Murder, She Wrote: It Runs in the Family

Having recently talked about one of the strangest episodes of Murder, She Wrote (Murder in a Minor Key), it seems like a good time to talk about another very strange episode. It’s the only episode (so far as I know) in which Jessica Fletcher doesn’t appear, even at the beginning to introduce the episode.

It Runs in the Family is set in England and stars Jessica’s identical cousin, Emma MacGill, as the detective. Of course, she’s not a detective at the beginning of the episode, but then again Jessica usually isn’t, either.

The episode starts with Jessica Emma in a bar, chatting with friends, when she’s approach by Humphrey Defoe, the family solicitor for Viscount Blackraven, who turns out to be an old admirer of Jessica’s Emma’s.

He invites Emma, on behalf of the Viscount, to come visit him. It’s been about forty years, and he’s a dying man, so Emma agrees. Humphrey drives her out to the Blackraven estate.

It’s big and beautiful, though it never looks that much larger than some of the larger half-million dollar homes I’ve seen in America. That’s still several times more expensive than my own (not very large) house, but it doesn’t quite bowl me over in the way it seems like it’s supposed to.

She meets several of the family. They’re rude to her with a thin, transparent veneer of politeness on top of it. We also meet the adult child of one of the Viscount’s relatives, who is spoiled beyond belief (literally—it’s not plausible he’s really this spoiled). Then we meet the Viscount.

Incidentally, I looked up what a viscount is. It’s the rank in the English peerage below Earl and above Baron. (The ranks go, in order of highest to lowest: Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron.) Viscount comes from “vice count”, with “Earl” being an anglo-saxon name for a count. Curiously, there is no female form of Earl; an Earl’s wife is called “countess”.

Anyway, Emma and the Viscount reminisce about their time together forty years ago. Then we get introduced to some more characters, a husband and wife (pictured below). I’m not sure how they’re related to the Viscount, but the previous Viscount Blackraven, who passed away two months ago, is his grandfather, and he’s in line to be the next Viscount Blackraven when the current one starts pining for the fjords. His wife is very socially ambitious and we later learn was a baker’s daughter.

Her facial expression gives you a pretty good indication of what her character is like. Her husband is far more reasonable and far less snobbish, making me wonder how they are married. It’s plausible that he married her for her beauty, though—he wouldn’t be the first character in a murder mystery to have married for physical rather than moral virtue.

A minute later, we get introduced to the final members of the cast, the next Viscount’s (I presume, younger) brother, Johnny, and his floozy (“personal assistant”) who happens to have the same accent Emma does.

After some more snobbishness and rudeness, everyone assembles for dinner, which drags on for a long time. The women of the family and the younger men snipe at each other unpleasantly throughout, while the Viscount reminisces with Emma about old (embarrassing to Emma) times. An extremely important fact comes up, though, which is that the Viscount served Emma pickled herring because they used to eat it at a charming little restaurant. He asks what happened to the restaurant and she says that it went bankrupt after serving bad pickled herring, which she herself got sick on. She hasn’t been able to look at a pickled herring since.

They retire to the study (or some such room) and there is some music, with the Viscount asking Emma to play and sing. She tries to refuse but eventually does. She tries to sing a nice song and he demands a bawdy song from forty years ago, which Emma is embarrassed for but plays since he’s a dying man, to the disgust of the ladies present.

The next day the doctor shows up to breakfast and announces that the Viscount’s health has taken an amazing turn for the better. His blood pressure is normal, his heartbeat is regular, and if what the doctor just saw is any indication, the Viscount could go on living for another twenty years!

Oh, and he doesn’t need a wheelchair anymore!

The doctor said that it’s as if he’d found a reason to go on living. I guess he was dying of a broken heart? Seriously, what the heck did the doctor think was medically wrong with the Viscount that he diagnosed him with only two, maybe three months to live? Are we really to believe that the only thing wrong with the Viscount was that he didn’t have his useful sweetheart by his side? Also, how could such a cheerful, down-to-earth person be so depressed that he psychosomatically needed a wheelchair?

No one asks any of these questions. The Viscount has decided on a picnic with Emma, and a picnic with Emma there shall be. I guess they spent too much time establishing how awful the family was at dinner and need to on with the murder.

On the way to the picnic the Viscount mentions that his father, the seventeenth Viscount Blackraven, died only a few weeks ago. He was eighty seven and the doctor wanted him on a strict diet of boring food but he snuck brandy and chocolates every night. Then they found him one morning ice cold and stiff as a board. When the Viscount and Emma get to the picnic, the Viscount eats some pickled herring and…

…he starts (painfully) to think of the fjords. From the look of things he’ll be pining for them in minutes.

Emma says she needs to bring the Viscount to the hospital, but he says that instead she should go for help. I’ve no idea why Emma takes this idiotic advice, but she does, and when the help she goes for arrives the Viscount is long dead.

As the detective inspector investigating the case is smelling the pickled herring, the doctor muses that it’s surprising that the Viscount died of a heart attack when he was looking so good just this morning. “A heart attack? That’s what you think, doctor?” the DI asks incredulously. He orders an autopsy. The doctor, who still thinks that a man who ceased to need a wheelchair when he cheered up a bit was actually dying, protests that it’s outrageous to think that his diagnosis of a heart attack is in any way questionable. The detective is unmoved by the doctor’s protests and orders the autopsy anyway.

The detective then goes and interviews the family, who are on their worst behavior as usual, and also Emma. He questions her about the food and its preparation, then mentions that he thinks that the former Viscount might have been poisoned. Emma is distraught that the former Viscount (I’ll call him Jeffrey from now on since that was his name) was poisoned, and that the police think that she did it!

Except just a few scenes that have neither the detective nor Emma in them later, Emma is in the detective’s office at police headquarters and the detective says that he doesn’t think that Emma did it. The pickled herring was poisoned in order to frame her.

Why does he think this? Who knows? Certainly not the audience. On the other hand she’s the main character so we don’t need much selling on this point.

Seriously, though, these two scenes were practically next to each other. the longest scene between them involved the son of the new Viscount riding up on a horse to the funeral and asking for money to go skiing with his friends in Grenoble and his father telling him that he will get no more money and must go find himself a job. While there may have been a tiny bit of suspense because of the idea that Emma was suspected, her character did absolutely nothing (on screen or, so far as we know, off screen) because of it. On the other hand, Emma was the only one who said anything about her being a suspect; I’m tempted to think that it was included only to be available for the “tonight on Murder, She Wrote” teaser at the beginning.

The Detective Inspector asks Emma, in detail, about how she prepared the food and she did it all herself, with no help. She just used the leftover pickled herring from the night before then left the picnic basket unattended for a while after preparing it. Also, Emma gets the idea that if Jeffrey was poisoned for his title, perhaps the previous Viscount Blackraven was also poisoned. Jeffrey said that when they found him in the morning he was cold as ice, which suggests that he had been dead for a long time. I suppose that is meant to suggest that he might have died from the chocolate and brandy he would always sneak before bed. Of course, he could just as easily have died of a heart attack half an hour after falling asleep; she’s on much safer ground with the whole impatient-killer-might-have-killed-before angle.

The inspector thinks that this is excellent reasoning and orders an exhumation and autopsy of the Viscount Blackraven who died a few months ago. Curiously, we never find out the result of the autopsy. Anyway, we’re on to the next clue.

The butler (or whoever he is) is washing the new Viscountess Blackraven’s car. He was washing it anyway, but it’s got to be spotless for a luncheon engagement she has at precisely 1pm. Take careful note. The car must be absolutely spotless and the luncheon is at precisely 1 O’Clock.

And then we get the setup for a plot twist. Johnny (the younger brother of the new Viscount) is going to do some shooting with Derrick (the new Viscount’s son) in Brindley woods. He discusses his plans with the Viscountess.

When they’re done we’ve only got ten minutes left in the episode, so it’s time for some final red herrings. Humphrey learns from friends in London that Johnny is big into debt to unsavory middle easterners. Emma takes Johnny’s floozy out to lunch and pumps her for information. Johnny was, indeed, in best to unsavory middle easterners. And it turns out that the old Viscount had turned down Johnny’s request for money, and after he smuggled the old Viscount so many chocolates that we wasn’t supposed to have, too! That is enough of the herrings that are red, so it’s time to get back to the plot twist.

Humphrey intrudes with the news that young Derrick has just been shot. They run out of the bar to go back to the mansion, stopping on the way at the Viscountess’ luncheon, where it turns out that they hadn’t yet started eating. Humphrey calls attention to this, saying, “Luckily I caught them before they started to eat.” This seems oddly clumsy; why was it lucky? It wouldn’t be that big a hardship to put down a sandwich with a few bites taken out of it. It’s a clue, of course. We’re not told exactly how much time has passed but with the big deal that the Viscountess had made before about the luncheon starting at precisely 1pm sharp, the food being late simply has to be a clue.

Also, the camera carefully showed us the extremely muddy tires and undercarriage of the car that was so conspicuously washed just an hour or two before. Then, since that was too subtle, when they arrive at the mansion Emma’s attention is caught by the muddy tires and they show us a close-up of the tire.

How the tire is supposed to have gotten muddy up to the spokes but the body is only very slightly dirty is not obvious. I guess whoever’s job it was to paint the mud onto the tires wasn’t feeling energetic (you can sort-of see the brush strokes if you look closely).

Anyway, they go inside, into the accusing parlor, and Johnny gets accused of shooting Derrick. Why? The Viscountess suggests that with Derrick out of the way, Johnny is next in line to inherit the title after her husband kicks the bucket. This is more than a little flimsy. Are we really to suppose that someone who likes spending his time in London with east-end floozies killed four people to inherit a title? Are we further to suppose he shot one of them while out hunting and hopes to get away with it being called an accident? If that weren’t enough, there’s no way to believe this because his tires weren’t muddy right after being cleaned.

While they bicker, Emma calls the detective inspector over and (offscreen) shows him the muddy tires. He then asks Johnny to come with him to the police station. Emma is about to leave for London but Humphrey took the distributor cap off of their car so that they can be “forced” to borrow the Viscountess’ car in order to make Emma’s train. The Viscountess doesn’t want to let them, and the detective inspector appears from out of the bushes and asks what the problem is with them borrowing her car.

“I thought you left!” the Viscountess says in surprise. “No, you saw one of my sergeants drive off,” he replies.

This is like those scenes where the murderer confesses and is about to kill Jessica when the police walk in from behind the curtains, except that she hasn’t admitted anything and his pretending to not be there had no purpose.

Then it turns out that the car is actually registered to the Viscountess’ sister-in-law, who invites the inspector to open the boot (what we Americans call the trunk). In it we find…

…some muddy boots and the murder wounding weapon. The Viscountess shot her own son in the arm! Who could have seen this coming (except for someone who had been watching the episode)?

The sister asks her why she tried to kill her own son, and she replies, “No. I wouldn’t hurt him. Not seriously. I had to do something. I had to make them think it was Johnny who…” The sister asks, “Who what? Killed my father and my brother?” The Viscountess replies, “Oh don’t look at me like that. You’ve always been the great lady. You don’t know what it’s like to have people laughing at you behind your back because you’re a baker’s daughter and you won’t be anything else. Well I am something else. I’m the wife of the nineteenth Viscount Blackraven, and I… oh haugh haugh.” She breaks down sobbing and the sister says, “I’ll take her inside, inspector.” She puts an arm around the Viscountess and leads her inside.

Curiously, the detective inspector is fine with this. He doesn’t even send any men inside to follow. I suppose, in fairness, she’s not very likely to run away. Anyway, he doesn’t follow or even seem to care what happens to the woman he’s about to arrest for two murders and an assault with a deadly weapon. Instead he asks Emma if she’s ever considered being a detective? She has a knack for it. Emma replies, “Do I? Well, let’s just say it runs in the family.”

And once again the episode ends with everyone laughing. I’m not sure why this is supposed to be funny to the characters. It’s only funny to us because Angela Lansbury plays both Jessica Fletcher and Emma MacGill and both characters are written by the same writers. The detective inspector has never even met Jessica, and has heard about two lines of description of her the other day.

All in all, this is a very weird episode. It’s not just that it has English Jessica (Emma) in it, though that, too, is a strange choice. A big part of what’s great about Murder, She Wrote is the small town character of Jessica Fletcher. (Even though, depending on the episode, she really isn’t a small town character. Still, the episodes where she is carry a lot of episodes where she isn’t.) A big city, annoying version of Jessica is not nearly as endearing. That we don’t even get Jessica for a minute in the beginning to introduce the episode is even more unfortunate.

Apart from all that, though, the episode is kind of a mess. We spend a bunch of it reminiscing about a character we don’t like and will never see again (Emma) and one we don’t know, have never seen before, and never will again (Jeffrey, the eigtheenth Viscount Blackraven). It would be one thing if these reminiscences were in any way interesting, but they’re not.

We spend a lot of time establishing that every member of the family is unbearable. The one exception is, of all people, the stuffy banker who ends up with the title of Viscount Blackraven at the end of the episode. He has no personality and isn’t likable, but he seems kindly enough that one doesn’t dislike him, either. On the other, other hand, he did raise his son so badly that his son has no skills, no discipline, and no thoughts other than to find some form of entertainment. A father is not wholly responsible for the behavior of his adult child, but he does have some responsibility for it.

The family lawyer is played by an enormously likable actor, and his part is not tiny, but neither does it have substance. He’s a close friend of Jeffrey, and is loyal, but that’s only established right before Jeffrey is killed and he’s not a suspect. At one point he somewhat suspiciously points out that he wasn’t present at dinner when Emma says that she doesn’t eat kippered herring, but absolutely nothing comes of that.

The plot about the old Viscount Blackraven being murdered has no resolution. We literally don’t know whether he was or wasn’t poisoned. It’s implied by the sister’s line, “Who what, killed my father and my brother?” and the Viscountess’ reply “Don’t look at me like that”, but certainty would have been better. At the very least, we could have gotten the toxicology report back.

It was also strange that we got no closure on any of the family. We didn’t see the Viscount Blackraven learn that his beautiful wife murdered his father and brother. We don’t see Derrick learn that his mother murdered people. Neither character is given any growth or development. Emma has no real character development, here. She investigates the crime with all of the disinterest that Jessica normally has when she solves crimes as mere intellectual puzzles. The extraordinary turbulence of the last few days—someone she was very fond of was just murdered in front of her and she was sort-of framed for it—seems to have no effect on Emma whatever. Even discovering that detective ability runs in the family has no effect on her; it’s just sort of funny.

Even at its best, Murder, She Wrote isn’t Shakespeare, but it does often have the fundamental mystery structure of the detective using reason to put right what was put wrong through a misuse of reason. Technically this episode has that, in that the murderess is caught and stripped of her ill-gotten status (we assume), but far more is wrong than is fixed. Obviously the detective in a story never fixes the whole world, but there were things that should have been impacted by this that weren’t.

More than anything, this episode is just confusing. In the beginning there’s a momentary subplot on Humphrey giving Emma 1000£ for her trouble, which she turns down. Why spend time on that? All it establishes is that the Viscount doesn’t expect her to want to come, but then she does want to come. There are many such instances; there’s the better part of a minute wasted on Derrick being dismissive of his mother in the beginning and driving off. It doesn’t really establish anyone’s character—Derrick remains the same stereotype throughout—it just takes up time. It’s not like they needed to pad the episode out; they pretty clearly ran out of time at the end.

It is possible that they realized this, or at least some of it. The episode is early on in the fourth season and we never see Emma MacGill in Murder, She Wrote, again. And that despite having plenty of episodes set in England. I suppose, at the end of the day, when you have 264 episodes of a TV show, they can’t all be winners.

Certainly, this one wasn’t.

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