be accommodated in the stables.”  10)#10. Domestic Blisters.  Being publicly horrible to one’s wife generally means that you are either the victim-to-be or the murderer.

Lady Blister shivered and said nothing.  Steven Forthright, who had wooed and lost Letitia, and was still hopelessly devoted to her, leaped to his feet and told Sir Humphrey exactly what he thought of him, using a butter knife brandished in air to add emphasis to his invective.  11)#11.  The Faithful Swain.  A manly fellow, silent but strong, who is ever-faithful to the woman he loves, though she has Married Another.  He will be suspected if the husband of the beloved is the victim, but he won’t have done it.  His role is to console the widow after the death of her awful husband, and he will probably marry her, though the novel generally gets bored of these two and ends before this actually happens on the page.

Sir Humphrey cackled pruriently and made an alternate suggestion about the accommodation of both Mr. Forthright and Lady Blister that made us all blush.  Then he dismissed the subject with a negligent gesture.  “Mercer, pray come to my study at midnight- 12)#12. The Midnight Deadline.  Sir Humphrey has just told his disinherited-relatives-to-be exactly when and where the will will be re-written.  This is handy for anyone who wants to put a knife in him before this happens. we’ll draft up that new will.”  And Sir Humphrey rose as if to leave us.

“Oh, and Donaldson, I’d like to see you in my study at ten.  We have,” and Sir Humphrey smiled a truly nasty smile, “accounts to settle.” 13)#13.  Known!  All Known!  Sir Humphrey has caught Donaldson fiddling the accounts.  He has just told Donaldson this, publicly, by imbuing normal-sounding words with Heavy Significance.  The Detective will eventually remember this conversation and wonder what it could possibly have meant.  Sir Humphrey has also made a second appointment in his study, this one at ten.  This probably means he’ll be in his study for the whole of the later part of the evening.  If I were the murderer, I’d swing by the study at just past eleven.  He ought to be done with the wretched Donaldson by then, and Mercer won’t come for almost an hour, which would give me a comfortable margin for the planting of false clues and other wickednesses.  That is, unless I were both the murderer and Donaldson.  But I wouldn’t advise Donaldson to be the murderer; he is an obvious suspect, and known to have been in the study.

Now, I wondered, why did Donaldson turn pale at that?  The man is Sir Humphrey’s financial chap, after all- the remark sounded innocent enough.  I thought of these things, and of other matters, as I strolled along the veranda that night, enjoying the new crispness in the air that heralded a coming snowstorm.  And apparently I wasn’t the only one who liked a bit of fresh air; there, leaning up against the railing and listlessly smoking a cigarette, was Reginald Arkwright, a kind of cousin, and an old schoolmate of mine.  I reflected on those days, remembering that Arkwright had been, back then, a really excellent mimic. 14)#14. The Excellent Mimic.  Whenever you see the words “excellent mimic” attached to a character in a murder mystery, keep your eye on that character! S/he will be mimicking like mad soon, luring people to their dooms, or merely confusing people about the time of death.  “He couldn’t have been dead at twelve, because at twelve I was talking to him on the phone!” – this is No Good as a clue if you have an Excellent Mimic in the vicinity.  The Excellent Mimic has a related trope, The Actor, which I didn’t include in this passage because they are pretty similar.  That sweet, charming, innocent character, who was, in his or her youth, an actor- is probably still acting.  This might mean that this person’s whole personality is an act, or it might mean that the person’s shock and surprise at the discovery of the body is an act. I wondered if that were still the case.

“Hello Fatty,” I said.  “Just digesting, or what?”

“Thinking, Ugly, thinking.  Of this rummy gathering, and all the rummy undercurrents.”

“Oh, come!” I said, with a falsely hearty laugh.  “I admit this gathering isn’t exactly friendly, but…”

“Friendly?”  Arkwright spoke with savage intensity.  “I wouldn’t be surprised,” he continued, in a lethal hiss, “if there were murder done this night!” 15)#15. The Prophetic Declaration.  It will be proved correct.  And, turning on his heels, he marched off into the house.  I soon followed- and confronted in the dimness of the front hall something that made me momentarily certain that I had gone quite mad.

For two Lady Blisters seemed to be conferring there in the high-ceilinged gloom.  Two women with that distinctive pale gold hair and with Lady Blister’s slender elegance of figure shone out at me like two diamonds on a pillow of black velvet.  16)#16. A Lower-Class Look-Alike.  Gladys, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re kind of doomed.  You see, the author does not want to kill off Lady Blister.  It would upset Mr. Forthright, and all of the author’s plans for marrying Lady Blister off to him at the end would also be upset.  But if someone is trying to kill Lady Blister… well, a murder mystery does rather require a corpse.  The clever author has therefore created you, Gladys, The Lower-Class Look-Alike of Lady Blister, to provide the murder mystery with a murder.  Gladys will be killed by mistake by someone trying  to kill Lady Blister.  Of course, the Gladys figure does not have to be a servant- but she generally is either a servant or a poor relation, for reasons I will not go into here but may potentially explore in the future.

As I approached, I saw that one was weeping, the other reassuring.

As I came still nearer, the illusion was destroyed, for the one who was weeping cried out, in a rough country voice that was utterly unlike Lady Blister’s dulcet tones, “Oh madam- I must go to ‘er!  And Doctor Brigand says as it’s urgent, as she’s not likely to last the night.”

Lady Blister smiled beatifically.  “Of course you must go, Gladys.  There, there, now don’t cry any more- you must be a brave girl and go do your duty by your Aunt.  She is down in the village, isn’t she?”  Gladys nodded wordlessly.  “Well then- you won’t have so far to walk.  But you can’t go in those thin cotton things- we can’t have you catching a chill, you know!  Haven’t you got a better coat than that?”

Gladys indicated that she did not. 

“Then wait here,” said Lady Blister.  I was in an awkward position: the weeping girl was between me and the stairs up to my bedroom.  And I was still feeling dazed by the strangeness of that moment when I’d thought I was looking at two Lady Blisters.  I therefore stayed put, hidden in the shadows, reflecting on the odd similarity of the two women- a similarity that vanished as soon as you saw their faces.  Presently, Lady Blister returned, carrying with her the vivid peacock-blue coat that she always wore in the winter.  “Here Gladys, you may borrow this.  It is very warm.”

“But your Ladyship-“

“I insist.”

Gladys put the coat on, 17)#17. The Doom of the Borrowed Signature Garment.  Gladys, you poor sap!  No!  Don’t put the coat on!  Too late… and she is going to display a touching level of gratitude, too, which will wring Lady Blister’s heart when she realizes why Gladys was pushed off that cliff path to her death.  Do not allow anyone to lend you garments in mystery novels, especially if the garment is unusual, distinctive-looking, and strongly associated with its owner.  And extra-especially if you look like the owner.  Gladys is about to walk down a dark path towards the stables- where, if you remember, Sir Humphrey suggested that Lady Blister might sleep- in Lady Blister’s fancy coat.  Anyone who wants to kill Lady Blister will see her distinctive jacket bobbing off stable-wards, grab his trusty Ornate Dagger, and follow her in the dark, thanking his lucky stars that things have been made so easy for him.  and ran her fingers over the elaborate gold braiding with which it was trimmed.  “Oh thank you!  Pretty, it is.”  And she headed out the door and started out along the cliff path that leads past the stables to the village of Bleeding Parva.

********

References   [ + ]

1. #1.  The Ill-Assorted Gathering, Or, Why Has He Brought Us Here? Why indeed?  It is almost as if our host has some secret, sinister design…
2. #2.  The Seven-Year Hitch.  Seven years is, at least in fiction, the time which must elapse before a missing person can be legally presumed dead.  Edward is thus being very unobliging, being alive after all just as his Heirs Presumptive have decided what new hats and things they’ll be getting with Edward’s money
3. #3. The Missing Heir Returns.  This is almost always an antisocial thing to do, and is frequently a catalyst in murder mysteries
4. #4. Intestacy! Edward was about to be presumed dead, and he hadn’t made a will; he would therefore have been assumed to have died Intestate, a situation much beloved by mystery writers
5. #5. Baronets, Forsooth! See B is for… Baronet for more information on The Baronet Problem
6. #6. The Abruptly-Summoned Solicitor.  Solicitors are summoned to family gatherings for but one reason in mystery novels: to re-write wills.  Someone has annoyed Sir Humphrey, and Sir Humphrey is determined to annoy them right back
7. #7. The Bedroom Shuffle.  When a host goes into detail about sleeping accommodations, and especially if the details include a Change of Plans, look out for a corpse in the morning.  The Bedroom Shuffle may have any of several different rationales and effects.  Sometimes The Wrong Person will be killed; in this case, the intelligent sleuth will look for the man who didn’t know who was sleeping where.  Sometimes a Secret Passage leads to one of the bedrooms, though that is a bit Old Hat.  Sometimes a Potential Victim will swap bedrooms with someone else in order to evade assassination.
8. #8. The Heavily-Spiced Dish.  Curry is generally stuffed with poison in murder mysteries- the intense flavor masks the taste of the poison.
9. #9. Haunted!  Ghosts are part of the fabric of a particular sort of mystery novel.  This is probably a lingering tendency from an earlier tradition, the Gothic Novel, in which the eerie and the murderous are all part of some innocent heroine’s Very Bad Week-End In The Country.
10. #10. Domestic Blisters.  Being publicly horrible to one’s wife generally means that you are either the victim-to-be or the murderer.
11. #11.  The Faithful Swain.  A manly fellow, silent but strong, who is ever-faithful to the woman he loves, though she has Married Another.  He will be suspected if the husband of the beloved is the victim, but he won’t have done it.  His role is to console the widow after the death of her awful husband, and he will probably marry her, though the novel generally gets bored of these two and ends before this actually happens on the page.
12. #12. The Midnight Deadline.  Sir Humphrey has just told his disinherited-relatives-to-be exactly when and where the will will be re-written.  This is handy for anyone who wants to put a knife in him before this happens.
13. #13.  Known!  All Known!  Sir Humphrey has caught Donaldson fiddling the accounts.  He has just told Donaldson this, publicly, by imbuing normal-sounding words with Heavy Significance.  The Detective will eventually remember this conversation and wonder what it could possibly have meant.  Sir Humphrey has also made a second appointment in his study, this one at ten.  This probably means he’ll be in his study for the whole of the later part of the evening.  If I were the murderer, I’d swing by the study at just past eleven.  He ought to be done with the wretched Donaldson by then, and Mercer won’t come for almost an hour, which would give me a comfortable margin for the planting of false clues and other wickednesses.  That is, unless I were both the murderer and Donaldson.  But I wouldn’t advise Donaldson to be the murderer; he is an obvious suspect, and known to have been in the study.
14. #14. The Excellent Mimic.  Whenever you see the words “excellent mimic” attached to a character in a murder mystery, keep your eye on that character! S/he will be mimicking like mad soon, luring people to their dooms, or merely confusing people about the time of death.  “He couldn’t have been dead at twelve, because at twelve I was talking to him on the phone!” – this is No Good as a clue if you have an Excellent Mimic in the vicinity.  The Excellent Mimic has a related trope, The Actor, which I didn’t include in this passage because they are pretty similar.  That sweet, charming, innocent character, who was, in his or her youth, an actor- is probably still acting.  This might mean that this person’s whole personality is an act, or it might mean that the person’s shock and surprise at the discovery of the body is an act.
15. #15. The Prophetic Declaration.  It will be proved correct.
16. #16. A Lower-Class Look-Alike.  Gladys, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re kind of doomed.  You see, the author does not want to kill off Lady Blister.  It would upset Mr. Forthright, and all of the author’s plans for marrying Lady Blister off to him at the end would also be upset.  But if someone is trying to kill Lady Blister… well, a murder mystery does rather require a corpse.  The clever author has therefore created you, Gladys, The Lower-Class Look-Alike of Lady Blister, to provide the murder mystery with a murder.  Gladys will be killed by mistake by someone trying  to kill Lady Blister.  Of course, the Gladys figure does not have to be a servant- but she generally is either a servant or a poor relation, for reasons I will not go into here but may potentially explore in the future.
17. #17. The Doom of the Borrowed Signature Garment.  Gladys, you poor sap!  No!  Don’t put the coat on!  Too late… and she is going to display a touching level of gratitude, too, which will wring Lady Blister’s heart when she realizes why Gladys was pushed off that cliff path to her death.  Do not allow anyone to lend you garments in mystery novels, especially if the garment is unusual, distinctive-looking, and strongly associated with its owner.  And extra-especially if you look like the owner.  Gladys is about to walk down a dark path towards the stables- where, if you remember, Sir Humphrey suggested that Lady Blister might sleep- in Lady Blister’s fancy coat.  Anyone who wants to kill Lady Blister will see her distinctive jacket bobbing off stable-wards, grab his trusty Ornate Dagger, and follow her in the dark, thanking his lucky stars that things have been made so easy for him.
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