Lessons from Mystery Stories
or, the Long-Lived Marplot

Satire by
Robert Wilfred Franson


July 2012

Living wisely despite plotters

Reading a number of mystery novels, and watching some mystery movies, in fairly close succession is enough to make one a hypochondriac of crime, if not downright paranoid. That is, if you can imagine any reason at all why one or more of your acquaintances, associates, neighbors, friends, lovers, relatives, or passing strangers might wish you out of the way — well, they probably do! You'd best beware.

Of course you don't want to go around in a constant fear of unexplained death by misadventure, as the coroners might say; let alone murder by person or persons unknown. That's no way to live: bad for your appetite, bad for your sleep, and conducive to nervous twitches and tripping while looking over your shoulder.

So what is the prudent, common-sensical, reasonably wary person to do? Why, take precautions suitable to the threats, whether immediate or potential.

Let me give you an example from another genre. In the Gothic-horror novel or film, it often seems that the heroine, while staying in a dark castle or old manor house, develops a foolish urge in the middle of the night to go down into the cellars. You can see, or visualize, her in a nightgown, guttering candlestick in hand, opening the door to the basement stairs. Do you not want to shout, "No! Don't go down there!" But the necessities of plot in such tales — with which you are quite familiar — draw her irresistibly down into the dark and danger. Well, let's hope she comes up again safely.

On to our current hazards. Based on our research into modern mystery and detective stories and films, what must we do to protect ourselves in real life? Really, there are just a handful of common-sense rules, easy to memorize. Here are our suggested guidelines:

  • Avoid and abjure any form of tontine, where by terms of a written agreement the last man standing inherits the combined assets of everyone in the group. This is a classic legal incitement to murder.
  • In fact, make a will, or at least loudly announce that you have done so, in which any money you possess or expect to inherit will be given to impoverished missionaries in the Trobriand Islands: absolutely none to people you know.
  • If anyone close to you dies in suspicious circumstances, or multiple people die in apparently innocent or accidental circumstances, presume that you also are on the list.
  • Should you happen to know who has done a murder, or how it was done, immediately share the information. Shouting it from rooftops is not ill-mannered in such a situation; whereas keeping the secret to yourself to think about it, or to get confirmation, or until the right person can be informed — these simply are goads to silence you forever.
  • When someone dies of poison or "indigestion" at a fancy dinner party you are attending, put down your fork at once, and drink no further liquids. In fact, avoid dinner parties altogether until a sleuth of the caliber of Holmes, Wimsey, Poirot, or Wolfe has collared the miscreant(s) and announced the All-Clear.
  • If in the rare circumstance that you sit upon a throne or hold some high office of State, you will of course employ a food taster, and retain several back-ups. We regular folk needn't be quite so cautious, but do try always to be served out of common dishes or bowls or bottles, and lag in your ingestion of any particular dish or drink until you see that others at table have partaken with no immediate catastrophe. Of course, there also are slow poisons, but we don't want to be paranoid.
  • If at the country-house where you are staying, someone has just died of an "accidental" gunshot or has been shot by an "unknown" person, while indeed one of the household firearms seems to be missing, leave the premises immediately. Do not wait until the firearm turns up. Be out of sight before the sun goes down, and do omit to say goodbye to anyone; you can send them a postcard from Antarctica.
  • If you are in a house or aboard a train and the lights suddenly go dark while a shot rings out, draw your pistol with one hand while switching on your flashlight with the other, holding the light away from your body while you illumine the room. We assume you do carry pistol and flashlight; otherwise you really must avoid darkened murder scenes.
  • While traveling in any vehicle, always carry the appropriate escape device such as parachute or floatation vest; in any multistory building, have with you a lightweight rope ladder of length comparable to the height of the building.
  • If you are invited to visit a factory making use of flammable materials, or which manufactures explosives, remember another appointment which takes precedence.
  • In fact, treat all invitations from known or unknown persons with due caution. You never know until it's too late.
  • Never open your front door to anyone; or back door, either.
  • If you suspect that any of your colleagues, friends, lovers, etc. are out to get you, get them first.

Good luck; you'll be needing it. Sorry, I can't come to dinner.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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