Murder She Wrote: Mourning Among the Wisterias

In the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Mourning Among the Wisterias. It’s an interesting episode in part because it is, in its way, an extremely typical episode. There’s nothing very remarkable about it, which makes it a good choice to remark on to discuss the bulk of Murder, She Wrote episodes. You might even call it a prototypical episode.

Before we proceed to the episode itself, I want to mention what a Wisteria is, since I had to look it up. It’s a flowering vine in the legume family that likes to cling to buildings and can become quite large. Here’s a picture from the Wikipedia article on wisterias:

PENTAX Image

Wisterias are fast growing, as are many vines, since they don’t need to produce their own support structure, but even fast growing plants take time to climb up buildings. Moreover they can get quite heavy, so the buildings need to be strong buildings to support wisterias. As such, they suggest old, large buildings (they tend to strangle trees they grow on). I bring this up because the title feels like it should be a reference to some other title (like Snow White, Blood Red or Something Borrowed, Someone Blue was), but I can’t find anything it’s referring to.

The episode opens with a panning shot of a magnificent southern mansion, while rich and famous playwright Eugene McLenden reads his latest play.

He’s reading it to Jessica, who sits fanning herself in a huge chair.

This is somewhat anachronistic as a rich man in 1988 would have been able to afford air conditioning. I suspect it’s of a piece with the way that Jessica works on an old mechanical typewriter. Murder, She Wrote, is not about being up to date. In fact, being out of date is one of its themes. I don’t think that this is a coincidence with it being a murder mystery show; solving murders using one’s wits was, even at the time of Murder, She Wrote, something of an anachronism. This became especially true after the second season, when (in the real world) DNA identification began to be used to obtain criminal convictions. Even before that, using ones wits rather than the latest scientific methods has an anachronistic element to it. You can see this in the great success of historical detectives. My favorite example is Cadfael. (For those not fortunate enough to have read the Cadfael series, he’s a Benedictine monk in the twelfth century who solves murders.)

There is a certain irony to this development in murder mysteries, as the genre started in new, scientific methods of deduction often coupled with the latest in forensic science, such as chemical analysis and microscopes. (Microscopes were around since the 1600s but only became really good in the late 1800s.) Detective stories were quick to jump on fingerprints when they started to be used for criminal investigations. (First used to convict someone in 1902, fingerprints were established as a means of identification by a huge statistical analysis performed by Francis Galton in 1892 and a method for transferring latent fingerprints was developed by the french scientist Paul-Jean Coulier in 1901.)

It did not, I should add, take long for this trend to be replaced by greater interest in more human-focused and therefore less cutting-edge detection. G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown started solving crimes by understanding criminals in 1910, Hercule Poirot began using his little grey cells and letting other people hunt for clues with magnifying glasses in 1920, and Lord Peter Wimsey may have started with a monocle that offered powerful magnification in 1923, but he wasn’t using it any more by 1926. Fifty eight years later, in 1984, Murder, She Wrote wasn’t about to have a retired school teacher running a high tech crime lab in her guest bedroom. To be fair, the police procedural would be that, except in an office, and they have been very popular ever since Dragnet. They’re just a different thing. Murder, She Wrote is on the extreme other end of the spectrum.

In this case, accentuating the universality of the detective, Eugene is an old friend of Jessica’s. This is a surprisingly common setup in Murder, She Wrote, perhaps even more common than Jessica visiting a niece. It is curious, then, that it doesn’t really make sense with Jessica’s backstory. Until she (recently) became famous as a mystery novelist, she was just a school teacher in a little town in Maine. How she has so many close friends scattered around the country, most of whom are accomplished and many of whom are rich or famous, is never explained, nor could it be. Doubly so in the era in question. Jessica’s age is never explicitly given, but since she’s a retired widow, it’s pretty reasonable to guess that she’s sixty when the series begins. School teachers can retire early, but not at forty five. (For what it’s worth, Angela Lansbury was 59 when the series began, and, unusual for Hollywood, she tends to play older, rather than play younger.) This would mean that Jessica Fletcher was born in the 1920s and was a young adult in the 1940s. How would a school teacher in Maine in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s be making friends with famous playwrights, business moguls, vineyard owners, and such-like, in order for them to be old friends in the 1980s?

It barely makes sense how Jessica can have one such old friend, let alone the dozens she turns out to have throughout the seasons of Murder, She Wrote. If we consider the setup more symbolically, though, I think that we’ll find that the writers overlooked this because it works so well for the general theme of the show. At its heart, Murder, She Wrote is about the ordinary being interesting. Jessica Fletcher is a retired school teacher from Maine because this is, to Hollywood writers, at least, the quintessence of normal. She’s barely ever actually in Maine, but in theory she’s grounded and rooted, with a solid past and a life that doesn’t change much. Most of us are surrounded by the familiar; visiting old friends means immersion in the familiar.

There being multiple episodes of Murder, She Wrote imposes a requirement for some minimum amount of novelty, since people can’t (ordinarily) die twice. Even if Jessica’s old neighbors were to die, she would soon become surrounded by new neighbors. A compromise, then, is for Jessica to visit old friends, since this spreads them around and she can still come back to her old neighbors when the visit is over. That’s part of what makes this such a prototypical episode of Murder, She Wrote.

To get back to this particular episode: while Eugene is reading his new play to Jessica, the camera moves over to the bedroom of two other principles characters:

The man is Todd Wendle, Eugene’s nephew. The woman is his wife, Crystal Wendle. They were recently married, as he tells her to come over to the bed to “comfort your new husband”. This makes it sound like they were just married a few weeks ago—she makes reference to how pleasantly cool it was on their honeymoon. For reasons that will come up later, though, they have to have been married for at least a few months and a year or two would work better.

Todd is Eugene’s nephew and sole heir. She asks him to go on vacation somewhere it’s less hot for a while and he replies that he’s only been at his current job a few months, plus they have no money for travelling. She suggests asking Eugene for some but he dislikes the idea and replies that there are other ways to get money besides begging.

We cut back to Eugene, who finishes reading the play. Jessica says that it’s beautiful, of course, but so sad. Eugene replies that it’s downright miserable and that happy endings are for movies. “It’s art, Jessica. It has to end badly.”

I really can’t tell whether they’re making fun of this sort of thing or not. The writers seem to take it seriously enough, which makes me wonder. There is a place for tragedy, of course, but I can’t say I like this theory of art. There’s something pagan about it. Except that’s not quite true, because pagan art ends badly for good characters. The sort of plays Eugene writes tend to end badly because all of the people in them are bad people. This has Christian fundamentals—that the cause of misery is vice, not fate—but it tends to be done without understanding. Worse, it tends to be about awful people who have somehow escaped the consequences of their evil up till now, when—rather than their past catching up to them—suddenly cause and effect starts working. My complaint of this style of art is, basically, that it is neither a Greek tragedy nor a Christian lament of vice; it’s a weird hybrid of the two that tends to be more a lament that vice doesn’t work. It has neither the pathos of bad things happening to good people, nor the hope of good people being happy in spite of bad things happening to them, nor the satisfaction of justice being visited upon bad people. The problem is not that it’s sad, but that it’s sad about the wrong things. Which is why, ironically, it makes men like Eugene rich. “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own”—men like Eugene are of the world, so the world loves them as its own. For a time.

Part of what makes me think that they’re not treating Eugene’s theory of art ironically is that I think he’s supposed to be a fictionalized Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neil. Both wrote miserable plays that were described in glowing terms, back in the day. Of A Streetcar Named Desire, Wikipedia says, “Williams’ most popular work, A Streetcar Named Desire is considered one of the finest and most critically acclaimed plays of the twentieth century.” Of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill, it says, “The play is widely considered to be his magnum opus and one of the finest American plays of the 20th century.”

A Streetcar Named Desire is well written but not a good play, in the sense that it has no actual value other than as a stimulant for unpleasant emotions. It is merely wallowing in the fact that the consequences of unrelenting vice are misery. I’ve never read or seen A Long Day’s Journey Into Night but the plot synopsis of it on Wikipedia, together with the fact that the people who praise it are the same people who praise A Streetcar named Desire, do not make me sanguine that it’s any better. Both men were lauded, however. They were major cultural figures, widely respected. It seems likely that the writers of Murder, She Wrote meant for Eugene to be an equally respected figure, and thus that his miserable plays must be heartbreaking works of crushing genius.

However that is, we’re next introduced to Dierdre:

I’ve watched the episode more than once and I still don’t really know who she is. She seems to be an actress who has starred in some of Eugene’s plays, though why she’s staying an Eugene’s house is never explained. He doesn’t seem to like her. She’s also of a very indeterminate age. The actress who played her, Lois Nettleton, was 60 years old at the time, though she seems to be playing a woman in her forties or fifties. She seems desperate to star in this play, at any rate, and gushes over Eugene about it. During this gushing, a very memorable exchange takes place:

Eugene: Why are you so sure it’s for you? You don’t even know what it’s about.
Dierdre: I’m sure it’s about another one of your sex-starved southern women. [looks at Jessica] But from what I’ve observed, women in the south are rarely starved for sex.
Jessica: Well, I wouldn’t know. I’m from Maine.

They walk inside, and Eugene is very sick. He’s coughs a lot, is out of bourbon, and asks his nephew and niece to get him more. They are at first reluctant since it’s not good for him, but he rudely insists. Jessica agrees with them and after his nephew leaves to get the bourbon points out that Eugene is being unduly harsh on his nephew. Eugene talks about how he’s given the boy everything and he’ll get everything, but damn it the boy has no spine.

We’re next introduced to several characters:

This is Ola Mae, the maid and cook. Or maybe just cook. Except I think I did see her cleaning something at one point.

The guy on the left is Jonathan Keeler, Eugene’s Lawyer, and the fellow on the right is Arnold Goldman, a big-shot producer. He’s played, incidentally, by Frank Gorshin—most famous for playing the Riddler on Batman. I didn’t realize it until I saw it on IMDB; he has none of that manic energy here. That’s not significant to the plot, but it was one of the charms of Murder, She Wrote that one got to see actors who had been famous, thirty years earlier, one more time.

Eugene comes out they talk business. Eugene and Jonathan want more money, while Arnold says that the numbers don’t make sense and they want more than they can get. It will cost at least a million dollars just to stage the play—it’s got fourteen speaking parts and seven sets. Arnold summarizes, “I want to produce this play but we have to come to some kind of understanding.” Eugene says, cryptically, “Gentlemen, before the weekend is over, I’m sure we’ll all come to a better… understanding. About a lot of things.”

After this Eugene visits Jessica in her room while she is unpacking. He asks her to marry him. She’s a bit perplexed by this and he explains it’s a business arrangement. He’s dying and wants a legal wife to survive him in order to ensure that the play is done right and Arnold “doesn’t turn it into a musical on roller skates.” Jessica asks why his nephew can’t do it and Eugene replies that he’s just a boy who doesn’t understand art. She asks why Jonathan can’t do it and he says that he’s discovered that his lifelong friend has been cheating him.

The next scene has Crystal telling Ola Mae that dinner was “scrumptious.”

Ola Mae complains that there doesn’t seem any point in cooking since Mr Eugene hardly ate more than a mouthful. Crystal attributes his lack of appetite to the heat and humidity, then goes off to fix a fruit cocktail. Ola Mae angrily tells her “don’t you make a mess in my kitchen”. I’m not sure the point of this bit of characterization. It makes Ola Mae an unlikable character, but does little else. Since she’s a servant and Murder, She Wrote plays by the rules, she’s not a plausible suspect for whatever murder is going to happen.

Ola Mae walks past Deirdre and Arnold. Deirdre is pitching an interpretation of the character that makes Deidre perfect for the part.

Arnold is receptive but thinks Eugene won’t be, and if Jonathan keeps jacking up the price of the play there won’t be any play to cast. Deidre tells him to worry about Eugene and she’ll take care of Jonathan. He asks her how far she’d go for a part like this and she suggests they go onto the veranda because it might be cooler there. As they walk onto the veranda the scene moves into a living room where Eugene, Todd, Jonathan, and Jessica are talking.

Jonathan tries to convince Eugene to demand enormous sums of money for his new play and even goes so far as to suggest that Arnold had cheated Eugene on previous plays. Eugene suggests asking Arnold about it, since Arnold is here, and Jonathan looks very worried. Eugene asks for a refill of his bourbon, which Jonathan volunteers to go get. Eugene then starts doubling over with pain and explains it as indigestion. He asks Jessica to go to the kitchen to see if Ola Mae has any bicarbonate of soda.

On walking into the kitchen, Jessica discovers a scene between Jonathan and Crystal.

Crystal loudly says “let me go!” as the door opens, and drops a glass, which shatters on the floor. Jessica apologizes, saying that she didn’t realize that anyone was in the kitchen, and Jonathan replies that Crystal broke a glass because she was a little careless. Crystal angrily replies that Jonathan has apparently misunderstood something, but he smiles and replies, “On the contrary, my dear, my understanding of things has been greatly improved.”

Jessica gets the bicarbonate for Eugene then offers to help Crystal clean up the glass, but she quickly declines, then says that she wants to be alone for a moment.

The next scene is Eugene getting undressed for the night while Crystal says, in a concerned voice, that he hardly ate a bite at dinner (he’s in the early stages of undressing, removing the outermost layers of his suit, and still decent). Jonathan walks in and says that he’s got something he wants to talk to Eugene about, privately, but Eugene waves both of them away saying that whatever they have to say will keep until morning. Crystal and Jonathan glare at each other and, if looks could kill, we might already have two corpses on our hands.

Later that night Jessica is reclining on a couch reading what I presume is the manuscript for the play when she hears two gunshots in rapid succession. Everyone in the household goes running, looking for everyone else. Eugene isn’t in his room, but when they call for him he shouts back “in here” from Jonathan’s room. When they get in, they see Eugene standing over the body holding a gun pointed at it:

This being Murder, She Wrote, that means that he’s the one person we know didn’t do it (other than Jessica, of course). Here’s the body from Jessica’s perspective:

Next, Homicide Captain Walker Thorn arrives to conduct the investigation.

That is, indeed, René Auberjonois. Ola Mae recognizes him and he knows her by name. Jessica asks if she can help—show him the body. He declines, saying that he can find it. It turns out that Thorn Creek (the estate) used to belong to his family. Jonathan Keeler (the corpse) had called in some notes which somehow or other forced the Thorn family to sell the place and Thorn figures that Jonathan made a handsome profit when he sold the place to Eugene.

Thorn interrogates everyone present. When the shots were fired Arnold was asleep, Todd and Crystal were together, he in bed she in the bathroom, and that’s as far as we get. Eugene heard shots fired and grabbed a gun from the gun cabinet in his bedroom and went to investigate. Captain Thorn shows him a gun and asks if it was the gun he was holding. It was found in Eugene’s gun cabinet, recently fired.

Arnold and Crystal say that it was the gun. Eugene takes a closer look and says that he had the Colt. What Captain Thorn is holding is the Smith & Wesson. (All .38 revolvers look similar, he helpfully offers.)

In the next scene, which is around breakfast time the next day, Jessica and Eugene are talking over the case when Grace arrives.

She is apparently some sort of paramour of Eugene, though he doesn’t seem to like her very much and she doesn’t much seem to like him either. She was also the one who put Eugene wise to Jonathan robbing from him—he had been doing the same to her investments.

Grace seems to also dislike Jessica—though that, at least, seems to be simple jealousy. She’s rude to Jessica and asks Jessica to tell Ola Mae to bring up her bags to Eugene’s room. Eugene asks Jessica, if she would be so kind, to tell Ola Mae to put Grace’s bags in the Magnolia room. I’m not sure what the purpose of all this unpleasantness is; it seems unlikely that Grace could be a suspect. It also makes no sense how she and Eugene are together—in whatever sense they are together. Perhaps we’ll find out. (Spoiler: we don’t.)

However that goes, this sends Jessica with Eugene’s uneaten breakfast down to the kitchen, where she runs into Deirdre.

As Deirdre is offering Jessica coffee, she spots some ants. As she crushes them with a paper towel, she exclaims that she can’t understand why Ola Mae doesn’t do something about them. Crystal walks in to the kitchen as Deirdre leaves it. Crystal says she feels she owes Jessica an explanation for what happened the previous night. She says that it was important to her that Todd advance in his career, which, since he worked at Jonathan’s law firm, meant advancing in the firm. Jonathan misunderstood that and tried to take advantage of her in exchange for helping Todd. She asks Jessica not to say anything about this and Jessica promises to say nothing. “Sometimes what husbands don’t know is very good for them.”

Crystal beams, saying she knew Jessica would understand. Jessica then adds, “and if Todd didn’t know, then no one could think that he’d have any reason to resent Jonathan, could he?” This turns Crystal’s smile upside down, into a frown.

In the next scene Todd and Arnold are negotiating and Todd says that he can agree to Arnold’s figures. He’s not, he explains, as greedy as Jonathan. Arnold asks if he can persuade Eugene to agree and Todd expresses doubt that with Eugene’s failing health that he’ll want to spend energy on business details. “I think we’ll enjoy doing business together,” he smarms, as he walks out of the room.

The next scene is of Captain Thorn giving Eugene some papers and telling him that the ballistics tests definitely establish Eugene’s gun as the murder weapon. He’ll have to come down to headquarters for fingerprinting and questioning. Eugene refuses to comply without Thorn having a warrant for his arrest. Thorn says that he could easily get one and Eugene suggests that he does so but threatens to have his lawyer sue Thorn’s butt off for false arrest if he does. I’m not sure what the point of this bravado is, as one cannot sue for false arrest if the arrest is made pursuant to a warrant issued by a judge—unless the person arrested is not the person named in the warrant. It doesn’t matter, though, as Eugene then keels over in pain and collapses on the ground.

I suspect that in the original broadcast the episode went to commercial break here. In the very next scene Eugene is in bed, being attended to by a doctor. He claims that there’s no need to go to a hospital as there’s nothing wrong with him but a little indigestion. When the doctor presses him, he point-blank refuses to go to the hospital. The doctor takes some blood samples and leaves.

The next scene is of Deidre and Arnold talking over the play and deciding what drastic changes to make in order to reduce the cast, reduce the number of sets, and make the play more commercial. (This is exactly what Eugene is afraid will happen after he’s gone.)

The next scene is Jessica and Thorn talking over the case in one of the many rooms in the house. I’m not sure what to call it. Perhaps it’s a library. Jessica speculates that Eugene can’t be the only person that Jonathan was stealing from and Thorn agrees. He had been stealing from Grace, too—she had a meeting with him about it only the day before. Jessica is surprised, as Grace had told Eugene that she only got to Savanna today. She wasn’t at the house last night, though, Thorn points out.

Jessica admits it and moves on. When she first heard the shots she got the impression that they came from outside. With the heat, every window in the house would have been open. Except, Thorn points out, the window in Jonathan’s room. Thorn thinks she’s suggesting that someone might have fired the shots from the outside and then closed the window. “You know, for a Yankee, you don’t miss much, Ma’am.”

Except that it was clearly established (see earlier photos) that Jonathan was shot on his side facing the door, not on the side facing the window. That seems like a pretty big thing to miss. Perhaps what Jessica actually had in mind was the killer shooting Jonathan when the window was open, then left by the window, closing it after them. Even this seems a little far fetched as the room was on the second floor (the floor above the ground floor, for those who count floors differently than Americans). Even this seems implausible. And why draw attention to the window by closing it on the way out? Thorn seems impressed, though. He then excuses himself as having work to do.

Ola Mae walks into asking if it was Captain Thorn who was just there. She wanted to get a receipt for the comforter from the room which he had taken. Jessica didn’t see a comforter in that room but Ola Mae said it’s been there for the last twenty five years. It was goose down, hand-made by Captain Thorn’s mama. Jessica says that Captain Thorn didn’t mention anything about the comforter to her and Ola Mae tartly replies, “well maybe he didn’t think it was any of your business.”

A missing comforter, this late in an episode (there are less than fifteen minutes left), is clearly a clue. I suspect that Ola Mae’s rudeness is meant to distract from the clue. It doesn’t seem to serve any other function. There’s no purpose to needlessly antagonizing people, especially for servants.

In the next scene Crystal comes into a room Jonathan is in. He’s sitting at a desk looking over some legal papers. It looks like it might be a bedroom, except that I don’t think that it’s their bedroom as the bed is in the wrong place. Anyway, she informs him that she just heard from Grace that Eugene had terminated their engagement as he’s made other plans. Todd tells her that Eugene is a dying man and doesn’t plan to marry anyone. Crystal seems devastated; the doctor said it was just indigestion. Todd explains that Uncle Eugene doesn’t tell the doctor anything. She asks what he’s studying so intently and Todd says that it’s a copy of Uncle Eugene’s will. Except for a few odds and ends, everything goes to Todd.

In the next scene, Arnold is talking to Eugene, who says that Arnold has to do the play and to work the money out with Todd. But, Deirdre is not only too old for the part of Marguerite, she’s also wrong for it. Even though she snuck him a bottle of bourbon. He he proceeds to pour himself some of.

In a Murder, She Wrote, one’s ears should perk up any time one hears about someone sneaking a sick person something they’re not supposed to have. There’s some further discussion about the play, but that’s just here because needles need to have some hay around them in a murder mystery. Eugene makes Arnold promise not to change a single line, and Arnold promises he won’t change even a single word (we get the impression, entirely insincerely). He also promises to break the news to Deidre that she won’t get the part. I suspect this is also quite insincere, though here it’s hard to be sure because I could easily see him double-cross her.

In the next scene Jessica goes into the kitchen where Ola Mae is pouring ant poison into a glass. Since getting this clue involves recognizing what Ola Mae is holding and since television in the late 1980s was mostly broadcast and thus subject to interference which produced static, making small words hard to read, this calls for clue-o-vision:

Even on a mediocre television with static from interference you can figure out that this isn’t good for the health of whoever might drink it, be they mice or men (or ants, the intended victims).

We then get very dramatic music as the camera zooms in on Ola Mae holding the glass of poison and looking very guilty:

There are twelve minutes to go, however, so we can be pretty sure, despite the ominous music, that this is entirely innocent. There’s a cut to commercial here, so I suspect this is just an artifact of television writers needing to try to go to commercial break on a cliffhanger in order to get people to not change the channel during the commercials.

Jessica comes over and picks up the bottle. “Arsenic Base,” she reads. “The best thing I’ve found for those ants,” Ola Mae replies. “Works on aphids, too, and goes a lot further than those spray cans.” In answer to Jessica’s query, she usually keeps it here in the drawer.

In the next scene, Jessica asks Dr. Church (Eugene’s doctor) to run a special test for arsenic poisoning. They don’t waste any time getting the results of this; Captain Thorn and Jessica break the news to Eugene in the very next scene:

That is quite a fancy “you’re being poisoned” dress Jessica is wearing.

Jessica explains that the beauty of arsenic poisoning is that small doses, administered over a long time, take on the characteristics of a dozen other illnesses. The victim goes into a decline and then when the lethal dose is finally administered the attending doctor will write it off as natural causes from whatever he diagnosed the decline as.

What does all this have to do with Jonathan’s death, though, Jessica wonders? Captain Thorn asks Eugene if he caught Jonathan poisoning him and that’s why he killed him. Eugene just grumbles. Jessica asks Captain Thorn if he or his men removed a down comforter from the room Jonathan was killed in. Neither he nor his men removed it and Thorn doesn’t even recall there having been a comforter in the room.

Eugene asks why anyone would take a comforter when it’s been so hot? Jessica suggests it was because the comforter had powder burns on it and bullet holes in it—it was used to muffle the sound of killing Jonathan and then later, at a safe remove, two more shots were fired to give a false time of death while the killer had an alibi. It’s an intriguing possibility, Thorn admits, but it would be very difficult to prove.

Unless, Jessica says, something happens to force the killer’s hand.

In the next scene, Eugene announces his engagement to Jessica.

Reactions vary. Todd is surprised. Grace just looks angry. Deidre gushes for Jessica. Crystal says, “My goodness, another wedding at Thorn Creek. How exciting.”

That’s a picture of two people who realize that their inheritance is in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, if looks could kill, Grace might have produced a second corpse:

That’s the last we see of Grace. She was barely a character in this episode, to the point that I wonder why she was a character at all.

Eugene says that they’re going to be married ASAP then go on an extended honeymoon abroad since Thorn hasn’t filed any charges yet. Reactions to this are generally negative, even from people with a minimal stake in it like Deidre and Arnold. Eugene then tells Todd that he wants to discuss some legal matters in the morning. “Do you think you could find a copy of my old will?”

They’re laying it on rather thick, here. Obviously subtlety isn’t the goal but at some point there should be a worry that the murderer will catch on that it’s just a ploy.

Jessica then asks all of the women present to be her bride’s maids. Technically Crystal can’t since she’s a married woman, not a maiden. I know that there can be a “matron of honor” in place of the “maid of honor”; I’m not sure if it’s possible to have “bride’s matrons” otherwise. These are technical points, I know, but I would really expect Jessica to know this and get it right. I suppose it can be chalked up to her playing the character of a woman rushing headlong into a marriage without thinking but that’s a strained character as it is. Not that any of the suspects actually know Jessica, except by reputation, I suppose. Still. A more carefully laid trap would be all to the good.

It doesn’t matter, though, because the murderer does take the bait. In the very next scene Eugene is lying in bed and the door furtively opens.

The total count of suspects is, curiously, not very big. If we list everyone in the episode, even if we can rule them out, it’s only (in approximate order of appearance):

  • Deidre
  • Crystal
  • Todd
  • Ola Mae
  • Arnold
  • Captain Thorn
  • Grace

We can rule out Ola Mae because she’s the cook and also because she was incriminated with a closeup shot as ominous music played. We can rule out Captain Thorn because he didn’t have access to Eugene until Jonathan was killed. We can rule out Arnold for the same reason—he was off in New York producing plays. Grace was barely a character in the story but it is implied that she’s generally had access to Eugene, and arsenical poisoning isn’t the sort of thing you need to keep constantly topped off, so we can’t entirely rule her out. The problem there is that she has nothing to gain from Eugene’s death. It could, I suppose, be revenge for his never marrying her but she didn’t seem to want to marry him anyway.

That only leaves Crystal and Todd. That’s not a long list of suspects. They have roughly an equal motivation, though between them Crystal seemed the more dissatisfied with her life. On the other hand, Todd seemed the more conniving of the two.

Then the shadowy figure moves into the light and gently wakes Eugene up, telling him that he was groaning and asking if he was having a bad dream, a glass of bourbon in hand to make sure he has no more bad dreams.

If your money was on Crystal, congratulations.

Eugene takes the glass and tells her that he’s not going to drink it, he’s going to give it to Captain Thorn for analysis. Crystal tries to run out, but the way is blocked.

I’ve got to say, René Auberjonois cuts a very impressive figure, here. It’s almost hard to believe that he was the timid music professor, Howard Papasian, in Murder She Wrote: Murder in a Minor Key. The one thing I wonder about is how he knew that Crystal had crept into Eugene’s room and so it was safe to come out into the hallway. Usually the police detective is waiting in the next room or somewhere else that the killer couldn’t have seen him. Here, he had to creep down the hallway without being heard after Crystal had done the same thing. It’s a great shot, though.

Somehow this turns into Jessica and Eugene talking about what happened while Captain Thorn escorts Crystal down the stairs. Eugene asks Jessica how she knew it was Crystal and Jessica says that she didn’t, not for sure, but she was sure that the murder of Jonathan was tied up with the poisoning, and it occurred to her that he might have been killed because he knew who was poisoning Eugene. Then she couldn’t help but remember the incident earlier that night, where a glass was smashed and Jonathan was holding Crystal by the wrist. He must have caught her putting ant poison into the bourbon.

The only problem with this supposition is that if he did catch her, he had to have waited until after she put the ant poison away in order to grab her by the wrist and force her to drop the glass. Jessica walked into the kitchen right as the glass was dropped, so if the bottle of ant poison was anywhere to be seen—which it would have had to for Jonathan to see her putting the ant poison in—Jessica would have seen it too. So would the viewer, since they panned across the kitchen.

No ant poison visible that I can see and Jessica is right next to the drawer it is stored in.

I’m not sure that this is really a solvable problem. It’s pretty far fetched that Jonathan would have watched Crystal add the and poison to the glass of bourbon and put the ant poison away again, then grabbed her wrist and forced her to drop the glass.

There’s also the problem that during a dinner party with house guests present is a really stupid time to administer another dose of ant poison. Also strange, for someone who had been executing a cunning long-term strategy, was using the bottle of ant poison for each dose. Far more sensible would have been to take some into a smaller bottle, perhaps a cleaned-out cosmetic bottle, that she could have then administered the doses from. Better yet would be a bottle of vitamin drops she had previously emptied. Doubly so if it was a double of a bottle of vitamin drops that was kept in a known location, so that if anyone saw her sneaking a drop in she could claim she was just trying to get him a few vitamins and if anyone later went to test the vitamin drops they’d go for the ones in the known location which had only normal, healthy, vitamin liquid in it.

Crystal objects that she couldn’t have shot Jonathan because she was in bed with her husband when Jonathan was shot. Jessica corrects her that her husband said that she was in the bathroom. She goes on to reconstruct the crime. Crystal closed the window in Jonathan’s room then wrapped the gun in the down comforter to muffle the shots.

Jessica’s reconstructions of the crime get the same hazy blur around the edges that flashbacks do.

I am very dubious that this would actually work, btw. Guns are unbelievably loud and in my experience a comforter doesn’t muffle even a cell phone. That said, I’m not certain that this would not work with a gun. The back-pressure the comforter would create might affect the way the gun discharges and most loadings of a .38 fire sub-sonic bullets so the bullet itself won’t create a sonic boom. That said, I’m still dubious and Crystal really should have been dubious about it, too. This is an awful big risk for her to have taken. She’d certainly have been caught immediately if anyone had heard the gun. Granted, she was desperate, but stabbing Jonathan would have been less of a risk. She wouldn’t have been able to produce an alibi, but then it was her husband who was providing the alibi so it wasn’t worth anything anyway.

All of this is, of course, pure speculation. There’s no proof of it. Fortunately for Jessica, the reconstruction being spot-on is sufficient to get Crystal to confess. She says that Jonathan had made unseemly advances on more than one occasion and she didn’t mind killing him at all. She turns to Eugene and tells him that it took all the courage she could muster to try to murder him.

He asks her why and she replies that it was for the money, of course. He objects that he had always treated her and her husband very generously. “Oh yes, you lorded your generosity over my husband. He has choked on your kindness, Uncle Eugene. Oh, you made him son and heir, then kept him dangling on a paltry little allowance and I don’t think we should have to wait forever for what is rightfully ours. We have a position in society to maintain.”

This explanation is, perhaps, the least convincing part of the episode. The first problem is that I’m not sure how to reconcile it with Todd calling himself “her new husband” in the beginning of the episode. This is somewhat born up by her remarks about “another wedding at Thorn Creek.” Yet if she was newly married, she could hardly be chafing under the strain of not being wealthy, nor seen her husband withering under the load of having only a small allowance on top of his salary as a lawyer.

Furthermore, her reason for wanting the money was one of the few things inheriting money wouldn’t accomplish. The heir to a fortune has, approximately, the same social status as if he had the fortune. He doesn’t have the power—the ability to do what we wants—but people will invite him to parties, let him into clubs, etc. Even more to the point, Crystal and Todd would have a higher position in society while they’re connected to a popular and respected playwright. Once Eugene is dead they will lose the cachet of being close relatives with easy access to him. If Crystal is concerned about their social standing the last thing in the world she would want would be Eugene’s death. Having his money would bring in small social standing in comparison to having the power to introduce people to him.

Her trying to murder Eugene would make far more sense if she longed to travel, or to buy fancy clothes, or buy enough horses to drive in a horse-drawn carriage everywhere she went, or to do any of the things that money can actually accomplish. We’re given the explanation we’re given, though. The younger generation wants the fruit of the older generation’s labor. It doesn’t make much sense for the characters as written but it does make sense for a prototypical episode of Murder, She Wrote. (I’ll expand on this below.)

The episode ends with Eugene and Jessica talking. He expresses disappointment that she has refused to marry him but grants that it did work to bring out the killer. He also says that he has some bridges to mend with Todd. Seeing as how it was Todd’s wife who had been poisoning him, it really should be Todd who is trying to mend the bridges. They end when Jessica asks what the typing she heard from his room in the morning was and he says that he’s working on a new play. When asked what it’s about, he replies, “Same old thing. My nearest and dearest friends. Whatever would I do without them?” He raises his glass, and Jessica, laughing, returns the gesture.

This was by no means the best episode of Murder, She Wrote but a prototypical episode couldn’t be, almost by definition. In this episode elements of the murder and the investigation don’t really make sense with the characters and situations as they’re presented, but they fit the theme of the show very well. I should clarify that Murder, She Wrote did not have a single theme. No complex work, and especially not one written by many different authors, can. Still, if we had to give one theme for Murder, She Wrote it would be living nostalgia.

Murder, She Wrote is about, more than anything else, the past still having value. You can see this most prominently in its older cast but you can see it in anachronisms like mechanical typewriters and southern mansions without air conditioning. You can also see it in plots borrowed from golden-age mysteries.

Does it make sense that Crystal was trying to poison Eugene in order to inherit his money in order to maintain her social position? No. Not at all. An heir trying to poison a rich relative in order to inherit their money is a classic mystery plot but in the original it tends to be in order to pay off debts. Frequently the debts were incurred from investments which went bad but sometimes they were just business debts or gambling debts. Such debts, if they came to maturity without the debtor being able to pay, would in fact ruin someone’s social standing. These are specifics, though, and themes are not concerned with specifics. In broad strokes, the plot of a poor heir doing away with a rich ancestor in order to inherit is a classic. As such, it’s good enough for Murder, She Wrote, because old things are still good.

Even the murder weapon being arsenic in small doses to cause symptoms of gastritis is a golden age plot device. In the early 1900s and especially in England, arsenic was commonly found in weed killer, insect poisons, and even over-the-counter medications. That is, it was readily accessible. In the late 1980s, arsenic was nowhere near as readily available as it was back then. Further, not being used in medications anymore dosing information would not be so easy to come by. This is a real problem for someone who was intending to administer sub-lethal doses over time—knowing how much to give isn’t common knowledge and when the stuff is not normally given to people, it’s not easy to come up with, either. This isn’t such a problem for someone trying to administer an acutely lethal dose—they can take a guess then use ten times as much, to be safe. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it does make it even stranger for Crystal to choose this method. That said, it would have worked (if it wasn’t for Jessica), showing—again—that old things are still valuable.

We can also see this theme even in the choice of murder victim. Eugene is a respected playwright. He’s also, as I said before, supposed to be someone like Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neil. Tennessee Williams’ most popular play was published in 1947. Eugene O’Neil’s was published postumously in 1956 (O’Neil died in 1953). Since he’s often lumped in with them, Arthur Miller’s most famous works, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, were published in 1949 and 1953. The idea of Eugene’s new play being earth-shattering material, and of Eugene being a celebrated figure, were anachronistic. I don’t want to overstate this, but plays being such a big deal was, itself, a throwback. Plays became increasingly niche things as movies and, ironically, television came to dominate performed entertainment. (I’m probably in danger of overstating this as it’s not like Broadway has gone away, but when I was a kid in the 1980s, I would not have been nearly as impressed to hear that someone was a broadway playwright as I would have been to hear that they were a TV writer.)

Murder, She Wrote episodes varied considerably over the twelve seasons that they ran, and Jessica did eventually get with the times and traded her typewriter in for a computer. For all that, though, I think that there’s a great deal to be learned about Murder, She Wrote from studying Mourning Among the Wisterias. It’s anachronistic, not that well put together, predictable, interesting, has fun characters, great acting, and is a lot of fun. There are a lot of exceptions, but that’s what Murder, She Wrote mostly was.

One thought on “Murder She Wrote: Mourning Among the Wisterias

  1. Pingback: Murder, She Spoke – Chris Lansdown

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