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Tolerating Ms. Marple

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Jane Marple is the name of a tweedy little sleuth invented by Agatha Christie. She’s a seemingly ordinary – for an English village, I guess – spinster with an incisive and cleverly deductive mind. Her crime solving in the Ms. Christie’s novels is always done at the expense of the local police, who are typically depicted as chauvinistic buffoons.

Though there’s certainly a lot of truth in that police-as-chauvinists and buffoons stereotype for us Yanks and the Brits alike, it’s still in the end more promoted by detective fiction than the facts of crime-solving. I imagine in real life Ms. Marple would be considered a real irritant by the local gendarmes and would no doubt never actually find out enough of the facts of a crime to truly do any good. In short, a real Ms. Marple couldn’t exist, because the type of person who would feel as if they could trump the cops typically is rather deluded, overly analytical, and self-important.

I wouldn’t say this if I hadn’t had experience with the sort.

There are two particularly famous serial killers in US crime lore who have never actually been identified or caught. The Zodiac Killer of Northern California, and the BTK Strangler of Wichita, Kansas.

What makes both cases fascinating is the nature of the killers communication with the public and law enforcement. The Zodiac sent numerous letters and encoded messages to law enforcement, bragging about his anonymity and the number of kills he’d made. BTK sent letters and poems to Wichita press and police, as well as communications to at least one intended victim. Both basically went silent, disappeared as it were, in the 70’s.

To make matters much more interesting, BTK resurfaced in March of this year. In doing so he convincingly took credit for a previously unsolved murder in 1986, some 10 years or so after he seemed to fade into the background.

In this age of course, the internet bit into the problem and took hold like a furious dog with a chewbone.

Here’s a sample of the kind of quote you can find in discussion forums devoted to BTK:

“…Also, BTK said he wanted to be like known serial killers, Jack the Ripper included. “clam” is an acronym for the Rippers victims: Catherine, Liz, Annie, and Mary, correct order would be Annie, Liz, Catherine, and Mary. “


The above was posted in a group by a poster named bookworm in reference to a poem BTK sent a potential victim named Anna. Apparently he’d waited in her house and gotten impatient and left before she came home. The poem was a piece of refuse cobbled most likely from snatches of Elizabethan poetry and Shakespeare, barely coherent to read. The second verse reads:

“In that small world of longing, fear, rapture, and desparation,the game we play, fall on devil ears
Fantasy spring forth, mounts, to storm fury, then winter clam at the end.”

Yeah, winter clam at end. Occam’s Razor, used by scientists, detectives the world over from time immemorial dictates that if the poem was reprinted accurately by the newspaper – as in they reproduced it as the killer sent it, then a guy who misspelled “desperation” might also be untidy enough to mix up the letters of the word “calm”.

But my God, how the amateur sleuths jump on such things. Suddenly BTK morphed from a rather lucky and possibly shrewd sexually sadistic serial killer into a subtle genius a la Hannibal Lecter. Yes, he was so brilliant that he built worlds of messages into every misspelled word. His referencing of other unsolved killers was only there for the enlightened to parse for the rest of us:

“… I feel BTK reversed letters to make “clam” for a reason…”

I can offer you no well-grounded theory on who these killers really are, or were, if Zodiac, as many believe, is dead. I am not in law enforcement. I may even have an insightful and probing mind. I know I’m gifted with word puzzles. But I’m not a cop or a profiler with the FBI, and the only thing I know for sure is that reading some of the bizarre, tortured-logic theories of the internet posters says that the people obsessed with these faceless monsters are nearly as disturbing to deal with in their own right. In another group at someone went to a great deal of trouble to post screencaptures of video of a puzzle BTK may have sent to Wichita Law Enforcement.

The dissection of this puzzle, which may be nothing more than a simple word find and therefore a ruse meaning little, has become one of the longest threads in the group. One poster in particular grew so obsessed with the puzzle and then obsessed with defending her ideas about it that she eventually tortured the names of several other posters in the group out of the blocks of words. The dialogue grew rather heated when some decided she was getting loopy, to say the least, and she may have taken her toys and left.

And really, that’s what I’m talking about here…in my post titled The Priesthood of All Bloggers here I tried to point out how blogging is revolutionizing the dissemination of information throughout society. One person who commented on that post pointed out, correctly, that blogging shouldn’t supplant journalism, but can perform an important function of fact-checking. Blogging as the internet’s own bullshit meter.

If blogging is performing a necessarily revolutionary function then it sometimes seems when reading discussion forums the opposite side of what happens on the web is on full display. Hackneyed, delusional theory gets touted and even supported by those too polite to debate. People who have spent far more time reading books in a dark cloistered room get to feel as if they are the magically intuitive sleuth who has solved it all, at least in their own heads. And the potential for a number of disparate people in places distant from one another to actually put their heads together and at least come up with one single worthwhile insight is utterly diminished in tip-toeing around the brittle egos of the delusional. We have to, in essence, let Ms. Marple really believe she’s Ms. Marple.

Truly my confession is that the thought has occurred to me more than once while exploring this aspect of the ‘net that maybe I could do it. Maybe I’d have the insight that sparked someone else to say, “hey, now that you mention it…”

But what I quickly found was I am too skeptical and obdurate to deal with the plethora of wackos – more wacko than me – who populate forums where such things are explored. I found the flipside of my optimism where blogging is concerned, and by extension the interweb, while reading and even occasionally posting to these groups.

Perhaps there will come a time when a discussion or newsgroup solves a long-unsolved crime; all the potential is there. Accessibility, diversity. I don’t think it will be any time soon, though.

Where the discussion forums are concerned, BTK, the Zodiac, and the ghost of Jack the Ripper can most likely rest easy.

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