The Key Question: A Malachi Burke Mystery

“Most crimes, Alfred lad,” said my friend and mentor Malachi Burke one evening after supper, “are absurdly obvious once ye take the time to think them through. The trouble is that most folk don’t bother.”

He reclined in his great wingback chair, pulling on his pipe. I sat opposite him, enjoying one of his excellent cigars. Burke’s sitting room was a model of comfort. Shelves of books alternated on the walls with fine paintings. Rich colored rugs of greens and golds and blacks welcomed one’s feet, and the cushions of the wingback chair seemed to embrace me like a mother’s arms.

It was spring, very soon after I began my apprenticeship in the ways of detection, and it had been a damp, dreary kind of day. A cheerful fire roaring in the grate made me bless the wet weather. A large window gave a glorious view over Brooklyn, largely obscured by the rain, though the lamps and electric lights could be seen gleaming through the haze like stars.

The one jarring note in all of this elegance was my host. Malachi Burke, the master detective, looked rather like an ogre out of some fairy tale. He was tall, with a massive breadth of shoulder, a barrel of a chest, and huge, long arms ending in gnarled, calloused hands. His ebony cane leaned against one of the arms of his chair while his lame right leg stretched out before him onto the carpet. His scarred, weather-beaten face gave the impression of having been carved out of some hoary old wood and his dark hair was tinged with grey. It was as though a farmer from the roughest corner of Ireland had been dug out of the ground and planted in the middle of Brooklyn society. Which is, indeed, rather close to the truth.

“You mean,” I said, preparing myself for one of his usual post-supper lectures on crime. “That once you understand the facts, they usually point only one way.”

“I mean that often times the whole thing can be settled once you ask the right question,” he said. “Criminals usually aren’t as clever as all that, it’s just that crime is such an outlier to most folk’s experience that they don’t consider things properly and know what to ask.”

He drew out his pipe, blew a perfect smoke ring into the air, and related the following story. Though not, of course, in these words.

###

“A gentleman and lady to see you, sir.”

Malachi Burke regarded the young couple that entered his office. The young man was long-faced, pale, and moderately good-looking, his black hair neatly combed and his suit, while of cheap make, was clean and well-kept. His appearance suggested a clerk or perhaps a young lawyer.

The lady was a small, quietly pretty young woman. Burke put her age at perhaps nineteen. The cut of her dark-brown hair, unstyled and bound back from her face, suggested a working girl. Her plain, dark-green dress contributed to the impression.

He noted these details in a swift, almost unconscious manner while he observed their demeanor. They were both anxious, that much was sure. There was definite tension about the mouth and the eyes. The woman’s gloved hands were twisting unceasingly as she walked in, and the young man kept darting glances about the room as though seeking for some source of reassurance. He had blanched noticeably when he caught sight of the great detective, a reaction Burke was quite used to.

But there was something else in the woman’s face: the lift of her chin and the set of her jaw suggested a higher degree of determination than her soft features would have implied.

The huge detective pushed himself to his feet in the manner of a great standing stone being raised into place and bowed to his visitors. The girl visibly quailed before the giant.

“Good afternoon,” he said in his deep Irish brogue. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of making your acquaintances yet.”

“My name is Stanley Cutter,” said the young man. “This is my fiancee, Miss Margaret Pierson.”

“Thank you for agreeing to see us,” said the lady.

“Not at all. Won’t you please have a seat?”

They sat down in the chairs opposite his great oak desk. Horatio, Burke’s impeccable butler, retired on silent feet and Burke lowered himself ponderously back into his chair.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

The two glanced at each other.

“I am told,” said Stanley. “That you are a detective.”

“Did anyone beside the notice in the papers or the sign on my door tell you that?” he inquired.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I put that badly. Margaret…Miss Pierson here works for a Mrs. Henrietta Freeman, who recommended you to us. She said that she employed you once and that you were both very honest and very good at your job.”

“I did indeed help her out once,” said Burke, nodding. “So what brings you here today?”

Here Margaret swallowed and squared her small shoulders.

“We would like to hire you,” she said. “We don’t have much money, but we can get a loan if necessary.”

“Before you do that, you might tell me what you want to hire me to do,” he said.

“That is rather delicate,” said Stanley. “You see…”

Again he looked at his fiancee, as though expecting her to take the lead. Burke guessed that this visit had been her idea.

“We want you to prove that…that Stanley did not murder his employer.”

Burke regarded her a moment with a heavy, serious gaze, and then shook his head.

“I do not do that sort of work.”

“Oh, but Mrs. Freeman said….”

“Let me explain a moment,” he said, holding up one of his huge hands. “I do not engage to prove anyone’s guilt or innocence. That’s a lawyer’s job. I engage to find out the truth. That is my only business. Whether it is to your liking or not, or whether it will hold up in court is another matter, but it is the truth and nothing but that I will discover. D’ye understand?”

“We understand perfectly,” she said. “And that is what we want, isn’t it Stanley?”

“Of course we want the truth,” he said, though with rather less conviction than she. “If you think you can get it. The trouble is that…well, let’s put it frankly. Things look so black against me that I honestly think I’d be better off going straight to a lawyer.”

Burke leaned back in his chair, studying the young man.

“Is that a confession then?”

“Certainly not!” Stanley said hotly. “I didn’t kill anyone. But I’m a practical man, Mr. Burke, and I can see how things are setting. If I could just figure out what did happen, then maybe I’d have a chance, but the thing just doesn’t make sense.”

“You interest me,” said Burke. “I believe I will take this case after all. Now, supposing you tell me just what happened. From the beginning now.”

Stanley Cutter drew a deep breath. His fiancee patted him on the arm, and he grasped her hand in his.

“Very well then,” he said. “I work – or have worked – in the offices of Caribel Brothers. They are an insurance firm, covering shipping, trade goods, and the like. It is a very lucrative business, as you can imagine. Men like to feel that their livelihoods don’t rest on the whim of chance.”

“They do indeed. Superstitions are ever welcome in the human heart. Please continue.”

Stanley looked slightly bewildered by this, but he went on.

“Well, early this morning we came in and found Mr. Bartholomew Caribel dead in his office. He, ah,” he glanced at Margaret. “He had been stabbed behind the right ear with a letter opener.”

“You were one of them that found the body, then?”

“I was. Myself, Angus Caribel, and Nicholas Feldstein, one of our clerks. We came in as normal, sat down to work….”

“What manner of work do you do for them?”

“Oh, I am secretary to the two brothers,” he said. “As I say, Mr. Angus opened up the office and we sat down to work as usual. Mr. Angus commented that Bartholomew must have slept here again last night as he hadn’t been home – he often did that when he had work to do late at night – and knocked on his door. Getting no answer, he tried the knob, found it unlocked, and…and found him. Of course the police were summoned at once and they interviewed all of us.”

“Can you describe the morning routine more precisely? What time, for instance, did you arrive?”

“A little before seven,” said Stanley. “I was early that day, though it doesn’t really matter: the office wasn’t open yet, so I waited in the hallway for a bit with Mr. Feldstein. Then Mr. Angus showed up at seven precisely – they’re always very precise – and let us in. I went to my desk, Mr. Feldstein went into the clerks’ office, and Mr. Angus went to Mr. Bartholomew’s office door and knocked and called for him…then it all happened like I said.”

“And what makes you so sure you’ll be suspected?” asked Burke.

“Ah, well, here we come to some rather delicate matters,” said Stanley.

“More delicate than your neck, are they?”

Margaret gave a faint gasp. Stanley turned a little paler.

“You have a way of putting things,” he said. “All right. The truth is I had words with Mr. Bartholomew the night before.”

“Tell him the whole story, Stanley,” said Margaret. “About the man.”

“I told you, Margaret, that can’t have anything to do with it.”

“Why not?”

“Perhaps I did not make myself, clear,” said Burke. “If you want me to help you, you need to tell me everything. Understand?”

“Very well,” said Stanley. “What happened is…to be clear, Margaret here works in the same building as I do.”

“Doing what?”

“I am a typist,” she said. “I work in the floor above for Mrs. Freeman. That is how we met. You see, I get off of work at six and Stanley doesn’t get off until seven. So for some time it’s been our custom for me to go down and sit in the lobby with him.”

“And your employers didn’t mind this?”

“Not at all, provided she didn’t make a nuisance of herself,” said Stanley. “And since she would sometimes help me with a bit of work they were actually the gainers by the scheme.”

“I see. And you did this yesterday evening.”

“Yes,” said Margaret.

“What happened next? Tell me exactly.”

“The clerks get off at six thirty,” said Stanley. “Then Mr. Angus left about twenty to seven. Then not long after he left was when someone threw something against the window.”

“Before you go any further, can you describe the lay of the office to me?”

“Certainly,” said Stanley. “It’s on the second floor on the corner. There’s a door leading off the hall that opens into the lobby. That’s where I sit. My desk is to the left of the door under the window. To the right is the door into the office where the clerks sit. Directly across from the hallway door are the two doors leading into the brothers’ private offices.”

“They each have their own?”

“That’s correct.”

“Windows in them?”

“Yes, there are two windows in Mr. Angus’s office and one in Mr. Bartholomew’s, behind his desk.”

“And your window faces what direction?”

“South.”

“Southwest corner then, is it?”

“That’s right.”

“I see. Go on then.”

“All right. As I say, someone threw something against the window. I naturally went to look and there was a man in the alley below. He was shouting and cursing in the most disgraceful manner. I tried to shout down to him that there was a lady listening, but he wouldn’t hear me.”

“Did you see this man, Miss Pierson?”

“Yes. I went to the window as well,” she said.

“Why?”

“Just curious, I guess,” she said with a faint shrug.

“Can you describe him?”

“He was a dirty, disheveled kind of man,” she said. “All wild hair and torn clothes. I thought he looked like a drunkard.”

“I’m sure he was,” said Stanley.

“Was there any substance to what he was saying? I mean, was it more than just profanity?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact,” said Stanley in a hesitant kind of manner. “He was shouting about how we had cheated him. That he was ruined because of us. Specifically by Mr. Bartholomew.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes. He said he would kill him. ‘Tell that old,’” Stanley caught himself. “’That old person that I will kill him for what he did to me.’ That’s what he said.”

“That’s right,” said Margaret. “He said it at least twice. Then Stanley told him he would summon the police and the man took off.”

“Did you summon the police?”

“No,” Stanley admitted. “I guess I should have, but I thought the man was just drunk and that the brothers wouldn’t want the police hanging around if they could help it and I…I didn’t really take it seriously. You don’t really expect your employers to be murdered, Mr. Burke.”

Malachi Burke did not comment on that.

“Did the man have any peculiar way of speaking? Was he, perhaps, Italian? Or Irish?”

“No, just ordinary American, I think,” said Margaret. She then caught herself and flushed. “Not that…I don’t mean to imply…”

“You ain’t implying anything, lass,” he said gently. “I’m just trying to get a picture of what you saw. So you sent the man on his way. What happened next?”

“A few minutes later, Mr. Bartholomew called me into his office,” said Stanley.

“Yes?”

He swallowed hard.

“Now…this is where we get into the delicate matters, Mr. Burke,” he said. “I must beg you to believe me when I say that I never intended to break the law.”

“That is never a good thing to have to say, lad,” said Burke.

“Yes, I know. Well, here’s what happened. And it is the God’s honest truth, sir. I went into his office. He was sitting there, half-turned and looking at the wall. He had a way of doing that, you see: not looking at you when was speaking to you. He said he liked to concentrate on what he was saying and not on your expression. Well, anyway, he started to dictate to me as usual. It was a simple correspondence. Didn’t take more than five minutes. When I’d finished he said ‘I’d like a word with you before you go, Mr. Cutter.’

“’All right sir,’ I said.

“’I happened to be looking through our old accounts,’ he said. ‘What can you tell me about the Scalzi account?’

“That was when I knew I’d had it,” said Stanley. He looked at Margaret and gripped her hand rather tightly. “See, the Scalzis are an Italian wine importing firm. Very good kind of people. There was an incident last year where they filed a claim that wasn’t quite covered by our policy. I…took the liberty of editing their claim a little before passing it on to the clerks.”

“So you committed fraud.”

“Yes, I suppose I did,” said Stanley. “I never imagined they’d find out. I still don’t know how: Mr. Bartholomew doesn’t even attend to the client side of the business very often.”

“So what did you do when he brought this to your attention?”

“I didn’t do anything!” he said. “I tried to explain my side of it, of course, and he let me have it pretty good. Something you should know about the late Mr. Bartholomew, Mr. Burke, is that he never raised his voice, but he knew how to twist the knife in you. Oh!” he said as the implications of the phrase struck him. “I didn’t mean…”

“Yes, yes, quite all right,” said Malachi Burke, waving away the mistake. “Never mind that now. What happened next?”

“He said we would discuss my future in the morning,” said Stanley with a grimace. “The way he put it, I could tell I wasn’t going to have much of one. Once he put it about to his connections that I’d been fired for fraud, that’d be all up for me. I’d be lucky if he didn’t call the police on me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse than when I left that office.”

Burke turned to Margaret Pierson.

“Would you say his appearance bore that out?” he asked.

“Oh yes!” she said. “He looked terrible, all pale and shaken. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he’d tell me later. He just wanted to get out of there.”

“I sort of snapped at her,” Stanley admitted. “I feel terrible about it, but that’s how agitated I was.”

“He apologized later,” Margaret hastened to reassure him.

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Burke. “Did you leave the office straight away?”

“Yes, like I said, I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” said Stanley. “We went walking for a bit while I tried to get my head straight, then we went to a show and I walked her home.”

“What time was that?”

“About half-past-ten I would think,” said Stanley.”

“And where do you live, Miss Pierson, if I may ask?”

“I live in a boarding house on Galt street,” she answered.

“And you Mr. Cutter?”

“Apartment on 7th.”

Burke nodded.

“What happened the next morning?”

“I told you. I went to the office like usual and we found Mr. Bartholomew.”

“Ah, yes. Of course.”

Burke leaned back in his chair, thinking a moment.

“As you say, things look very black against you from a certain point of view. When did you tell Miss Pierson about the argument?”

Stanley swallowed.

“Not…not until this afternoon. Just before we came here.”

“After you were interviewed by the police.”

“Yes.”

“Did they question you, Miss Pierson?”

“They did, yes.”

“And you told them that your fiancee came out of the office very agitated and upset following an argument with his employer.”

“I…yes, I did.”

“And you were the last people to leave the office. Are you sure about that?”

“Quite sure, yes,” said Stanley.

“Hm.”

“There is something more as well,” said Margaret in a hurried kind of voice. “I…the police asked me and I didn’t know how to avoid telling them.” She swallowed and looked pleadingly at her fiancee. “Stanley asked if I would run away with him last night.”

“And you told the police that?” he said in a horrified tone.

“I didn’t mean to, darling!” she wailed. “But they asked and they badgered and it was half way out before I knew what I was saying!”

“I’m surprised they didn’t arrest me already,” he moaned.

“I’m so sorry!”

“Oh, well,” he muttered, patting her hand. “I guess they would have found out sooner or later.”

They turned to Malachi Burke with expressions of desperation.

“Well, Mr. Burke?” said Stanley. “Do you think you can help us?”

Burke didn’t answer right away. He knocked his pipe out into an ashtray with a series of slow, heavy thumps.

“I’ve just a few more questions,” he said. “These Caribel brothers. I never saw them myself: what are they like?”

“Hard-nosed businessmen,” said Stanley. “There’s not a spec of imagination or human feeling between them I should say.”

“What do they look like?”

“Mr. Bartholomew I always thought looked like a wire-haired terrier,” said Stanley. “I’m sorry, I know I probably shouldn’t speak that way of the dead, but there it is. He had a tangled gray mane of hair and a long, drooping kind of face. And he wore glasses: round glasses that always seemed to catch the light, like a cat’s eyes in the dark. Mr. Angus is completely bald and a good deal taller than his brother. He wears half-rim spectacles. He’s a bit more agreeable, I’d say. He at least looks at you when he’s speaking.”

“Did you ever see that tramp again?”

“No. I certainly didn’t,” said Stanley, looking at Margaret.

“Me neither.”

“Was anything taken from the dead man? Anything missing from his desk or his pockets?”

“The police had Mr. Angus do a thorough inventory,” said Stanley. “But no, as far as he knew nothing was missing. All his money, his watch, his keys, his correspondence, his checkbook, all it was there.”

“Now this is very important. When you left the office, have you described your movement exactly? You simply walked out and down the stairs and out the door, not stopping or going back for anything?”

“Oh!” said Margaret, her small hand going to her mouth. “Actually I…I ran back for my coat.”

“You what?” Burke said sharply, making her jump.

“Stanley was so eager to leave that I almost forgot it,” she said. “We had almost reached the first floor when I remembered and ran back. I wasn’t more than a minute.”

“You ran back,” Burke repeated.

“If you’re thinking she…” Stanley began hotly. But Malachi Burke silenced him with a look of his flashing green eyes.

“Did you notice anything while you were there?”

“No,” said Margaret. “Nothing. I was only in the office for a second to grab my coat. I…” she hesitated. “I think maybe I heard Mr. Bartholomew walking about in his office, but I didn’t pay any attention to it, except to hurry back out since I definitely didn’t want him to come out and find me.”

“How long was she gone?” Burke asked Stanley.

“Not more than…half a minute,” said Stanley in a firm tone. “Just long enough to go up and get her coat.”

“And you didn’t notice anything strange,” said Burke.

“Nothing,” she said firmly.

Again, he nodded his great head.

“Now Mr. Cutter, once again think very hard. The next morning, did you notice anything usual when you came in? Anything at all?”

“No,” said Stanley. “I came in a little early. I…I was anxious of course. I figured it was liable to be my last day. Only then I had to wait about in the hallway with the clerks, and that didn’t do my nerves any favors. I remember Mr. Feldstein was in an infuriatingly cheerful mood. Kept talking about some bet he’d won the night before. Then Mr. Angus came and let us in and we went to check on Mr. Bartholomew.”

“It was that quick, was it?”

“Yes. Right away. Mr. Angus said, ‘Bartholomew must have slept here last night again, I am going to wake him.’ Then he went in and kind of screamed, and Feldstein and I rushed in after him.”

“Did you go near the body?”

“No, I hung back. I was in shock, I didn’t know what to think.”

Malachi Burke nodded once more, bobbing his great head up and down like a wooden doll.

“I think,” he said. “That is all I’ll need from the two of you.”

“Do you…is there any hope?” asked Margaret in a tentative voice.

Burke looked at her, and to her evident surprise bestowed one of his kindly smiles on her.

“Hope is a gift of God, lass,” he said.

His next move after shooing the young people out was to put on his hat and coat – it was a chill April morning – and go to see the detective in charge of the case. Detective Levinson, like many in the department, had been a colleague of protege of his and greeted Burke warmly. Burke was pleased to find that Mr. Angus Caribel was also present settling some arrangements with the police about his brother’s property.

“You’re in luck, Mr. Caribel,” said Levinson. “If Malachi Burke is on the case, your brother’s killer won’t get far.”

“Do you have any suspicions, Mr. Burke?” asked Angus Caribel after shaking hands.

“One or two,” said Burke, easing himself into a chair and stretching his lame leg. “Ach, this damn thing gets worse every year,” he groaned, rubbing it. Even the taxi ride from his apartment had been taxing on the old wound.

“What can we do for you, Burke?” asked Levinson.

“First I want to hear what you know of the case so far,” said Burke. “See how well it tallies with what I’ve heard this afternoon.”

Levinson nodded and gave a summary of events. Burke listened and nodded along, satisfied that it fit the story that the young couple had given him.

“Was there any sign of a struggle?”

“No, none,” said Levinson. “He was a very neat man and things on his desk were perfectly arranged.”

Burke nodded.

“Is that about right Mr. Caribel?”

“Exactly, yes, to the best of my knowledge,” said Angus Caribel. “I don’t want to tell the police their business, but…it seems to me that there is a fairly strong case against young Cutter. Though I’d be very glad to told I’m wrong in that. He’s quite an efficient young man, though this story of fraud is…unfortunate. Makes me question everything I thought I knew about him.”

“Well, there is that tramp,” said Burke. “Have you been able to trace him at all? Or find any further evidence of his existence?”

“As a matter of fact, we did,” said Levinson. “The fella’s name is Harold Climpson, used to be a bit of a big name in shipping…”

“Climpson!” said Caribel in surprise. “Why, I know the man! We used to do business together, until his stock was unfortunately wiped out in a fire.”

“Yes, and he blames your brother for not paying on his claim,” said Levinson. “Very hot on the subject it seems.”

“Our policy was very clear that such events were not covered,” said Angus Caribel. “But you don’t think…”

“I would if not for the fact that he has an alibi,” said Levinson. “It seems that after he got done shouting at the building, he went straight to the nearest bar and drank himself into a stupor, still ranting about your brother to anyone who would listen. He ended up so drunk he tried to knock another patron’s head in and spent the night in jail. He’s there now if you want to see him, Burke, nursing a nasty headache and a nastier temper.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary just yet,” said Burke. “I was only curious, but I am glad we have it. It makes it all that much simpler.”

“Simpler? What do you mean?”

“I mean I know what happened, and he’ll make it easier to prove….”

###

At this point, as he usually did in his recitals, Malachi Burke paused and looked expectantly at me.

“Well?” he said. “Do you see it, lad?”

I thought about it hard, then waved a hand in surrender.

“No, I don’t. I guessed that the young man didn’t do it. Apart from everything else, I don’t think he would have calmly gone out with his girl and come back to work the next day if he had. He would have booked the first ticket out west at the very least. But I don’t see how it could have been done otherwise. Unless…were the people at the bar certain about the time that Climpson came in?”

“Sure enough,” said Burke. “They were busy and couldn’t quite swear to it exactly, but they’re fairly sure it was well before seven-thirty.”

“With quick work he might have managed it,” I said.

“He might have, but do you think Mr. Bartholomew would have sat there calmly while an irate tramp burst into his office and let himself be stabbed without a struggle?”

“No, I see what you mean,” I said. “Then there’s one other possibility I can see.”

“Which is?”

“I hate to say it, but you always say suspect everyone. The girl.”

“Ah! I’m glad to hear you bein’ broadminded on the subject!” he said. “Sometimes I think you’re reluctant to believe a pretty face can hide a murderess’s heart. Though it might just be because you haven’t seen her.”

“Maybe,” I admitted with a sheepish grin. “But from the way you describe her she sounds like one of these apparently-soft women who are like steel when those they love are in danger. I can see her listening in on the argument, thinking that her man was going to be ruined, and, in a burst of anger running back and stabbing the old man before he knew what was happening. Was he deaf at all?”

“I don’t believe so, no. Very nearsighted, but his hearing was excellent.”

“Yes, but he wouldn’t expect a gentle-looking creature like that to be dangerous, so he might not have realized what was happening until it was too late.”

“That’s well considered,” he said, nodding. “It might have happened like that, I’ll grant ye. Only, you’re missing the important question. Only ask that and the whole thing becomes clear.”

“What question is that?”

Malachi Burke re-lit his pipe and blew a large smoke-ring.

“The question I asked Angus Caribel a moment later, after I’d confirmed that his version of the morning’s events tallied exactly with young Cutter’s. The question is, who locked the door?”

“What door?” I asked.

“Faith, lad, weren’t you listening at all? The hallway door. The door that the Caribels had to open for their employees every morning. Remember, it was locked when they got there. Mr. Angus had to open it for them. So who locked it?”

I thought a moment. Then I saw.

“Cutter didn’t have the key.”

“No, nor did Miss Pierson. Nor did Mr. Climpson. Mr. Bartholomew’s key was still found on him. So only one man could have locked the door, and thus only one man could have killed him. Mr. Angus.”

“’Don’t show how it might have been: show it couldn’t have been done any other way’,” I said, quoting one of his commandments.

“Exactly.”

“But then I don’t see,” I said. “Cutter swore that Angus left before any of it happened, and the girl said the same thing. How did he get back in? I suppose he just waited around outside for his brother to be alone.”

“Not such a fool,” said Burke. “In the first place, he’d be likely to be seen loitering about. In the second, he knew that an open police investigation is an incalculable thing, and if there wasn’t an obvious suspect, then anything might happen. He was cautious devil. So he arranged to pin it on young Cutter. I suppose it was discovering Cutter’s messing about with the letters that put the idea into his head. Nothing like finding a motive for someone else to make murder seem practical.”

“Then what did he do? Hide in the hallway, or the stairwell?”

“Ah, lad,” Burke shook his head. “You don’t see it at all. Consider the tramp.”

I did, but I didn’t see what the tramp had to do with it.

“What about him?”

“Don’t you think Mr. Climpson’s behavior was a might odd? It struck me at once, right off I heard the two young people describe it.”

“Well, he was drunk.”

“Drunk or no, if he’d done business with them he knew where Mr. Bartholomew’s office was. If his purpose were to spew his threats and his hatred at the man, why would he throw stones at the secretary? Did he expect him to take it as a memo? Why wouldn’t he stand below Mr. Bartholomew’s window and scream and swear at him?”

“Oh,” I said. “I hadn’t thought of that. Then…why?”

“Well,” said Burke, blowing another smoke ring. “A good way to find out why someone did something is to look at what that something actually did. And what did it do?”

“It…well, nothing, except to bring Mr. Cutter and the girl to the window and to provide…oh!”

“You see it then,” he said. “It brought them to the window, giving Mr. Angus a chance to slip back across the lobby and into his brother’s office.”

“Into his…”

“Yes. That is when he killed him. He shut the door, said something like ‘Oh, I forgot to mention so-and-so to you, brother. Have a look at this…’ He puts a bit of paper under his brother’s nose, his brother bends over….”

I could see it. See it as clearly as if it had happened right before my eyes.

“That’s clear enough,” I said. “But then Cutter spoke with him afterwards. Had his meeting with…you mean that was Angus?”

“You’re picking up lad. Yes, that was Angus, not Bartholomew. They were brothers, after all. They may have been superficially very different to look at, but the structure of their faces was much of a piece. All he needed was a wire-haired wig and his brother’s glasses to play the part. It helped that Mr. Bartholomew didn’t look people in eye when he spoke to them, and that the window faced west so that at seven o’clock the sun would be shining right behind him.”

“I see. So he berated Cutter to emphasize his motive and so that it would seem that Bartholomew was still alive well after he had left.”

“Quite so. The plan was that Cutter would be the last one to see Bartholomew alive, and had been threatened with ruin while alone in the office with him. All things considered, it was a fine little plan. Then Angus went and ruined it all when, by sheer force of habit, he thoughtlessly locked the door behind him as he left the office.”

I shook my head, admiring how neatly everything fell into place as he described it.

“Like you said, absurdly obvious. But do you mean to say,” I added, frowning slightly. “That if he hadn’t gone and locked up that he would have gotten away with it and poor Cutter would have been hanged?”

“Oh, no, there was another weak point in his scheme,” said Burke. “Climpson.”

“Climpson?”

“Well, obviously Angus hired him. You don’t suppose he left something like that up to chance? No, he paid him well to be part of the scheme, and Climpson was only too happy to help murder the man he regarded as his enemy. Only, Angus didn’t count on the consequences of Climpson’s character. A man like that with money in his pocket and hatred in his soul is sure to do only one thing: go to the nearest tavern, rant and rave, get roaring drunk, and so end up in jail. The very last place in the world that Angus would have wanted him. He might have passed a common police interview without incident, but I would have soon had him spilling the whole story.”

I shook my head.

“What did Angus think would happen?”

“I suspect he meant to meet the fella’ somewhere to celebrate and perhaps pay the rest of the money. Then he would have maybe knocked him on the head. No one would look twice at a drunk tramp with a bashed in skull, would they?”

“So, Angus Caribel was done in by his own responsibility and his failure to understand another man’s debauchery,” I said. “That doesn’t seem a proper lesson at all.”

“It shows you must learn to think things through, or you’ll be done in by something absurdly obvious. As I say, most criminals are.”

“What about Mr. Cutter and Miss Pierson?”

“Oh, Mr. Cutter’s doin’ quite well last I heard. In Chicago I believe. They sent me a photo of them and their children a few years back. Quite a happy little family they seem.”

He puffed on his pipe a moment, then began to hum an Irish folk song, and I knew we were finished with crime for the evening.

Learn how Alfred More’s apprenticeship with Malachi Burke began in The Ten Commandments of Murder, available for kindle or print on demand

Thoughts on a Movie I Haven’t Seen

My extreme antipathy towards Rian Johnson left me with no interest in seeing Knives Out, much as I love good mystery stories. I still haven’t seen it, but I have learned the solution from someone who did, and, having confirmed it by a perusal of Wikipedia, I am about to say something about it. Though take it with a grain of salt.

Needless to say, SPOILERS, and spoilers of a mystery, which is worse. However, quite frankly the solution is so stupid that I don’t think it matters.

 

 

 

So, the solution, described by wikipedia, is this:

Unknown to Blanc, after the party, [Christopher Plummer]s nurse, Marta Cabrera, accidentally administered him an overdose of morphine instead of his usual medication and could not find the antidote, leaving Harlan minutes to live. To protect Marta, Harlan gave her instructions to create a false alibi to avoid suspicion over his death; he then slit his own throat. Marta carried out Harlan’s instructions, but Harlan’s elderly mother saw her and mistook her for Ransom.

…After Ransom learned at the party that Harlan was leaving everything to Marta, he swapped the contents of Marta’s medication vials and stole the antidote so she would kill Harlan with an overdose of morphine, making her ineligible to claim the inheritance by the slayer rule. However, Marta actually administered the correct medicine without reading the labels, recognizing it by the weight and viscosity of the fluid, and is therefore innocent of Harlan’s death. After the death was reported as a suicide, Ransom anonymously hired Blanc to discover Marta’s guilt. Fran later saw Ransom stealing Marta’s medical case to hide the fact that the contents of the vials had been switched, and sent him the blackmail note.

So, the trained nurse couldn’t recognize the symptoms of a massive morphine overdose? Neither she nor the old man himself realized that he was wide-awake, perfectly lucid, and mentally alert enough to be able to concoct a complicated plot in the space of a few minutes, despite supposedly getting a lethal overdose of a sedative? In fact, the old man was so convinced that he had mere minutes to live that he cut his own throat some five minutes after getting what he thought was a massive overdose of tranquilizer, enough to kill him within mere minutes?

If he had gotten that level of an overdose, it would have hit him hard straight away and probably left him all-but incapacitated at once, if it didn’t actually put him straight to sleep. He certainly wouldn’t be coming up with elaborate false alibis or cutting his own throat minutes later. It’s a narcotic; you would feel it if you got that much all at once, you wouldn’t be fully functional until the timer runs out like in a video game.

I’ve heard the film compared with the works of Agatha Christie. Dame Christie would have tanned your hide for this. Her solutions were sometimes a little wonky, requiring luck and split-second timing, but they didn’t turn on people simply forgetting how drugs work to the extent that they kill themselves over it. In one of her stories, this would have been the unworkable fake solution disqualified by requiring totally unreasonable behavior on all sides. I can just picture Poirot: “Does a man who has just been given 20 ccs of morphine concoct an elaborate alibi for his nurse and then calmly cut his own throat? Would he even remain conscious long enough to learn that a mistake had been made? And does a trained nurse mistake a wide-awake man who is calmly conversing with her for a man who has just been lethally drugged with a narcotic? No, no! C’est impossible!” 

Why didn’t the grandson just mix the two instead of swapping completely? Blend in an amount of morphine to the medication, and the same result ensues, only without the stupid element of the man coolly and deliberately cutting his own throat because both he and his nurse thinks he’s been given enough morphine to knock out an elephant, and still believe it after five minutes of intense, lucid concentration? Even if they find the mixture, it would be all-but impossible to pin the blame on any one person, and she would still come under suspicion either for incompetence or murder (but you could easily arrange for the mixture to be covered up somehow).

Actually – again, speaking without having seen the film – wouldn’t that make for a better story? She legitimately did kill him, and the detective has to prove it wasn’t her fault?

Or if you wanted this particular set up, just have the medication be something that wouldn’t affect his mind, like the ever-handy digitalin. See, that’s the worst part of this sort of thing; it would be so incredibly easy to avoid this problem with just a little bit of thought. You can have everything the same (though the suicide angle still seems wonky to me), only without the glaring gap in logic. But they didn’t care enough to even do that, apparently.

You know, with so many people praising the film, I thought perhaps that meant that Rian Johnson actually could write a decent story, just couldn’t do Star Wars. But, no; at least as far as the solution goes, this film shows the same level of blind stupidity as The Last Jedi: an inability to think things through or give people logical motivations or reactions. Characters just do what they are told because they’re told to do it because he doesn’t know how to get his desired effects otherwise.

If he doesn’t start to improve, his oeuvre is going to be a treasure trove of “don’t do this” examples for future writers if nothing else.