Literacy 2024: Book 2: Everyone on This Train is a Suspect

The sequel to Benjamin Stevenson’s metatextual murder mystery Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone

Everyone on This Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson

After the success of his memoir Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone, Ernest Cunningham is invited on a book tour with other crime and mystery writers, on board a luxury train traveling from the north end of Australia to the south. While he’s struggling to write a fictional follow-up to his previous book, one of the passengers is murdered, forcing him into another true-crime memoir.


  • Fast-moving and engaging; I hadn’t intended to jump into the sequel immediately, but it was available on Libby and I finished it in just a few sittings.
  • A bit more even-handed with the “telling the rules of the story while the story is being told” gimmick
  • Commits to the “fair-play murder mystery” rule, with information given out around the same time the narrator figures it out, and never directly contradicted later on.
  • Genuinely funny and clever in places.
  • I loved the format of the epilogue and how it was delivered.
  • Makes good use of the setting and what’s unique about a train journey through Australia.
  • Used the title to add a bit of depth to the story, reconsidering his role as the narrator and turning it into something of a love story.
  • Introduced the clever idea of the other characters being aware that they’re characters in a murder mystery, and trying to control how their role in the story is presented.


  • The gag that I’d thought was genuinely funny and clever was reused a couple too many times, I said, disappointedly.
  • One of the few times I’ve had to say out loud while reading a book, “This is so corny.
  • A couple of what I assumed to be the standout puzzles or clues were insultingly obvious, in my opinion. I tend not to read murder mysteries very closely, but I figured out the solutions (if not the full implication) immediately, and the book kept referring to them over and over as if they were some intriguingly perplexing conundrum.
  • Even after I’d figured out the “shape” of the story and its subplots, I still felt that the actual details (and the identity of the guilty parties) required deductive leaps I couldn’t have made on my own.
  • Many of the characters are overly broad stereotypes — too cartoonish to seem real, but not funny enough to work as comic relief.

One star, ghastly. But seriously, I thought this was better than the first book. I read part of an interview with Stevenson in which he said his goal was to counteract the tendency of crime fiction (especially Australian crime fiction) to be much too dark, and he wanted to bring back some levity and the fun of “golden age” murder mysteries. By that standard, it works: they’re fun, engaging stories to try and solve. But I can’t shake the sense that they’re writing down to the perceived level of the audience, especially since this book so aggressively takes down a literary fiction snob. There are some interesting things going on with a metatextual story in which the characters are aware they’re in a story, but it doesn’t do enough with the idea.

I feel like I might appreciate the gimmick more if I’d never read the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, but as it is, the book has the feeling of “We have Anthony Horowitz at home.” (Which seems mean of me to say, but Stevenson is doing very well with the books, by all accounts, and the first is going to be turned into a series. I can’t imagine he’s particularly heartbroken by a stranger on the internet saying it’s “fine but not great.”)

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Dance For You

Two songs to help speed this blog’s transformation into a Dirty Projectors fan site

I mentioned that when I saw Dirty Projectors perform Song of the Earth with the LA Philharmonic, my main takeaway was that I wish I understood music better to fully appreciate it. It was very much a modern orchestral performance, meaning that it likely had a lot of significance to the artists that was lost on someone like me.

But at the same time, parts of it were catchy. Several times over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a hook running through my head that I haven’t been able to place, until realizing that it was from that performance.

It also reminded me that I still haven’t listened to a lot of Dirty Projectors’ older material, since I just keep listening to my favorite songs over and over. So I made a concerted effort to hop around the older albums, which I’ve bounced off of in the past as “too weird” or “too dense,” and I’m realizing I’ve been sitting on a neglected gold mine of interesting — and accessible, and lovely — music.

“Dance For You” from their album Swing Lo Magellan is just wonderful. It’s my theory that each human is given a maximum of five perfect melodies they can come up with in their lifetime, and I suspect that Longstreth here used one of mine that was going unfulfilled.

And this isn’t even one of the purported “highlights” of the album, which also includes “Swing Lo Magellan,” “Impregnable Question,” “Irresponsible Tune,” and my favorite, “Gun Has No Trigger.” Instead, it seems to sit quietly in the middle of the album like a simple and catchy long song with guitar and hand claps — which aren’t even syncopated, or a completely different time signature than the rest of the song, which is odd for Dirty Projectors — adding a fuzzy guitar solo, and then culminating with a layer of strings that makes my heart swell.

Beyond the lyrics, it feels like an homage to “I Know There’s An Answer” by The Beach Boys. (I didn’t hear Pet Sounds until it’d been remastered and re-issued for what must’ve been the dozenth time, so I knew the song as “Hang On To Your Ego,” and then only from Frank Black’s cover).

I’d heard people list Brian Wilson as an influence on Dirty Projectors, but I never really got the connection until these two songs. Pet Sounds has always seemed like an album that I first heard too late — I can appreciate how it must’ve felt like a revelation coming out of nowhere at the time, with the music going off in directions you’d never expect from a pop record. But by the time I got around to it, I’d been listening to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for years.

The two songs seem to me like the work of musicians who were more than capable of a lifetime putting out catchy, impossible-to-forget pop songs, but had almost zero interest in doing that. If you weren’t making something unlike anything people have heard before, what was the point?

Literacy 2024: Book 1: Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone

Benjamin Stevenson’s metatextual crime story

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

A writer begrudgingly travels to a ski lodge for a reunion with his estranged family. When the body of an unidentified stranger is discovered on the slopes, seemingly dead of exposure, it starts a process of dredging up decades’ worth of family secrets.


  • The heavily metatextual style of the book — where the narrator acknowledges that he’s writing a detective story in which he plays both Holmes and Dr Watson — gives plenty of opportunities for flashbacks and re-contextualization, with tons of foreshadowing.
  • Maintains a light, almost-but-not-quite comedic tone even as it touches on some serious or even horrific subjects.
  • Repeatedly insists that it’s “playing fair” as a murder mystery, drawing attention to details that will be important later on.
  • The format of the book, along with its chapter breaks and section headings, gives it room to stretch out the intrigue, as you’re subconsciously waiting for the event or revelation that will make the section heading make sense.
  • Gave enough information that I was able to figure out the likely suspects, even though I wasn’t reading carefully enough to piece together any of the details.
  • It never occurred to me that Australia had areas with high enough elevation for ski lodges, so I learned something.


  • Especially at the beginning of the book, all of the self-awareness comes across as try-hard, with hyperlinks to stuff that happens in later chapters before we’ve fully had a chance to be invested in the story.
  • All of the artifice in the style makes the whole thing seem artificial. Revelations of past tragedies end up feeling weightless and too lurid to be believable.
  • Apart from the narrator, none of the characters feel like real people with real motivations; they act the way the story needs them to act in the moment. People bounce back from the shocking deaths of loved ones unbelievably quickly.
  • The book acknowledges the “people trapped in a remote location with a murderer” cliche as in And Then There Were None, but seems to be so worried about falling into a cliche that it loses everything that makes the format special. In particular, nobody seems to be all that worried by the fact that there’s a killer in their midst.
  • For as much as the book signals the details to pay attention to, it still ends up with a lengthy detective-explains-the-entire-mystery chapter that makes all kinds of deductive leaps that feel unearned.
  • If you go back through the story and think about the events as they would’ve played out in chronological order, many of the character motivations make no sense.

Despite my list of cons, this was a very entertaining crime story. I think its biggest weakness is that the self-awareness overwhelms everything else, coming across as lampshading the weaknesses in the story instead of actually addressing them. But the format is also essential for elevating what is frankly an over-the-top and not-entirely-plausible backstory into something that’s completely engaging moment to moment.

One Thing I Love About Every Episode of Poker Face (part 3)

Rounding out my list of my favorite things from season one of Poker Face

Previously on Spectre Collie… I couldn’t wait until I finished the season to mention more of my favorite things from each episode. Now I can finally round out the list with the last two episodes of season one.

I’d been avoiding reading anything about the series, so that every aspect of it would come as a surprise, but I’ve seen that a second season has already been ordered by Peacock, so I’ve got something to look forward to. It’s good knowing that Rian Johnson has so much cachet (and so does Natasha Lyonne) that I can be pretty confident that he’ll end the series on his own terms, instead of letting it drag on indefinitely.

Lots of unmarked spoilers, so please don’t read until you’ve finished season one!

Continue reading “One Thing I Love About Every Episode of Poker Face (part 3)”

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Undercover

Two tangentially-related covers that I like better than the originals

Look, I get why people like “These Days” by Nico. It’s a lovely song, and her delivery brings an unmistakable quality of earnest regret and sadness to it. But it’s just not for me.

That’s why I’m glad that St Vincent did a cover of it. It is, undoubtedly, St Vincent doing Nico doing Jackson Browne, but I think the polish is what makes me like it — all of the beauty of the song, if not quite the same emotional weight.

The one time I saw St Vincent in concert, she performed “These Days,” but it didn’t land like she’d probably hoped since the crowd in San Francisco wouldn’t shut up and pay attention.

That crowd probably would’ve had a better time at a Me First and the Gimme Gimmes show, since they’re at the other end of the spectrum. A huge part of their whole schtick is taking heartfelt, emotional songs and making them raucous and fun. My favorite is “Danny’s Song.”

I really appreciate that video, filmed at The Mint, because it reminds me how much I don’t miss San Francisco.

One Thing I Love About Every Episode of Poker Face (part 2)

Picking out more of my favorite parts from Poker Face season one

Previously on Spectre Collie… I’ve been so impressed by Poker Face that I already wanted to start calling out my favorite aspects of it even though we were only halfway through the season.

We’ve still got two episodes left, but at the rate we’re going, it’ll be a while before we can finish the season, and I’m impatient. So here are some more favorites from episodes 6-8 of a series that continues to be excellent.

Lots of spoilers throughout, so avoid reading this until you’ve watched up until episode 8.

Continue reading “One Thing I Love About Every Episode of Poker Face (part 2)”

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Houses by the Sea

Two tangentially-related songs about how much better life is when you’ve got beachfront property

This week’s two-fer is in honor of the Dirty Projectors concert I went to over the weekend.

One lovely and calming song from 5 EPs is “On the Breeze”, a perfect melody that the band kind of treats as a sketch, giving it just enough time to vibe with before fading into memory. The problem with a band this talented is that I listen to their other songs on repeat, leaving wonderful bits like this neglected.

Something I definitely haven’t neglected is The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron & Wine. It’s one of my all-time favorite albums, and listening to it feels a little like slipping in and out of a dream that’s haunting but still relaxing somehow. That might be because I most often listen to it while I’m on a plane, nodding off while a bearded man whisper-sings into my ear. And also listening to The Shepherd’s Dog.

It’s hard to pick my favorite song from the album, because it’s near perfect. But one of my favorites is “House By The Sea,” which is fortunate, because it’s thematically consistent.

Song of the Earth

Seeing Dirty Projectors with the LA Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall

I’ve got a list of must-see attractions in Los Angeles, and I’ve been slowly ticking them off since we moved. I should be able to see everything on the list at some point within the next 30 years or so.1For contrast: I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for about 25 years, and I’m a fan of Vertigo, but I still to this day have never visited the Legion of Honor. One of those was seeing the LA Philharmonic perform at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. So I was happily surprised last year to see that Dirty Projectors, one of my “new”2New in that I first discovered them within the last few years favorite bands, would be doing a performance with the orchestra in March.

The performance was the US debut of Song of the Earth, which was described as “…a song cycle for orchestra and voices written by Dirty Projectors leader David Longstreth. A kaleidoscopic work that takes inspiration from Gustav Mahler’s 1908 piece Das Lied Von Der Erde (The Song of the Earth) as much as Brian Wilson’s pocket symphonies, Song of the Earth explores the cyclical character of life and death, nature, and the transience of all things.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I definitely didn’t expect to love all of it. While there are a dozen or so songs by Dirty Projectors that I absolutely love, I have to admit that I rarely listen through the entire album, and there are still dozens of songs that I have yet to even hear. My quick-and-shallow take on David Longstreth — with the obvious acknowledgement that the band isn’t a solo act, and several of their songs are collaborations — is that he’s “an easily-bored genius;” he’s entirely capable of writing catchy and melodic alt-rock or alt-pop with a memorable hook, but he has little interest in leaving it at that. Most of their songs have some weird twist to them, like sudden changes in rhythm, voices that shift from harmony to discord and back, overlapping time signatures, or layers of percussion or unexpected sound effects. A blurb on Apple Music accurately described it as “dense.” I expected that even if I didn’t love all of it, it would at the very least be interesting.

Continue reading “Song of the Earth”
  • 1
    For contrast: I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for about 25 years, and I’m a fan of Vertigo, but I still to this day have never visited the Legion of Honor.
  • 2
    New in that I first discovered them within the last few years

Not That Many Unhappy Returns?

Reporting on whether people online have been returning their headsets says more about the state of tech journalism than anything else

Last week, The Verge and the shambling leftovers of Gizmodo were both eagerly trying to make a news story about the huge wave of unsatisfied customers returning their Vision Pro headsets to Apple stores. It was interesting to watch as it took over the corners of social media that I still follow: apparently, the feverish mass hysteria leading up to release had finally broken, and people everywhere were furious to discover that the emperor had no clothes. It’s just a VR headset. It seems magical… until it doesn’t. Damn!

As far as I could tell, the source for these stories were a couple of posts on Reddit and Twitter, and a smattering of “Apple fans” that weren’t entirely unbiased, and not necessarily the representative sample they’d have you believe. Last week, it was made to sound as if there were an epidemic of returns. This week, I’m hearing that the return rate is actually estimated to be less than 1%, which is kind of low for computing devices.

I will tell you that I am an “Apple fan” who is most definitely biased, but I still couldn’t tell you which version is correct, or even if it does or should matter to anyone outside of Apple. All it tells me is stuff I already know:

  1. VR headsets aren’t for everybody, and a lot of people will find them uncomfortable.
  2. There is not yet a use case for the Vision Pro that makes it a must-have outside of die-hard early adopters and people developing software for it.
  3. A lot of people have more credit cards than they have patience, and they wanted a take-home demo instead of the 30-minute in-store one.

Even though I’m both literally and figuratively invested in Apple, and I am the owner of an infrequently-used Vision Pro, I don’t feel like I need to go out of my way to defend it. Even die-hards like me will acknowledge that it’s not for everyone, and it will need some significant hardware revisions to get traction outside of the die-hards.

So what bugs me isn’t that people are talking trash about my shiny new toy. It’s that if I, a layperson, know enough to have a realistic idea of this device’s appeal, how come the writers and editors of tech blogs don’t?

I’ve repeatedly made fun of The Verge‘s review of the Vision Pro, but because it’s largely irrelevant to me, not because it’s inaccurate.1Earlier I did say that it was misleading, if not outright wrong, to say you can’t share your content in the headset with other people, since you can cast it over AirPlay to a TV or iOS device. But the spirit of the criticism is valid. It is an almost entirely personal and private headset. And it seriously needs to have support for multiple accounts and not just its insufficient guest mode as currently implemented. Screaming “BIAS!!!” whenever I read a review I don’t agree with is something I’ll leave for trolls on YouTube and comments sections. But I do get concerned when it seems like they’re working hard to make something a story when there’s no real story there.

I won’t claim to be entirely high-minded about it, since it’s mostly because I’m a fan of gadgets and devices and computers finally being able to do the things I imagined they’d someday be able to do when I was a teenager. And since Yahoo seems to be hell-bent on destroying Engadget, there’s not a lot of reputable, sufficiently-funded options out there.

But I think it’s worth at least mentioning that the companies that tech sites are covering are the companies that are gaining increasingly outsized influence on everything. There needs to be some real journalistic rigor happening, beyond just product reviews and attempts to turn Reddit threads into news stories.

For instance: I still don’t understand how the hype around Elon Musk every happened at all, much less was allowed to grow to the extremes it did. I’ve seen a lot of comments to the effect that he was misleadingly insightful until he suddenly went batshit insane — the phenomena of those bumper stickers on Teslas that say “we bought this car before we knew he was an asshole” — but I’m not buying it. Every time the guy opens his mouth, a flood of red flags comes pouring out. There were plenty of people writing for papers and blogs who came into frequent contact with him, years and years before he bought a social media site to prove to the world what an asshole he is. So why were they perpetuating the “real life Tony Stark” nonsense instead of calling him out?

Anyway, as I said: I’m not actually trying to draw a real connection between anecdotal stories being turned into “news,” and the rise of our corporate-ravaged cyber dystopia. I’m just saying that the audience for tech journalism is much wider and more relevant than it was even ten years ago, and we should keep that in mind.

In my opinion, a much better story than “Are People Returning Their $3500 First-Generation VR Headsets?!” is “Is Apple Committed to the Vision Pro as a Long-Term Computing Platform?” Granted, that’s a little harder to glean from Reddit posts and a few tweets, but it seems to me to be far more relevant. You’ve got a lot of people who spend a lot of time seeing every new product that comes out, dealing with companies a lot both directly and indirectly, and overall spending a lot more time immersed in consumer technology more than I’d be able to.2Or would ever want to.

It seems like they’re in a unique position to see trends, make insightful observations about how things fit into company’s overall strategies, and make predictions about where the technology might be headed. That requires making observations that go deeper than companies’ PR, not just in the vacuous gainsay “Apple doesn’t want me to call this a VR headset, but that’s what this is and you can’t stop me!!!” version of “keepin’ it real,” but in having a frame of reference that goes beyond the past six months and actually trying to put new developments into the proper context. That kind of coverage seems a lot more useful than filming a video wearing it on the subway or while cooking or skiing. I’d rather get a clear-eyed and realistic assessment — even if it’s one that I don’t agree with — of what it means for computing in its current state and how it might evolve, than a warning that it might mess up my hair.

  • 1
    Earlier I did say that it was misleading, if not outright wrong, to say you can’t share your content in the headset with other people, since you can cast it over AirPlay to a TV or iOS device. But the spirit of the criticism is valid. It is an almost entirely personal and private headset. And it seriously needs to have support for multiple accounts and not just its insufficient guest mode as currently implemented.
  • 2
    Or would ever want to.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Vampire Weeknd

Two tangentially-related tunes to prove that I do sometimes listen to music made within the last decade

When I was younger, I imagined that at some point in my 40s or 50s, a switch would flip, and I’d suddenly find myself too old to listen to any new music. I’d turn into a cartoonish version of the elderly, complaining about all the profanity and the screeching and the caterwauling and how the youths didn’t appreciate the good, mellow, old-fashioned music I listened to, like the Pixies.

Turns out my prediction was half right. As I’ve settled into middle age, I do almost always retreat to the safety of my turn-of-the-millennium college radio music. But the reason isn’t that contemporary stuff is too intense for me, but that it’s so boring. There’s so rarely any hook to it; it feels like instead of getting more daring or experimental, it’s mostly just over-produced and predictable.

At our house in Oakland, there were frequently some teenagers who’d park their car nearby and blast their music while they were doing whatever teenagers do — probably involving drugs and premarital sex! — and I was often right on the verge of being the stereotypical geriatric white man storming out of the house, demanding that they turn it down. But I’d be yelling, “Turn that racket down! It’s too vacuous!” I’m in the enviable position of having virtually every new song available to me on demand whenever I want, and I’m most often saying, “Nah, I’m good.”

But I do often make an effort! Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t.

I think Olivia Rodrigo is the real deal, for instance. It’s very much pop music, accessible enough for superstardom and Apple tie-ins. But on top of the hook required for a pop hit, there’s such a great combination of influences and styles that it all feels really interesting.

My favorite by far is “Vampire.” The album version starts out as a breathy piano ballad, which could quickly turn into the kind of maudlin showcase for a pop star trying to show off their range as a Real Musician. But then it starts to throw in all kinds of stuff that give it depth, not just gloss. The end result feels like an extremely media-savvy artist who knows how to navigate an industry in the 2020s and get 93 million views on YouTube, but never at the expense of making it feel anything less than sincere. (And as it turns out, the stripped down piano ballad version is pretty good, too).

The Weeknd is more towards the other end of the scale for me. Most of his stuff is inoffensive, but there’s rarely any hook that I can get into. Apart from “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Blinding Lights,” I can’t really tell his songs apart from each other, and those I recognize only because they were played constantly.

But the other thing I didn’t predict back in my teens and twenties was what would be required to be a superstar in the 21st century. It can’t be just about the music; it has to be a full-on media blitz. And while there’s not a lot for me in The Weeknd’s music, I respect the hell out of what he does with the overall presentation.

Until Universal Hollywood Horror Nights made a house themed to his music, I had no idea that “Blinding Lights” was part of a whole horror-themed concept album, with a series of interconnected videos about fame, image, self-image, and the evils of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Part of that is the video for “Too Late,” which has a pair of plastic surgery-obsessed women finding The Weeknd’s decapitated head in the middle of the road and then taking it home to have sex with it. (And not to tell them their business, but completely unnecessarily murdering a stripper to attach to Mr Weeknd’s head. Even though the things they were doing didn’t even require him to have a body. So wasteful).

The music doesn’t really grab me, but that video was one of the few things in modern pop music that was genuinely able to shock middle-aged me. Are they even allowed to show that kind of thing?!

One Thing I Love About Every Episode of Poker Face (part 1)

Poker Face is so clever that every episode has at least one thing I love

It’s probably inaccurate to say that I’ve been “surprised” by Poker Face, since I knew I was predisposed to love it based on Rian Johnson’s involvement alone. But I have been a little surprised by how much it’s been surpassing my expectations.

I’ve got to acknowledge that I haven’t seen that much of Columbo, and I don’t remember that much about the episodes that I have seen, apart from the most basic premise (you know the murderer(s) from the start) and Peter Falk’s performance. But a huge part of what makes Poker Face feel so novel and so clever is how it’s all about manipulating the audience’s expectations and sympathies, and how it is constantly re-contextualizing what you’ve seen so far. It seems like they took the stuff I loved about Glass Onion and then spent an entire season’s worth of television exploring all the different ways you could change up or expand on the concepts.

For the first time in a very long time, I’ve been loving a series so much that I desperately wish I could write scripts for it. Are spec scripts still a thing? Do I have to resort to fan fiction?

I’ve already written about the first episode, twice, but I’ll try to keep things more focused this time. And this will only be the first part, because we’ve still only seen the first five episodes at this point. Lots of spoilers throughout; assume that you shouldn’t read any of these until you’ve watched episodes 1-5.

Continue reading “One Thing I Love About Every Episode of Poker Face (part 1)”

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Rock and Roll Hall of Presidents

Two tangentially-related tunes for Presidents Day

Look: there are a lot of Tuesdays in a year. They can’t all be winners.

This Monday was Presidents Day in the United States, a great reminder to Americans of how it’s an office of importance that should theoretically still be respectable. And how the whole idea of “anyone could grow up to be President of the United States” is supposed to be wholesome and aspirational, not an ominous warning of a terrible design flaw.

First this week is “Ana Ng” from the They Might Be Giants album Lincoln. It’s always unsettling watching old TMBG videos, because 1988 John Flansburgh looks eerily like 1988 me. (Or maybe vice versa).

I can’t choose a favorite song off of Lincoln, but it’s probably a toss-up between “Ana Ng” and “Mr. Me.” An edited version of the latter was used as the closing theme music for an animated cartoon block on a local station in Atlanta, so I kind of just assumed it came from somewhere in Cartoonland. It was a surprise to hear it years later, popping up out of nowhere on a CD I’d bought after getting really into Flood. But it tracks, seeing as how they’ve always been at least a little bit cartoon-adjacent, making weird music for nerds and the children of nerds.

Here’s a fun fact: did you know that Martha Wash’s last name is actually Wash? I always assumed she’d shortened it from “Washington,” but no. So that’s why you’re saved from having “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” as the second song this week.

Instead, it’s “Concrete and Clay,” my favorite song from the soundtrack to Rushmore. Consider it an upgrade; that’s like Washington and three whole other presidents. It’s nice to remember how impressive Rushmore was when it first came out; it seemed to come out of nowhere, full of self-confidence and a surprising amount of sincerity. Now I’m getting nostalgic for the late 1990s.