The Tall House Mystery, by A. Fielding (1933)

The Tall House Mystery, by A. Fielding (1933)

Author: Possibly the most interesting mystery connected with this novel is the identity of A. Fielding, sometimes A. E. Fielding. Many sources give the A. as standing for Archibald, but there is also a body of opinion that suggests that Lady Dorothie Mary Evelyn Moore, nee Feilding (note the spelling difference), is responsible. This material would seem to suggest that Lady Dorothie cannot be the author — her grandson agrees that it’s not possible (see the comments section of the previous post linked in the first paragraph). Eminent mystery critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggests here, not entirely seriously I think, that since Lady Dorothie and Agatha Christie lived in the same street at the same time, Dame Agatha may have published under this pseudonym. I think it’s possible we’ll never know; your guess is as good as mine. Curtis Evans sums up the available evidence well and his article is worth your time if you’re interested.

imagePublication Data: This novel is in the public domain, at least for this Canadian, and I found a digital facsimile copy at Hathi Trust Digital Library, here.  The cover page, which I have reproduced for your visual interest since so few editions are available to show you, tells me that A. L. Burt published this book by arrangement with H. C. Kinsey & Co., another American publisher. No copies are available for sale that I could find on the Internet, at least of any edition prior to 2014. Below you will find a copy of the cover for a print-on-demand edition from CreateSpace under an imprint of “Resurrected Press”.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will give away large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

As is so often the case, the romantic involvements of a beautiful young woman drive this mystery. Miss Winnie Pratt, who today would be called a debutante, is being introduced to society under the guardianship of her mother, Mrs. Pratt. Winnie is an extraordinary beauty and has attracted the attention of many eligible bachelors. When she expresses a desire to stay “in town” in “a really old house with genuine period furnishings”, one young man finds a way to make that happen. A young solicitor, Moy, has a client who has such a furnished house for rent for a short period. The house is in Chelsea and is spoken of as having housed Angelica Kauffman and with a ceiling possibly painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which would make it approximately from the period 1760 to 1780. Apparently there are enough bedrooms on a single floor to house the party, so that the troupe of servants hired as a group from a vacationing householder will not be unduly stressed.  Moy has plans for himself and four other young men to rent Tall House each for a week and host Mrs. and Miss Pratt as their guests. The five renters include Moy, the very wealthy Mr. Haliburton, the silent and vaguely creepy Mr. Tark, mathematician and scientific writer Charles Ingram (whose half-brother Freddie is involved, but not as a renter), and Charles’s university roommate Gilmour, a civil servant. Charles and Haliburton are the principal suitors for Miss Pratt’s affections and the others are involved out of what might be politeness, or a sense of fun. Ingram is a well-known writer and expert on, among other things, codes and cyphers; Haliburton is enormously wealthy, and either will be a good match for the lovely Winnie.

When the party begins, Mrs. Pratt soon reveals that her preference is for her daughter to marry Haliburton and his money, rather than Ingram and his brains, and she asks Gilmour to stop encouraging Ingram’s pursuit of Winnie. Gilmour tells her that he himself has fallen in with the house rental in order to have a place to bring his own intended bride, Alfreda Longstaff, under the chaperonage of Mrs. Pratt; he hasn’t known Alfreda well or for long, but he tells Mrs. Pratt of his hope to marry her. Mrs. Pratt agrees to chaperone Miss Longstaff and gives Gilmour the impression that she is determined that Winnie’s marriage shall bring Haliburton’s money to Winnie, apparently because it is badly needed. Meanwhile, Ingram is working away furiously but secretively on his latest manuscript, some sort of mathematical or code-related treatise.

largeAs we meet Alfreda Longstaff, she reveals herself to be quite a different character than the beautiful but somewhat dim Winnie. Alfreda feels she is wasting away in her rural surroundings and longs to have a career of some sort. She’s also rather more displeased with the attentions of Gilmour than this gentleman knows. Apparently he came to rural Bispham and attracted her attentions for a month, then vanished without word. When he reappears abruptly some time later and announces his intention to marry her, she appears to agree — anything to escape Bispham! — but her internal monologue tells us that she is galled at having been ignored for so long and doesn’t really love Gilmour. Instead, since she has recently met a London journalist on the golf course, she wants to somehow find a “scoop” and thereby wangle a newspaper job. She tells Gilmour that she’ll stay with him at Tall House but promises nothing except to come to town for a fortnight.

Gilmour tells his fellow members of the rental syndicate about his affection for Alfreda and that he expects to marry her; Gilmour is apparently not picking up on the firm line of Alfreda’s mouth and the subtext that is clear to the reader, and we expect a future disappointment for Gilmour. Ingram’s half-brother Frederick is revealed to be short of money and is coming around to touch Charles for a fiver (and has done so on frequent occasions); Ingram also supports his brother-in-law Appleton, a former actor, in minor ways.

The house party’s mood is not enlivened by Alfreda’s arrival; indeed, the reader learns that Winnie is actually jealous of Gilmour’s obvious affection for the athletic but relatively unlovely Alfreda, and unaccountably means to encourage Gilmour’s attentions (much to the horror of her mother, since Gilmour has only his civil service salary). Alfreda, meanwhile, is engaged in a mysterious errand that involves her masquerading as a Miss Grey at a boarding house in Hammersmith and scraping acquaintance with a large middle-aged lady named Mrs. Findlay by pretending to be interested in Mrs. Findlay’s passion for disarmament. Mrs. Findlay is dubious, thinking that perhaps Alfreda is interested in a sum of money into which Mrs. Findlay has recently come, and asks the landlady to cooperate in helping her to avoid Alfreda.

A week after the arrival of Alfreda, the house party begins to discuss ghosts one night and it is revealed that Tall House, like many such antique homes, is said to be haunted, although by whom and for what reason is not mentioned. Gilmour reveals that if he sees a ghost he is likely to shoot at it since he had an unfortunate childhood experience with someone dressing up as a ghost, and ever since has been infuriated by ghost-related pranks. Of course, as the reader by now expects, a shot rings out in the middle of the night. Gilmour is found with a gun in his hand and dead on the floor nearby, wound in a sheet, is the mathematical Mr. Ingram.

Gilmour immediately reveals that he thought his pistol was loaded with blanks, before the arrival of Inspector Pointer. Alfreda also tells Gilmour that she cannot now marry him, much to his surprise, and she immediately races to a telephone to phone in the scoop to her newspaper friend. Now, at this point, I’ll be much less specific about plot developments; I think it’s likely that you will enjoy reading this book and I don’t want to spoil its surprises for you. I will say, though, that experienced mystery readers will immediately discount Gilmour as having been set up by a clever murderer; the fact that the bullet hole in the sheet around the deceased Ingram is in a very odd orientation will add to your suspicions. Added to which, it seems as though everyone in the house is searching for some mysterious slips of paper that Ingram had produced in his work, and we haven’t been told much about why. Two are found with some mysterious columns of words on them, “VON/OF/DE” and “HELL/LIGHT/CLAIRE”. Another slip appears to be a shred of cheap wallpaper. But the search for more slips of paper continues, even after all the secret compartments sewn into Ingram’s clothing are found empty. The value of various of the slips of paper becomes apparent two-thirds of the way through the book; it’s not exactly a red herring, but it won’t take you to the solution. Only a very, VERY careful reading of what people say to each other, and whether it is attested to or confirmed by others, will do that.

The clues take the clever Inspector Pointer to various London locations and eventually to a casino on the continent, but it is a small out-of-the-way cottage that reveals another corpse and an exciting finish, where Pointer must knock out a disguised murderer before a third life is lost.

41ykquzHhtL._SX200_Why is this book worth your time?

I’ll be honest and say that my expectations of this volume were not high. Although I hadn’t read a Fielding mystery before, I’d been told that they were from the Humdrum school so well represented by its foremost practitioner, Freeman Wills Croft. I rather felt that, had Freeman’s novels been truly superior examples of the kind of thing that Crofts did so well (an investigation by a police officer doggedly tracking down the clues to a surprise ending), they would have survived and been more enthusiastically reprinted. An eminent critic and the world’s expert on Humdrum mysteries, Curtis Evans, reviewed two Fielding mysteries earlier this year and gave them only faint praise (his reviews are here and here and his speculations about Fielding’s identity are linked in the first paragraph of this post), as does another recent review found here of this specific volume.

But as I progressed through the pages, I found myself quite charmed by the writing. I like to read mysteries of this vintage as much for their explication of the social background of their period as for the puzzle, and I found myself interested in both. The puzzle aspects are frequent and enigmatic. When I mentally lined up the slips with the mysterious words, I found that the phrases “Light of” and “Claire de” popped out at me, and this is precisely the sort of deduction that I enjoy making in the course of reading an old mystery. What they meant wasn’t clear to me until much later, but I was looking for connections with the word “moon” furiously for the remainder of the novel. There are similar puzzle aspects, little clues dropped here and there that, at a distance of 75 years, it’s obvious are meant to confuse and mislead. Mysterious slips of paper, secret pockets, Alfreda’s mysterious activities with the perhaps-disguised Mrs. Findlay — these are the puzzle aspects of old mysteries that I find charming and enticing, and there are plenty of them here.

The other part is the social history background, and again there is plenty here. It is difficult for us to realize at this remove that, in 1933, crossword puzzles were such a new phenomenon that newspapers used crossword competitions to boost circulation, and offered prizes of £2,500 at a time when you could live on the proverbial £50 a year that impoverished young women were always seeking to improve in mysteries of the period. This is rather like the potential to win a million dollars by competing on Survivor, and perhaps it’s the re-valuing of the pound that makes it less obvious to today’s reader, but this is very serious business. What would you do to win a competition that yielded 20 or 25 years’ salary? Similarly, the plight of Alfreda, whose parents cannot afford to educate her for a trade and must merely hope that she marries well, is hard to understand but interesting. The quest for financial independence is a theme throughout this book — the victim’s relatives who touch him for a fiver (doesn’t sound like much, but again, look at it in terms of £50 a year), Mrs. Pratt’s desperation for Winnie to marry money, and some of the underlying motives for the murderous actions that I think it’s better that I don’t tell you. Also there’s the underlying situation — five single men who rent an old house and fill it with servants (and give a couple of balls) simply to amuse a beautiful woman whom a couple of them hope to marry? That’s not the way we do things in the 21st century, and I rather doubt it’s the way most people did things in the 1930s. But it’s quirky and intriguing and a good story hook, and I enjoyed the clever mind that thought of it.

Other commentators have remarked that Fielding is a sloppy writer who will sacrifice a lot of believability for the sake of a tricky and surprising ending. I have to say that although I have noticed sloppy writing in a couple of other Fielding novels that I’ve read recently, courtesy of Hathi Trust, this one didn’t especially annoy me at any particular point. Yes, some of the plot twists are unbelievable, but to me the plot twists were no more difficult to accept than, say, the “Ruritanian romance” plots of  E. Phillips Oppenheim or the wild adventures of Edgar Wallace, both from about the same point in time. Fielding wasn’t necessarily trying to be believable, but to amuse, and — I was amused. I was certainly surprised by the ending, and that is not an experience I have often with detective fiction … the identity of the murderer was actually a surprise to me, and I felt instinctively a rather fair one. Perhaps I’m credulous; perhaps I was reading too quickly. Perhaps my ability to suspend my disbelief has grown greater over the years. Perhaps I was fooled by my generally low expectations into thinking that because certain characters were depicted as socially unattractive that the plotting habits of the period would also reveal them to be criminals. But after decades of mystery-reading and thousands and thousands of books, I’m not often fooled, and I was fooled. And I enjoyed it! I’m not saying that this is a puzzle plot with the skill and depth of, say, Anthony Berkeley. Once I realized how I’d been fooled, I went back and looked and found it wasn’t — well, not 100% fair play. You have to be paying very close attention to see how the author works the trick, and it’s a question of a tiny shift of viewpoint that’s very subtle. But I’m someone who has failed to be fooled by everyone from Carolyn Keene to Agatha Christie, and if it takes a little unfair play for me to have the rare and enjoyable experience of being fooled, I’ll concur.

I think you might enjoy this novel if you’re an experienced reader of detective fiction; paradoxically, I think you won’t manage to enjoy it as much if you are a newbie, although you’ll definitely be fooled by the ending. It’s not a great mystery, but it has charm and some skill, it’s an interesting period piece and I liked it.

Notes for the Collector:

As I noted above, I cannot locate a copy of this novel available for sale other than a print-on-demand edition from 2014. And, of course, it is available for your reading pleasure on the internet from Hathi Trust. I did a brief search for other Fielding novels from the 1920s and 1930s and found that, as usual, condition and the presence of a jacket will lift these novels from the $15 range to perhaps the $70-$90 range. I must say that the jacketed copies I’ve seen of various Fielding novels seem to me to be aesthetically very pleasant and much above the general range of contemporaneous jackets; really very pretty work with good design and colours that may have faded over time but are still attractive. If you want a reading copy, well, it’s free. If you want a collectible copy, good luck finding one.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1933 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “N”, “Read one book with a size in the title.” I am not myself a “Tall” but I’ll claim it as a clothing size almost out of desperation. I have to confess I have been stymied by this category and up until recently was entirely unable to think of a qualifying novel; I am indebted to Linda Bertland, writing at Philly Reader, for having reviewed it before me to fall under the same category in the same challenge. Ordinarily I try to select books for review where I can show you a number of editions, but “Needs must when the devil drives.” My apologies for the lack of visual references.



Whodunnit? (Season 1, 2013)

Whodunnit? (Season 1, 2013)

Colonel Mustard in the Kitchen with the Trained Cougar and the Cyanide

35118Concept:  Wikipedia describes this as “a murder mystery reality competition television series”.  Somewhere in Beverly Hills is a place called Rue Manor, staffed by a butler — “Giles”, played by Gildart Jackson, who is the series’ host — and two silent maids.  A group of people is invited to Rue Manor and soon learns that they cannot leave; one among them is a killer and will continue to kill them, week by week, until there is a single winner who will earn US$250,000.

The concept that underlies the program’s structure is quite complex and I have to say that Wikipedia has done a good job of describing it in demented-fanboi-level exactitude at this link; go there if you want to know everything. I’ll try and give you the bare bones of it. At the beginning of each episode, one of the contestants is “murdered”. (S/he appears in corpse makeup at the very end to reassure credulous viewers as to their still-alive status.) The other contestants are offered the chance to investigate a single area of a number related to the crime — frequently, the last known whereabouts, the crime scene, and the morgue. There are things at each location to be learned and there are no rules about whom you tell what; some cooperate, some do not. (Teams soon formed.) After that segment there is a time to reflect, then a sort of “riddle contest” that will provide valuable and unique information to its winner. During the riddle contest, people race around the house chasing a line of clues. When someone finds the crucial clue at the end of the line, a bell rings and the contest is over.

Then there’s a period where the contestants can interact and, should they so desire, share information. Soon afterwards, the contestants are required to deliver a monologue into the camera that outlines their theory of how the murder took place.  Theoretically this serves as their entry in the competition to remain in the house; in actual fact this is accomplished off-camera by a written examination that allows a more just assessment of correctness.  Once this is done, the contestants have dinner. During dinner, Giles the butler announces the complete solution in detail and then announces that one person has won for the week, and is therefore spared the murderer’s attention. Everyone else has an envelope containing a card. Most cards have the word “Spared”.  At least two cards have the word “Scared”; one of those people is about to be murdered.  It is understood that they have achieved the lowest scores on the exam, although they don’t explain it like that.

At the very end of the program, we see a brief excerpt that shows a contestant being “murdered” (the one with the lowest score, apparently). This material forms the first portion of next week’s episode.

The numbers of contestants decrease each week, “murder” by “murder”, until the winner and murderer are revealed in the season finale.  As this is being written, the Season 1 finale has not yet been broadcast; it’s due this evening.

Author: Anthony Zuiker, executive producer, who is also responsible for the CSI empire. I expect there are people employed as writers, and very talented ones too; the murder plots are complicated and subtle. However, they are not made a big deal of. It is clear that Zuiker has marshalled the considerable talents of the people who create the forensic exhibits for his programmes.

Other Data:  Premiered June 23, 2013, on the CBS network in the United States; broadcast once weekly since. At the precise moment of writing this piece, the finale episode has not yet been broadcast.

About this program:


Note: This essay now reveals the solution to Whodunnit?, Season 1, which had actually not yet been broadcast at the time of writing. It also hints at the solution to an old Agatha Christie novel/film, Ten Little Indians aka And Then There Were None. Consider yourself warned.

My favourite television programme that I can think of is The Mole, especially the first two seasons in the United States hosted by Anderson Cooper. I don’t know how it happened, but The Mole‘s concept for a reality game show totally works. It’s satisfying, intellectually challenging, psychologically interesting — this is the pinnacle to which games like Survivor and Big Brother should aspire.

When I first heard about Whodunnit?, I thought it had potential to be a new Mole. I assured myself early on that it was not a remake of an eponymous poorly-done 80s programme from Great Britain that had actors enacting a stupid mystery story and C-listers trying to solve the crime in a hokey, jokey way. The idea that one of the contestants was secretly the murderer made me think that there was a possibility that this could be a mystery-themed Mole, and that had me wriggling with anticipation.  Sadly, it fails to live up to this standard by a considerable degree, at least thus far.

The problem is that there is no real way to decide who the murderer is based on evidence with which the audience is provided. We haven’t yet seen the finale, so it may be that there is evidence I simply haven’t seen, but I’ve given each episode at least two screenings and there is just nothing there.  We aren’t given any information about what the contestants are doing at the time of the murders (I think we are meant to assume that they are locked in their bedrooms) and while we are occasionally shown a fuzzy shot of a black-clad, black-gloved figure executing various murder-related deeds, it’s pretty obvious that this is a stand-in. The size and build of the individual keeps changing. In fact, there is nothing whatever available as a clue to the murderer’s identity. It’s like the murderer has been selected at random and may not even be aware that they ARE the murderer, if you know what I mean. This is the way it works in Cluedo; it’s always a surprise to find that your card is in the centre envelope. Whichever contestant is the murderer, they don’t have to DO anything. She doesn’t have to disguise her activities or her person, he doesn’t have to sneak around.

Most importantly, it’s perfectly obvious that all the murders are being scripted by professionals. I had thought that it would be easy to tell that some of the contestants were simply too dim to be able to come up with the murderous schemes, but it simply doesn’t matter. One of the murders has the victim going into the kitchen to cook his steak. As he places the steak into a frying pan on the stove, he steps on a pressure plate which releases a cougar from a hidden compartment in the kitchen; the real cause of death, however, is a spray of cyanide gas released from the interior of the stove from a hidden mechanism. Now, think about it. The murderer has to have excellent engineering skills in order to rig the mechanism in the stove and attach the hidden compartment to the pressure plate. Also, I’m not exactly sure where I’d get a cougar, but if I were doing so in the furtherance of a murder scheme, I’d have to find a way to acquire one without leaving a trail to my identity; darn near impossible.  It’s not like there’s a website called Cougars R Us or anything that will cheerfully take your MasterCard number and deliver a cougar by FedEx. Indeed, it’s pretty much impossible for any of the contestants to both invent these fantastic plots and to carry them out without the resources of, say, professional mystery writers and the production team that is responsible for CSI. It’s fairly clear that Melina, a 29-year-old flight attendant from Chicago, is not capable of wiring a tank of gaseous cyanide into the internal workings of an oven or of controlling a live, angry cougar into a small secret compartment without screaming her face off; Melina is unlikely to be able to spell “cyanide” on the first try. Yet we have to believe that it’s possible that she could be the murderer.

In fact, there are many problems here with coherence, intellectual consistency, and logic. We are told that Giles the butler has been co-opted into helping the murderer by threat of death, and the butler is shown to be wearing an ankle bracelet that somehow prevents him from merely leaving the estate. And I gather that that’s how things like cougars make it into the house and are inserted into secret compartments in the kitchen; the butler did it, or allows it to be done. What we are NOT told is why Giles feels he has to cooperate with the murderer’s plans; surely he could find a way to lead the contestants to safety, if he wanted to do that. (Giles has an ankle bracelet that does … something … but the contestants are not so encumbered.) The maids are apparently not allowed to speak or even have facial expressions. Why don’t they leave? Are they confederates? Spear-carriers? Idiots? Speaking of idiots, why don’t the contestants together storm the gates and escape nearly-certain death?

Because this is all a polite fiction, of course. The contestants know that they are not in danger of actual death, and they want to earn a quarter of a million dollars. The problem is that the production tries to have it both ways. They want the contestants to seem to be afraid of “death”, and the contestants obligingly display fear when they’re about to receive cards that may indicate their imminent “death”. But if they truly were in danger of death, they’d be trying to escape. So there is a kind of cognitive dissonance here. Everyone is playing along with a flawed premise. The producers are winking at the audience, and that reduces it to the emotional level of a game of Cluedo.

So it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm with respect to who the murderer is; literally, it could be any of the remaining contestants, and the producers would simply announce that the guilty party had done all these things and we’d have to buy into it. The only place to insert a fingernail into the fabric of the “plot” and potentially unravel it is by noting which contestants are selected to be “scared”.  And opinion is sensibly split. One contestant, Cris, has never been “scared”. Does that mean she’s the murderer? Or just that she’s pretty good at figuring out the mystery plots? Other contestants have been scared and survived. Since the murderer would obviously not have been killed — perhaps (see below) — this means that some contestants think that their selection for murderer has nominated herself for death without any expectation that this would happen. A kind of double-bluff. So, ultimately, there’s just nothing that the viewer can use to figure out whodunnit. And that really destroys the reason for following along with this, which to me is sad. I had high hopes for this.

My proposed solution: I actually have two solutions to offer. One is merely my best guess as to who the murderer is, and the other is what I would have done if *I* were writing this. I very much doubt that my second solution is even remotely correct, but I’ll offer it for your amusement.

My first solution is that Cris is the murderer (and that Kam will eventually win). There’s nothing I can really point to that indicates that this is the solution; there are no clues, nothing concrete or physical. It’s just a “feeling”. Cris didn’t seem as nervous as she might have done about being “scared”, and she never has been. And that’s the only conclusion I can come to after spending hours and hours watching this program — and that’s kind of depressing. I wanted more to chew on.

My own solution is probably against the “rules” of the program. It came to me earlier this week when I was watching the second-to-last episode and there was a scene by a pool table. Earlier in the week, I had pooh-poohed a suggestion by a friend who is not expert in the ways of detective fiction but who has a wonderful grasp of theatrics. (And here I have to name-check Neil Boucher; thanks for starting my brain rolling!) He’d mentioned casually, “Is it possible they’re doing some kind of Ten Little Indians thing here? Where one of the characters fakes his own death?”  “Naaaaaah,” I said. But then a couple of the suspects were playing pool, and it took me back to the various filmed versions of the Agatha Christie classic that have the climax taking place around a pool table. “Could it be?” I thought.  “How would they do that?”

gildart-jackson-300So here’s my proposal — this is what I would have done if I didn’t care whether the program would be renewed and I just wanted to prove that I could run a double bluff on the audience. There was a single death that didn’t end up with the victim’s corpse available on a slab in the “morgue” for up-close identification; Adrianna, whose body ended up in a tree after her golf cart exploded. During that episode, a closed-circuit television camera shows Adrianna leaving the house and speeding away in the golf cart towards freedom, then kaboom! and her corpse ends up in the crook of a tree. Deliberately difficult to examine carefully, I think. But this is exactly the same bluff that was run by the guilty party in Ten Little Indians; pretend to be dead and continue to kill people in the house. Anyway, regardless of what I took in at the time, I suggest it’s possible to have shown the audience material that would make everyone think that Adrianna was dead but that she was still alive. The CCTV has been faked, Adrianna was holding her breath, or introduced a body double — one of the maids? I wasn’t keeping careful track of them early on in the series — or whatever.

Cut to the second-last episode. After the latest mystery has been solved, the four remaining contestants are told by Giles to enter a limousine, which is then driven off the grounds and down PCH. Importantly, at least to me, the four contestants are in the vehicle together the entire time. Suddenly the car slews around and heads for home in a hurry. The contestants enter Rue Manor and see a gigantic TV screen in a main room that wasn’t there when they left. The TV reveals that Giles is somewhere in the house, tied to a chair, and surrounded by dozens of guns pointed at him with strings attached to their triggers. Then the room fills with smoke and Melina, one of the two contestants who has already received a “scare” card, vanishes. And the episode ends without revealing in the usual way that Melina has been murdered.

Now, there are two things that could have happened while the contestants were in the limousine. The first is that the murderer’s henchmen/confederates captured Giles and tied him up. The second is that Adrianna could have done so, after emerging from concealment in the house. The point is, though, that if what we have seen on camera is true, then none of the four remaining contestants can be the person who tied up Giles. I think the cheezy way to explain this is that the killer had henchmen. I think the interesting way to explain it is that Adrianna is the killer.

Melina, the vanished contestant, had been having a hard time in the house. She had had an alliance with a group of other contestants who were all killed, one by one, leaving the field to the three other players who had been playing as a group (Kam, Lindsey and Cris). Melina was desperate to exploit any finger-hold that would give her enough information to survive the next elimination; she would have made any kind of deal with anyone to survive.  I’ll suggest that the simplest solution is that Melina has been abducted and later killed under cover of the smoke, possibly with her own complicity, and that the three remaining contestants will solve her murder this evening. And, as I suggest, reveal Cris as the killer and Kam as the winner.

But if you  think back to Ten Little Indians — remember the character of the doctor? He was enlisted by the murderer to add verisimilitude to his supposed death, and then vanishes. Near the end of the book, his body is found on the beach and he’s been dead for days, but in the meantime other characters have been ascribing all kinds of nefarious activities to him. It made me think of Melina. Has Melina had some kind of deal with Adrianna all the time? Has she been helping Adrianna by performing little tasks that would be too dangerous for Adrianna to accomplish, for fear of being seen?  And has she now been gotten rid of under cover of the smoke? Perhaps we will receive plenty of hints that Melina is alive and trying to kill the other three players, and then her hours-old corpse will be found, in parallel to Ten Little Indians.

There was an interesting shot in the “next week’s show” snippets shown at the end of the penultimate program that showed a long line of “corpses” on the staircase; apparently all the “deceased” competitors have come to visit. I don’t have access to a recording so I’m unable to check to see if Adrianna was among them; to be honest, I don’t really care. I don’t think enough of this program to entertain the idea that my solution is correct; it’s way too smart for the level they’ve been presenting so far, it’s not really fair in terms of the competition (it would almost mean that all the “competitors” are really hired as actors) and it’s not what the lumpenproletariat has been expecting, hence they will be frustrated and angry should their simple expectations be thwarted. This is, after all, on ABC — not BBC2.

No, I think they’ll reveal that Cris is the killer and any and all inconsistencies will be explained away or ignored, which is kind of sad but predictable. I think I had a fun idea that, had it been true, would have been all over the internet for a week or so, as furious fans moaned and bitched about how they’d been cheated. (Much like I personally felt after the 2009 fiasco called Harper’s Island, where the most ridiculously impossible suspect turned out to be the murderer, for a reason that was pulled out of an unimaginative screenwriter’s ass.) And that will appeal to the lowest common denominator, who will tell their families as they watch that they knew all the time that that bitch Cris was the killer. Or whatever.

I’ve been unable to determine whether there will be a second season of this; my most reliable source, which is not reliable at all, suggests that it hasn’t actually been cancelled, which is far from confirming that it’s been picked up. I suspect it won’t be, because the game mechanism is too seriously flawed (although in an unobvious way). It needs some sort of rejigging and for the life of me, I cannot think of how to make this game work properly. Essentially, we have to have some way of seeing the contestants during the period of time when, say, the cougar is being introduced to the kitchen; did X or Y have time to slip away and lead in the cougar? And we also have to have a really clear idea of the boundaries of the game. I’m bothered by the idea, for instance, that the maids could be complicit in the crimes; we simply don’t know. The series has been skewed by the need to build it around the resources that produce CSI; there’s a lot of lingering camera work on what admittedly are realistic depictions of what would happen if you hooked a tank of liquid nitrogen into a hot tub and added a timer. But that’s not what we need to see; we need to see where Melina is an hour or so before the tank explodes. And all that expensive reconstruction is wasted. It seems likely, though, that if Mr. Zuiker realizes that the CSI resources are not useful in the context, he may well decline to produce another season.

I will look forward to tonight’s program, though, with great anticipation.  I will revisit this in a day or so to bring you all up to date on what actually did happen, but I don’t intend to edit my predictions.

Postscript, after the final episode was aired: I was correct, in a sense.  Cris was the killer, Kam was the winner.  And I believe I am also correct that this solution is not very interesting, except perhaps for Kam, who took home $250K. There’s a set of interlocked puzzles that the contestants have to solve in order to get to the endgame; nothing to do with their knowledge of the killer, though. Melina is murdered, then Lindsey. Everyone’s alive at the end and shakes hands with Kam as he leaves with a briefcase full of money.  Strangely, I wish I actually had been disappointed; I would have enjoyed being fooled.  I certainly think my solution is more interesting. And I definitely think this game needs a few tweaks if and when they do season 2.

Post-postscript, a few days later: I note upon a review of the final episode that there is a third option with respect to how Giles ends up tied to a chair surrounded by guns.  He said he tied himself up which, given what we saw, is pretty much ridiculous.  He says later that he managed to wriggle free just in time to participate in the segment where the final three contestants run around the house solving puzzles, including one which asks them to decide whether or not Giles is the murderer.

Now, think about it.  He ties himself up because he has been told to, surrounded by a dozen guns pointed at his head with wires or cords attached to their triggers. This is not something you do idly; he obviously expects some kind of fatal punishment should he not carry out instructions. This is also not something I think is actually physically possible, but let that lie unexamined; my belief has been officially suspended on this point.  So for no apparent reason, he then decides to wriggle out of his bonds and participate.  Why didn’t he just forego the nonsense and not tie himself up?

As noted above, the murderer is absolutely not in the house at this time — all four remaining contestants are speeding around PCH in a limousine. There’s no one watching to see that Giles ties himself up, except of course when the four return, they see Giles on TV. But it’s at this point that it’s clear that the producers just don’t care about any kind of intellectual rigour; they just want to make some fun visual images.

Is this bad? Hard to say conclusively. We’re not talking Jeopardy here, with respect to intellectual rigour; Jeopardy tries very hard to get its details right. But at the same time this cannot be logic-free entertainment like, say, the average science-fiction piece. Puzzle mysteries are focused on details and logic and internal consistency because they have to be.  “If you were under observation by two witnesses at 8:34, then you can’t have committed the murder” type of thing. Whodunnit? tosses that requirement aside in small important details, and it’s just trying to entertain. As a friend remarked, it looked like they were having fun making it. I suppose I’m just grumpy because I was presented with something that looked like a puzzle mystery but that wasn’t worth the effort to try to follow along; rather like washing your hands with gloves on. The form is there but the function is useless.

Notes For the Collector:

This is currently being broadcast by ABC on Sunday evenings, to finish tonight. It’s available in my area in video-on-demand format, for free from my cable television service provider, but not for long. I don’t know if there are any plans to issue this in a boxed format; this occasionally happens. It’s also unclear at the time of writing whether this will be renewed for a second season. Probably a number of people have recorded it and you’ll be able to borrow a copy for viewing if you ask around hard enough.

Top Chef Canada — a satisfying dish

As far as “off the island” shows go, Top Chef — and its local variant, Top Chef Canada, now in its second season on Canada’s Food Network — is difficult to appreciate properly. It’s based on a concept that must be judged rather than simply viewed, unlike, say, Top Shot, where the one closest to the target is clearly the winner. Many such programs invite the viewer to judge right alongside the experts; did you like the dress as much as the judges of Project Runway? Do you think A is a better singer than B, or is C a better dancer than D? Everyone has an opinion, and part of the fun is agreeing or disagreeing with the results. But with food, you’re completely dependent on the judges because you just cannot taste for yourself. If the judge says the dish is too salty, well, you either play along or you don’t.  You have to trust that the judge’s resume is good enough to produce a worthy judge, and also that the contest isn’t rigged to produce a result that isn’t based on skill and talent.

And that is why I’ve given up on America’s Next Top Model, as I’ve said elsewhere, because the young woman who wins the contest is usually the one who sucks up to Tyra Banks the most thoroughly. But I am delighted to say that that is not how it goes down on Top Chef Canada.

I’ve just finished viewing the latest episode, entitled “Restaurant Wars”.  I’ve been liking Top Chef Canada because I like the underlying concept — now, I absolutely love it. Because it’s honest; the person who deserves to go home goes home.

You see, when Russell Hantz demonstrated on national television (Survivor) that he was a sneaky little bastard, it exemplified an idea dear to the hearts of reality TV producers. If you’re a nasty unlikeable competitor, they want you to hang around, because you’re good for ratings. People tune in hoping to see you lose. So in many cases the producers bend things as much as possible to ensure that you do hang around; this is really only possible when the underlying concept is that judges make decisions based on their personal preferences. Russell Hantz benefited only from Jeff Probst making some not-very-subtle nudges in his direction at Tribal Council, raising suspicions in one direction or another. But various design-oriented programs have kept argumentative bitches around long past their sell-by date, and it’s pretty clear how and why.

Top Chef Canada is populated with Canadian contestants, of course, which is to say that by and large they’re a group of friendly, polite and humble folks. But there was one bitch among them, a young sous-chef named Elizabeth Rivasplata who was pushy, arrogant and very unlikeable. (Attention, Art Gallery of Ontario; I’m never eating in your restaurant while she’s working there.) Of course I didn’t taste her food, but her interaction with her fellow competitors was enough to make me think that she deserved to leave, because you can’t be a top chef if you can’t get the respect of your fellow kitchen workers. Yes, competitors are in the game to win, but you also have to share the kitchen with others; if you hog the ovens, it’s like pushing your way to the front of a line — very un-Canadian.

And of course after her first out-and-out quarrel with a fellow competitor, I thought regretfully that she had now cemented her place in the final five, regardless of the quality of her work, because she would draw ratings. It seemed as though she would have won a vote for “least favourite” among her fellow competitors; probably why, when the episode of “Restaurant Wars” came along, she was named a team leader (in the hope that she would shoot herself in the foot).

Indeed, she fired a number of shots in her own direction and struck home every time. She failed to keep to the “Canadiana” theme of her menu and chose to show off by preparing octopus. She quarrelled and whined. She couldn’t keep the orders straight and failed to pass along crucial information about who had ordered what and how many at which table. Finally, one of my favourite competitors simply took over and ran the kitchen.

Her team lost. And in the post-mortem, she claimed to the judges things weren’t arranged the way they had been.  (A tip, honey — if you’re going to do that, be sure you’re not on camera at the moment you take responsibility for something.) It looked very much as if she was going to get away with it.

God bless the judges, they sent her home.

And of course, on the way out, she demonstrated that she just didn’t get it. “It’s all their fault, I was right, they were out to get me, they’re mean, nobody loves me, it’s not fair,” yada yada yada. In fact, she presented a portrait of someone who had completely failed to understand why she had lost the competition. They liked your octopus, Elizabeth — it’s your ability to run a kitchen that was in question, and you just didn’t measure up. Plus, you’re a big ol’ bitch.

This was incredibly satisfying to me because I had resigned myself to hating her for weeks to come. Instead, I gained a great deal of respect for the judges, not that I didn’t have it already. I mean, yeah, okay, the program is replete with product placement — you might say riddled with it. The chief judge is a chef named Mark McEwen and all the contestants do their food shopping at his personal grocery store named, oddly enough, “McEwen”. And the financial prize is supplied by a brand of paper towels, a shot or two of which shows up prominently in every episode. But that’s the way that goes in this business, I assume. What this episode demonstrated to me is that they’re not just tasting the food, they’re assessing the personalities and character of the individuals whom they’re testing. And Ms. Rivasplata came up well short of requirements for someone who would be representing their brand, so they put her on her bike and sent her home. And this was regardless of the demands for viewership that I’m sure such a format imposes. I’m pretty sure there was at least one producer who wanted to keep her just because she was so unlikeable, but sanity prevailed.

So I’ll be continuing to watch every week, happy as a clam in a delicate white wine sauce on a bed of wild rice, a deconstructed play on a satisfied customer. And since I think I can now completely trust the editing, I’m going to put my money on Jimmy Stewart from Whistler, B.C., to take home the prize.

Update (April 30, 2012): Jimmy Stewart got the boot last night. And I am happy to say that I didn’t feel it was absolutely foreshadowed by the edit, either. I guess I’ll just wait to see who wins.  There’s still a competitor left from my home town…

Survivor — has the shark been jumped?

ImageI have to admit, I’ve been watching Survivor since — strangely enough — season 2.  Yes, I was aware of the huge interest in season 1, I just pushed out my lower lip and refused to participate in it.  But I was over at some friends’ place one night and they were all excited because season 2 was about to begin, and I begrudgingly sat through S02E01.  And I have not missed an episode since.  And, of course, I went back and watched season 1.  

There have been good seasons and bad seasons, of course.  It got bad around season 4, if my memory is correct, when Vecepia won — and then I think Brian, the minor-part soft-core porn actor and generally not nice person picked up the million in the next season.  Vecepia was an example of the Survivor meme that goes “Well, I can’t stand to give the million to anyone ELSE, so she’ll do.”  Brian — I still have no idea why Brian won.  Possibly everyone else was dehydrated and protein-deprived.  They used to really starve those people back in the early seasons.  

It got more interesting, for me, when the series went to China in season 15.  Todd Herzog, a 22-year old gay Mormon flight attendant, played the smartest game in a decade and well deserved his win.  James, the enormously muscular black gravedigger, played the stupidest game EVER and went home with two immunity idols that he had believed he didn’t need to use, even though they were about to become useless.  Duh.  

Todd’s strategy wasn’t made much of at the time; as I recall, he only mentioned it once for about a minute in the course of an episode.  He allied himself with someone stronger, someone nicer and someone less likeable/stupider to form a core group of four.  Then he manoeuvered to guide a group of four into the endgame (not necessarily the same core group, as I recall — I believe he threw James under the bus).  The point is that Todd was well known to be a long-time fan of Survivor who had watched every episode and learned from them, and he had evolved his strategy before starting the game.  (He talks extensively about it at  I thought this was interesting because he developed a self-aware strategy that involved assessing the strategy of everyone else who had ever played the game, and figuring out a pattern that worked.  I have to add that, like all such strategies, it only worked for his season because, naturally enough, future competitors had seen his season and were prepared to deal with his strategy, so a new one had to evolve.  If you’re curious, I think of the next strategic wave as the “Russell Hantz” strategy, where Russell, a truly horrible human being who is my personal choice for “most deserves to be eaten by ravenous zombies”, flat-out bullied and intimidated his way through the game and paved the way for people with him to be voted the winner in the endgame.  And, of course, we’re past that now too.  I think the next theme was the “Jesus is my homeboy” trophe spontaneously evolved by Russell’s nephew Brandon, a vulgar and nasty-minded simpleton —  Jesus apparently wasn’t his homeboy, since Brandon was deservedly ejected. But it was an interesting if useless strategy that failed to work for both Brandon and Coach (another vulgar egotistical simpleton) and handed a million dollars to the brooding and unlikeable Sophie, apparently on the same principle that won it for Vecepia many years previously — default.  

And now season 24, the oxymoronically named “One world”.  Indeed, it’s one world only if that means “Throw everyone overboard and leave the high ground to me”.  The producers apparently decided that the Russell trophe deserved another go-round, so they cast a vicious and pudgy little cretin named Colton Cumbie.  Colton is sufficiently unaware of anything except his enormous ego to reveal in public that he’s a gay Republican, which flies in the face of logic, an awareness of history, and any possibility of a future career, and is in every way one of the most unpleasant people who has ever appeared on television, including presidential candidates.  He is nasty-mouthed, scheming, irrational, vituperative and above all stupid.  His premature departure from the game for medical reasons only left me wishing that people had more than a single appendix, so that he could experience the associated agonies more than once.  I’m sure he’s recovering on a sofa somewhere firmly believing that he could indeed have won the game, rather than being given the boot like his mentor Russell, and I’m equally sure that Jeff Probst and his team are already planning on bringing him back into a future season.  Unless someone shoots him first.  

Season 24 isn’t over yet, but I’m already bored — and that’s something that’s never happened before.  Certainly there have been seasons, like Brian Heidik’s, when I disliked everyone who had a chance at winning.  And there are a couple of people in this season’s mix whom I dislike, certainly.  Alicia, for instance, hasn’t yet realized that being a nasty-mouthed bitch only works when you’re the sidekick to an even bigger bitch (the late and unlamented Colton), and I’m hoping a tree falls on her in an upcoming episode.  Greg “Tarzan” has an ego the size of a small European country and has completely failed to realize just how much everyone, including millions of people in the audience, dislikes him for it.  (Oh, and Tarzan — shouting “Cheater” at people during competitions is not part of your job description.  If Probst feels someone’s cheating, he’ll do something appropriate about it. You don’t get to make that call.)  I’d rather do my own surgery than go to that nitwit, thanks.  

But for the most part — I can’t even remember the names between episodes.  During episodes, even.  And that’s just not something I can remember ever happening before.  There’s nothing happening to distinguish between individual contestants.  Rather than having competent strategies based on previous seasons, as the intelligent competitors in previous seasons have done, the main strategy here seems to be “Keep your head down and hope nobody notices you.”  Which is why my money is on Kim to win, because she’s playing this strategy best so far. For crying out loud, there’s even two middle-aged oafs who think they are entitled to be called “Tarzan”, even though there are two guys in the game so beautifully built that they make these two look like Cheetah.  What possessed the casting people to let that happen? This season’s cast is “the usual suspects”.

In my opinion, this season is a write-off, and pretty much was from the beginning. I have to blame the casting here. Certainly the execrable Colton was an “interesting” character, but we didn’t need another proto-Russell (and if we did, I’m sure that the trailer he comes from contains a few more half-witted personality-free Jesus-freak nephews ready to step up to the plate).  The Russell Hantz strategy is dead, dead, dead, not that it ever worked for anyone anyway. There’s not even an interesting fundamentalist Christian for me to mock. And, most crucially, there is no one who has half the strategic abilities of Todd Herzog.  As my friend and fellow aficionado Neil remarked, “You need someone that it’s fun to hate.  But you also need someone to like.” And there is no one in this season whom I’d invite to dinner as anything more than a curiosity, because they have failed to demonstrate that they have any understanding of how the game works.  Kim is nice, and smart, but she’s no Parvati Shallow.  

Will Survivor get any better?  Hard to say, but I am starting to think that it’s about time to cancel it.  After 24 iterations, one would suspect that it’s lost any forward momentum. Todd was the last player who had a strategy that actually worked to bring him a well-deserved win, and in the subsequent 9 seasons we had strategies that could be described as merely being less despised than one’s fellow competitors.  I suspect it will depend on whether the producers can find anyone who wants to bring something new to the table, something that we haven’t seen in a while.  It isn’t vulgar bitchiness and it isn’t Jesus — it’s brains, which are in short supply on American reality television.  Until we get that, it’s just going to be like driving past a car accident over and over again.  

Here’s some free advice for Jeff Probst.  Go back to what worked in the first place.  Make it cruel, make it hard, make them starve — quit bringing in coolers full of 7-Up for some extra cash from product placement.  Part of the interest of season 2, for instance, was the incredible hardships under which these people laboured in the Australian outback, and there were certainly no competitions to win an afternoon where one stuffed oneself with ice cream.  Find people with interesting personalities who are likeable and intelligent — and for heaven’s sake, avoid casting cretinous villains merely to stir the pot.  No more stunts — no more Redemption Island, no more fake merges, and possibly even no more hidden immunity idols.  No more “themes”.  No more bimbos and himbos; eye candy is nice, but there’s plenty of it on TV and this is a game.  See if you can find 12 or 16 people who have a roughly equivalent chance of winning and let them battle it out without luxuries or visits from home or by deforming the original concept into a series of product placement opportunities.  Because right now, you’ve bored me.  And if you’ve bored me, you’ve definitely bored millions of people — I can put up with just about anything in the name of Survivor, and I’m finding it easier and easier to miss an episode.  So wake up and smell the cancellation, Probst.