Murder She Wrote: Harbinger of Death

In the middle of season four of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Harbinger of Death. It’s set in a research university, and specifically in the astronomy department, which is a setting I would expect Hollywood writers to not know much about. (Spoiler: they don’t.)

The episode begins looking inside of the observatory, where the main character of the mystery—if we can designate a main character beside Jessica—is typing away at a computer. His name is Dr. Leonard Palmer, and he’s looking for a new comet.

I really love the blinkenlights panels on the side. It’s hard to imagine what they’re supposed to represent (especially with no massive computer behind them), but they really brighten the place up. I suspect that this is an actual observatory which has been set-dressed to look more sciency, but you never do know. A lot of science equipment in universities is one-off stuff that lasts a surprisingly long time.

His assistant, Fay Hewitt, walks up in the semi-dark. She remarks that if he ever finds this comet, they’ll probably name it after him posthumously. “Here lies Leonard Palmer, asleep at last.”

He tells her not to worry about him, but she says that she can’t stop now—she’s been conditioned to do it. He asks if his wife, Carrie, called. She says no.

The scene shifts to the next day. We meet two more characters:

The guy with the mustache and the red tie is Russell Armstrong (fun fact: he’s played by Jeffrey Tambor, who played George Bluth Sr. in Arrested Development). The man with white hair and the grey necktie is Dr. Thor Lundquist. (Interestingly, it comes up that Dr. Lundquist has a popular television program where he presents astronomy to the public. That’s only characterization, though, it’s not relevant to the plot.)

Armstrong says that he’s delighted that Lundquist could come, and Lundquist says that he detects the smell of filthy lucre in the air. Armstrong asks if there’s any problem with that and Lundquist says that no, unlike Leonard Palmer “who scans the night skies trying to discover the undiscoverable”, he’s a pragmatist and if the government wants to fund his lifestyle, he’s more than happy to give them what they want. He assumes his involvement would cement the proposed defense contract, and Russell confirms that.

This is very succinct characterization, so to give credit where credit is due, it does tell us a lot about these characters very quickly. The only issue is that what it tells us about them is absurd.

Where to begin?

First, the defense department doesn’t give grants to entire university departments. They give grants to research labs, or teams of research labs (collaborating across universities). Universities don’t go all-in on one particular line of research with a bunch of professors all doing the same thing, so it makes no sense to hire all of them to work on one project.

Next, the Department of Defense doesn’t award defense contracts to a research university. Defense contracts are for people who build things, such as jets and guns and body armor. The DoD gives research grants to a research university. They give research grants and not defense contracts because they do research at research universities, they don’t build stuff.

Further, research grants are to teams and largely on the basis of what the research is. Having a particular scientist in a department isn’t going to cement a research grant, especially in the absence of his current research projects being what the grant is actually for and him being part of the grant proposal.

Which brings me to grant proposals. Academics need money, and contra “Leonard Palmer is too idealistic to take DoD money,” academics will all take whatever money they can get because the way it works is you figure out what research you want to do then when you write up the grant proposals to everyone who might give it to you, you then try to describe your research as integral to their goals. This can result in almost contradictory descriptions, but organizations that give grants do not compare notes. Since you’re just doing whatever research it was you wanted to (if it gets funded), there’s no reason to object to any particular funding source. This is related to this being a research grant, not a defense contract. A factory that makes things and receives a contract from the DoD may well be giving them something that will be used to kill people (though, unless they’re actual weapons, probably not, in practice). If you research the effect of fertilizer runoff on frogs mating, it can’t really matter to you whether the DoD pays for it or the NiH does or the national dairy counsel does. You’re going to publish your results for all of them to read anyway (not that any of them will actually read it).

Finally, THIS IS AN ASTRONOMY DEPARTMENT. How is the Department of Defense supposed to be interested in anything that they’re doing? There is no such thing as a battle telescope. You can’t even hit someone on the head with the things—they move too slowly. How on earth is an astronomer supposed to kill anyone? Are they going to try to bounce lasers off of asteroids in order to blind soviet truck drivers? It won’t work. Nothing an astronomer can do will work. Granted, the DoD is notoriously willing to fund long-shots and basic research that affects all sorts of things including research that might improve materials, computers, and even fuel efficiency in vehicles—the army runs a lot of trucks to move things about and they don’t enjoy having to move gasoline around to fuel those trucks. All that said, even they would balk at proposals to try to weaponize observations of deep space.

I’d say that this would be easily fixed by picking any other department, but the observing telescope is central to the plot, so I’m not sure that this really can be fixed. It would possibly work if the department head wanted to raise funds for the department by publishing a nude calendar of the staff and Dr. Palmer could object on moral grounds, but people don’t object on sexual moral grounds to anything in Murder, She Wrote, so I don’t think that would work either.

I think we must, as Sherlock Holmes once said on a different occasion, have an amnesty in this direction.

UPDATE: A friend pointed out that in 1988 an astronomy department could conceivably get a defense contract for monitoring satellites, since optical telescopes can be used for this purpose. My criticism is thus over-stated, in that the plot is more fixable than I had said. It is still unrealistic as written, because, as you will see soon, the writers had in mind making weapons, not conducting observations. (end update.)

The two men keep walking to Russell’s office, and on their way run into Fay. Russell introduces her as a computer whiz. She says that she spends most of her time helping Leonard to look for his comet. He interjects, “Leonard is a brilliant scientist, my dear—perhaps born a century or two too late. He’s chasing a myth. A mysterious comet, last seen perhaps by a starving colonist. And now scheduled to return when? Tonight? Before or after supper?”

This note of Leonard being a brilliant scientist who is pursuing a fool’s errand is weird. I’ll admit that this sort of official skepticism might be appropriate to someone looking for planet X after Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989 allowed the more accurate calculation of Neptune’s mass in 1992 and the anomaly in Uranus’ orbit that Planet X was meant to explains disappeared. It’s pretty weird to see this sort of skepticism about discovering a comet. There are thousands of known comets in the solar system and estimates of billions of undiscovered potential comets out in the Oort cloud. Discovering a new comet is not a fool’s errand and finding it would not be an earth-shaking discovery.

Anyway, shortly after the above, Leonard barges into Russell’s office complaining that it’s fine if Russell wants to try to get a government contract, “but don’t ask me to join a cocktail chit-chat with those warmongers from Washington.”

He then notices Lundquist and is appalled, asking what he’s doing here. Russell explains that Lundquist is being brought on as a consultant as there are several projects that need his assistance. Leonard replies, “Don’t you mean, a letterhead that needs his name?”

This is perhaps the least realistic thing depicted yet. People in academia stab each other in the back, never in the chest.

He leans over on Russell’s desk and says, desperately, “For Lord’s sake, Russell, we are a research institute, not a weapons factory.”

I’m glad that someone noticed.

“Our work is scientific. And peaceful.”

I wonder if he’s afraid that they’re going to melt his telescope down to make rifles. Also, what happened to it being fine if Russell wants to try to get a government contract, the only problem being Leonard needing to chit-chat with public-sector employees?

Russell replies, “Yes. Well, times change. We have to change with them.”

What are any of them talking about? Are they planning to beat their telescopes into canons? The reason you can beat a plowshare into a sword (or vice versa) is that both are strong metal meant to cut through things. If you tried to put gunpowder and a canon ball into a telescope, all you’d get is shrapnel as the telescope exploded and the canon ball would probably just fall off onto your foot. As I said, there is nothing astronomers do that can be weaponized.

UPDATE: as I mentioned in the update above, while astronomy cannot be weaponized, it is possible to use telescopes to monitor satellites. That is not what the writers had in mind, as can be evidenced by Leonard saying “we are a research institute, not a weapons factory.” That said, much of what Leonard says could be rationalized as inaccuracy due to a passionate hatred of the military, which some academics had, especially (I gather) ones with communist leanings. Leonard is portrayed as being extremely led by his emotions and with very little self-control in this episode, so that explanation would fit. (end update.)

Leonard leaves and we move on to the next scene, in which Jessica arrives. Leonard arrives at the hotel moments after Jessica’s taxi did. He apologizes for not meeting her at the train station, but didn’t expect her until weeks later. She’s there to celebrate their third wedding anniversary, but he got the date wrong. He thought his anniversary was on the seventeenth, but in fact it’s on the seventh (today is the sixth). He apologizes that he forgot his own wedding anniversary, and to make matters worse Carrie (his wife) is off helping her Aunt Edna, whose bursitis has been acting up again. Jessica is surprised at this, but makes no comment.

He helps her bring her stuff into the hotel.

She takes the opportunity while waiting for the bellhop to arrive to ask him if anything is wrong with his marriage. He says no, of course not. He doesn’t see Carrie as much as he should because he’s so preoccupied with his comet. Also, at his wedding, he sensed a certain hostility because of the difference in his age and Carrie’s from everyone but Jessica.

Her bags settled in the room, he takes Jessica up to the observatory so that he can show her some real science.

I’m beginning to get the impression that the observatory is shot in a museum somewhere. Let’s do that computer zoom-in-and-enhance thing they always do in the movies:

That sure looks like like the sort of turnstile they put into museums to see how many people saw the exhibit.

Also, over in the corner there’s a suspicious looking poster:

There’s only so much that my computer can do to enhance the image (what with my computer being real and all), but this sure looks like the kind of educational poster that a museum would put up in order to have something for guests to read while other people are in front of the interesting thing.

Jessica is surprised to see a computer, which Leonard explains controls the telescope. Jessica is a little scared by this, but computer-controlled telescopes were not new in 1988. Computer control is extremely valuable for making observations because the earth is constantly moving and so the telescope must be constantly adjusted to keep pointing at the same thing.

Fay walks in with computer printouts for Leonard and is surprised to discover Jessica, who she recognizes (presumably) by description. She introduces herself and says that they almost met three years ago, at the wedding, but she was sick and had to miss the whole thing. (If you can’t guess by now, she seems to have a great deal of affection for Leonard. A very great deal, if you get my meaning.)

Fay shows something to Leonard and says that they need to recompute it, and Leonard agrees, saying, “as soon as possible”. He then asks if there’s any word from Carrie, but there isn’t . Fay offers to call, but Leonard says no, she’s probably got her hands full with Aunt Edna. Jessica seems to find this implausible:

(I don’t think that they’ve made this explicit, yet, but Carrie is Jessica’s niece, and so she’s likely to be aware of the health of one of her many sisters.)

The scene shifts to the cocktail party were people from Washington are there to be schmoozed.

“I’m telling you, General, the Gamma 3 program can put us five years ahead of the Soviets. Dr. Lundquist has examined it thoroughly.”

“It’s a masterpiece of scientific engineering. The staff of the Institute is to be congratulated for farsightedness.”

I really love this dialog. It’s beautifully generic. I wonder if “the Gamma 3 program” really is about bouncing lasers off of asteroids in order to blind soviet truck drivers. I can’t imagine why else generals would be at a luncheon at a university considering whether to fund an astronomy department.

Jessica and Leonard show up and Russell steals Leonard to talk to a NASA lobbyist who is (somehow) a fan of Leonard’s work. Jessica goes to the open bar and gets herself water with a twist of lemon. Then we meet some more characters:

The woman is Madeline DeHaven, an unpleasant and self-important woman who is the director of defense spending review with the General Accounting Office. (The name of the General Accounting Office was changed in 2004 to the Government Accountability Office.) The man is Drake Eaton, her lovely (administrative) assistant. They meet Jessica over at the wet bar.

Drake is a curious character; he seems to very much enjoy being connected to high places and even more he enjoys bragging about it. After Madeline excuses herself, Drake tells Jessica, “The Gamma 3 contract connection, Mrs. Fletcher. Some people actually think Madeline has some control over the ultimate contract award. You know something? They’re right.”

He walks off and Fay walks up to Jessica. Jessica comments that Leonard looks very lonely and she wishes that Carrie could be there. Fay comments that though Jessica is Carrie’s Aunt, she wishes that Carrie could be there for Leonard more when he needs her, but she supposes that young people don’t think of things like that.

The scene shifts to Thor Lundquist and Drake Eaton talking. Lunquist asks about Drake’s relationship with Madeline DeHaven and he says that he makes her feel important and because of her he’s in line to head up any of three new departments monitoring defense spending.

This conversation is interrupted by a fight between Leonard and Russell. Leonard is angry that Russell wants to hold a party in the observatory and Leonard will have none of it. They yell at each other, then Leonard runs off. Jessica meets him and he says that he just made a dreadful fool of himself and is leaving but she should stay if she wants to. She asks what on earth for, and he replies, “Let’s go find ourselves a comet. Tonight’s the night!” Fay sees them go off and follows.

At the observatory Fay hands Leonard some computer printouts and he remarks that it will take some time to input into the computer. He then tells Fay that he made Russell very angry, perhaps angry enough to fire Leonard, and asks Fay if she can go pour some oil on the troubled waters—she’s so much better at that than he is. She replies, “that’s my job.” He thanks her, she says, “See you in the morning,” and he doesn’t even bother to respond, he’s too caught up in the computer. She waits a moment but then concluding she won’t get anything more from him, walks off.

Fay brought Leonard some coffee, which he promptly spills a little of as soon as Fay is gone and Jessica wipes it up, though she doesn’t wipe the cup. He sets it down on the computer printout. A few moments later we get a clue-cam shot of the coffee stain left on the computer printout:

If it’s shot with clue-cam, you know it’s important. Presumably whatever is on the page will be faked with a printout that doesn’t have a coffee stain on it, because exposing substitutions is the main function of coffee stains in Murder, She Wrote.

Jessica excuses herself as being as useful to Leonard as a parasol in a hurricane, then heads off to her hotel room, but with instructions that he should call her if he finds the comet.

At her hotel room, Jessica gets a call from Carrie.

Carrie apologizes for not being there to meet Jessica. Jessica asks how Edna is doing and Carrie says that her bursitis is acting up again. Jessica replies that she had visited Edna on the way over and yesterday she was going bowling.

Jessica then adds, “when I called her earlier [today] she tried to cover for you, but she isn’t a very good liar.”

Carrie says that she’s sorry, she just needs to get away for a while. Jessica says that she doesn’t want to pry, but is there anything that she can tell Leonard? She says, “tell him that I do love him.”

The scene shifts to the observatory, where a night guard coming on duty (or back from an evening stroll, or something) sees Leonard running down the stairs and out the door. The camera then pans over to the clock on the wall, which reads 12:35.

The next morning Russell comes into the observatory with Fay and Jessica. He’s saying that it’s outrageous that Leonard ran out of the observatory without signing out. Also, what’s the telescope doing cranked so far down? He goes up and looks at it, and this is what he sees:

At seventeen and a half minutes in it’s not overly late to find the body, but it could have been snappier.

We cut to Russell and he says, “That’s my place, and there’s a body on the floor.”

Here is a wider shot of the house, from the beginning of the next scene where the police have arrived:

Detective Seargant Kettler is investigating the case. Russell owns the house but hasn’t been there in a few weeks. He’s letting a friend stay there.

The body turns out to be Drake Eaton.

A policeman comes up to Detective Kepler with Leonard’s scarf (which no one but Jessica recognizes) and says, “this must be the victim’s, it’s got blood on it.” Kepler replies, “alright, bag it.”

Jessica asks how Eaton was killed, and the Detective replies that he was shot right in the ticker (the heart, for anyone not familiar with this slang). She asks if there were powder burns and the Kettler says no, then asks who she is. She introduces herself, then Russell says, with some asperity, “Mrs. Fletcher is a guest of the Astro-Physics Institute. She is also a writer of some repute.”

Kettler takes that last part very well. “Oh, yeah? My wife’s a writer too.”

Jessica’s response is not, precisely, encouraging.

“Oh.”

The question about powder burns, by the way, helps to indicate the range that the person was shot at. Technically, powder burns only apply to black powder, which may actually fling burning grains of powder out of the barrel which land on the skin and literally burn it. With modern “smokeless powder” (i.e. nitrocelluose, used commonly since the later mid 1800s) the combustion is cleaner, but there are still tiny bits of stuff that can be flung out at great speed and leave marks from impact velocity. Small things lose velocity very quickly in air, however, and while the exact distance varies with several variables, modern hand guns will typically only leave “powder burns” if the victim is one to two feet away when shot. The absence of powder burns tells us that Drake Eaton was at least a few feet away from the murderer when he was shot.

The conversation is interrupted by a phone call—Russell asks if he can answer it and Kettler gives him permission. It’s Fay. She called to ask, “who is it?” He tells her it’s Drake Eaton and she breathes a sigh of relief. She asks if she can do anything, and he says that Madeline DeHaven needs to be told. Fay volunteers to call her immediately.

This, presumably, tells us that Fay was worried it might have been Leonard, and also establishes that she knew the phone number at the house. (Technically she might have just looked it up in a phone book or in the company phone directory, but people don’t usually call each other on Murder, She Wrote in front of Jessica unless the phone number is unlisted. (For those below a certain age, there used to be books printed on cheap paper and distributed to everyone that listed people’s phone numbers. These books were called “phone books” and for a fee one could have one’s phone number not included in the book.))

After the call, Jessica walks in on the detective taking notes in a bedroom. The bed was mussed but not slept in. (Neat people who are careful to make their beds every morning are invaluable to detectives.)

As they walk out, Kettler asks Jessica what kind of books she writes and Jessica replies murder mysteries. “Oh yeah, a nice lady like you?” He asks if she makes any money from it, and Jessica replies, embarrassed, “Well, actually, yes.”

They’re interrupted by Carrie saying, “Oh, God, no!” Then run over and Jessica asks Carrie what she’s doing there. Kettler asks who she is. Russell replies, “This is Mrs. Palmer. The lady I’ve been lending this vacation house to.”

As a side note, why is his vacation house only thirty three miles away from the Institute? That’s not much of a vacation.

Kettler takes her to police headquarters for questioning and Jessica, naturally, comes with her.

Her story is that she had some problems to work out so she took a drive. She drove up into the hills and parked in a deserted place. She fell asleep, then woke up a few hours ago.

Kettler is skeptical because the story is absurd, but Jessica says that she spoke briefly with Carrie the evening before and what Carrie is saying is consistent with her state of mind at the time. This is stretching things, but to be fair Carrie was, at least, distraught.

Jessica takes Carrie home, though with a warning from Kettler not to go too far because he’s going to want to speak to her again. Home, in this case, is the hotel where Jessica is staying. As they’re walking into the hotel Jessica herself points out that the story she told was absurd, but Carrie asks Jessica to trust her. Before Jessica can point out that only a fool would trust her, Leonard interrupts—I guess he’s been waiting in the hotel lobby for Jessica?

Carrie rushes into his arms and says that she’s sorry and has been stupid. Leonard tells her that everything is going to be fine, but Jessica points out that everything is not going to be fine. She asks him about the plaid scarf he had been wearing last night when he was seen rushing from the observatory, but he pretends he doesn’t remember wearing it.

They’re interrupted by Madeline DeHaven and Thor Lundquist walking up. Jessica expresses her condolences. Madeline says, “Believe me, whoever shot him is going to feel even sorrier.”

I have to wonder how she knew that he had been shot. She said that she just heard about Drake’s murder from “a Miss Hewitt” (that would be Fay), but Fay wasn’t told about how Drake was killed. On the other hand, the timing is a bit off, here. Fay learned about the death hours ago—before Carrie was taken to police headquarters for questioning. Given that the observatory is 33 miles away from Russell’s vacation house and I assume that there isn’t a direct highway to it, it had to be hours since Fay said that she would telephone DeHaven right away. It could have taken time to find Madeline, of course, but there’s enough wiggle-room here that this might not be the gotcha it appears.

Lundquist tells Leonard, in a very hostile voice, that there are policemen crawling about his observatory. Again, this is not how academics act, and especially not in front of others. They hate conflict, which is why, when they say mean things, they do so where the subject can’t hear.

Over at the observatory, Leonard tells Sergeant Kettler that he worked in the observatory all night until morning. Jessica interrupts telling Kettler that Leonard is on the verge of finding a comet. Kettler replies, “I didn’t know one was missing.”

Leonard continues that in the morning he went to bed and took the phone off of the hook. Kettler points out that the security guard saw Leonard run out of the building at 12:35. Leonard says that the security guard is mistaken.

Kettler asks if Leonard owns a gun and he denies it. When Kettler points out that a .38 is registered in Dr. Palmer’s name, Leonard says that he forgot that he owns one and he hasn’t seen it for months—it’s probably in a closet.

When Kettler says that’s good, as the two men over at Leonard’s place with a search warrant will probably find it.

Jessica is shocked.

“A search warrant? Aren’t you rather racing to a conclusion, Sergeant Kettler?”

Jessica’s family biases sometimes make her a little unimaginative when it comes to how her family members must look to the police, but this is beyond absurd. With Leonard obviously lying about everything and an attractive young man murdered at the place where his wife was staying, it would take a remarkably credulous and dim-witted detective to come to any other conclusion.

Kettler points some of this out, and Fay objects saying that the telescope couldn’t have been pointing at the house during the night because it was locked in a computer-controlled track that she entered. Kettler asks how the telescope ended up pointing at the house with Leonard’s wife in it, and no one has an answer. Jessica suggests that someone might have done it later to frame Leonard. This is… of dubious plausibility.

Fay hands Kettler a prinout of the computer program that was running the night before, saying that it proves that the telescope was pointed nowhere near the house during the night.

This isn’t shot in clue-vision so I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to notice it, but there is no coffee stain on the printout. (There’s a closeup of it in a moment, but it’s so close-cropped the coffee stain might be elsewhere on the page and we wouldn’t know.) Kettler looks at it and, not being able to make heads or tails of it, looks to Jessica for guidance. She seems to suggest trusting Fay, which seems to be good enough for Kettler, as he doesn’t pursue the matter further.

The next scene is in Jessica’s hotel room, where Carrie professes her undying love to Leonard if he’ll still have her and he tells her that she doesn’t have to explain anything. Jessica interrupts to say that she’d really like it if they explained some things to her.

Such as, why are they both lying to the police?

Carrie opens by saying that she did see Drake Eaton the night before—she asked him to come. Then we cut to commercial—the screen fades to black and when it comes back, Leonard is getting a glass of water from across the room which he slowly carries over to Carrie and hands to her. It’s curious how important it was for commercials to end on a dramatic moment and start with something you can miss to give people a chance to come back from the bathroom or kitchen when someone shouts, “it’s back on!”

Carrie had been with Drake long before she met Leonard. She thought she had lost Leonard to his work—she was lonely and felt neglected. She borrowed the vacation house to think things through. A few weeks ago she had gotten a call out of the blue from Drake Eaton because he was coming to the conference. Last night she sent a note to his hotel asking him to come out to see her. He had always been a friend—someone she could talk to, and that’s what she wanted. Someone to talk to. At least that’s what she told herself.

When he arrived he was drunk and had more carnal plans than talking. He dragged her into the bedroom but she managed to escape and ran away. She did in fact spend the night in her car, though she didn’t sleep.

Leonard says that he understands and that they will never speak of this again. Jessica objects, but Leonard insists.

Something I can’t help but wonder is if Carrie felt neglected and alone, why did she need to pretend to be on a trip to have time to think? Her problem is that she has little else but time to think at home. Basically, if her problem is that Leonard was never at home, why did she need to go somewhere to get away from Leonard?

Anyway, in the next scene, Jessica goes to the police station and talks with Sergeant Kettler. There’s something weird about the scene, because she shows up to talk to him but then he acts like she’s there because he asked her to come. He explains that his wife has been writing up his cases, but she hasn’t been published yet so she has no name. Since Jessica has already successfully published, he offers to give her the writeups his wife did and she can submit them to her publisher and they can split the proceeds 50/50.

At first Jessica is at a loss for words, but then realizes that this could give her the access she craves to the police information on the Drake Eaton case, so she tells him yes. “Drake Eaton’s murder might make a very juicy potboiler. Of course, I’d have to have access to all of your data: autopsy, medical reports, interrogations, absolutely everything.”

She has no intention of seeing this through, of course, so I suppose that she figured that with everyone else lying, she might as well get a few good lies herself. Oddly, despite this being nothing like what Kettler had proposed, he delightedly agrees.

In the next scene Jessica waylays Madeline DeHaven who is still hanging around for some reason. She’s on her way to a meeting with Thor Lundquist though what there could be to talk about after all of their previous meetings is anyone’s guess. Anyway, Jessica clumsily accuses Madeline of the murder, since she’s the only one there who knew him. Madeline corrects her, saying that Eaton was also intimately involved with Jessica’s niece.

Jessica is surprised that she knows this, but attributes it to her being close with Eaton. She denies this and says that he was just an employee.

Jessica says that she’s surprised since they had adjoining rooms at the hotel and, “well, I couldn’t help but take a peek inside, and I did notice all of your toiletries right next to his and, well, I assumed…”

Madeline points out, reasonably, that they had adjoining rooms to facilitate their work schedule. She then says that she put a lot of heat on the detective and that he knows that it was Jessica’s niece’s jealous husband who killed Drake. He has everything but the murder weapon. “He even has the scarf with Leonard Palmer’s blood on it.”

This is one of those strange details that isn’t very natural to say, so it probably means that she’s the murderer. How would she know that it was Leonard’s blood? Kettler almost certainly doesn’t know that. (I can’t be certain, of course, but why mention this in such an awkward way if it’s not a clue?)

Ms. DeHaven walks off to her meeting and Fay approaches Jessica with the news that Leonard has been fired. (I guess he doesn’t have tenure?) Jessica barges into Russell’s office and demands to know what happened to “innocent until proven guilty?” He points out, reasonably enough, that if they wait until Leonard is proven guilty, it will be too late. Jessica drops that line and asks who knew that Carrie was staying in the guest house and he says no one, at least not from him. She asks if anyone could have found out by calling the house and he said no, he doesn’t like being disturbed when he’s there so it’s an unlisted number. (See, I was right!)

Jessica will, shortly, realize that Fay called Russell at his vacation house and so must know the number. It doesn’t really follow that she knew that Carrie was there, though, as Carrie would have to be an idiot to have picked up the phone while she’s hiding at the house. Murder, She Wrote doesn’t tend to have time for that sort of detail, though.

Sergeant Kettler calls the office and asks for Jessica. The scene then shifts to Russell’s guest house, where Kettler has assembled the suspects (Leonard and Carrie). He produces a .38 and asks if it belongs to Leonard. Leonard can’t be sure. Kettler says that it is registered to Leonard, and was found in a storm drain half a mile from the house.

He then produces the scarf and asks Leonard what his scarf was doing at the crime scene with Drake Eaton’s blood on it. Leonard replies that it’s not Drake Eaton’s blood, it’s his. Kettler deduces that Leonard and Carrie got into an argument before Leonard shot Eaton.

Carrie passionately cries that it’s not true. She had brought the gun to the house because she was afraid to be alone. She kept in the night stand drawer by the bed. When Drake tried to force himself on her, she broke free and grabbed the gun. He took it from her, and she fled the house.

When Kettler begins to arrest Carrie, Leonard protests. He shot Drake Eaton.

We go to commercial, and come back to Kettler and Jessica listening to Leonard’s confession on Kettler’s tape recorder.

A curious detail of the confession is that when Leonard arrived, he saw shadows and heard a woman’s voice, which he assumed was Carrie. They don’t listen to much more of the confession, and as Jessica is trying to talk Kettler out of thinking that anyone she loves could be guilty, it comes up in conversation that Kettler thinks that Carrie did it and Leonard is only trying to cover for her.

In the next scene Jessica and Carrie are in Jessica’s room talking over the case. Jessica asks how Leonard knew to point the telescope at Russell’s vacation home, and Carrie said that he didn’t. According to Leonard, the telescope just moved there on its own while he was trying to take observations. Carrie says that there was no reason for it to have done that, but Jessica gets an idea. Perhaps there was a reason for it to do that after all.

Of course that reason is going to be the person who programmed the telescope.

Jessica comes in and asks if she’s found the comet, and Fay says no, not yet. Jessica says, “You know, it’s ironic. In medieval days, people were terrified of comets. They thought of them as omens of evil, harbingers of death. I’ve never been much for portents, but the last couple of days… it must have been very difficult for you, Fay.”

The shift in tone is interesting; Jessica lulling her into a false sense of security then springing it on her. I don’t know how well this really works. In my very limited experience people with guilty secrets tend to be fast thinkers because they live in fear of their secret coming out.

That said, Fay doesn’t really make any slip, here, so I guess it doesn’t matter. Jessica accuses Fay of being in love with Leonard. She then points out that the computer program printout that Fay showed to Sergeant Kettler was fake, since it’s clean and the one that was entered that night had a large coffee stain on it.

Fay breaks down and says, desperately, “My God, I never dreamed Leonard would kill him.”

Jessica says that she only wanted Leonard to see that Carrie wasn’t worthy, and Fay replies that Carrie couldn’t love Leonard the way that she did. She shared his life more than Carrie ever could.

Jessica says that she should have put it together sooner; she phoned Russell at the vacation house but the number is unlisted. Fay said that she overheard Carrie telling Drake Eaton that she was going to spend a few days at the vacation house.

That last part makes no sense. It’s neither an explanation for how Fay had the phone number nor is there any plausible way for Fay to have overheard Carrie telling Drake that she was going to spend a few days at the vacation house. Carrie told Drake where to find her via a note sent to his hotel. Prior to that, he phoned her out of the blue at her actual house weeks before.

I don’t know that this is really salvageable. About the only way that having the phone number could have done Fay any good in discovering Carrie would be if she called and Carrie answered. She’d have had no reason to call Russell’s vacation home while Carrie was there—since Russell was known to not be there—and Carrie would have had no reason to answer the phone.

Even just from a what-we-saw plot construction standpoint, without Russell’s vacation home phone being how she found out about Carrie—and an explanation for how Fay had the number would not have been easy, given that they can’t go with her having spent time with Russell since she’s utterly devoted to Leonard, unless they were going so far as her having slept with Russell to protect Leonard’s job—there was no reason for her call to the vacation home to have been significant.

I suppose that we’re just going to need an amnesty in this direction, too.

Anyway, Fay says that she figured if Leonard could see what Carrie was up to, everything would be better. Jessica then says that Fay went up to the vacation house to make sure everything went according to plan, but Fay says no. Jessica is confused, since Leonard heard a woman’s voice. Fay, however, was home in bed, as far away from Drake Eaton, Carrie, and Leonard as she could get. Fay then says, “It’s ridiculous, Mrs. Fletcher. How could anyone in their right mind assume that Leonard Palmer, of all people, would shoot someone?”

This jogs Jessica’s memory .
“What?”
“I said…”
“Nevermind, I heard what you said.”
and then clue-face:

This means that it’s last call to place your bets on who the murderer is.

Unfortunately, there’s no commercial break, here, so if you didn’t figure it out by now you don’t have much time to think about it, at least back in the days when you’d have been watching this on broadcast television. There wasn’t much of a way around this, though, since you can’t really place a commercial break that close to the end, when there would be more commercials right after.

Murder, She Wrote episodes were usually just under 48 minutes (including “tonight on Murder, She Wrote” and the introduction). Since the time slot was an hour long, that left just 12 minutes for commercials. The actual length of the commercial breaks varied but they were rarely less than two minutes nor longer than four. That gives us three to six commercial breaks, but the typical structure was four—three during the show and one after, giving approximately three minutes of commercials per break. They would be placed approximately at the quarter hour marks, though not that you could set a watch by. In this episode, for example, the first commercial break is at 17:45. The second is much closer to the mark. It’s at 27:02, which, if you remember that there would have been a 3 minute commercial break that happened, would put us almost exactly at the half hour mark. (In practice the first might only be a 2 minute commercial break to make room for a 4 minute break at the halfway point, which would then have us line up very well with the commercials at the end of any half hour shows that were running.) The third break is at 37:04, which if you add in 6 minutes of commercial time puts it at the 43 minute mark. If this spot is 3 minutes long, that means we have only three minutes of commercials left and there have to be commercials at the end of the episode.

All of this could (in theory) be rejiggered, of course; one could shave a minute off of a previous block or two in order to add in a fourth commercial spot at the 52 minute mark (or so), but this would have made Murder, She Wrote atypical amongst TV shows at the time which probably went against the grain of how TV shows operated. Television was, primarily, a means of delivering commercials. The shows were secondary to that.

Back to the episode, this time guessing the culprit is simpler because we know that it was a woman who killed Drake and there’s only one woman other than Carrie and Fay, and also only one woman who assumed that Drake was shot…

Jessica begins innocuously enough. She thought that Madeline would be interested to learn how Leonard came to be at the vacation house. Madeline assumes that he was spying on his wife but Jessica corrects her that it was Fay who programmed the computer to move the telescope. Madeline has an interesting line, here: “Did she? I wonder why. Oh, I see. Hell hath no fury, hmmm?” I like this insight into human nature, especially because it’s related to why she killed Drake. Self-awareness is nice in characters.

Jessica then asks if she followed Drake to the vacation house or if she saw the note. Madeline then asks, “Say, Mrs. Fletcher, what happened to that nice little lady from Maine act of yours?”

This reminds me of I, Claudius when Livia (who poisoned more than a few relatives in the imperial family) was dying and invited Claudius (her grandson) to dinner and he dropped his half-wit act.

Livia: Castor is ill and Thrasyllus says he won’t recover. He also says that Tiberius will choose Caligula to succeed him.
Claudius: Why?
Livia: Vanity. Tiberius wants to be loved – at least after his death if not before. And the best way to ensure that…
Claudius: Is to have someone w-worse to follow him. Yes, naturally. Well, he’s certainly no fool.
Livia: He’s the biggest fool in my family. I always thought that that was you… but I think now I was wrong.
Claudius: Grandmother, after all these years, you didn’t invite me to dinner just to tell me this.
Livia: The wine has made you bold, hasn’t it.
Claudius: You said you kept in with Caligula because he was to be the next Emperor.
Livia: Lost your stutter too, I see.

I, Claudius was first broadcast by the BBC in 1976, so this could even be directly inspired by it. If not, it’s certainly the same sort of thing. Not done as well, of course, but that’s a difference of degree and not of kind. A villain seeing clearly, too late, is always a great moment.

Jessica goes on to point out that Madeline had to have been there. She said that the scarf with Leonard Palmer’s blood on it had been found but even the police didn’t know that until a few hours ago. Marking Dehaven out as one of the rare murderers who can actually think on her feet, she replies, “A slip of the tongue, Mrs. Fletcher, and I’ll deny I said it.”

Granted, more careful phrasing would have been better in case Jessica wasn’t alone, but she’s entirely right that if it came down to Jessica’s word against Madeline’s, Jessica is hardly impartial. She’s trying to get her niece’s husband exonerated.

Jessica leaves this—I think because she knows Madeline is right—and tells the story as it happened. Along the way she surmises that Leonard was knocked unconscious in the fight with Drake, and this is why, when he came to, he thought that Carrie had killed Drake.

Madeline replies that it’s all theory and Jessica can’t prove any of it. Jessica counters with Madeline’s remark that whoever shot Drake is going to be sorry. That was made in front of witnesses.

The only problem with that is that three out of four of the witnesses are Jessica, Leonard, and Carrie—and their testimony is worthless. This only leaves Thor Lundquist. The smart bet is on him being willing to remember Madeline as saying, “whoever killed Drake” in the expectation that the institute will get the “Gamma 3” contract as thanks. Plus, he hates Leonard.

Unfortunately for her, she doesn’t take that gamble and instead puts all her chips on saying that Fay had told her. Jessica points out that Fay didn’t know at the time, and with Sergeant Kettler walks out of the shadows, Madeline knows that she’s had it.

Unadvisedly, she decides to confess in front of Sergeant Kettler, who is exempt from the rules of hearsay. “That nickel-and-dime hustler was climbing over me to make a name for himself, and all the while he was telling me…” She pauses and summarizes, “Nobody uses Madeline DeHaven the way he did.”

On one level, I get it. On another level, it doesn’t feel right. She, presumably, got to where she was by climbing her way over others to make a name for herself. Moreover, he was considerably younger than she was. (Going by the age of the actors, he was 16 years her junior.) She seems far too cynical to have taken his advances at face value.

“Finding that gun in the bedroom was like an omen. A portent, Mrs. Fletcher.”

This is a nice callback to when Jessica said that comets used to be omens.

“I didn’t even hear it go off.”

Jessica shakes her head in disapproval, because she’s only sympathetic to fornicators and adulterers, not to murderers. I know I harp a lot on how Jessica is a big town character, not a small town character, but simple disgust at murders is unrealistic to murder mystery writers.

This is something I think that Columbo did far better (and he was just a policeman, not a writer). Columbo was often quite sympathetic to the murderer, without shirking his duty. I think that one of my favorites was the episode in which the murderer (played by Robert Culp) used subliminal images in a movie to make his victim go into the hallway for a drink of water so he could shoot him unobserved and while he was supposedly on stage giving a presentation, though behind a curtain and using a tape recorder. Columbo couldn’t find the murder weapon and so used subliminal images to make Culp go make sure that the murder weapon wasn’t found, revealing its location because Columbo was waiting for him. When Culp realizes that Columbo used his own subliminal image technique, he said, noting the irony of his subliminal image technique being proved useful, “You know one thing, Lieutenant, you never would have solved it without using my techniques.” Columbo replies, “That’s right, Doc. If there was a reward I’d support your claim to it.” One gets the sense that Columbo meant it. He really would have supported such a claim.

I suppose, though, in a sense, that this is another big-city character trait. Big city folks, being immoral in their principles in order to get along in big cities, need to assuage their consciences by looking down on anyone they can find to look down on.

The scene fades into Jessica and Sergeant Kettler walking and talking at the institute the next day.

“You know, I gotta hand it to you, Mrs. Fletcher. You are pretty slick.”
“Well, you’re not so bad yourself, Sergeant.”

She actually says this enthusiastically, which is unusual for Jessica. She doesn’t usually respect police officers who charge her relatives with murder, no matter how reasonable they were in doing so.

Anyway, he brings up the writing deal and says that he can’t go through with it because there’s a Hollywood producer who is extremely interested in exclusive rights. Jessica tells him to go ahead and not to give her another thought. Kettler is grateful and Jessica leaves him to go see Carrie and Leonard.

Leonard and Carrie say that they’ve had so little time together, they’d like Jessica to reconsider and stay for a few more days. She replies, “Not a chance. Please, get me to the station before Sergeant Kettler changes his mind.”

I know that this is supposed to be cute, but I have difficulty taking it that way. On the one hand, Detective Kettler’s proposal was a bit absurd. On the other hand, Jessica straight-up lied to Kettler and took advantage of his inexperience and naivete in order to get access to his investigation. Of the two, Kettler is the more aggrieved.

Overall, I would say that this is a mid-tier episode with a few above-average moments. The comet, and to a lesser degree, the observatory, form a nice backdrop for the story. The university might also have been a nice backdrop, had the story been set in a university. The setting is really more a family estate that the oldest brother is considering selling to the army to build a military base on. Or something; I’m not sure if even that would match the story as it existed. Perhaps closer would be a family factory that manufactures telescopes and has an observatory on the top, and the older brother is looking to get a contract to manufacture advanced optics for sniper rifles? That would actually work fairly well.

UPDATE: It would also work to modify the defense contract to be for monitoring satellites with Leonard being a commie-leaning ex-hippie who instinctively hates the military without any trace of rational thought, and thus cannot separate out purely defensive things they do from waging offensive war. I think that the telescope factory that wants a contract to make sniper scopes would work better, but Leonard was at no point in this episode reasonable, so it would probably be a smaller modification to go with the satellite monitoring. (end update.)

The sub-plot, or rather, the plot, with the ex-lover coming into town while the neglected wife is holed up in a friend’s house is also a bit… of plot lace. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with an old lover coming back into someone’s life causing trouble. That is quite plausible. There’s also nothing wrong with odd coincidences bringing the old lover back into someone’s life. Those happen too, and are fine as long as they don’t help the detective. There isn’t even anything wrong with the old lover hoping to rekindle the old flame. That makes the old lover immoral, but it is within the realm of what real human beings do.

Things start to unravel with how the contact happens, though. Drake calling Carrie out of the blue with the information that he’s coming to her town implies that he knows where she is and what her phone number is. How would he have this knowledge? 1988 is before the internet was available outside of universities and sixteen years before Facebook existed. Keeping track of people tended to require their cooperation—or the cooperation of friends and family, or a lot of hard work. Drake was working in Washington and was, presumably, not amongst her contact network. How would he have known where she was? There are solutions to this problem, though not really great ones. An ex-boyfriend calling to find out the location of a newly married woman isn’t likely to be given it by her family. Some mutual friend without great judgment might be the explanation for how he had her location and phone number, of course. (Her location, if fairly specific, might suffice, as there was an information service one could call to ask for phone numbers in other locations, in the 1980s.)

The bigger problem comes in with Carrie fleeing her house because she feels like she’s losing her husband to his work. This just isn’t a natural action. A person flees their own home to take refuge in solitude because they can’t handle being with the other people who are in their home. This can be because of safety, or because of constant fights, or merely because of constant irritation or some other significant stressor. The one thing that won’t make them flee into solitude is feeling oppressed by solitude.

She then sends Drake a note at his hotel to come visit her. Assuming that she didn’t mail this note, it’s going to be an awkward note to send, since in 1988 that would be done by calling the hotel and dictating the note to one of the desk clerks. This would not be a trivial note to dictate, by the way, since it would have to include directions on how to get to the vacation house. Drake is not from the area and the vacation house is 33 miles away. If the note didn’t include directions but only an address, Drake would have had to have borrowed a map from somewhere—the hotel might have had one but my recollection is that was not guaranteed—and have spent considerable time reading it over to find the street then figure out how to get there. All while drunk.

Even had Carrie’s note included directions, we next have Drake being able to follow them in a completely unfamiliar place, in the dark, while drunk. We know he was drunk and not merely tipsy since he showed up drunk enough that his opening move was to try to rape her when she wanted to talk before they got to adultery. That’s pretty darn drunk.

We then have Madeline DeHaven following him. It’s never made clear whether she saw the note from Carrie or whether she merely followed Drake, though the former is more plausible because following someone for 33 miles on lonely roads—even a very drunk someone—is hard to do without them noticing. Especially at night, when your headlights will be very bright in their rear view mirror. So she found the note and drove up after him. I suppose it’s not a big deal that he left the note around for her to find because he was drunk. Or she could have found it before he did. OK, except for the question of what did she drive? It isn’t likely that both Madeline and Drake rented separate cars. Madeline certainly doesn’t seem like the sort of person to drive if she doesn’t have to, nor the sort of person to rent a separate car for her underlings if not forced to. Especially an underling who she was romantically entangled with and whose company she enjoyed. So how did she get up there? I doubt she hopped into a cab and said, “follow that car!”

Actually, speaking of cars, the driveway at the vacation house had to have been crowded. When Madeline got there, there was Carrie’s car, Drake’s car, and then Madeline’s car. It’s very convenient that they didn’t block Carrie’s car in and Carrie was able to get away. But why didn’t she notice the extra car? Then Leonard got there and saw two cars that he didn’t recognize and went in anyway.

I suppose it could be argued that Madeline might have hidden her car nearby, but concealment wasn’t her purpose. She walked in and confronted Drake and only got the idea to murder him after Drake hustled Madeline away when Leonard showed up. Which, come to think of it, is another oddity. Why hustle Madeline away and then answer the door? It wasn’t his door, and he shouldn’t have been there any more than Madeline should have. In fact, of the two of them, Madeline would have been the more innocent one to answer the door. Perhaps it was some instinct to avoid scandal for Madeline? But why answer the door at all?

Then there’s the issue of how Leonard saw Carrie. Recall what was visible through the telescope:

Where was Carrie in that room that Leonard would have recognized her? Leonard doesn’t seem like the sort to be observant enough to recognize someone from the waste down. Was she sitting on the floor?

There is, admittedly, the very edge of the couch she could have been sitting on, but without an arm on the couch, that would be uncomfortable. Also, why did he come running out of the observatory? With the vacation home being 33 miles away from the observatory, he couldn’t have seen Carrie with Drake. There wasn’t an emergency, at least not of the kind to make a person abandon their telescope without locking up and signing out for the night. If he saw Carrie in the telescope, he’d have seen that she was alone (at the time).

None of this really makes sense, though it’s not outright self-contradictory.

Pulling back a bit, we have a curious cast of characters. Leonard Palmer and Carrie don’t really make sense, especially since the actors have no chemistry together. At no point does either seem to have the least bit of affection for the other. How on earth did they meet? Why on earth are they together? Also, Leonard seems far more likely to forget his work in order to please his wife than to neglect his wife because of his work. Which brings us to Fay. She’s jealous of Carrie but spends far more time with Leonard than Carrie does. Granted, she doesn’t get to lay down beside Leonard at night, but he spends all night at the observatory anyway. The triangle just seems backwards. It would have made far more sense for Carrie to be pulling Leonard away from his work and for Fay to have killed her in order to free Leonard up to search for the comet.

Madeline DeHaven and Drake are also odd characters. She is a world-weary, self-important bureaucrat who climbed to a position of power, but is completely taken in by the young, ambitious man she should have seen through in half a second. She also treats him with no affection. He doesn’t really treat her with affection, either, making it especially strange that she is taken in by him.

Russell Armstrong is also an odd character. He is antagonistic to Leonard but on such terms with Leonard’s wife that when she felt like she needed to get away from her husband for a few days to think things over—despite having her own house to herself to think in—she told him and he offered her his vacation house to stay in. Having trouble with a spouse is a profoundly personal thing, especially when reconciliation still seems possible. This means that she is on extremely close terms with Russell. Especially so since she could easily have stayed in a motel. She had money, and whatever decision she came to, it would be easy enough to explain to Leonard. That said, there was no need to hide her going away. It would be easy enough to come up with a real trip to go on in order to be away, whether to the beach, or to go camping, or to go sight seeing. People don’t unpredictably develop a sudden need to get away from someone they feel is neglecting them, so the time to plan would not be a problem. Given all of this, it is remarkable that Carrie ended up confiding in Russell enough for him to lend his vacation house to her in order to flee from Leonard not being home often enough.

Thor Lundquist is another odd character. A TV scientist whose involvement with the university would somehow cement a defense contract, he’s often around the action but doesn’t really do anything (other than insult Leonard). I can’t help but think that he was originally meant to be a suspect and the writers couldn’t figure out a way to use him as that. Admittedly, it would have been hard to make him a suspect without changing other things in the episode, but as it stands I can’t figure out what purpose he served in the episode.

Sergeant Kettler is, perhaps, the one character who really belongs in the episode. Of course, he’s kind of a given, since there has to be a police detective involved if there’s been a murder. As Murder, She Wrote detectives go, he’s in the top 50%. He’s not the sharpest light bulb in the picnic basket, but he is competent. His conclusions about the relatives of Jessica—both of whom lied like a pair of rugs—were reasonable. He was wrong mostly because of plot holes, or if not precisely holes, at least a bunch of threadbare spots in the plot.

So far, I’ve been mostly negative about this episode. It does have some upsides. The observatory at night was a nice location and most of the settings were pleasant to look at. The question of why a telescope would be pointing at a house with a corpse in it is definitely an interesting question to base a mystery around. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t have a good answer. I mean this apart from everything I’ve said about it above; if one ignores every iffy part of the plot, the telescope pointing at the corpse is a coincidence. I suppose it could be argued that Madeline DeHaven only found the gun because Leonard showed up and Drake hustled her off to the upstairs bedroom, which would establish a causal connection, but it’s still an entirely coincidental causal connection, and further it’s entirely possible that Madeline would have found the gun even without Leonard. That being said, on any reading it was purely by chance that Drake was shot where he was and further that his corpse fell in the very narrow view of where the telescope was looking.

Still, even if the answer was the extremely disappointing, “by accident,” the question, “why was the telescope pointed at a corpse in a vacation house?” was an interesting question. Perhaps it forms a challenge to write a tightly plotted story with that premise.

The one thing I can really give the plot, that it actually did reasonably well, is the whole comet-as-harbinger thing. Except for there not being a comet, which, admittedly, was a bit of an oversight, the comet as a symbol of fate is a great theme to explore in a murder mystery. This is especially true for the murderer; it is interesting to look at a person believing himself to not have free will being what allows him to use his free will to do murder. The same thing leading people to wonder, “are there really gods, and are we cursed by them?” is also a very interesting temptation to subject characters to. It can also be interesting to have the characters consider that looking at a very small part of God’s plan which seems intelligible can make it tempting to think one understands the whole plan, and thus to consider portents and omens as being intelligible signs of what the plan is. Murder, She Wrote, being secular, couldn’t do it well, but they could brush on it, and even that was fun.

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