Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Don't Play That Song!

by Eric

According to a recent survey the most annoying Christmas song in America is Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas is You. I'm not sure I've heard the song, but if I did I would probably be annoyed. It's not that I find Christmas music irritating in itself. What annoys me is its ubiquity.

Beginning some time around Thanksgiving, no one can escape being aurally drenched in Christmas spirit no matter where they go or what they do. Television and radio are as full of musical cheer as overstuffed stockings. The radio station I listen to in the car adopts an all Christmas playlist. Last week the supermarket played tunes about Santa and sleigh rides instead of the usual sixties hits. (Man, I never imagined I'd ever be old enough to actually enjoy store muzak. Bummer.)

Mind you, Christmas music is fine in moderation, at the right time, under the right circumstances. When I lived in Brooklyn WPIX Channel 11 broadcast a burning Yule log accompanied by Christmas music for several hours Christmas Eve. You can find that Yule log and imitators all over YouTube. The crackling fire on my computer monitor produces as much warmth as my black and white television set did. Quite pleasant, actually.

My first, and all time favorite, holiday song is, of course, The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late) released in the fall of 1958. Alvin wanted a hula hoop, the big fad at the time. I already had a hula hoop and could use it without risking throwing my back out, which shows how long ago that was.

The second best Christmas song, I am sure you'll agree, is the Three Stooge's version of I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas with its brilliant witty word play. Would you say it is more reminiscent of Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward?

Granted I may be prejudiced by having encountered those songs at a young age. Maybe youthful exposure also explains why I hate, hate, hate Little Drummer Boy. Talk about tedious and repetitive. "Pa rum pum pum pum"? Honestly? And someone says rock 'n' roll lyrics are ridiculous. Anyway -- Pa rum pum pum pum -- Oh no! -- Pa rum pum pum pum -- Now I have it in my head! -- Pa rum pum pum pum -- (Oh, the sacrifices one makes to write newsletter essays....)

Probably for the same reasons I'm not fond of the pop choral versions of carols because my parents owned too many Ray Coniff records. Later I preferred the more modern approach exemplified by Phil Spector's famous Christmas album, although it's hard to listen to it today without thinking about Spector's subsequent history. The same is true of John Lennon's Happy Xmas (War is Over) one of my favorites but with sad associations.

It's become increasingly common for modern artists to supplement the traditional Christmas songs with new compositions. (Also the case with mystery books!) Only a few will enter the canon to be played year after year as Lennon's has, something I wouldn't have imagined when it first came out. At Christmas there's always talk about peace and goodwill but it is all rather abstract, part of the holiday spirit. To actually call for peace, right now, in the world we live in, is seen by too many as some sort of political statement.

My favorite Christmas collection, which has become a tradition for me since it was released in 1979, is Light of the Stable by Emmylou Harris, traditional carols with some modern songs mixed in. Alas, it does include Little Drummer Boy but since it's Emmylou Harris I suppose that will have to be forgiven. Pa rum pum pum pum. Pa rum pum pum pum.

Or maybe not!

Listen to Light of the Stable

A Manor-House View

by Mary

The coke-bottle windows of Maywrite Towers currently disclose a view of frozen snow and bare branches lying under that unnatural hush a blanket of snow brings, and with overnight temperatures forecast to fall into the teens the buggy will not be off to town for a few days. Another storm arriving in the near future is expected to leave several more inches of snow, but early forecasts have not addressed whether or not a white Christmas may be expected.

When we think of Christmas, apart from snow, what springs to mind? Carols, crackers of the pull-and-bang persuasion, and cards -- and in the British tradition the telling of ghost stories on Christmas night. As I have observed elsewhere, whatever the weather without, by authorial design there is something unsettling about blinding flashes of lightning revealing changes in the positions of the figures in ancestral portraits or the appearance of oddly mottled and claw-like hands scratching at diamond-paned casements in the aptly named dead of night. And while crashing rolls of thunder may drown out the screams of the doomed innocent in the locked attic, it never seems to mask the grim sound of the approaching coach and four driven by the dissolute and long deceased fourth earl, inevitably arriving at the front door on the stroke of midnight though not with the intention of delivering pizza.

As to ghost stories, let me suggest -- no, I insist -- a wonderful yarn just right for keeping up the afore-mentioned tradition: The Mezzotint by M. R. James , long my favourite of this type of fiction. For those who've not read it, it begins, as with a number of his works, in an ordinary not to say routine way. Who could have guessed requesting a catalogue of topographical pictures would launch a mystery, investigation of which ends in such a chilling fashion?

As the story opens Mr Williams, who presides over a university art museum, is considering the purchase of the titular mezzotint, described by the dealer thus: "978.—Unknown. Interesting mezzotint: View of a manor-house, early part of the century. 15 by 10 inches; black frame. £2 2s."

On its arrival at Mr Williams' college rooms for examination, unlike the more traditional and indeed oft times expected setting for this type of fiction, the manor-house concerned is not depicted as an overgrown ruin with ivy shrouding the few remnants of its walls, broken statues reclining in knee-high grass, the family vault within sight of the back door, and a lake half choked with sickly vegetation. Instead the building is almost boring in its details, the mezzotint depicting "a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre. On either side were trees, and in front a considerable expanse of lawn."

Mr Williams doesn't think much of the mezzotint or the price asked for it and intends to send it back to the dealer. However, he first decides to attempt to identify the manor-house. Aided by a couple of words on the remains of a label on the back of the mezzotint, —ngley Hall and —ssex, he and two friends consult gazetteers and guide-books and it is Mr Williams who traces the mysterious house.

Unfortunately, after a series of events involving the mezzotint the solving of the mystery of its location leads to a chilling conclusion, all the more awful because a possible solution to these occurrences suggested in the narration has to be correct.

It is the understated nature of the horror in James' ghost story that I really admire. But occasionally a reader's goosebumps are created for a more personal reason. I shall not name the short story in question but on reading it I was set back more than somewhat when I came across the name of a close friend on a suicide's tombstone, a vital clue to the explanation of the supernatural event involved.

The Mezzotint appears in James' collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary:

Read the Mezzotint

I intend to reread it for the umpteenth time on Christmas night to keep up the fine old tradition.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Ye Tragedie of Ye Clambering Kittie

by Mary

Speaking of Macbeth, on being informed Birnam Wood was on the move he must have been horrified, recalling the prophecy he would not be vanquished until said wood arrived on his doorstep. We have some small idea of how he felt when he looked out on advancing greenery, though in our case as related in the August issue we've been dealing with the fall-out from a single downwardly mobile tree but thankfully without having to worry about a single man-at-arms as well.

So, picking up the saga at the point where we left it, an electrician and his apprentice arrived at the start of this month to attend to the remaining repair, i.e. replacing the electricity line running between the point where it reaches the house to where it enters the meter.

They soon discovered what we long since realised: when repairs are needed, there is almost certain to be difficulties carrying them out given how often in the course of the work bits and bobs will be encountered whose threads, size, location, or shape means getting them removed is not going to be easy. It's not surprising considering the age of the house but while new parts will fit, getting the old ones off takes more time than expected, involving a process resembling hand to hand combat. Further, on occasion it's been necessary for more than one craftsperson to take a trip back to base to check the company's collection of less modern tools or older parts in stock in order to complete the job. One example from a couple of months ago: an appropriate length of L-shaped siding needed to embrace a corner was located at the company after the newer piece brought to the job was too wide to fit the angle where the two walls met, underlining that useful advice to keep any usable or surplus nails, screws, fiddly widgets, etc, just in case. Most people have a collection of such kickshaws. Our accumulation includes the external encrustations from the recently-replaced pressure tank for our well and an ancient pair of coke-bottle spectacles. Laugh about those gig-lamps ye may, but what if one rainy Sunday afternoon we are suddenly seized with the idea of attempting to build a microscope or telescope? Well, then.

To make matters worse, in the course of their two-hour visit the gaffer described some of the original work here as having been done "old style" -- for example a plank the tree ripped off the house was held in place by headless nails. Thus, for one task he needed an old style tool. As it happened. they carry just such a gizmo around in their van so this cannot be the first house presenting such problems. The implement, which we think was a crimper and if so was used to connect the two lines at the point they meet by mangling them together. Though there've been two electricians in the immediate family I have not the technical knowledge to describe how that would work without destroying them. alas. But the tool was extremely heavy, ran on batteries, and due to the amount of work done with it had to be recharged twice.

The electrician had been wielding it while perched on a ten foot ladder, but as the job progressed he had to go higher so switched to a twelve footer. While he seemed unconcerned about the nose-bleeding height, he experienced some difficulty inasmuch as being right-handed he could not deal with the left hand part of the fitting on which he was working. Moving the ladder left -- there was just enough space to anchor it safely -- he was able to continue working right-handedly on the left side of the job. And just as well as if not it would have meant summoning a basket truck to assist. How he could even hold such a heavy tool (it looked as if it was made of iron) in one hand remains a matter of mystery and admiration.

Then a wee bit of drama unfolded.

A movement flickered in the corner of the eye. A glance over to the right and there it was! An enormous black spider had suddenly appeared on the siding next to the electrician. He immediately observed to his audience he does *not* like spiders. Without exaggeration, if you include the span of legs, these nasty arachnids are as wide as the palm of an adult's hand. A couple have been encountered inside the house, most recently a few weeks ago. Like previous intruders it met with a speedy end. Dealing with them at ground-level is awful enough but for the fellow perched twelve feet up it was much worse, since any movement to dislodge it would be dangerous for him. It appears something frightened the ghastly thing because to everyone's relief it paused its peregrinations for a few seconds and then scuttled off to skulk behind the weatherboard.

A few days later the work passed inspection, so all is well at Maywrite Towers once again and what turned into a three month saga is over. But at times glancing out and observing the ten foot or so high broken trunk still standing, glaring at us across next door's lawn, just for a few seconds it's, well, somewhat unnerving.

There is, however, a footnote to this story. We had replaced the line in question on the advice of the crew who came out to effect a temporary hookup the day after the storm. They told us that the insulation on the line to the meter showed some weathering.

Not long after this was accomplished we watched the 1946 noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. Lana Turner and John Garfield had almost been caught in an attempt to murder Lana's husband Nick, to be staged as a fatal accident in a locked bathroom. The plan was to leave the scene of the crime via its window, drop to the flat roof below, and then from there to the ground by means of a ladder already in place. The attempt was thwarted when a cat clambered up the ladder and, in the manner of its kind, became curious, its resulting electrocution causing a power outage and resulting loss of nerve so Nick was safe for a bit longer. A motorcycle policeman who arrived after the incident noticed poor kitty's corpse and asked what had happened. Garfield replied he'd noticed some insulation had worn off what he called the feed wire but he hadn't got around to fixing it.

At this point we turned to each other, exclaiming whoah! in unison because that was exactly the problem we had just dealt with. Yes, our lives are just like a noir mystery albeit without unfortunate felines.*

* See https://cinemacats.com/the-postman-always-rings-twice-1946/

Chairs, a Table, a Cauldron

by Eric

Shakespeare's Macbeth isn't out of place in this newsletter. While not a mystery it can certainly be classified as a crime story. There's a large enough body count. One Internet source tallies eight murders. But I don't want to write about the play itself. My subject is the performance I saw in 1974 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City.

The theater has about three hundred seats, the rows curving around a thrust stage more or less creating half of a theater in the round. The whole audience is practically on top of the action. For this production the stage was covered by various levels of metal gratings. Most of the actors carried swords and wore heavy boots and dark bulky outfits with numerous metal fittings. They clanked and rattled across the gratings looking huge in the dim lighting. The set was stark. Chairs, a table, a cauldron for the witches.

All impressive and spooky but when Macbeth strode onto the stage a remarkable thing happened.

What is stage presence? Good acting? Appearance? An attitude? A psychic projection? However it might arise, after seeing this performance of Macbeth I have no doubt it exists. The actor filled the theater with the enormous force of Macbeth's personality. You couldn't look away.

On my way out, feeling almost stunned, I asked one of the ushers "Who was that?"

"Christopher Walken," she replied, rather incredulously, apparently shocked that I didn't know him or maybe just surprised I had neglected to read my Playbill.

Walken was already well known to New York theatergoers but had appeared in only a few movies. Stardom and the Academy Award for The Deer Hunter came later. Over the years he seems to have been relegated mainly to playing villains which strikes me as a terrible waste of talent. Maybe the magnetism I felt during his Macbeth can't be captured by film. I was thrilled to see the Avengers' Patrick McNee in Sleuth at a tiny, regional theater, but though I loved his television performance as Steed and his portrayal of mystery writer Andrew Wyke on stage was excellent, I can't honestly say he had great stage presence, at least for me.

I haven't seen many famous actors on stage. I thought Frank Langella as Dracula had less presence than Edward Gorey's stage settings. Strangely enough, Carol Channing in a frothy show designed for her had whatever it is and then some. And I never even liked her. Chatting with talk show hosts she struck me as too gushing and phony. Yet seeing her in person I absolutely believed in her sincerity. It felt like she created some sort of psychic bond with every person in the audience. Jason Robards -- I don't know. Can stage presence reach the nosebleed seats where you need binoculars to recognize the actors?

For what it's worth I saw Blondie close up on the CBGB bar/rock club's poor excuse for a stage. Debbie Harry basically jumped up and down in a little pink dress and much as I love Blondie's music she didn't rivet my attention. To be fair I was sitting practically next to the sound man (CBGBs in cramped to put it mildly) who fiddled in apparent desperation with switches and dials and buttons muttering things like "Twenty-five thousand dollars worth of sound equipment and a twenty-five cent voice." Which I think totally inaccurate after listening to Debbie Harry's recordings many times over the years.

However, I can say for certain that lesser known singer and actress Quinn Lemley has presence in abundance. When Mary and I saw her one-woman show about Rita Haworth in a tiny dinner theater, she walked over to the edge of the stage in her slinky dress, a couple feet from where we sat, and sang The Heat Is On directly to me. So....

While trying to get my facts straight (if only I could google my memory) I managed to find a listing for the Macbeth performance I saw. As my gaze passed over the cast list I suddenly stopped. Banquo was played by Christopher Lloyd -- Reverend Jim in Taxi and Doc Brown in Back to the Future. Well, how do you like that, I thought.

But wait. Peter Weller portrayed Lennox. The name sounded familiar. Let's see...he was Robocop! And there was another name I recognized -- Carol Kane who was also in Taxi and plenty of movies. Heck, she was only one of the witches! Who would have guessed she'd go on to marry Latka?

I looked up the rest of the cast. Practically every one had long careers and a Wikipedia entry. Without knowing it I'd seen Stephen Collins (Macduff) in Star Trek: The Motion picture, John Heard (Donalbain) and Jason Tolkan (Rosse) in the Home Alone films. Some of the actors I might have glimpsed in shows I watched, like Hill Street Blues. Others were in shows I've heard about: The Sopranos, Dark Shadows, the Doctors, and more.

Realistically it's pretty likely you'll see a lot of actors who are successful or headed for success in a New York City production so my experience was not, I am sure, very unusual. Still, it amazed me that I had seen unknowingly so many actors I'd watch in the future all on the same stage that long ago afternoon. Remarkable isn't it how the Internet can alter and even enhance our own memories? Or perhaps that's scary.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Meteor Right, Murder Wrong

by Eric

So, let me talk about a new cozy mystery series.

Meteor Right, Murder Wrong is the first of the Ye Olde Meteor Shoppe Mysteries

Newly divorced Lavinia Smith-Dusenberg moves to Dog Elbow Corners and finally realizes her lifelong dream. A meteor shop.

Lavi, as her friends call her, puts it this way. "Jiminy Cricket once sang when you wish upon a star your dreams come true. I wished upon a meteroid in space, a meteor during its descent through the atmosphere and a meteorite after it hit the earth. Which, I know, is a more complicated wish, but remember Jiminy was only an insect. And I can't sing.

"My beastly and controlling husband laughed and told me no one could make a living selling meteorites in a rural village but he was wrong. It's easy if you move to a village where people are constantly being murdered."

In the first book Flossie, owner of the local Paperclip Paradise, is apparently killed by a falling meteor, or meteorite, depending on whether a meteor can be considered to have reached the earth when it hits someone's head. Only Lavinia would think to ask such a question which -- spoiler alert -- turns out to be pivotal. She needs to employ all her investigative powers when the police classify Flossie's death as murder and target Lavinia as the chief suspect. "As I sat miserably in my cell all I could think was why me? How could they possibly suspect me? Yes, Paperclip Paradise was luring away my customers, but I never wanted Flossie dead. Much better she suffer."

Ye Olde Meteor Shoppe does no mail order business because "People like the personal touch, they like to buy their meteors from other people. Well, they'd probably prefer to buy them from an alien, but, you know..."

The Shoppe, designed to resemble a Mercury capsule much to the consternation of the local planning board, also sells other artifacts from space.

Browsing the control panel one sees: Genuine astronaut's boot lost during a spacewalk. Certified by noted space expert Professor Edward O. Wilbur, author of I Was Abducted by Two-Headed Venusian Hermaphrodites.

And near the observation window a quaintly hand-lettered sign entices the space enthusiast to: Buy a piece of the International Space Station or maybe a rusted bottle cap. For $6.99 it's worth the chance.

Of course, Lavinia's doughty cat companion Space Junk is always on hand to lend feline cunning and a helping paw.

The author has also written a romance novel, Flaming Descent, and is hard at work on a new cozy series, The Mealy Worm Mecca mysteries.

No Ringie-Dingies For Us

by Mary

We spent the first week of August pacing up and down the battlements of Maywrite Towers, staring hopefully down the road and, it must be admitted, occasionally muttering what certain Golden Age of Mystery writers referred to as continental objurgations.

Severe storms lashed the area late last month, toppling a tree next door. It ended up spread-eagled over most of the neighbor's lawn, blocking our right-of-way, in the process smashing down on his car, damaging the corner of our house, tearing off our phone and power lines, and sandwiching them between his car roof and its leafy burden. Thankfully its upper limbs missed our buggy by a couple of feet, a close shave Sweeney Todd would most likely have awarded a B+.

We've related our brushes with assassin trees before * but seeing as we've never had a disrespectful word to say about Ents or left rubbish in bosky dells -- and indeed have planted trees in two countries -- it's more than a bit shabby one of them came a-calling, or should we say a-falling. This time Fortuna smiled benignly as our power stayed on, even with the line lying on wet ground.

Kind neighbours helped us organise necessary calls and the following morning saw assorted utility personnel arriving in convoy after the fashion of the traditional elephant parade down Main Street announcing the circus had come to town.

The power crew's gaffer took one look at the shambles and observed "That's bad!" in an ominous tone. It seemed at first glance for technical reasons a repair to the house was necessary before they could restring the power line. The repair was outside their bailiwick so we'd have to engage a carpenter to handle it. Once we'd snared one, we were to notify them of the date and a crew would arrive to turn off power so the repair could be effected, following which the power line would be immediately restrung.

Then the phone wallah could be sent for to restore service since the power line would be raised above his working space. Meantime he gave us a temporary hookup.

However, after a lively discussion, the crew decided it would be possible to restore power by attaching the doings a short distance over from their original location on the siding. Thus we had a front row seat as they cut the power, tossed a stout white rope over next door's car, attached rope to line, and pulled it up and over the tree cuddling the vehicle.

Another crew arrived next morning to begin the two-day task of removing the tree, in the process breaking our temporary phone hookup. The phone company informed us reconnection could not be made for almost a fortnight. Persistence obtained a promise the job would be expedited/red flagged, but no date could be given because scheduling was organised by its contractors. Who said we might be reconnected sooner if a service call was cancelled. Unlikely, we thought, but hope, that waking dream, springs eternal.

Hope withered on the vine as time passed. We had no ringie-dingies for thirteen days before service was back. Yet Fortuna continued to be gracious, since during the process of reconnection it was discovered the line was damaged so the whole run from house to pole was replaced on the spot. On the glorious day they galloped up the hill, the phone cavalry had just begun work when my keyboard began to conk out, so though phone service was restored I was not out of the woods yet. Trees again, you notice.

According to the Good Book, the wind may bloweth where it listeth. We just hope next time it gets that angry it'll listeth to bloweth elsewhere-eth.

* http://reedmayermysteries.000webhostapp.com/tos89.htm#trees

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Plumbing the Depths

by Mary

We now return to our continuing series titled When Household Machinery Goes Rogue.

In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Lord Byron refers to the hell of waters when they howl and hiss. I am here to tell subscribers it's not much fun either when your water supply goes missing on a Sunday night.

Last week we found ourselves in that interesting situation. The first company we contacted could not send someone immediately but we managed to find a plumber able to come out. She (yes, a lady plumber) arrived at Casa Maywrite accompanied by two young fellows who looked to be in their late teens and whom we deduced were her sons. We came to this conclusion because they called her mom. Let me pause here to point out that was yet another demonstration of our advanced deductive powers. We believe they were apprentices -- theirs was a family business -- because she explained everything to them in detail and answered questions as she went along. Not to mention they knew exactly what to bring her when she asked them to get some plumbing fiddly widget or other from their van.

By the end of their visit the drainage tap, gauge, and pressure switch had been replaced on the well's pressure tank situated behind the fridge under the stairs, there being nowhere else for either to be placed. This is, as I occasionally remark, an eccentric house.

A few hours after they left there was no water in the loo tank.

Next day brought a second plumber who was here about three and a half hours, during which he fixed the loo's lack of water (diagnosed as sand from the well choking its water inlet tube). Since he was here anyhow we asked him to change all the taps in the bathroom as well as replace the shower head, thus ticking off a couple of tasks on our jobs to get done list.

A few hours later we discovered there was no water in the loo tank or any of the taps. A second visit got water flowing, Alas, it was black and gritty, not a good sign. Even after running all the taps the problem kept coming back. And there still no water in the tank. However, hot water stayed clean, because the gritty sand had settled to the base of the water heater and we were getting hot water from the top. Just to keep things exciting, the heater began kettling. Lord Byron spoke true.

It was obvious the problem involved the well itself, meaning it would have to be pulled for examination. A couple of possibilities mooted in our discussions were shortening the water line in the well so as to keep the pump above the clart at its base or in the worst case scenario replacing the pump. We decided to do the latter as it was over a decade old and approaching the average time when it would become likely to give up the ghost. While at it we ordered a new pressure tank as well, given it was at least twenty years old and if it conked out another visit would be necessary.

The final act of the saga was the glorious day when two plumbers were here six hours on the Friday of the week in question. It was quite a sight to observe plumbing the well's depths involved laying over 120 feet of water line and accompanying wiring straight across our lawn, over the one next door, and a little way down the road. As it turned out, the pump had fallen into the mire on the well floor and had in technical plumbing jargon "gone bad". Mud had also choked the water lines. The pump was a sorry sight, moving one plumber to observe he had never seen anything like it.

After they left, we may not have had a chicken in a pot but we had water in every place it should be, not to mention the water heater had been drained and refilled, thus correcting the kettling. We are again considering taking wagers as to which piece of household machinery will be next to go rogue.

I would observe last week was very draining on us but then boots would be thrown. But as events unfolded I thought more than once of The Gas Man Cometh. A favourite Flanders and Swann song*, it relates a series of repairs required to correct the previous day's repair. As the duo so rightly remark, those repairs all made work for the working man to do.

* Audio at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1dvAxA9ib0&ab_channel=NancyDeHaven