Here at the Delta Detective Agency
we have an abundance of mysteries on hand
to keep us in business indefinitely, thanks to a troubled clientele
afflicted with the woes of wandering husbands, restless wives,
reckless children and missing pets. That’s for starters.
Add to that, scammers and schemers milking the gullible
with offers for nonexistent advantages and benefits,
dangling the lure of “golden opportunities” (wanna buy a bargain bitcoin?)
or the fear of disobeying demands for confidential information
by imposters claiming to be agents of the FBI, SSI or IRS.
The grievances run a familiar gamut, which is the reason
I appreciate an occasional case with a novelty factor
such as the one that walked into my office recently
with Delta business exec Cyrus (“Cy”) McCracken,
creator of the PIF (Paid In Full) Credit Service
and president of the local VEMC (Very Early Morning Club).
VEMC members meet for coffee chats and gourmet doughnuts,
with each assigned on a revolving basis to present a talk
dealing with issues of commerce, politics or pop culture.
“They want me to lecture on a movie that makes no sense!”
Cy grumbled as he took a chair, accompanied as always
by Mimi Ambler, the kind of personal secretary and assistant
who does your thinking, ordering and shopping for you
when you’re too busy or neglectful to do it yourself
and hurries you right along to get you out the door
before anyone notices she’s acting like a wife.
I reacted to Cy’s urgent complaint with appropriate sympathy,
“Say what? Isn’t that out of your league, old sport?”
“I’ll say it is,” Cy shook his head, “Seen it twice and still don’t get it.”
“No, I mean, why did they select you, of all people?”
“Because he’s given up going to the movies,” Mimi explained.
“That’s hardly a qualification,” I said.
“It is in this case because this is the kind of movie
that represents a shift to intelligent filmmaking
designed to appeal to older, more discriminating patrons
and lure them back to theaters or pay-TV contracts,
thereby revitalizing the market–and the money. Get it now?”
“Got it. Well, of course I’d like to help you, but I’m running—“
“A little late this morning?” Mimi asked with a charming smile.
“–running a detective agency here, not a seminar in–uh–in–?”
“Problematic cinematics?” Mimi suggested.
“On the other hand, being a detective might just enable and empower me
to provide you with a few useful pointers on how to master and conquer—-“
“The riddles of modern movie making,” Mimi concluded.
“Despite any reservations I might have about your ability,” I added.
“Maybe this will help convince you,” Cy said,
floating a crisp hundred dollar bill across my desk
and promising another if I was able to decipher
the meaning of a mystery film that was a mystery in its own right.
But the issue at the heart of his visit was far more personal.
“My reputation is at stake,” Cy confessed, “”I don’t want to look like
a complete idiot when I get up there to present my opinion,
even if I had one, and that can be bad for business because—-“
“Because at seven in the morning,” Mimi took up the cause,
“thinking and persuading an audience that you know
what you’re taking about can be a hopeless endeavor
unless you’ve sobered from cups of strong Colombian
and sought expert counsel from a film-wise detective.”
I revealed that I had the advantage of seeing the film in question
because a certain lady friend of mine had the exact same complaint
as my visitor, imploring my help to make the meaning clear
by fitting together the random pieces of a challenging puzzle.
“Of course, that’s what I did for her, but this time around
it’s on a purely professional basis, you understand,
so all you have to do now is slide another Franklin
my way and I’ll tell you how to go about it.”
“Another?” Cy asked. “Didn’t I just give you one?”
“That was the advance. This is the service charge.”
“So you can be fully paid up and we can proceed to business.”
When Cy stalled, Mimi gave him a discreet nudge
and tactfully whispered the magic words,
“Get cracking, McCracken! Time is running short
and you’re quibbling about the consultation fee
of the only man who can get you up to speed.”
“To be perfectly blunt about it,” I nodded,
with a wink at the persuasively wise woman.
With his account prepaid in full, Cy revealed
his frustrations and uncertainties concerning
“The Power of the Dog,” a prize-winning film study of male toxicology
infecting the inhabitants of a Montana ranch, with stern foreman Phil
bullying and insulting anyone he doesn’t like or respect,
which happens to be everyone.
Why does Phil act this way? That’s the mystery.
The answer can be found by applying a close eye and ear
to find the secret he’s hiding and the role he’s playing,
hoping to conceal his true self from others.
Trouble begins when the bully’s good guy brother
brings home a wife. Phil lets the newcomer have it in ways
that trouble her, nurture fears and wreck her confidence.
Something sinister is brewing in this troubled household
and the worst may be yet to come.
So where does a film detective begin?
He may wonder to what dog the film title refers
and what power that canine (real or metaphorical) may unleash.
He may try to identify the real victim of this plot. Bad guy or good?
Frail new wife or her gentle son, the farthest thing from a cowboy?
The best thing an investigator can do is skip the guessing game
and seek the necessary clues as to motive and method.
Will intimidation go unchecked unless someone finds the courage
and the means to put an end to the prevailing darkness?
But neither the benevolent brother nor his trembling wife
nor her unworldly son seem up to the task.
“So what’s this film really all about?” Cy asked impatiently.
“About you keeping your eyes sharp and ears open
to details that allow you to play a role of your own.”
“A role? For me? Who am I supposed to be? A cowboy?”
“How on earth do I do that?”
“He just told you,” Mimi said softly.
Since Cy’s understanding needed refreshment (and probably recharging), I repeated what I’d said about the fine art of investigation, subtle clues that shouldn’t be ignored and the viewer’s role in interpreting a movie that plays its cards as craftily as a poker pro.
“And now, sir, may I ask what you’ve learned here this morning that will equip you to explain the film to your club and impress its members with your shrewd insight?” I asked as my visitor glanced at his watch, grumbled that he was running late to a meeting, and rose to go with the briefest of thanks.
“Well,” Cy said hastily, “the bottom line is that when you take risks, there is a possibility that you will humiliate yourself and fall flat on your face.”
“That’s not exactly what—-,” I started to say as he hurried to the door—“what I meant,” I called out after him as he bolted down the hallway.
“Fooled you, didn’t he?” Mimi asked.
“I guess his mind was elsewhere.”
“That’s where it’s usually parked. You gave him a good lesson, but you know how it is with Cy. He wants advice, but he’s not the most attentive student. Hope you don’t feel he wasted your time.”
“Not with you around. When a guy comes in here with money in hand and a lovely lady to interpret for him, it’s not a waste. It’s a refreshing departure from business as usual.”
“I was listening even if he wasn’t. He’ll want me to make it plain to him later. You know I have to do most of his thinking for him. That’s the way it works.”
“For you, too,” I said, handing her the second hundred. “It isn’t the first time you’ve steered him my way. I’m grateful for your service.”
“Glad we could help each other,” she said, depositing the Franklin in her handbag and hastening to join her employer. “See you next time.”
“Just one more thing, honeybunch. Do I get an invitation to consume a gourmet doughnut and hear Cy’s marvelous movie musings?”
“Not on your life! The last thing I want to hear is you chuckling in your coffee cup when you see him moving his lips and hear me doing the talking. Adios, amigo!”
Howard Lachtman is the author of crime and detective stories, film noir studies, and a history of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s visits to America. In his Delta Detective series, written for Soundings Magazine since 2018, Lachtman introduced a private detective based in the Delta whose wide-ranging investigations offer a diversity of clients and a casebook of crimes, These have recently been augmented by a short-short story series of miniature mysteries designed for readers on the go who lack time but not interest in playing the game of armchair detective.
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