Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Plot Holes in Books We Love: Mr. & Mrs. North Edition

Once in a while, I re-read books that I like a lot.  The “Mr. & Mrs. North” books by Frances and Richard Lockridge fall into that category, and I just re-read Death of a Tall Man.  Now, while I like these books a lot, I would be the last person to argue that the Lockridges’ are great writers.  Their plots tend to be formulaic, many of the (non-continuing) characters are more-or-less from stock and not very well developed.  And their plots frequently have significant, shall we say, shortcomings.

It’s the plot shortcoming in Death of a Tall Man  that I noticed this time through.  Oddly enough, despite my having read the book several times, I hadn’t actually noticed it before.  So if you haven’t read the book and think you might want to, the entire rest of this is a plot-revealing spoiler. 

The murderer has been revealed, and Bill Weigand (Acting Captain in the Homicide Bureau) is explaining what actually happened to the cast (including, of course, Pam and Jerry North).  For the murderer to have pulled off the murder, he had to impersonate, first, a patient awaiting (in an examination room) an eye examination, and, second, the doctor doing the examinations.  In this case, there were six patients in individual waiting rooms, all referred for a specialist examination for worker’s compensation claims.  Each patient has a card with his name (and other information) on it.  Here, from early in the book, is a description of how the patients were handled:

Between 11:35…and 11:55, five more men came in,,,They identified themselves…and were assigned to the examining rooms in the order of their arrival, Weber going into the first room, Oakes to the second, and so on…[At this point, they are all in the waiting room]…At noon, Grace Spencer came to the door and said, “If you gentlemen—“ and they stood up…Grace took their cards, which Deborah [Brooks] had numbered in pencil in accordance with the room assigned.

Following the examination, during which the doctor (Andrew Gordon) has made notes on their conditions, the men leave and their cards are collected and returned to Deborah (subsequently to be provided to Dr. Gordon for him to write up his findings.

Now, we jump to the explanation.

“Somehow he got in and got one of the referral cards in Gordon’s office,” Bill said.  “Oakes’ card, by what turned out, for him to be bad luck.  I suppose Oakes had been in before and the card hadn’t been returned [for which I think we need to read “filed”].  Probably it was on Miss Spencer’s desk.”

We have a reason why both Grace Spencer and Deborah Brooks would have remembered Oakes, which we need not rehearse here.  It’s a sufficiently striking reason, however, that Deborah Brooks would have been likely to remember his name (at least I should think so), but she apparently does not:  “A number,,,More a number than a name.  A man in one of the rooms…”  And our murder got the card, as Weigand says, he “[s]kipped in and got one of the morning cards…They were done with and filed; they wouldn’t be checked for days; with the doctor dead, they would probably never be checked…”

This gives us our first couple of problems.  First, the murderer needs to be familiar enough with the layout of the office, and the office routines, to have some idea how the examination process works and where the cards are likely to be.  Specifically, where the cards from the morning group of compensation patients are likely to be.  (If they had been filed, this would be very difficult; at one point, we’re told that they were on Spencer’s desk, at another that they had been filed.)  But we are told explicitly that neither Spencer nor Brooks knows him well, that he has not been in the office often (or at all?).  Second, the murderer, after arriving (not first, and not last) has to sit in the waiting room for 5-10 minutes.  Now, he has done something to his hair and is wearing dark glasses.  But if he is familiar enough with the office to have found a card, then Spencer or Brooks would have would have been likely to recognize him, disguised or not.  So we have a contradiction.  Third, the card would have a number penciled on it from Oakes’ actual visit to the office that morning.  So either the murderer had with him a pencil and managed to surreptitiously erase the number (without leaving a trace of its presence) or Brooks was incredibly obtuse.

(We are told explicitly, however, that "neither of the women in the office knew him well—“The nurse and Debbie barely knew him by sight; there was hardly a chance that they would recognize him behind the dark glasses, and they had not.”  This is hard to reconcile with his apparently detailed knowledge of how the examination procedure works.)

Then our murderer kills Gordon (in Examination Room 2) and drags him back to his private office and props him up in the desk chair.  He takes Gordon’s glasses (to use now in his impersonation of the doctor), proceeds to “examine” the remaining four patients, and then ducks quickly out of the office by its rear door—where Spencer, the nurse, was sitting.  Presumably, the murderer was physically similar enough and dressed similarly enough (e.g., in a suit of approximately the same color and cut) to get away with this, although we are not told.  He goes away to establish his alibi (which depends on everyone believing that Gordon actually performed the examinations—and here’s our next problem—and presumably made notes on the cards of the patients in writing similar enough to be take for Gordon's.  Cards with no notes would raise an issue, and handwriting too different would raise a very similar issue.  For the murderer’s alibi depends strongly on Gordon’s having been alive after the murderer, disguise and all, had left.

Incidentally, no one seems to have commented on the fact that no one saw “Oakes” leave despite a physical distinctiveness that would have made him very noticeable.

So we have us some problems here, and I don’t pretend to have any clear ideas about how to get around them.  But, then, I did read the book several times before I noticed…