Murder She Wrote: A Lady in The Lake

As I’m getting started on the third Chronicle of Brother Thomas, He Didn’t Drown in The Lake, I can’t help but think of one of the classic Murder, She Wrote episodes. I’m not entirely sure why, but I still have fairly vivid memories of the first time that I saw A Lady in The Lake.

I’m going to discuss the construction of plot of this episode, but because I suspect most people don’t remember it as well as I do, I’ll give a brief recap of the plot so everyone can follow along.

Jessica goes off for a writing retreat at a lakeside resort near Cabot cove. There she meets an assortment of guests—a wealthy, older, overbearing husband (Howard Crane) and put-upon younger wife (Carolyn Crane), an older man who is devoted to bird watching (Burton), a young woman who loves to run naked in the forest (Joanna), and a younger husband and wife where the husband (Kyle Jordan) likes to go fishing and the wife (Betty Jordan) likes to fool around with the boat house manager (Jack Turney) while her husband goes fishing. Not entirely surprisingly, at least given how much screen time the overbearing husband gets, while on a morning bird-watching walk that Burton invited her to, Jessica sees Howard and Carolyn in a boat, wrestling with each other. She calls out, but the wrestling continues then Carolyn goes into the water.

Apparently she doesn’t come back up; what happens in the immediate aftermath happens off screen. Sheriff Tupper arrives soon afterward and looses no time in jumping to the conclusion that Howard Crane murdered his wife.

Jessica isn’t so sure, but doesn’t say much. Kyle Jordan approaches the Sheriff and gives some damning evidence. He had asked the Cranes to go fishing many times, but the they always declined. He thinks Howard couldn’t have meant to go fishing otherwise the Jordans would have come with them; clearly this meant Howard needed them out of the way to commit the murder.

Worse, the previous night Kyle and his wife overheard the Cranes having a loud argument in their room. Carolyn wanted a divorce but Howard said that she wouldn’t get a penny of his money.

After this, Sheriff Tupper goes to the room where Doctor Hazlet is tending to Howard Crane (he jumped in the lake after his wife, which apparently requires medical attention for some reason) to interview him.

Doctor Hazlet gave him a sedative (apparently, getting wet in a lake takes a lot out of you and rest is important), so the interview will need to be short. Howard says that his wife just went crazy and jumped out. He jumped in after her and tried to save her, but he can’t swim so he had to keep a hand on the boat and thus couldn’t reach her. In answer to a question, he says that not only could Caroline swim but she had actually won medals for it in school.

Jessica and Sheriff Tupper confer, and Jessica thinks that Howard’s version makes more sense than the idea that he tried to kill his wife. Inspiration strikes and Jessica goes to look at the boat. In the boat room she finds Betty Jordan and Jack Turney kissing. Betty is bold, saying that her husband doesn’t mind how she amuses herself so long as she doesn’t disturb his fishing, but Jack hopes that Jessica won’t mention it to Betty’s husband. Jessica assures him that she has no intention of telling anyone, anything. She then examines the boat and finds a hook on the bottom of it.

Jack has no idea what that’s doing there, nor when it got there. Some time passes and Sheriff Tupper and Jessica confer. Sheriff Tupper’s research confirms that Carolyn was a champion swimmer, which he takes to mean that Howard must have held her under the water.

Jessica points out that it’s implausible that a non-swimmer would try to kill a champion swimmer by drowning her in a lake. It occurs to Jessica that another explanation would be that Carolyn had made the thing up, to pretend that her husband tried to kill her in order to get a big divorce settlement. This tête-a-tête is broken up by the discovery of Carolyn’s body. It was on the north side of the lake, which apparently is pretty far away from where the resort is (they never say that they’re on the south side of the lake, nor how big the lake is). Sheriff Tupper says that this blows Jessica’s theory out of the water and clearly Howard killed as Tupper had been saying all along. Jessica asks him how the body got to the other side of the lake so quickly, to which Sheriff Tupper has no answer.

Some time later, Jessica is investigating something in a bird book.

What she is looking up we are almost conspicuously not told. This leads to a conversation with the owner of the hotel, who we find out is also a widow. Jessica asks to look at the reservation book, and makes an interesting discovery: Joanna and the Cranes both made their reservation from the same telephone number. Jessica goes and confronts Joanna.

It turns out that Joanna was Howard’s mistress. Howard had been talking like he was going to divorce his wife and marry Joanna, but then this trip came along. It turns out that the trip was actually Carolyn’s idea, and Joanna made the reservations for Howard to prove that there were no hard feelings. She did, however, make reservations for herself and come up early, to disguise her connection to Howard.

Jessica surprises Burton, who was taking (poloroid) pictures of birds, and asks to borrow one that also has a picture of Jack Turney in it. They then see the Sheriff arresting Howard, and Burton says that Howard won’t like jail, as he can’t stand to be cooped up.

Jessica accompanies the Sheriff and Howard Crane back to Cabot Cove. On the car ride it comes out that Howard is claustrophobic, and he accuses Jessica of having talked to his psychiatrist.

It also comes out that Howard is indeed rich, but has no living relatives. He was an only child and his parents are dead. His only uncle and aunt are dead. Even his cousin Arthur died a few years ago, or at least so he’d heard.

Back in Cabot Cove, Jessica, Dr. Halzet, and Sheriff Tupper confer over the autopsy report.

It turns out that Carolyn Crane did indeed drown, but she hand mud in her lungs. Further, she had bits of glass embedded in the skin of her skull. Also, she was wearing a bathing suit under her dress.

At this point a deputy comes in with the information that Jack Turney is a wanted man, for blackmailing married women with whom he’d had affairs and even for assaulting one of them.

We then jump to a scene between the Jordans.

It turns out that Mr. Jordan tried to surprise Mrs. Jordan on her bike ride, only to find out that no bicycles had been taken out that day. He asks her what is going on, then figures out that she’s having an affair with Jack Turney. Apparently, he does actually care how his wife amuses herself while he’s fishing.

There’s some very unimportant events that happen where Jessica and Sheriff Tupper talk to the owner of the inn, where it turns out that Jack Turney is her brother and she’s been protecting him, but didn’t know the extent of his crimes. We then move to the boat house where Mr. Jordan is threatening to kill Jack Turney.

Sheriff Tupper and Jessica arrive, and we have the denouement. Jessica explains the whole thing, though only after a series of misunderstandings and jumped conclusions by Sheriff Tupper.

It turns out that scuba equipment was missing, which Jack Turney had forgotten to mention. Carolyn Crane had a lover, with whom she had planned to fake an attempt on her life by her husband. She had attached the stolen scuba gear to the bottom of the boat via the hook she had installed, then when she was sure of her witness she wrestled with her husband and jumped out of the boat. She put on the scuba gear under water and leisurely swam, under water, to the north shore of the lake. There, her lover met her, but instead of love and support he killed her. He hit her with a pair of binoculars, the only weapon he had to hand.

It turns out that Burton is actually cousin Arthur—that’s how he knew that Howard was claustrophobic—and had planned the whole thing from the start, including killing Carolyn. Howard’s father had accused Burton’s father of embezzling money and had stolen the family business from him. Burton went through the whole elaborate murder scheme in order to get the money he was owed back.

Later on Jessica is asked what made her suspect Burton was not just an innocent birdwatcher, and she replies that he said that he would look for the nest of the yellow bellied flycatcher in a tree. They nest on the ground, she confirmed in the book on birds in that scene where she conspicuously didn’t say what she found.


This is a very fun episode, and takes advantage of what may be one of the cardinal rules of murder mysteries: have a beautiful setting that the reader (or viewer) would love to visit. It’s also got a great setup, and takes a number of well-paced twists and turns on its way to the ending. Something is clearly up with Jack Turney, and they play out the discovery of this at a fairly good pace to distract from the main murder investigation. The reveals on Jack Turney with Betty Jordan work especially well in this regard, as it does hint at the possibility he might have been involved with Carolyn, too. Additionally, the simple human drama of it is distracting.

Speaking of human drama, I didn’t hit on it much in my plot summary, since I was focusing on the murder, but there was a sub-plot in which the widow who is renting the hotel is trying to figure out what to do with her life and whether she wants to run the inn. It’s done sparingly, but comes up often enough to introduce a thread of human interest which pretty clearly as nothing to do with the murder. This is a good move, I think, because it helps to leaven the murder story. It keeps the story more anchored; murder mysteries tend to be better when real life goes on during the murder investigation.

The big problem is the ending. It doesn’t make sense, and ignoring that, it has a significant plot hole in the murder. Ignoring that, a key piece of evidence is very contrived.

I’ll start with the contrived evidence, which is Burton saying, as he and Jessica watched Sheriff Tupper taking Howard into custody, “Howard is not going to like jail. He can’t stand to be cooped up.” There was no earthly reason for him to say this. No one likes jail. It was just volunteering information, that he shouldn’t have had, for no reason whatever. It’s almost on par with the bad guy in Encyclopedia Brown saying, “I never looked inside the kid’s box. I certainly didn’t eat the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies with just a hint of cinnamon that were in it!” It’s one thing when the murderer reveals something he should have known to further his own ends, such as telling a fact he shouldn’t know that implicates someone else in the murder. The distraction of framing the other person can cover for the fact that he shouldn’t have known it. At the very least, there was some temptation for him to do it. Here, there was no reason for Burton to have said anything.

Let’s move on to the plot hole. According to Jessica’s theory of the murder, Cousin Arthur, that is, Burton, planned the whole thing before any of them ever got to the inn. He was, therefore, fulfilling his plan to murder Carolyn when he met her at the shore. Why on earth were his binoculars the only weapon to hand? Had he only put a single minute into the planning, he could have picked up a rock or a stick. Several minutes of planning might have yielded a better weapon still. When it comes to murder weapons, one’s own pair of binoculars, which one not only has been seen with but even drew attention to, is a terrible choice. And without the binocular glass embedded in Carolyn’s skin, there would have been no physical evidence linking him to the murder.

The other problem with the ending is even harder to get over—why on earth did Cousin Arthur kill Carolyn? Both Jessica and Burton seemed to talk as if he would inherit Howard’s money, now that the only other possible heir was dead. The problem, however, is that Howard Crane was still alive, and would presumably remain so for decades. The worst that would happen to him would be that he would be convicted for murder and go to prison for a long time. A person going to prison keeps their money. It does not get disbursed to heirs. (For those curious, the state of Maine abolished the death penalty—for the final time—in 1887.)

In Maine in the 1980s, framing Howard for the murder of Carolyn would mean that Cousin Arthur would never see a penny of the money he believed to be rightfully his. In fact—assuming he didn’t murder Howard—the only way for Cousin Arthur to have gotten his hands on any of Howard’s money would be to keep Carolyn very much alive and marry her after she got a large divorce settlement.

This feels almost like someone ripped the plot off from a British golden age detective story in which a man being convicted of murder would mean that he was hanged within a few weeks and thus framing a man for murder was an effective means of inheriting money from him. In that context, this ending—apart from volunteering private information about Howard and using binoculars as a murder weapon—would make sense. In Maine in the 1980s, it’s quite a head scratcher.

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