Murder in a Minor Key is a very special episode of Murder, She Wrote, because it’s the only episode in which we actually get to find out what murder she wrote. Unlike the typical episode it doesn’t even start with the title card. After an establishing shot of Jessica’s house, we begin with Jessica walking down the stairs.
But she’s not just walking down the stairs. She’s talking to the camera. She tells us that she had changed into something more comfortable as she has a long night of reading ahead of her because her publisher just sent her the galley proofs for her latest book, Murder in a Minor Key.
She adds that she doesn’t know why they bother sending her the galley proofs as she’s the world’s worst proof reader. I can’t help but wonder what sort of English teacher she made if that’s actually true. (Jessica had been an English teacher for decades before retiring.)
Jessica then walks over and sits in a comfy chair and says that it’s so good to sit down. She spent half the day on her feet at the power company, trying to get her last bill sorted out. Meanwhile, the audience is wondering why Jessica knows we’re here and why she is telling us about the minutiae of her day as if we’re old friends. Those of us who watched Mr. Rogers as a kid might have been wondering if she had recently installed any model trains. But wait, it gets weirder.
Jessica not only is wearing “slippers” with 2″+ heels and pink ostrich feathers, she calls our attention to them and explains that she is wearing them because they’re actually very comfortable, though she only wears them around the house when no one else can see them. For bonus points, her nephew Grady gave them to her.
Jessica laughs about this, then gets down to business. She starts telling us about her book. She’s very pleased with it—it’s a “nice little puzzle” about some young students at a southern California university.
This is certainly not what I expected Jessica to be writing about. What does she know about young students at a southern California university? Aside from book tours, teaching university courses in NYC about crime writing, visiting dozens of nieces and hundreds of wealthy and/or famous friends, she’s spent her entire adult life in Cabot Cove, Maine. I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to write about a fictional small town in Maine, but then I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to not write about that, if you get my meaning. At the very least I would expect her books to feature a consistent detective.
Jessica introduces us to three friends who will be the main characters. There’s Michael Prentice, who’s a “bright, budding music composer”. His best friends are Chad Singer, a law student from the deep south, and Jenny Coopersmith, a quirky young lady from New York. As a testament to Angela Lansbury’s stage background, she delivers the exposition in one take, which is no mean feat as it’s comprised of several different topics. Anyway, our main characters introduced, we finally get to the title screen. Oh, but before we do, fun fact: Shaun Cassidy, the actor who played Chad, previously played the character of Joe Hardy. That was eight years before this episode, on a Hardy Boys TV series. Shaun Cassidy only acted for another year, then a few years later started producing shows. Anyway, we finally get to the title.
The trio goes to a night club that has a singer who also plays the piano. Even in the 1980s, this feels a little odd. Perhaps it was more common in southern California, though. Anyway, the singer says that she’s got an advance copy of a song from a broadway musical. She starts to play and Michael recognizes the music as his. He goes to the piano player and looks at the sheet music, then hands it to her and sits down and plays several measures. He asks how he’s doing and she says that he hasn’t missed a note.
Michael storms off and confronts Professor Tyler Stoneham, who is a music teacher. Stoneham is conducting a quartet, and icily says that he and Michael will discuss the sheet music in his office, in half an hour, but in the meantime will he cease being rude and let Stoneham finish his rehearsel. Michael accepts this for some reason, and the next scene is in Stoneham’s office.
Stoneham denies any wrongdoing and tells Michael that if he goes to the Chancellor nothing will come of it. Irate college students who feel that they’ve been wronged are a dime a dozen, and besides it’s Michael’s word against Stoneham’s. This admission of guilt made, Michael issues some threats as Professor Papasian (played by Rene Auberjonois) walks in in order to witness the threats and Michael holding a tuning fork in a threatening way.
The next scene is at Professor Stoneham’s house, at breakfast with his wife.
Her hands tremble while she pours herself tea and he asks her “What the devil is wrong with you, Christine?” She replies, “are you being solicitous, Tyler, or merely polite?”
Eating breakfast at opposite ends of a long dinner table is effective symbolism for the state of their marriage. She accuses him of infidelity when he’s been away on business trips and she can’t reach him, and he laughs at her fears. He seems genuinely amused that she was worried he was dallying with other women when he was actually engaged in non-sexual criminal enterprises.
That said, the very next scene is of a woman being called on the phone by her friend to draw her attention to a picture in the newspaper.
The picture is of professor Stoneham, and she clearly recognizes it as the man she worked with. So, it turns out that the composer she had worked with—and, it is implied, slept with—who called himself Alden Gilbert turned out to be Professor Stoneham. (Alden Gilbert is also the name on the sheet music which had Michael’s music in the earlier scene with the piano.)
This brings up the question: why did Stoneham find the idea of him cheating on his wife so funny? He actually was. Was that supposed to be a bluff? But I thought that the joke was that she was worried that he was cheating on her when in fact he was engaged in criminal fraud, so what amused him was that for a moment he thought she was on to him and then it turned out that she was way off. If that wasn’t it, it was a very missed opportunity.
The scene now shifts to the campus, at night, where there’s a protest going on creating a lot of noise, making it a great night for murder as no one would be likely to hear a gunshot so the murderer can easily get away.
That makes it a bit strange that the victim is actually killed with a tuning fork. I mean, that’s strange even on its own. A tuning fork is not exactly easy to kill a man with. It’s blunt, so the speed and force required to make it pierce skin would be enormous. And then, well, it’s blunt, so how is it supposed to kill? It’s not very likely to sever blood vessels, and I really don’t believe that a human being is going to be able to hit someone else with a tuning fork with enough momentum to kill by trauma. Then again, given where it was, perhaps it cracked the sternum and a sharp piece of bone severed an artery.
Be that as it may, death by tuning fork isn’t the sort of thing one needs loud noise to cover. Perhaps it was just to cover the killer’s voice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
During the protest Michael goes into the music office building to raid professor Stoneham’s filing cabinets to get his music back. However, Stoneham is still there so Michael hides out in a music room that has an open window to the protest outside and also a dashboard that shows when the phones in the nearby offices are getting used. Actually, it’s a shared phone, presumably so one can receive a call in the music room during a class, park it, then pick it up in one’s office. Either way, it’s convenient that one of the primary suspects was able to keep close surveillance on the victim’s phone usage.
Stoneham makes a number of phone calls and is also visited by a drunk professor Papasian who is angry over not getting credit in their new music dictionary. Stoneham promises him the headship of the music department, whenever he decides to leave, if he still feels like it, then.
Clearly, no one is going to miss Stoneham after he’s gone. Which will be quite soon. The next sequence of events isn’t quite clear, but eventually Michael hears Stoneham’s door close, waits a little bit, then goes and burgles the professor’s office using the narrowest flashlight I’ve ever seen.
Seriously, that tiny circle of light wouldn’t be big enough to illuminate the whole area one plans to put one’s foot, to say nothing of where one is going. Perhaps owing to his flashlight, Michael goes into Stoneham’s office with laser-like focus to the filing cabinets and doesn’t notice Stoneham’s corpse near his chair. He’s interrupted by a security guard who, on account of turning on the lights, does notice the corpse.
I just want to note again that I really doubt that tuning fork could have been a deadly weapon, to say nothing of it having killed Stoneham so quickly that he was unable to cry out, go for help, etc. What was he even supposed to have died of? Clearly it wasn’t blood loss. The wound looks too low to have punctured either the lungs or the heart.
Let’s take another look at that tuning fork, when Michael was holding it in a threatening manner.
Let’s do that thing where the computer enlarges and enhances.
Hm. It usually works better in the movies. Still, we can pretty clearly see that the ends of this are not sharp. They might be rounded or like most tuning forks end abruptly because a change in width would cause a change in resonant frequency. Either way, it would take enormous power to drive those 6″ tongs 4″ deep into a human body through a sweater and a broadcloth shirt, no less.
I suspect that I’m just going to have to let this one go.
We now cut to Jessica pouring herself a cup of tea and talking to us about the story.
This bouncing back and forth between the story and Jessica talking to the audience is really weird. Don’t get me wrong, Angela Lansbury pulls it off. But it’s still really weird. And it was completely unnecessary, too. She could easily have had a friend come over who wanted to hear about her latest book.
Jessica says that when the security guard came in and found Michael then saw Stoneham’s body, he put two and two together and came up with five. Granted, Jessica does deal with a lot of people who leap to bad conclusions, but under the circumstances I don’t think that we can blame the security guard for holding Michael until the police arrived.
The next scene is back to the story, with Chad talking to Michael in prison. Chad asks for all of the details and Michael asks why. Is Chad going to represent him? Chad says no, but it’s like his uncle always said, “Finding a fox in the hen house don’t mean a thing. Unless the fox is picking feathers out of his teeth.” What does this have to do with Michael and why Chad wants to know all the details? Your guess is as good as mine.
Chad then talks with Jenny and they agree to investigate the crime together. Jenny makes the observation that it seems like Professor Papasian must have killed Stoneham, since Michael didn’t and Papasian was the last one to talk to Stoneham before Michael went in (that they know about at the time). The counter-evidence to this is that Papasian claims that Stoneham was alive when he left and he passed a polygraph test with flying colors, while Michael’s polygraph test was inconclusive. They agree to investigate together, Chad on campus and Jenny on broadway. This part of the story is quite solid.
Chad next goes to read back-issues of the campus newspaper, which seems to be a pretty major affair.
Chad’s friend at the paper has his own desk, and it’s only one of several. The room itself is quite large, what you see in the image above is only one corner of it. It’s only a slightly scaled-down version of the sort of set Murder, She Wrote would use for a full-blown newspaper. Chad asks to read through their files to dig up old information, and the mustache guy makes giving him an exclusive interview about Michael a condition. Why the school newspaper has secret files that only some students have access to, we are never told. In fact, I’m unclear on why the mustache guy is a character at all. (He showed up in an earlier scene about the protest and it possibly being because of an editorial he wrote in the school newspaper, but I didn’t find it worth mentioning at the time.) The idea that the school newspaper has such a huge effect strikes me as a bit silly. Granted, I went to college about 10 years after this episode was written and in a small school rather than a large state school, but I can’t even remember clearly if we had a school newspaper. I do remember we had a student-run radio station that more people DJ’d for than listened to and a student-run local TV show that I never heard of anyone watching. I assume that we had a school newspaper. Looking it up, it turns out that we did. I can’t remember ever seeing anyone read it and I have a lot of trouble believing that anyone could stir up trouble with an editorial in it. (Also, looking it up, it seems like the school newspaper came out about once a month, not daily, as the newspaper in this story seems to.) Why it is that TV shows in the 1980s (and 1990s) took newspapers of all kinds to be enormously important affairs, I’m really not sure. Wishful thinking, perhaps?
Be that as it may, Chad gives his interview than does his research and goes off to question people. He starts with the vice-chancellor, who he gathered from back-issues of the school newspaper used to be something of an item with Christine (the now-widow of professor Stoneham). The school newspaper was apparently so complete it even had a gossip column, I guess. Chad said something about seeing them in photographs together, but this strains credulity. Anyway, the vice-chancellor admits that he and Christine were friends, but nothing more, and he remained on excellent terms with Christine and Stoneham after their marriage.
He then interviews professor Papasian. They start out in the room that Michael had hidden in the night before, which turns out to be an instrument storage room. A call comes in which Papasian answers and it turns out to be for professor Stoneham, from someone who doesn’t know he’s dead. Papasian then explains that Stoneham’s phone also rings in the instrument storage closet because professor Stoneham use to spend a lot of time there, noodling around on the piano.
I find this explanation a bit thin, for two reasons. The first is that this is a terrible room to noodle about on a piano in. The acoustics will be terrible and there will probably be sympathetic noise from many of the loose instruments. Second, when trying to compose music one presumably does not want to get interrupted by every phone call that comes in. However, it’s necessary to set up how the killer is caught, so I guess we have to let Jessica have this one. Professors of music do get tons of important phone calls that they have to take, after all.
Chad and Papasian talk a bit. Papasian said that it was a great pity that Michael killed Stoneham, as Michael was a great guy. In the ensuing conversation Chad mentions the fight that Papasian had with Stoneham, and Papasian says that it was a disagreement, not a fight. To borrow a line from the MST3K episode of The Dead Talk Back: and another brutal interrogation scene… peters out.
We next see Jenny talking to someone named Rhoda.
I really love the shoulder pads on her sweater. I know that there was a time in the late 1980s where shoulder pads were high fashion for women, but Jenny looks like she just got back from football practice and didn’t have time to take off her armor before she had to throw on a sweater and make some phone calls. Either that or she does a truly impressive number of lateral raises and no other exercises.
Jenny’s idea of fashion aside, she dug up some info through the grapevine of her network of girlfriends (she comes from NY, you will recall). It turns out that there is a broadway play called Blue Lights and the producer is a man named Max Hellinger. She even got a phone number for Hellinger, though he is out of town for a while. There was no number of Alden Gilbert, he always called Hellinger, not the other way around. All correspondence went to a P.O. Box in Westwood, NY. Chad concludes that Stoneham was living a double life.
Next he goes to visit Mrs. Stoneham at her mansion.
OK, mansion might be an exaggeration, but the home is clearly large and impressive. This might possibly be intended to suggest that Stoneham had more than a professor’s income, but I have a hard time believing that he could really make all that much money selling his brilliant students’ compositions to broadway producers. Christine—Mrs. Stoneham—invites him in. She reminisces that Stoneham and Michael used to work together all the time in their music room. That was in the past, though. Lately he had been travelling to San Diego very frequently for… school business.
Anyway, time to question the suspect. He asks her if she talked to her husband that night, and she said that she called him and he said he was waiting for Professor Papasian to drop off the galley proofs of his new book. He asks what time she called and she works out that she called at about 9:45 because it was during a commercial break in a comedy show she was watching that started at 9:30. They talked a bit more, she did some crying about having lost her husband, then he bid her adieu, though not before commenting on how Mr. Stoneham must have been from a wealthy family because it’s one heck of a house.
Curiously, right after Chad leaves the vice-chancellor walks down the grand staircase and remarks that it was a strange visit.
I really can’t tell if the shirt collar and vest being unbuttoned are meant to indicate that he was in the process of taking off his clothes, or in the middle of recently putting them back on again. That said, it was about three seconds between when Chad rang the door bell and when Christine opened the door, so she had to be almost next to it when he rang the bell. The vice chancellor could have taken longer to get dressed than she took, but even so it was a bit odd for them to have been on completely separate floors no matter what the reason. I’m inclined to say that the two are meant to have recently slept together and the writers were a bit sloppy with the details.
Before we go to the next scene, Christine mentions that she got the impression that Chad thought that she might have been involved in her husband’s death.
Next we go back to Jessica, doing something with a pet bird I don’t think we’ve ever seen before or will see again.
Birds are terrible pets for people who travel a lot and by season three (which this episode is from) Jessica was travelling a lot, including teaching courses in a NYC university. As an interesting tie-in, the bird is yellow, and during the episode in which Angela Lansbury played both Jessica and Jessica’s English cousin, the English cousin sang the song, “Hello, Little Yellow Bird.”
Jessica notes that the vice-chancellor had claimed to only be friends with Christine, but then why was he hiding out in another room? If you ask her, it was hanky panky of the highest order. But she’s the writer! It’s up to her whether it was hanky panky or not. Literally. She can choose to make it either one. This isn’t a reminiscence she’s telling, it’s her own invention. She’s the creator. And if this was hanky panky, why is she telling us this only moments after hinting about it? Is she relaying what the narrator of her book says, or is she adding commentary on her own story as she goes? And what sort of mystery writer is she, giving away plot points partway through telling someone about the story???
Oh well. Having done taking care of the bird she walks back to her favorite sitting chair, plops down, and gets us back into the story.
Professor Papasian has just been promoted by “the board,” whoever they are, to professor Stoneham’s job, whatever it is. His celebrations are cut a bit short by Max Shellinger rifling through Professor Stoneham’s filing cabinets. He’s looking for two songs that Stoneham composed under the name Alden Gilbert. Upon learning that Papasian is now the head of the department, he makes him a proposition.
Why Shellinger is dressed like Sherlock Holmes (minus the deerstalker cap) is unclear, and it seems to put Papasian somewhat on edge. When he hears that Shellinger will give him “five big ones” if Papasian can find the other two songs that Stoneham owes him, his ears perk up, though. He agrees to help.
Next Chad goes back to the apartment he shares with Jenny, where she’s playing and singing one of Alden Gilbert’s songs. She gets to musing who wrote the lyrics, because it sure wasn’t Stoneham, and it definitely couldn’t have been Michael either. Chad deduces that there must have been a lyricist. The next day Jenny is going to use a contact she has in the business office to check all of Stoneham’s outgoing calls with a 619 area code to see if they can find the lyricist (since Stoneham had spent a lot of time in San Diego). There’s an odd moment where Jenny is reluctant to do more investigation and demands that Chad bribe her with sex in order to get the information he wants. Jessica’s small town mores are, shall we say, a bit questionable.
Next we get a scene where professor Papasian is burgling the Stoneham house, but clumsily, so Christine hears him. She takes a gun and goes to investigate. He runs out through a large window in the music room and she shoots at him.
The next day Chad pesters Professor Papasian, whose right arm is clearly almost useless. He then offers to shake his hand, which Papasian reluctantly agrees to, then he winces in tremendous pain at the handshake. Frankly, it was rather unkind of Chad, as Professor Papasian was obviously injured, going to great lengths to use his left hand instead of his right hand.
Chad then tells Papasian about the events of the previous evening, and Papasian admits that it was him. I guess he figures that the injury is sufficient evidence, and he hopes to keep Chad quiet. It’s a plausible enough reason to talk, though talking is risky. Anyway, he says that he was looking for the songs because of an offer from Max Hellinger.
Chad meets Hellinger coming from police headquarters where he wasn’t able to see Michael. Chad and Hellinger go to a bar, where they talk. Hellinger admits that he knew Stoneham must have been taking someone else’s music because up till now he had been giving Hellinger mediocre-at-best songs, then suddenly this. He had arrived in town the evening that Stoneham was killed, but all he did was phone him at about 9:30 to make a breakfast date, but Stoneham didn’t show up then Hellinger found out why.
It was a pretty reasonable fact-finding interview. He got Hellinger to talk by semi-accusing Hellinger of the murder (after showing that he knew Hellinger had arrived that evening and was not in NY as he had claimed). It’s an odd trope that a detective can get a person to tell everything he knows by accusing the person of the crime. It seems to me far more plausible that a person would take offense and moreover decide that if they say nothing, they cannot be caught in either mistakes or lies. That said, it is a common trope so it mostly won’t be noticed if employed.
Also, if Stoneham had mostly composed shlock until he started stealing from Michael Prentice last year, how did he manage to afford his gorgeous house? There’s no indication that they had moved into it just a few months ago. And if writing shlock for broadway really paid that well, why bother stealing Michael’s work?
Be that plot hole as it may, Chad returns home, where Jenny has the lyricist (Reagan Miller) sitting on the couch with her.
It turns out that Reagan is a big fan of shoulder pads too.
Anyway, she doesn’t have much to tell that we don’t already know. She wrote the lyrics but Stoneham took credit for them. She came to the campus to confront him but couldn’t find his office, then the police showed up. She then excuses herself because she needs to go home to tape an real estate commercial that she wrote a jingle for. This prompts Chad to go into a deep trance. Jenny tells Reagan to ignore him, he gets like this sometimes, then goes over, snaps her fingers in front of his face, and asks if she gets a prize. He replies, “Darling, you’re not going to believe this, but I think I just figured out which fox got in the hen house.”
We then get interrupted by Jessica again.
“Well how about you?” she asks. “Have you figured out who killed the good doctor? You can’t be hurting for suspects. Heaven knows, there were plenty of people with motive and opportunity. But if you’ve been paying attention there’s one particular clue that should pinpoint the guilty party.”
This is quite a change in tone from her commentary on how the vice chancellor hiding in another room in the Stoneham house probably meant that hanky panky of the highest order was going on. If we were supposed to be guessing who did it, why was Jessica commenting on the story, earlier, as if she was trying to figure it out too?
It’s also curious that this makes very explicit the murder-mystery-as-game. That’s not everyone’s idea of what a murder mystery should be, and it’s only somewhat an aspect of Murder, She Wrote. It is, I maintain, why Jessica typically solves murders by inspiration, often from some innocuous phrase that someone says—that’s to give people time to solve the mystery themselves after all of the clues necessary to do it are in. If Jessica solved it immediately, there’d be no time (or at least very little time) for people to guess. Worse, it would drive home what the clinching clue was. By delaying Jessica coming to the conclusion, it both avoids highlighting the clinching clue and also gives the audience time to guess or even to discuss with the other people watching who each person thinks did it. Here, that time is provided by Jessica asking who did it. It’s weird—which may be why they never did it again—but it does kind of work.
Then we fade back to the campus, where Chad has organized a recreation of the events of the night. Each person who was involved is supposed to do and say what they did the night of the murder. They even bring Reagan, who didn’t say or do anything so she’s supposed to not do that… again. The recreation of the events is pretty long (four minutes of screen time) and frankly it drags. The climax comes when Christine uses the payphone to place the call to her husband she placed that night, and Michael Prentice comes out of the instrument storage closet to say that the phone call going through at that moment didn’t happen the night of the murder.
Everyone looks at Christine and Chad says, “that’s right, Ma’am. It never rang. The call you said you made to your husband during the commercial break never happened… a fact I believe will be validated by your next month’s phone bill. It’s a toll call.”
For those too young to remember this, it used to be the case that people only got free telephone calls (made over landline phones) to regions within a mile or two, and calls more than a short distance away were “toll” calls, i.e. calls for which one paid by the minute, though not very much. (More expensive still were long-distance calls, such as calls between states.) Since toll calls were charged by the minute, phone bills would have an itemized list of what numbers were called, when, and for how long.
Christine does not respond until Chad says, “The only thing I don’t know is: was [the vice-chancellor] in on it with you?” Christine angrily replies, “No. No he wasn’t… Tyler was my problem.”
The police detective who was there in custody of Michael then walks toward her to (presumably) arrest her and we fade back to Jessica, who is still in her kitchen.
“Poor Christine,” she says. “It was only a little slip, but those are the ones that get you. She’s come to the office to surprise her husband, they fought, and long-suffering Christine finally went over the edge.”
And this slender woman in her fifties who looks incapable of lifting a full bag of groceries then plunged a tuning fork four inches into her husband’s chest, instantly killing him. Somehow.
I know I’m a bit obsessed with this, but seriously. I’m a reasonably large guy—I’m 6 feet tall, my best deadlift is 385 pounds (for 5 reps) and my best bench press is 300 pounds—and if you handed me that tuning fork to kill someone with and for some crazy reason I actually needed to kill them, I’d go for the eyes then throw the tuning fork away, get behind the person, and strange them with my bare hands. In all honesty I think that a large music textbook would have been a more plausible murder weapon. Even a small music textbook used to give someone a paper cut on the jugular vein would have been more plausible, though admittedly that’s in the same ballpark as the tuning fork.
OK, that aside, Jessica’s explanation of what happened seems very hard to reconcile to what Christine said about how Tyler was her problem. That really makes it sound like she killed him in order to get rid of him in order to enable her affair with the vice-chancellor. Further, how are we supposed to reconcile her affair with the vice-chancellor with the fight she had with Stoneham over his frequent business trips and shutting him out. A woman with a lover would welcome her husband going on frequent business trips where he was completely out of contact. She might or might not feel jealous about there being another woman, but if she’s at the point of murdering her husband in order to get rid of him—and Stoneham really seemed like the sort of person who wouldn’t even notice if his wife divorced him—another woman would probably be welcome news because it would make it easier to get rid of him.
Christine as the killer just makes no sense, no matter how you cut it. If she wanted to go with her lover, she would have just divorced him. If she was content having a lover on the side, she wouldn’t show up to his office to surprise him, nor, having done so, would she have fought with him and killed him in a fit of rage.
Leaving that aside, her “little slip” was also astonishingly unnecessary. Why on earth did she make up a story about calling him during a commercial break in a TV show when she didn’t and the phone records wouldn’t back her up. It would be one thing if she had set up some device to place a phone call at that time in order to establish an alibi (and actually picked the phone up herself, in the office, in order to complete the call to give herself the alibi), but she did the exact reverse. She invented a falsifiable story that served no purpose. OK, not precisely no purpose—it did provide an alibi that would have been difficult for the law student with no authority talking to her to have disproved. But he also could not have even superficially confirmed it, either, and she didn’t need to give him an alibi. Saying that she was home watching TV would have worked just as well.
The other problem with the demonstration was that—if we take Michael’s word for how many calls there were—all it proved was that of the several people who claimed to call him, one of them didn’t. They were not precise enough about the time of their calls to say it had to happen during the few minutes Michael was in the closet. He got there while a call was already going.
The timing of this murder is also really weird. On the night of the murder, Michael leaves off listening to Papasian and Stoneham shouting at each other to go to the window to look at the protest outside, and is attracted back when he hears Stoneham’s door closing. Given that he was an aopen window with a lot of noise, it needed to be slammed shut for him to have heard it, which would be a weird thing for Christine to do as she’s leaving the office after just having murdered her husband. Anyway, these two events are less than 60 seconds apart. That’s not much time for Papasian to storm out, Christine to come in, them to fight, Christine to stab him with the tuning fork in a fit of rage, wipe her fingerprints off of it, and run away. Doubly so when you consider that she either had to walk down the hallway past the music storage room or Papasian did, in order for them to not meet on the stairs Papasian took to go to Stoneham’s office. As a side note, she also had to fly home in order to be there when the police found her husband’s body only minutes later then came to notify her.
When you put this all together, this seems like very sloppy plotting by Jessica, doubly so with there being no evidence of any kind that points to Christine except for a lie she told for minimal reason. Worse, she either would already have been interviewed by the police or would be soon, and she surely would not have told them such a disprovable lie as having made a phone call she didn’t make. So she either told them an obviously disprovable lie or gave them a different story than she gave Chad. Either way stretches belief.
Leaving all that aside, this is still a really strange story to be her latest book. I really would have expected to meet her world-famous detective. That said, established authors will occasionally create a new detective. Agatha Christie gained her fame with Hercule Poirot, but she also created Miss Marple and also Tommy and Tuppence. Still, it’s kind of odd that this is merely her “latest book” when it’s got an all-new detective. She should be nervous about this change of direction. Instead, she mentions that she’s been noodling around with an idea for a sequel where, on the way to Mississippi to meet Chad’s parents, they run into a defrocked priest and a professional wrestler. She interrupts herself and says, “maybe we just better wait for the sequel”.
“Thanks for dropping by, and goodnight.”
The whole episode is weird. It’s tempting to think that Angela Lansbury had some time commitments and so they didn’t have time to film a real episode with her, and that would explain some things. On the other hand, they had plenty of those episodes, featuring all sorts of other detectives (my favorite were the ones with the ex-jewel-thief who worked for an insurance company; IIRC his name was Dennis). Maybe this was an unsuccessful first attempt? Frankly, it is a bit odd that they never got into what Jessica’s famous stories were, besides this really weird episode.
Anyway, I think that the lessons are clear: if you’re going to write murder mysteries about a murder mystery writer, invest some time in giving the detective some good stories of his own. And either way, if you’re going to stage a recreation of the night of the murder, don’t make it drag on with everyone complaining about it, with the denouement hinging on the word of the police’s prime suspect. Also, have the victim killed with a weapon that could plausibly kill a person without them having superhuman strength. Seriously, a tuning fork???
Update: I forgot about the missing song sheets that Stoneham owed Hellinger. There was absolutely no resolution on those. Who has them? Why were they missing? So far as I can see, absolutely no one had a motive to hide the missing song sheets. And the thing is, this isn’t a minor point. The missing song sheets drove much of the plot. Michael was looking for them in Stoneham’s office and was still there when the police came in because he didn’t find them. Max Hellinger flew to California in order to get them. He met professor Papasian because he was rifling through files in the school office looking for them. Papasian was shot while burgling the Stoneham residence in order to find them, which led to him telling Chad about Hellinger. Hellinger talked with Chad in the bar and gave him information because he wanted the song sheets. And then… nothing. The missing song sheets are completely forgotten about. (Papasian says that he suspects that Stoneham had put them in a safe deposit box, but we’re given zero evidence that this happened, there’s no obvious reason for it to have happened, and either way we get no resolution on it.)
Speaking of things being completely forgotten, Professor Papasian having been shot in the arm and unable to use his right arm or hand was completely forgotten about during the re-creation. He waves his hand around and at one point carelessly stuffs it into his pocket. Earlier that day he couldn’t move it enough to start to take his coat off. Perhaps he took some extra strength aspirin which he kept in his desk drawer at work.
6 thoughts on “Murder She Wrote: Murder in a Minor Key”
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I love just about everything about this. The commentary is amazing.(Almost as amazing as those fuzzy ostrich slipper heels.) I’ll just add that I could totally see a large university newspaper in the 1980s being a big deal. Some are still a big deal nationwide even in today’s largely post-newspaper world. (The Harvard Crimson immediately comes to mind.) I feel like JB Fletcher was probably going for a “Daily Trojan” type vibe. Anyway, I’ve never spent so much time thinking about a tuning fork, but I 100% agree with that it makes no sense. And I will certainly never look at a tuning fork the same way ever again.
Thanks! Being a bowhunter helps with thinking about tuning forks, by its dissimilarity to broadhead arrows. 🙂 And that’s an interesting point about big university newspapers. I think I’m a bit prejudiced in my thinking there because I went to a fairly small university a bit off-center from the middle of nowhere.
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