An interesting plot element in a detective story is having multiple murderers. This can really complicate the life of the detective because each murderer may have a truly unbreakable alibi for the murder he didn’t commit. While the detective (and everyone else) labors under the assumption that one person committed both murders, the only viable suspects will probably have no motive.
As I think I’ve mentioned before, one of the really interesting ways of doing this is to have the two murderers murder each other, though one with some sort of time-delay mechanism such that he’s already dead by the time it goes off and kills the other fellow. (Poison is an excellent murder weapon for this case.)
Another scenario for multiple murderers occurred to me: a primary murderer and an after-the-fact accomplice who kills the original murderer to hide his after-the-fact involvement in the first murder. For convenience, let’s name our murderers: John and Steve.
John murders someone, let’s say his wife, Alice. John didn’t plan it out, though, and needs help disposing of the body and erasing the evidence, so he goes to his friend, Steve. Steve reluctantly helps John because he doesn’t want to turn him away, but on the other hand really wishes that John had left him out of it.
The detective begins to investigate and starts coming up with clues that point to John, but also to John having an accomplice, at least after the fact. This alarms Steve, who never wanted to be involved, who got nothing out of the murder, and who doesn’t want to see his life go up in smoke because of John’s bad decisions. Steve begins to think of how to get out of this, and the one solution he comes up with is murdering John. Only John knows it was Steve who helped him, and Steve does have an excellent alibi for when Alice was murdered. If Steve can make it look like John was killed by the same person who killed Alice, he’ll be home free.
This would make for a good mystery, I think, because the detective would first have to disentangle the two murders as not done by the same person, then figure out what happened in the first murder, and from there figure out who the second murderer was. It gives a nice progression of realizations and reveals without everything coming at once, which is the key to a really good mystery novel. (Short stories do better with a single denouement.)
My oldest son and I recently watched The A.B.C. Murders, and at the end there was a part, as Poirot was detailing the evidence against the murderer, where he added that a fingerprint of the man Poirot was accusing was found on the typewriter that the murderer used. Later, Hasting commented that the fingerprint produced a strong effect (the suspect tried to commit suicide).
That fingerprint clinched things, Poirot,” I said thoughtfully, “He went all to pieces when you mentioned that.” “Yes, they are useful—fingerprints.” he added thoughtfully: “I put that in to please you, my friend.” “But, Poirot,” I cried, “wasn’t it true?” “Not in the least, mon ami,” said Hercule Poirot.
One of the curious things about detective fiction is that it comes on the scene almost contemporaneously with the advent of forensics, the use of technology to catch crimes, and police forces organized in the modern manner. Francis Galton only published his statistical analysis that established fingerprints as a viable means of unique identification by the police in 1892. The first arrest and conviction of someone on the basis of fingerprint evidence was ten years later, in 1902. The golden age of detective fiction, if we include Sherlock Holmes in it (which we should), begins before the use of fingerprints as evidence in crimes.
As I mentioned in Fingerprints in Detective Stories, it’s not difficult to see why fingerprints are almost never used as real evidence in detective stories. We want detective stories to be interesting and the detective to be brilliant. “There was a fingerprint on the dagger in the victim’s back, we checked it against everyone’s fingerprints, it turns out to belong to his brother, therefore the brother is the murderer, the end” isn’t much of a story, and doesn’t require a brilliant detective.
Which actually brings me to the relationship between forensic science and fingerprints, because it is interesting to consider that while fingerprints were rarely used in detective stories, plenty of golden age detective stories were primarily about forensic science. Sherlock Holmes was often conducting scientific experiments to prove a case, though to my recollection rarely as the main story. This may have reached its apotheosis in Dr. Thorndyke. I’ve read that when the short stories were published they would include photographs of what the good doctor would have seen through his microscope as described in the story, and other such things. Thorndyke also made extensive use of enlarging photography and other forensic technologies. The stories have faded, considerably, in the public’s memory—to some degree the fate of everything whose main attraction was being on the cutting edge of science or technology. They were, so I read, immensely popular at the time. Their role is probably taken, these days, by police procedural television shows, whose stock and trade is often the cutting edge of forensic science.
I can’t help but wonder if it was G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown that helped to move detective fiction from a focus on forensics to include psychology. Chesterton first wrote Father Brown in 1910, which was still early on in the golden age. To be sure, more than half of Sherlock Holmes had been written by then and Holmes was no slave to forensics nor was he ignorant of human psychology. Still, he was an expert. He could identify over one hundred brands of cigar by their ash and could tell where a patch of mud on the trousers was picked up in london by its composition, just from looking at it.
Father Brown was not an expert—at physical details. We was an expert in the human being, which proved far more interesting.
This move to psychological mysteries brought with it what has, I think, made the murder mystery so enduring: the puzzle. Once forensics were established as a norm, murderers began to use their cunning to fake the forensic evidence and lead the forensic detectives astray. The psychological detective was necessary to combat this newer breed of criminal. It was at once more interesting and also more accessible. It is not really worth anyone’s time to minutely study cigar ash, but anyone can (if sufficiently clever) figure out the meaning of a particular kind of cigar ash being found in a particular place.
Poirot very much represents this transition. He said many times that he does not get on his hands and knees to find the clues, as anyone can do that. His job is to understand what the clues mean. The A.B.C. Murders was published in 1935, when the fascination with forensic detection was still fresh. It’s curious to see traces of this in the Poirot stories.
More common, I think, in television mysteries than in detective novels, is the technique a detective may use when the murderer has managed to commit the perfect crime, at least with regard to admissible evidence: the detective falsifying evidence in order to trick the murderer into confessing. I wonder how this was ever considered legitimate.
The fundamental problem with it is that, symbolically, the detective catching the murderer is supposed to be the triumph of truth over lies. The detective is supposed to be a christ figure. The whole problem is that the murderer has mis-used reason to throw the world into disorder. The detective is supposed to triumph over evil through superior intellect, not through inferior morality.
A good way to see the problem with this approach is to consider that the confession is entirely unnecessary. If the detective knows who the murderer is and then fabricates evidence sufficiently well, that would be enough to secure a conviction without the confession. If a conviction is justice being served, then this is sufficient for justice to be served. Would anyone think it’s a good detective story if the murderer is convicted and hanged based entirely on evidence that the detective fabricated?
In fact, if the detective is willing to fabricate evidence to get a conviction, why bother with a trial at all? Why not have the detective cut to the chase and just assassinate the murderer without bothering to fake any evidence?
Oh, wait. That’s already happened. (That said, Dexter the TV series is categorized as “crime drama” and the novels as “supernatural crime horror”, not as mystery or detective fiction.)
As I said, I think that this trope is more common in television than in novels, and I can’t really think of any golden-age mysteries that feature it. I suspect that’s because it’s a crutch—a technique for writers who have written themselves into a corner and have a deadline approaching too fast to fix the problem. That could happen, of course, with short stories, or even with serialized novels where the author didn’t plan out his novel before the first five sixths of it have been published. That’s why I don’t want to say that it never happened. Still, I can’t think of any examples.
I really wish that TV writers didn’t give into it so often.
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.
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.
There is a tension which authors face in writing their stories. On the one hand, they wish to make their stories original—why bother to write the story at all if someone else already wrote it just with different names? On the other hand, stories with familiar elements greatly help readers to understand the stories. This can be fairly extreme—when an individual work defines a new genre, quite a few elements of the original may be necessary in order to seem to the reader to be in that genre and they can feel lost, or worse, disinterested, if it strays to far from those elements. Something that may help authors to feel better about this is that derivative origins of a character can easily be lost over with the readers being accepting of this and possibly even forgetting that the beginnings of the characters were clichéd when the many other copies of the work disappear under the sands of time. This will get to an interesting question that I will save for the end. First, I want to give a few examples from my own genre, mystery.
Hercule Poirot had a remarkably derivative beginning as a detective but is now one of the most celebrated fictional detectives of all time and thought of only for his original qualities. For a more highbrow example, Lord Peter Wimsey is a fiercely beloved character so original and lifelike he feels real to a great many of his readers. And yet, to quote Ms. Sayers herself:
When in a light-hearted manner I set out, fifteen years ago, to write the first “Lord Peter” book, it was with the avowed intention of producing something “less like a conventional detective story and more like a novel.” Re-reading Whose body? at this distance of time I observe, with regret, that it is conventional to the last degree, and no more like a novel than I to Hercules.
Gaudy Night, Titles to Fame
In order to explain how they began so conventional and in Poirot’s case outright derivative, I need to go over a (very) brief history of the detective genre. This won’t take long as it only existed for about thirty years by the time these detectives came on the scene.
The origin of the modern murder mystery is Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. Published in 1841, it is told by an unnamed narrator who is a friend of C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin is a brilliant and logical thinker who solves the murders for which the story is named. Poe wrote two other “tales of ratiocination”, but neither is remembered in anything like the same way for various reasons that aren’t pertinent to the moment.
There are a few things published over the next forty six years that people occasionally try to argue are murder mysteries, but the next unambiguous murder mystery is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, which introduced to the world Sherlock Holmes. It was the Sherlock Holmes short stories, however, first published in 1891, that became wildly popular and created the mystery genre.
Even Holmes was not an altogether original conception, as we can see elements of Dupin. Holmes, like Dupin, is a brilliant and logical thinker who goes so much father than others because of his orderly thinking and his methods of the science of deduction. Watson, like Dupin’s unnamed narrator, learns of Sherlock’s brilliance and science of deduction and moreover the adventures that he narrates after becoming his roommate because neither has much money. There are differences of detail, to be sure, but there is an unmistakable inspiration. Heck, there is even a Holmes short story (The Resident Patient) of Holmes imitating a trick of Dupin’s of predicting what someone was thinking about based on what his last conversation was some minutes ago—and Holmes explicitly said that he did so in order to prove that Dupin might have done so as well.
Conan Doyle did not write Holmes for long, however. In 1893 he killed Holmes off. Feeling some financial pressure, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901 and its financial success prompted Conan Doyle to bring Holmes back, which he did in the short story The Adventure of the Empty House in 1903. He wrote twelve more stories through 1904, then nothing again until 1908.
This dearth of an extraordinarily popular character created a vacuum that pulled a great many people into the mystery genre. Most of these short stories are lost to the sands of time, or at least require more than a little digging to find them. It was not too long before these stories would start to broaden the genre out, but I suspect with new Holmes stories occasionally coming out until 1927, the pull of the Holmes premise was strong. Moreover, examples in the genre that I’ve researched from the early 1900s and 1910s have tended to stick close to the Homles-Dupin formula.
Certainly we can see it in Hercule Poirot. His story is narrated by Captain Arthur Hastings, who was invalided out of the army in The Great War and now lived on his pension. (You may recall that Doctor Watson was invalided out of the army after Afghanistan and lived on his pension.) Hastings had met Poirot in Belgium before Poirot was forced by the war to flee to England, but after being reunited by the events in the first Poirot story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the two became roommates and Hastings, like Watson, helped Poirot to solve crimes as a private consulting detective. Indeed, Poirot even told Hastings, as Holmes told Watson, that his instincts for deduction were almost perfectly wrong; the great detective found them invaluable for knowing where not to look.
The case of Hastings is curious, as Agatha Christie married him off and sent him to live in Argentina in her second Poirot novel but she then spent the next ten years frequently bringing him back for story after story, and he was in almost all of the short stories.
For all that he started out as an obvious Watson character, Hastings would bloom into his own man. More importantly, Poirot very quickly became his own detective. His talk of his little grey cells, his fastidious manner, his selectively broken English, his French immodesty, his self awareness, his Catholic faith, and his habit of gathering everyone together and telling the story first as it is known and then as it really happened created a genuinely interesting character. One reads Poirot for Poirot, not because one cannot get enough Sherlock Holmes, but because one wants Poirot.
Heck, even his name was not original in its day. According to Wikipedia, “Poirot’s name was derived from two other fictional detectives of the time: Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans’ Monsieur Poiret, a retired Belgian police officer living in London.” Yet as the best fleshed out character with the most interesting mysteries, Hercule Poirot is remembered and the others are not.
Lord Peter Wimsey was not quite so obviously a direct rip-off of Sherlock Holmes. His books were not narrated by his Watson, who was a police detective and who did not live with Wimsey. Wimsey, being rich, needed no roommates, and did his detecting for fun. Wimsey was himself invalided out of the Great War, by the way, while Charles Parker—his Watson, at first—was never, that we knew, in it. Wimsey had, however, his tricks of the trade just as Holmes did. He had a magnifying monocle that could be used much as Holmes’ famous magnifying glass. He picked the hairs out of a hat to identify just as Holmes concentrated on such trivia that turned out to be important. (In 1923, when Whose Body? was published, R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke was extremely popular and made even more out of even smaller clues, so this may as much be copying him as Holmes.) Even Wimsey’s comic manner feels like it almost certainly owes something to P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertram Wooster, as Lord Peter’s valet, Bunter, almost certainly owes something to Wooster’s valet, Jeeves. Jeeves & Wooster never investigated a crime, that I’ve heard of, so I suppose we can accuse Ms. Sayers of having stolen from two genres. Indeed, one might almost hear the Hollywood pitch meeting phrasing, “What if Bertie Wooster was actually brilliant and used being a fop as a cover to let him solve crimes?”
And yet Lord Peter becomes one of the most memorable characters of all of detective fiction, and consequently of all time. He continued, it must be admitted, a somewhat two dimensional character until Ms. Sayers got tired of him and tried to marry him off to an honorable retirement—she had learned from Sherlock Holmes’ ignominious climb up the Reichenbach Falls not to actually kill one’s detective off. The problem was that she made the girl he was to marry a real character, and she wouldn’t marry him in the sorry two-dimensional state that he was in. (This was in Strong Poison.) Sayers then decided that she had to make him a real character.
If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook. And all this would have to be squared somehow or other with such random attributes as I had bestowed upon him over a series of years in accordance with the requirements of various detective plots.
Gaudy Night, Titles To Fame
The result was magnificent, though. Lord Peter and Harriet Vane (the aforementioned girl who wouldn’t marry him) investigated a murder together in Have His Carcase, and it is one of the best murder mysteries ever written. Lord Peter becomes a really interesting character who is quite unique within detective fiction. He really comes into his own in Gaudy Night, widely considered Sayers’ best novel, becoming an extraordinarily rich character with a character arc that rings very true to human nature. Harriet also blossoms in Gaudy Night, and the whole thing is a truly excellent study of human nature. (The excerpts I quoted, by the way, are from her essay in the collection Titles To Fame.)
So, what is the author to make of all of this? Especially when faced with the question of how to get people to read a story when people really like what is familiar? If I had the answer I’d be a rich man, or at least a richer man than I am. I can say, though, that it certainly seems that it is not, in the end, who did it first that really matters. It’s who did it best. This is perhaps the true meaning of the saying, “mediocrity borrows, genius steals.” When the genius borrows, he makes the thing his own, and it is his version that is remembered, even if he was twenty years late to the party.
In the middle of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote was the episode Doom With a View. An episode set in New York City, it also features Jessica’s nephew, Grady. There is always something special about episodes with Grady since he is the reason that Jessica is a literary titaness who travels the country solving murders—he is the one who showed her first manuscript to a publisher when Jessica was just a retired school teacher and was unwilling to show her manuscript to anyone.
Jessica arrives at Grady’s apartment as he is being temporarily evicted because of cockroaches (they moved in from the apartment above when that was sprayed). Instead, they’ll be staying at the Montaigne plaza hotel, an extraordinarily expensive hotel owned by Cornelia Montaigne. They’re going there because his old college buddy, Garrett, married Cornelia and is going to comp him the hotel room. Jessica is surprised because Cornelia Montaigne is Jessica’s age, at least, though she doesn’t phrase it that way. How a retired school teacher from Maine has any idea who Cornelia Montaigne is, I don’t know. Even if she is supposed to be a fictionalized version of Paris Hilton’s mom, this was before reality television and people outside of the hotel industry had any idea who owned the things. (That said, perhaps Cornelia was featured in a woman’s magazine, which Jessica read while having her hair done a the beauty parlor. I almost forgot about that possibility since I never read women’s magazines or went to beauty parlors.)
In the next scene we meet Garrett and Cornelia:
They are not the two lovebirds with but one soul that Grady described them to Jessica as, though. We catch them in the middle of an argument. She spent the entire night vacating the 32nd floor and he went and put the countess into one of the rooms! If he weren’t her husband, she’d have his job for it! Oh, when will he learn to check with her first?
Cornelia’s right hand man, Mark Havlin, interrupts to say that he moved the Countess to the blue room on the thirty ninth floor an hour ago.
Cornelia asks why he didn’t tell her and he replies, “Oh, If I let you know all the wonderful things I do around here, you’d have to give me a raise.”
Garret sees Grady and excuses himself. He greets Grady and Jessica affectionately. In the course of conversation with reminiscences he invites them to dinner at 7:00 sharp. His mother will be there, and he could also invite Sandra Clemens. Grady gets wobble-kneed at the mention of her. She was at homecoming, third cheerleader from the left. Jessica doesn’t remember and attributes this to being distracted by watching the game.
They walk over to Cornelia and she greets them even more affectionately than Garrett did, commenting that Grady has lost weight and that she’s absolutely delighted to meet Mrs. Fletcher. Interestingly, she doesn’t pretend to have read Jessica’s books. “I must confess, I don’t have time to read your books, or anyone else’s, I’m afraid, but I am delighted you’re staying with us.”
She excuses herself because she’s expecting a call from the Secret Service to make arrangements for the following week.
Jessica and Grady go up to their room. On the way, they run into Sandy.
(I love those 80s shoulder pads.) Jessica identifies her as the third cheerleader on the left at homecoming, and Sandy comments that Jessica has a remarkable memory. Jessica denies this; she explains it as Grady having a picture on his coffee table. I’m honestly not sure if she’s trying to embarrass him or be his wing-woman. Jessica goes on to their room, leaving Grady and Sandra alone.
Grady can barely talk, despite Sandy’s smiling encouragement. Sandy invites herself to dinner, tells him to pick her up at her room, 4553, at 7, and excuses herself since Grady clearly won’t be able to say anything for a while.
In the lobby Garret sees her and walks up to her, asking if she saw Grady. She replies that she did, and met his Aunt, and in a very changed voice from when she talked with Grady says, “You know Garry, this is dumb. This is really dumb.” Garret replies, “Look. Anything to keep Cornelia off my back. If she catches on, the party’s over… for both of us.”
Until this moment I had expected Cornelia to be the murder victim, but it strikes me as now just as likely for Sandra to be the victim.
There’s also a curious aspect to this story that we’re being let in on evidence that Jessica doesn’t have. I’m not sure what to make of that. I’ve argued that play-fair rules of evidence in mysteries are good for mystery construction, and I stand by that. I don’t think that it follows, however, that it’s good to give the reader clues that the detective doesn’t have. It’s frequently a form of misdirection, but where it isn’t, I think it serves the dubious purpose of making leaps of logic on the part of the detective more believable. We are naturally less interested in the specifics of how a person came to a conclusion we already know to be true, so authoritatively telling us the conclusion before the detective gets to it means that the writer doesn’t need to construct the plot to justify the detective’s deductions.
That evening, Grady shows up at Sandra’s room to pick her up for dinner. Right after she lets him in, she receives a phone call, which she takes while Grady looks for somewhere to put the flowers he brought her.
I love the opulence of the hotel. Set decoration did a really good job making this seem like a truly high-end hotel. This is not directly related to the plot, but it’s part of what makes the episode enjoyable. It’s fun to look at pretty things and spend an hour vicariously living in the lap of luxury. This is something to keep in mind when evaluating plots; a little weakness in a plot that makes for a more enjoyable setting can be a worthwhile tradeoff.
Sandra tells the person that she’s speaking to that something won’t do, and neither will a second option presented to her. “Look, I can’t really get into it right now. Can I call you back?” She puts the phone down, fetches a pen and an envelope from her purse, then writes down the number. That completed she looks over at Grady and notes that he put the flowers into vermouth (she had just made them martinis).
We then go to dinner, where Garret, his mother, and Jessica are sitting at the table waiting for Grady and Sandra.
Garrett’s mother is a very overbearing woman. (As a side note, it’s interesting to see how well Charlotte Rae played this character because she is best known for the kindly maternal figure Edna Garret in the TV show The Facts of Life, which she left the year before.) Not merely overbearing, she’s manipulative and somewhat mean-spirited, though she has an excellent sense of how to avoid stepping over the line of plausible deniability.
She asks Grady for a kiss and kisses him on the cheek, then loudly tells him, “I hope you enjoyed that, young fella, because that’s about as good as it’s gonna get for you, tonight.”
Jessica asks for the menu and looks it over, saying that the wine list is excellent. She then insists that tonight, the wine will be on her.
Nettie says, sotto voce, “Forget the wine list, Jessie. You’re missing the big picture. Look at her. Look at her.” (the camera obligingly does.)
“Her eyes haven’t left this table since Grady arrived with Miss Sis-boom-bah. She knows we’re talking about her, too.” (Here, she waves at Cornelia.) “Mark my words, Jessie. There’s gonna be fireworks tonight. And I love it.”
The last few words are said intensely, almost in a growl. It’s a powerful performance which demonstrates one of the real advantages that television has: actors. The words are not insignificant, but Charlotte Rae gives them a great deal more significance. In the context of this performance, Nettie is a force to be reckoned with.
The scene shifts to after dinner where Cornelia accuses Garrett of cheating on her with Sandra. Garrett tries to convince her that she is merely Grady’s friend, but she’ll have none of it.
The scene shifts to Jessica and Grady’s room, where Jessica is laying on a couch reading a manuscript.
She is having trouble staying awake for it, though. “If I read one more paragraph tonight, this manuscript is going to start looking like one big typo. I’m gonna go to bed.”
Grady asks if she wants to play gin rummy, and she says, “not tonight.” She encourages him to go out to enjoy himself. It’s pouring rain, but he has two good friends right here in the hotel. Grady asks if she’s sure she doesn’t mind, and she replies that not only doesn’t she mind, she insists that he does. He excitedly leaves.
The moment he’s out the door, it turns out that Jessica was lying to her nephew. She sighs in relief, then picks up the manuscript and goes back to reading.
Grady goes over to Sandra’s room, but the door is open. He goes in, calling her name, but the lights are off and no one responds. He goes into her bedroom to investigate.
Murder, She Wrote sometimes goes in for artsy shots, but it’s hard to not notice that the silver tray with the flower and chocolates there in the foreground had to have been put there by someone, and that’s going to establish a time after which the murder had to have happened. (It may seem like I’m spoiling that the murder happened, but in the episode they’re playing murder discovery music so we know by this point Grady is going to find a body.)
He has to walk a little further into the cavernous bedroom, but then he finds it:
At not even fifteen minutes into the episode, this is pleasantly early for the body to be found. Grady checks for a pulse, then when he doesn’t find one gets up and goes to the telephone to call the police. There he sees Garrett in a mirror.
Garrett looks for a moment then runs away.
In the next scene the police are there, as is Mr. Rice, the head of hotel security:
Rice complains that Grady should have notified him first. They don’t like to bother the guests with accidents. Jessica is astonished that he said accident. Shirley, he can’t be serious. He is serious, though, and don’t call him Shirley. (They don’t actually make the Airplane reference, but Jessica does say, “You can’t be serious, Mr. Rice,” and he assures her that he’s very serious.)
Garrett walks by and catches Grady’s eye. He excuses himself and goes into the hallway to talk to Garrett. Grady demands to know why Garrett was in Sandy’s room, and he explains he came to see how it went between them. When he got there he saw Grady bending over the body and figured that he should go get help.
Then Inspector Matheney arrives.
Rice apologizes for Matheney having to be dragged out for this, and Matheney says that it looks routine, and with luck he can get back to the ballet in time for the Rose Adagio. The Rose Adagio (I had to look this up) is a scene in the ballet Sleeping Beauty. It’s a scene in Act 1—of 3, there is also a prologue—so Inspector Matheney seems to expect to spend very little time here indeed.
The inspector asks where “Mrs. Harper” is and Rice replies that they’re trying to locate her. The Inspector looks around and concludes that he’s not needed, and begins to head off to the ballet. Jessica stops him on his way out and remarks that Mr. Rice has described this as an accident. Matheney replies that he’s sure that Rice has. “Mr. Rice has an instinct for… public relations.” Jessica replies, “but perhaps not for homicide? May I show you something?”
Matheney willingly comes with her.
Jessica then asks what she tripped over? The spacious room doesn’t have much in the way of tripping hazards nearby. Matheney points out that she might have had a fainting spell.
Jessica admits that it’s possible, but then points out the pillow on the foot of the bed.
The pillow is crumpled and stained with lipstick and makeup. Perhaps, says Mr. Rice, she had to lie down because of a fainting spell. But if she laid down, asks Jessica, why is the rest of the bed unrumpled, and freshly turned down.
A small note about what turn-down service is: this is where the bed is stripped of things that are unconducive to sleeping, such as the decorative heavy comforter, and the sheets are pulled back a bit to make it easy for the person to climb into bed. We never get a full view of the bed, but I think that the writers, or at least the set decorators, confused turn-down service with making the bed in the morning. (The silver tray with the flower and chocolates would be a normal part of turn-down service in a fancy hotel, though, so they got that part right.)
Jessica then suggests that if they can’t find Mrs. Harper, whoever she is, that he speak with Mark Havlin, the hotel manager. Inspector Matheney says that he will wait for Cornelia for a few more minutes, which suggests to me that they changed Cornelia’s last name in the script at some point and didn’t change it in all of the places. Actually, having looked it up, Harper is Garrett’s last name, so Mrs. Harper is, presumably, referring to Cornelia by her married name, and this is merely confusing because no one has done that yet.
He then adds that if there was foul play, he’d like to speak to Grady, which disconcerts Jessica greatly. “My dear Lady,” says Inspector Matheney, “He was alone with the corpse. He was intimately involved her. How intimately, I don’t know… yet.”
Jessica sighs in frustration. For a mystery writer and a great detective, she tends to be very bad at seeing things from other people’s perspectives, at least where her relatives are concerned.
In the next scene Jessica gets Mark Havlin out of bed. She apologizes for it, but explains that his phone was off the hook. Why waking him up by calling him on the phone would have been superior, she doesn’t explain. He merely says that the situation is dreadful and Jessica says that it won’t get any better with Mr. Rice representing the hotel. Havlin agrees. He puts the phone back on the hook and explains that he had been up for twenty four hours before he managed to snatch three hours sleep.
He then says that the Sheik arrives at midnight with all 36 of his wives, which means 37 bathrooms and all on the same floor. As he says this, he puts down his old, wilted carnation and picks up a new carnation from the silver tray that’s part of turn-down service.
Since they switch to clue-cam, we know that this has to be related to the murder, somehow. Presumably it establishes something about a time, since turn-down service happens at a particular time and clearly happened in his room. (Incidentally, the clock shows that it’s 10:30, Havlin’s arm didn’t obscure it for the entire shot.) The obvious conclusion is that he was not sleeping when he said that he was. That doesn’t guarantee that he is the murderer—it could be a red herring of a liason with a woman or conducting a drug deal or receiving a late night shipment of stolen lobsters or something like that, but they don’t zoom in on things like this without it being quite significant.
The thing about a Sheik having thirty six wives is pretty strange, by the way. “Sheik” is an Arabic term that refers either to scholars or to kings and other rulers within the Islamic world (it literally means “elder”). The problem, here, is that Islam forbids a man from having more than four wives. Having thirty six wives would be a very public thing, too, not like having a private stash of alcohol brought out for guests. A Sheik wouldn’t get to half of thirty six wives before running into quite a lot of trouble and rapidly ceasing to be whichever kind of Sheik he is.
If you want a character with thirty six wives in 1987, you’d have to make him an extraordinarily wealthy African king, and even that would be stretching things. (Back in grad school, a fellow grad student was from Cameroon and his father had, if memory serves, about a dozen wives, and he was the chief of a moderately large tribe.)
Anyway, back to the episode, Havlin remarks, “and now this accident. Death. Whatever. Night shift came on at 8:00. At least all the beds have been turned down.” (Which means that his room would have gotten turn-down service half an hour after he’d gone to sleep, if he was being precise when he said that he snatched three hours of sleep.) He then leads her out.
We next see Jessica talking with Grady in their room. Grady is depressed because Matheney suspects him. Grady laughs at the inspector thinking that he and Sandra were intimately involved. The most exciting thing that happened was when he put the flowers in the martinis. He then relates, in detail, the phone call and Sandra writing the number down on an envelope. Jessica’s ears perk up at this. She insists that Grady tells the Inspector about it because the phone number might be important, but Grady replies that he did and the Inspector said that no envelope was found. He wonders if the killer might have taken it because his phone number was on it.
Jessica asks what Sandra did for a living, and Grady said that she was a computer operator. Jessica wonders how she could have afforded to stay at the Montaigne, and Grady suggests that Garret probably picked up her bill.
Jessica goes to Mark Havlin and talks to her about Sandra. She wants to do something to help, but flowers seem insufficient. Perhaps if there’s any trouble about her hotel bill?
Havlin tells her that she can put away her fishing rod; he is as perplexed as she is about how Sandra could afford to stay at the Montaigne. She paid by credit card, and there’s never been a problem with it. The tantalizing question is: who’s been paying the credit card bill?
Jessica next goes to see Nettie, who is staying at the hotel. As she comes up to Nettie’s room, the door is open because room service is leaving.
Nettie is having a loud conversation with Garrett on the telephone, which Jessica can’t help but listen to. Nettie even has her back turned to the door.
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What’s so complicated, Gary? However it happened, it’s a stroke of luck. Now you really can divorce Cornelia.”
She then turns and sees Jessica in the doorway and hastily ends her phone call then invites Jessica in. They sit down and Nettie offers Jessica hotel chocolates, which she says she has to steal like everyone else. She even gives Jessica a box.
Jessica then says that this is a condolence call, as she’s sure that Nettie was devasted by Sandra’s death. Nettie disclaims this, saying that she and Gary hardly knew the girl, or at least never really saw her since the kids went to Purdue. Jessica is surprised, since Sandra stayed at the Montaigne regularly. Nettie replies that she didn’t know that and Gary must have forgot to mention it. She shifts the subject to how sorry she feels for Grady. “A fool could see how he felt about Sandra. And then to find himself mixed up in her death.”
Jessica says that Grady found the body, that’s all. “Oh, but of course. Did I sound like I implied otherwise? How terrible of me. Oh, no no no no. I’m sure he’s going to get off. I don’t think they have a lick of real proof that he was involved in any way. Mmm. Oh, try one of those dark ones on the end. Brazil nuts and brandy.”
Jessica looks at the chocolate, then looks away and declines.
Jessica then folds her hands and doesn’t know what to do. Nettie is not a likeable character, but she is very good at what she does, and that’s impressive to watch. Few people can really see Jessica off when Jessica is sniffing for clues, but Nettie does it masterfully.
Speaking of masterful, this is actually an excellent job of setting Nettie up as a suspect. She is demonstrated to be cunning, cold, and self-possessed. The part where she blurted out the clue about Garrett now being able to divorce Cornelia was a bit absurd—she didn’t leave the door open, that was room service, but I can’t believe that she was really stupid enough to have this conversation in front of a hotel employee. People sometimes treat hotel staff like movable furniture, but schemers tend to be even less trusting than they are inclined to take menial staff for granted. Every person a true schemer meets is either someone to be manipulated or a threat. This clumsy and out-of-character way for Jessica to get the clue aside, Nettie seems very capable of murder where it would suit her ends. There’s a further skill of execution, here, in the way that Nettie uses the chocolates as a prop. Back when we were looking in clue-vision at the silver tray in Mark Havlin’s room, there were two things we saw on the tray. One was the carnation which Mark exchanged. The other were two hotel chocolates.
There is not, at this point, an obvious connection with Nettie’s chocolates, and there may in fact be no connection between them. Nettie may not be the murderer, in which case there probably wouldn’t be a connection. However, there is a possible connection here which helps to make her a truly plausible suspect.
In the next scene, Garret and Grady have lunch among some very yellow tables, chairs, and umbrellas, presumably on the patio of the hotel. Garrett is scared because there is an incriminating bracelet which he gave Sandra years ago and she still has. In fact, it’s in the pocket of her bathrobe. Garret needs Grady to go into Sandra’s room and retrieve it for him. Grady is reluctant, but Garrett reminds Grady of who dragged him out of that beer joint when three goons from Ohio State were going to turn Grady into a pretzel. He then gives Grady the master key. Grady, overly loyal and not the brightest, does it. Also, not being the brightest, he does it badly:
Grady cuts open the letter on the door which is acting as a seal using the master key, tearing it very obviously. He made no attempt to peel it off so he could replace it, and didn’t even try to cut it subtly. Which probably doesn’t actually matter that much because when he sneaks into the room, he leaves the door wide open.
He goes into the bathroom, and there hanging on the door is a bathrobe.
Well, some sort of robe. That sheer silky thing doesn’t exactly look very absorbent. I really want to know how Garrett knew where the bracelet was. There’s no obvious way for him to have, and the implication that he had been hiding out in the living room when Grady came in really doesn’t fly; we saw the room in previous shots and there’s no obvious place to hide, nor is there an obvious reason for Garrett to have hidden even if he was the murderer.
Grady reads the inscription: “To Sandra. Forever, G.”
That’s conveniently vague.
Speaking of convenience to the plot, House Detective Rice catches him:
It turns out that ripping the “keep out” notice and leaving the door wide open were as bad an idea as they seemed.
We cut (presumably after a commercial) to Jessica walking through the grand lobby of the Montaigne.
It takes Jessica several seconds to cross it, which is part of what makes me think that there was a commercial break here. When one scene directly followed another, it was important to keep things moving, lest people change the channel. After a commercial break, by contrast, it was important to give people a few seconds to realize that the commercials were finally over—often people would be in other rooms with one person left behind to watch and call out, “it’s back on!”
As she walks on, Cornelia Montaigne calls her name and rushes out to talk to her. She just heard about Grady and she can’t believe it! Jessica can, however, since Grady has a frequently misplaced sense of loyalty. Cornelia is shocked that Jessica thinks that Grady committed the murder, and Jessica sets her straight. Grady was found with a passkey, that had to come from Cornelia’s husband. Moreover, the bracelet probably was a gift from her husband, not from Grady, and Grady was merely retrieving it. Moreover, it won’t be hard to prove.
Cornelia admits it, and says that the bracelet only confirmed her suspicions. She had the hotel manager—Mark Havlin—looking into Sandra for weeks, but he hadn’t come up with anything. She hated herself for being jealous, but had been sure that there was something. Jessica expresses her condolences but excuses herself as she has to get Grady out of jail. Cornelia decides to be helpful. “If it’s Matheney you want, I wouldn’t waste my time going to police headquarters.”
She’s right. Matheney is… somewhere. “…but even if the exhibit is a trifle deficient—certainly not the best of Van Gogh—at least it is Van Gogh. Although there’s always the possibility of forgery, given the recent developments in…”
Then he spies Jessica and excuses himself. I suppose that this is some sort of opening of an art exhibition. I can’t imagine who the people he’s talking to are. They all are listening to him with a rapt air, but this implies that they value his opinion. A police inspector on the NYPD is not going to command the attention of high society people in New York City merely by virtue of his rank. This suggests he not only enjoys high culture, but has something valuable to say on it. That has the makings of an interesting sort of detective, which makes it a pity that we barely see much of him in this episode.
Anyway, he makes his way over to Jessica, who demands to know what Grady has been charged with. Instead of answering her, Matheney merely replies that when a prime suspect in a murder investigation breaks into a crime scene to remove a piece of evidence, it’s hardly surprising that he’s been incarcerated.
Jessica then tells him that (she suspects) Grady was doing a favor for Garret, who was the person who gave Sandra the bracelet and whose initial was on it. He replies that Garret Harper would hardly have bought a mistress such an inexpensive trinket. Jessica replies, “If you spent more time on this case and less time at art exhibits, you would know that Gary Harper didn’t always have money.”
She also accuses him of not following up leads such as the envelope with the phone number that Grady told him about. How she would know whether or not he’s following up that lead, she doesn’t say. I’m not even sure what following up that lead would even look like. Is Inspector Matheney supposed to be scouring every garbage can in New York City to find an envelope that, had the murderer removed it, he surely would have destroyed, or kept as a souvenir, or done anything with it besides leaving it somewhere that the police could find it?
He tells her that she certainly as a writer’s imagination. I’m not sure that a highly active imagination is really required to look into a phone call that the victim received within hours of being murdered. Jessica thanks him, and he said that he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Jessica replies that she knows what he meant and she didn’t come to pick a quarrel, she’s only interested in getting the ridiculous charges against her nephew dismissed. Matheney’s reaction is expressive, but of what, I’m not really sure.
Oddly, though, this works. The next scene is of Jessica and Grady walking into their room. That said, I don’t think that the charges against Grady were all that ridiculous. He was caught red-handed breaking into a crime scene to tamper with evidence in a murder investigation. That seems more like an open-and-shut case, than ridiculous.
Anyway, back at the hotel room, Jessica asks for the truth. Grady says that he was just helping a friend. Garrett said that his wife would be jealous, and he owed him that much, considering everything he’s done for Grady. Jessica asks what Garrett has actually done for Grady besides giving him a free room in his wife’s hotel. Oddly, Grady doesn’t tell Jessica about Garrett rescuing him from the Ohio State goons in the beer joint. Instead, he says, “That’s not fair. He was very supportive when we found Sandra’s body.”
This is an odd thing to blurt out because it’s simply not true. Garrett wasn’t supportive in the least. In fact, he ran away the moment Grady noticed him, and the next time he saw Grady he begged Grady not to tell the police. There is no way whatever to characterize that as “supportive.” I think that the writers just needed Grady to tell Jessica about Garrett being there and this was the best that they could come up with.
Jessica tries to convince Grady to go to the police and tell them, but he’ll have none of it. Jessica has Garrett all wrong. Jessica tells Grady to take a good, hard look at the case—there’s a real possibility that Garret is the killer.
This seems very unlikely. It would entail him having gone into Sandra’s room leaving the door open, killed her, then hid out in the living room for a while in case Grady should happen to come by, then when Grady actually did come by instead of sneaking out of Sandra’s suite he went up to the door to the bedroom and looked straight at Grady in order to catch his eye, then left. The murderers in Murder, She Wrote are not always geniuses, but this strains credulity.
Grady takes this hard, though, and goes for a walk. Jessica then receives a phone call from Inspector Matheney—he’s got something he thinks Jessica would find interesting. She goes over to police headquarters immediately.
He hands Jessica Sandra Clemens’ bank book—back in the day, bank transactions were often recorded in bank books (by the bank) to make it easy for the person to review their finances, and people might keep these books, though rarely on their person unless they intended to go to the bank. Jessica looks it over while Matheney summarizes.
Twenty to twenty five thousand dollars each, over a dozen of them. Where does a computer operator get that kind of money, Matheney asks? Jessica says that while it could be a lot of things, the one that jumps to mind is blackmail.
Matheney replies, “Yes, I know. But who? And why?” I like Matheney. The actor who plays him does a good job, and moreover he’s actually intelligent, which is rare for a Murder, She Wrote detective.
Jessica asks how long it would take to get a list of all of the dates that Sandra stayed at the Montaigne, and Matheney replies he ordered it yesterday and it arrived this morning. As I said, I like that Matheney is competent, and it’s also interesting that he’s taking his job more seriously than Jessica thought when she was indignant that her nephew was arrested for the crime he provably committed. They look over it together.
“Just as I thought. The deposits and the checkin dates match exactly.”
Matheney points out that while that tells them that she came to New York to get her payoffs, it still doesn’t tell them who the victim was. Jessica points out that the visits and the deposits started shortly after Garrett married Cornelia. Matheney responds that even if Garrett was the victim, with Sandra dead we can hardly expect him to tell them what he was being blackmailed for. Jessica muses that perhaps they don’t need the victim to tell them.
Jessica goes to see Nettie.
She asks Nettie about the conversation which Nettie had with Garrett, where she said that now Garrett could divorce Cornelia. If there was a time when they couldn’t get divorced, perhaps it’s because they were never legally married. Nettie demurs, but Jessica points out that the marriage which took place wouldn’t be valid if Garrett were already married to someone else.
When she claims that it would be easy to prove, Nettie breaks down and admits it. “Do you know how much anguish, and cash, that secret has cost over the past years?… Gary was foolish. So foolish. And that little tramp carried the marriage license in her purse and waved it under Gary’s nose until the day she died.”
The scene then shifts to a jazz club, where Grady and Jessica are waiting for Garrett.
This is a weird place to meet Garrett. It is true that a crowded place can be a good place to meet somebody, but that’s somebody you don’t want to be seen meeting. There’s absolutely no reason for Garrett to not just come to their hotel room.
This scene also has odd television timing. It begins with Grady exclaiming “So Garrett and Sandy were married?!?” but shortly afterwards Jessica doubts that Garrett will show up because he’s already an hour late. Why would Jessica have waited an hour to tell Grady about the marriage?
Anyway, Jessica doubts that Garrett will level with them now. The only reason that Nettie blurted out what she did was that she thought that the death of the first wife made the marriage to Cornelia valid. Even Grady is surprised at such a mistake, but no one’s perfect, not even Nettie. That said, Jessica then says, “That’s why she was pushing for Gary to go for a settlement now, before Cornelia found out that her own marriage was invalid.” That is the opposite of what Nettie believed, though. If Nettie believed that the marriage was now valid, she would have no reason to believe that there was a rush to obtain a settlement.
This is a weird mistake because it’s fixable; Nettie could have thought that with the marriage having become retroactively valid, there was no longer a need to wait to try to obtain a settlement.
Grady then makes a non-sequitur of a response: “You mean, Gary was paying Sandy blackmail money?” There is absolutely nothing in what Jessica said that means or even implies this. Again, this would be easily fixable; Grady could have said, “So what was Sandy doing there? Trying to win Gary back? But then why was she pretending to be interested in me?” And with a knowing look from Jessica, Grady could have then come to that conclusion. Or Jessica could have made the conclusion for Grady.
Grady then points out that this doesn’t mean that Garrett murdered Sandra because Nettie had (approximately) as much of a motive for murdering Sandra as Garrett did. Unlike much of the earlier conversation, this both makes sense and is appropriate to what came before it.
Grady then apologizes for earlier, when he was rude and wouldn’t listen to Jessica about going to the police. Jessica kindly replies, “Look, Grady, the day that you and I can’t have a good old-fashioned argument, I’m gonna start wondering where I went wrong.” This is a nice bit of characterization and, for a change, is actually appropriate to a retired school teacher from a little town in Maine. Unlike in big cities, where moving on is always easy, in small towns the ability to reconcile is an important skill.
The next scene is on the roof of the hotel, where Garret finds Cornelia, who had gone there to be alone.
They argue. She seems to already know that Garrett had been married to Sandra and had been paying him blackmail, though it’s not obvious how she would have learned that. The argument goes on for a while, but Garrett is slick and woos Cornelia back. (He makes an interesting gambit of asking her to give up the money and power and go live with him in a little cabin in upstate NY.)
This is one of the longer scenes in the episode, but it’s not very germain to the mystery and I don’t like either character much, so it seems to me an unfortunate use of time.
In the next scene Garrett offers House Detective Rice $5,000 to “remember” something which will fix the blame for Sandra’s murder on Grady.
Rice accepts, though only if Garrett throws in a raise, too.
Unfortunately for Garrett, Grady was right around the corner and heard everything.
Grady gives Garrett back his master key, which I suppose the police allowed him to keep for some reason despite it being evidence of the crimes that Grady was caught committing. Garrett tries to pass what he did with Rice off as testing Rice to see how far he’d go.
Grady replies, “You know something, Gary? You’re good. Ten, maybe eleven years, and I never saw it. I guess maybe I’m not too bright. But the funny thing is, there was a time when I probably would’ve taken the rap for you. But like I said, I guess maybe I’m not too bright.”
This is interesting characterization. Eleven years is a bit long to be led on like this, but on the other hand for years of it they hadn’t seen each other, so it’s probably not too unrealistic. Guys like Garrett—smooth liars who can explain everything—really do exist, and Garrett is a good representation of them. His downfall is that he gets sloppy. There was no real need to pay Rice to frame Grady, and it was foolish to do it in a hallway rather than someplace private. But the thing is, liars like Garrett tend to get sloppy. Success goes to their head, to some degree, but it’s as much that the reason that they lie their way out of everything is because they’re lazy and don’t want to do things for real. They don’t want to spend time and energy actually apologizing to people. They don’t want to put in the work of patching up relationships. This same laziness makes them take chances, and sometimes, to use a gambling metaphor, they roll snake eyes.
Grady is also very realistic as the loyal sort of person who wants to believe Garrett and thus is easy prey. They really want everything to be OK, they want the liar to actually be honest, so they make excuse after excuse and bend over backward. They will keep doing it as long as they can because they really want everything to work out—and they want the work they did making allowances for earlier lies to have had some value. They may be gullible and hopeful, but they also have a memory, and eventually the idea that all of the lies were true becomes unmaintainable, and the relationship snaps.
In the next scene, Grady is moping while watching the TV and Jessica tells him come with her to dinner. They’ve got a reservation in forty five minutes, and the exercise will do them good. Jessica tells Grady that he’s not allowed to bring his long face, however, and he tells her that she’s his favorite person in the world. As they’re leaving they run into the maid who came to do turn-down service.
Because this was too subtle, Jessica stares at the silver tray and we look at it in clue-vision:
Jessica then tells Grady that they have a stop to make, first. This is the notice to the viewer that if you’re placing bets on who the murderer is, this is the last call to get them in.
The clue-vision show of the silver turn down service platter prettymuch guarantees that the silver turn-down service platter that we got a clue-vision shot of in Mark Havlin’s room was the key to solving the mystery, though it doesn’t guarantee how. It makes it likely that Mark wasn’t in his room when he claimed to be, though why he wasn’t is not as certain. That said, the only other serious suspect at this point is Nettie, since she had a real motive. Cornelia would too, actually, if she knew about the marriage and the blackmail, but as far as we can tell in the episode, she didn’t.
So really it comes down to Nettie and Mark. She’s the better suspect, but he’s the one in whose room the first clue-vision focused on a silver, so it turns out to be him.
Jessica confronts him with a made-up story about Cornelia having gotten into her head that Mark and Garrett contrived together to bring Sandra Clemens into the hotel. She claims that Garrett implicated Havlin, and that it was Havlin that was principally responsible for rekindling their college romance. Havlin asks if Garrett also told them that he and Sandra had been married for the past several years. Jessica laughs and corrects him that Sandra was Garrett’s mistress, not his wife. He goes to his safe and pulls out the marriage certificate to prove it, then hands it to her. He claims that it came in the mail this morning from the Fort Wayne hall of records.
Unfortunately for him, that’s the envelope that Sandra had written down the phone number on. (Oddly, as you can see, the envelope is not even addressed, so claiming that the certificate had come in the mail that day was especially silly.)
Jessica calls him on it, but he denies it. She mentions how Nettie told her that Sandra kept the marriage certificate on her person at all times to wave under Garrett’s nose. She then calls to Grady, who had been hiding out in the next room. He walks in and identifies the envelope. “That’s the envelope, Aunt Jess, I’m sure of it.”
Being able to positively identify a blank envelope with a phone number on it is… not impossible, but Grady never—that we saw—got a good look at it. Given how he never took his eyes off of Sandra, and he was about fifteen feet away from her when she wrote the number down, it’s not even very plausible. On the other hand, it would not be hard to check with the Fort Wayne hall of records to see if they ever sent Mark Havlin a copy of the marriage certificate, so I guess this can just be chalked up to being a shortcut.
We then come to the motive, since there wasn’t an obvious one: Mark Havlin wanted to blackmail Garrett himself. He demurs, but Jessica points out the problem of the turn-down dish, and how if Havlin had gotten three hours of sleep ending at 10:30 he had to have gotten to bed at 7:30 and turn-down service is at 8:00 and it would be easy to check with them if he was asleep in his bed when they came in. That said, if he got to bed at 8:05 instead of 7:30, that’s not much of a discrepancy.
That clinches it, though. Havlin decides to confess. Every time he asked Cornelia for a raise, she turned him down. So this was his ticket. It wasn’t hard to figure out where Sandra was getting the money from. He went to her room to propose splitting the blackmail money with her, but she laughed in his face. They argued, and he hit her hard, which knocked her down and she accidentally hit her head on the dresser. While she was barely conscious, he smothered her with the pillow so he could have it all. “If she hadn’t picked up that phone call, it would have been perfect.”
I mean, sort of. It would have been awkward when he went to blackmail Garrett. Still, he might plausibly have gotten away with it.
The next day, Grady and Jessica are checking out. Grady says that he’ll feel much better when they’re out of the hotel. He asks if Jessica ever found out what the phone number that Sandra wrote down was. Jessica did, it was Sandra’s periodontist’s office. They were calling to reschedule an appointment with her. (According to perio.org, “A periodontist is a dentist who specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of periodontal disease, and in the placement of dental implants.” The periodontium is the support structures of the teeth, including the bones that hold them, the ligaments that hold them, and the gums which cover them.)
This is a very curious explanation. On the one hand, it’s interesting that Mark Havlin’s undoing was something trivial. That is a theme one finds in murder mysteries, where a brilliant murder was undone by one of those trivial details that no one can control. You see that in the first Lord Peter Wimsey story, Whose Body?, where the murderer is undone by the victim having chanced to meet someone in the street who he knew while on his way to the secret appointment at which the murderer killed him. (It took most of the book to figure out the significance of that chance meeting.) It is almost something out of Greek tragedy, where hubris is always punished; the murderer is playing at being God and his inability to control details proves that he isn’t.
The only major problem here is why would a periodontist’s office be calling to reschedule an appointing at 7:00 pm?
Garrett and Cornelia come up to give them the good news that they’ve had a long, hard talk and worked things out and are going to give it another try.
Jessica takes the news in stride. She remarks, choosing her words carefully, “Well, I can’t imagine two people more ideally suited to each other.”
Garrett then says to Grady, “Now that Havlin has confessed, how would you like to be my best man?”
Grady responds that he’d really like to but he’s going to be busy that day. When Garrett points out that he hasn’t told Grady the day, Grady merely smiles and replies, “I know.”
The desk clerk gives Grady the bill. Garrett tells her that he’s taking care of it, but Grady refuses and takes out his wallet. He is then stunned that it comes to $2,5000 (that would be approximately $5,900 in 2021 dollars). The desk clerk then tells Grady that there’s been a mistake… they forgot to add the restaurant charge.
And we go to credits.
Overall, I’d say that Doom With a View is in the top twenty percent of episodes. It’s got a lot going for it, including an efficient setup, an early appearance of the corpse, more than one plausible suspect, a beautiful setting, and a creative problem that drove the mystery. (As much as killing a rich person for his money never gets old, it’s nice to have plots which aren’t that, too.) That last part is especially difficult in a modern context where easy divorce and loose morality means that there’s very little left to blackmail anyone for. Doubly so in a big city where most people wouldn’t even mind if an acquaintance had committed a string of murders—if anything, it would give them something to talk about at cocktail parties. (Obviously the police would care, but there’s a big difference between sufficient evidence to blackmail somebody to avoid exposure to his friends, and sufficient evidence to blackmail somebody to avoid criminal conviction.)
I know that in my own mysteries I have all too easy a time forgetting to include the pleasures of a setting that the reader might have a fun time vacationing in, so I always like to notice this when it’s a feature of a Murder, She Wrote episode. A super-fancy hotel is this in spades. The cavernous rooms are actually fun, rather than head-scratching, as they often are when they’re business offices.
I also really like the timing of this episode. A typical Murder, She Wrote episode often has the murder happening twenty or even twenty five minutes into the episode. The setup is nice and efficient, with the full introduction of characters taking place as much after the murder as before. That tends to be a much better construction, as much of the point of a murder mystery is that the investigation of the murder creates a liminal space in which people can say and do things that would not normally be permitted on either side of that threshold.
I also really like the driving force for the episode. As I said, blackmail is not nearly so easy to pull off in modern times, since the evidence threshold to obtain legal consequences is quite high and the loose morals and complete lack of principles of modern people mean that social blackmail just isn’t as effective as it used to be. This is doubly true with anything sexual. To pull off a plausible blackmail story with regard to a marriage is, therefore, quite impressive. I also like the construction of the blackmail victim not being innocent. That’s not unheard of, in blackmail stories, but an awful lot of them consist of “I wrote a letter to a former lover which was indiscreet and suggested more than actually happened”. (That said, when the fair lady tells the great detective that the letter was merely written with poor word choice owing to youth, it’s not obvious how much we’re supposed to believe this versus it being revisionist history which the great detective politely does not inquire into.) In this case, Garrett is pulling off a scam, and he’s being blackmailed about that scam. There is also the interesting psychological insight that a woman who would marry Garrett is not going to be an honest woman. There’s even a good chance that she could have stopped the wedding to Cornelia but instead let it happen so that she could take advantage of it.
In that light, I even like the choice of murderer. Blackmail is a dangerous profession, but that’s usually because the victim may take revenge. In this case, it’s dangerous because someone else might want to take over the blackmail. I also like that at first Mark Havlin only wanted to be cut in on the money. It’s not that often talked about, but blackmailers are, themselves, open to blackmail. Not merely for revealing the crime they’ve committed by blackmailing, but possibly even more forcefully, by threatening to cut off their cash flow. (If the secret gets revealed, there is no further reason for the victim to pay the blackmailer.)
That being said, I think that Nettie would also have been a good choice for the murderer. Cunning, manipulative, and ruthless, she would have been great for the part. I suppose because of that she might have been a touch obvious, but at the same time it could have been worked out well. The scene of Sandra’s death would have had to have been better disguised, probably framing someone well, and Nettie would have been harder to catch. Probably the way to have caught her would be in a defect of framing someone else. Even with the path the writers took, though, Nettie was a great red herring to distract from Mark Havlin.
All of that said, this episode was not perfect. One of the key clues was blurted out by Nettie in a gratuitous and, frankly, out-of-character way. Havlin using evidence he stole from Sandra, rather than holding his tongue or actually requesting a copy of the marriage certificate from the Fort Wayne hall of records, was a bit sloppy. Also, the timing on his claim to have snuck in three hours of sleep when at most he could have gotten about two and a half hours of sleep is… almost Enclopdia Brownic in its fixability by the bad guy. “Did I say three hours? I meant two. I haven’t got much sleep lately and arithmetic is not my strong suit when I’m tired” would have entirely fixed that slip. (Encyclopedia Brown stories often catch the culprit by a slip which the culprit could easily explain away.)
I also thought it disappointing that Inspector Matheney disappeared from the episode after showing Jessica the victim’s bank book and travel records. He was an interesting character and, for a pleasant change among policemen in Murder, She Wrote, competent. For all that Jessica complained about him, she complained that he wasn’t doing things that he either was doing, or couldn’t have done. And while he wasn’t quite Dennis Stanton, his suave, cultured manner was fun. His initial entrance where he basically said, “a healthy young woman slipping on the carpet and hitting her head on the corner of the desk seems entirely routine, nothing to look at here” was a bit silly, but his manner was as much that the forensic team would do a sufficient investigation of the crime scene and his investigation would need to be along different lines.
Overall, it’s a really fun episode that was well constructed and its flaws were mostly of the easily fixed variety, which are the most forgivable sort of flaws.
Midway through the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode, Indian Giver. It is a Cabot Cove episode and concerns the esoteric subject of historical land grants. It opens with a helicopter shot of a forest near Cabot Cove:
The helicopter moves around and closes in on our eponymous Indian:
We later learn that his name is George Longbow. This is a curious name for an American Indian since the longbow is an English weapon of only historical interest by the time that the English made contact with anyone in Maine (the first English colony was Popham Colony in 1607, though it only lasted 14 months).
From this high place he looks down on Cabot Cove, where he will soon make his appearance.
This is a very interesting view of Cabot Cove. Obviously it’s only a part of it, but it’s curious to consider that this is the place that can supply a high school large enough to have a football team (see When Thieves Fall Out).
Down in Cabot Cove, they’re having a celebration, possibly Founder’s Day, of the long history of Cabot Cove. There’s a shot of the crowd which is quite interesting:
It’s an interesting picture of what small-town America is supposed to look like, back in the mid 1980s. That said, it may even be somewhat accurate to whatever small town in California it was shot in; it is not that uncommon to hire extras on location—you wouldn’t want to pay to transport people with no lines, after all.
The mayor, Sam Booth, begins to give a speech when some boys run up and say “Hey look! Look what’s coming! Look!” The camera then looks down the street and George Longbow comes galloping around the corner:
I know that I can be a little prone to nit-picking, but I can’t imagine how the boys saw George from far enough away that they had time to run up to shout about “what’s coming”. Horses can’t gallop at full speed on pavement, but they still move way faster than ten year old boys do. Also, I can’t help but wonder how that derelict car with the bright green hood got into this shot. George then gallops down main street to the gathering, though he brings his horse up to a walk as he comes to the crowd, which parts for him.
George then throws his spear into the podium.
I’ve got to say, that’s a pretty good shot. It’s hard to see the actual distance, but I’d guess it was about ten yards, and mounted on horseback, too. George has to be either very good or very reckless to have taken that shot; had he been about 8″ higher he’d have skewered the mayor, and had he been about 18″ lower he might well have run him through the leg, which could be fatal if he hit a major blood vessel. George then turns and gallops away.
The white thing behind the feathers turns out to be a piece of paper, which Jessica takes off of the spear and reads. She then says “oh dear.” The mayor tells everyone that it’s nothing, but then he, Doc Hazlet and Amos drive off. On the drive over to wherever they’re going, the three discuss the piece of paper. It’s a photocopy of a land grant. “Granted to chief Manitoka and his heirs in perpetuity, all those lands ending at the waters edge which can be seen from the hill of the god that creates rain, also known as Algonquin peak, to the east, to the north, and to the south as far as the eye can see on a day of bright sunshine.”
Sam appoints doc Hazlet and Jessica Fletcher as a committee of two to get to the bottom of whether the land grant is authentic. There’s no indication of who actually made this land grant, but I suppose we can’t have everything. They go to an expert at a nearby university:
Unfortunately he can’t speak to whether the land grant is genuine until he examines the original. Jessica thinks that, since the Indian is media savvy, he may put in an appearance and be willing to show the original document if he gets a big enough audience. Jessica persuades Sam to call a town hall meeting for that night, which he does.
We then meet one of the Cabot Cove characters in the episode:
His name is Norman Edmonds, and he works for and/or owns a bank that holds most of the mortgages in Cabot Cove. (If you recognize him, the actor played the dentist in Night Of The Headless Horseman.) He’s talking with Harris Atwater, but he isn’t much of a character in this episode. He does drive some of the plot, though. His company is going to build a $17 million resort hotel in Cabot Cove, but not if there’s any legitimacy at all to the land grant.
Attwater runs into Addison Langley and his wife Helen:
Addison has a piece of land that he wants to sell to Attwater, but Attwater isn’t interested until the business with the Indian land grant is resolved. Addison is wholely unreasonable, possibly because he is drunk. He seems violent, too. He starts berating her for interrupting while he was talking business, and her brother walks up and interrupts.
His name is Tom Carpenter, and he’s none too happy about the way that Addison treats his sister.
At the last minute George Longbow shows up, this time dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase.
the shot of the Cabot Cove town meeting is interesting:
As is obvious, the age skews older, here, as is typical for all kinds of government, including local government. That said, unless the citizens of Cabot Cove are generally uninterested in George Longbow’s claims, Cabot Cove is not that big of a place, and certainly not the sort of place to have its own high school large enough to have a football team.
The angry members of the community speak up and demand… what, is not really clear. Some sort of undefined end to the threat hanging over them.
George speaks up. It turns out that the land grant is from 1758. Manitoka helped the British to win a major battle against the French and the British governor-general granted the land that includes Cabot Cove to Manitoka and his descendants, and George is the eleventh direct descendant of that chief. In response to a question from Jessica about what he intends to do if his claim is legitimate, he says that he’s not planning to evict people from their owns, only to have them pay rent.
It’s a bit difficult to take this premise seriously, since a British land grant from the mid 1700s is not, in practice, going to overthrow everything that’s happened in the two hundred and thirty years since. The hundreds of years of not acting like the land belonged to them by Longbow’s ancestors will constitute abandonment of title. If nothing else, adverse possession will render the whole question moot, as the people of Cabot Cove clearly were in open and notorious possession of the land. Even if we were to set aside all of that—and it would be effectively impossible to set it aside in practice—he’s going to have a hard time proving that none of his ancestors ever sold any of their land to any of the founders of Cabot Cove.
There are some other issues that might make George unwilling to press his claim, even apart from the claim being completely untenable. For one thing, he’s going to have one heck of an inheritance tax bill to pay. For another, he’s going to have a heck of a lot of legal liability for all of the accidents that happen on his property owing to his negligence in keeping the place in good repair.
The residents of Cabot Cove apparently are not familiar with basic law concerning real estate—let me take this opportunity to mention that it’s a great idea to take one business law course, by the way—so Addison Langley insults George, who gets into a shoving match because he objects to the description Langley used of him, “redskin.” This fight is broken up, and the meeting adjourns to a room with a select few:
It comes up that George met Donna, the expert’s daughter, while he was doing research at the university. We then move onto proof. He takes out of his briefcase the original document, which he found several months ago among his late mother’s possessions. He hands it to the professor. The professor is professorly—it’s “very interesting.” It appears to be genuine but he’ll have to conduct some tests.
George thought of that, though. He hands the professor validation reports from several experts. The professor reads through the reports and concludes, “if all this checks out, it appears that this man does indeed own Cabot Cove.”
Norman (the banker) shouts that there are courts in this country, yadda yadda. George replies that he’s a graduate of Harvard law school, so he’s not intimidated by legal fights. If he’s telling the truth—and apart from the fact that he should be aware of the laws about adverse possession—while he might not be intimidated by the threat of legal action, he should be aware that legal action tends to be very slow.
This is apart from the threats of legal actions being backwards. It’s not up to the people (putatively) squatting on what he claims to be his land to sue Longbow, it’s up to him to sue them to either evict them or force them to pay rent that they owe him.
More bickering ensues which Jessica interrupts to ask Longbow what he intends to do, and he says that he intends to assess a rent on every landowner of one half of one percent of value, and the average resident will pay only $200 per year. This is downright silly, given how much in property taxes he’s going to owe, the maintenance he’s going to be responsible for, etc. I’m really starting to question whether he actually went to Harvard law school. If he did, I’m certain that he never took any basic business accounting classes at wherever he got his undergraduate degree.
The meeting ends, rather than concludes. Outside the building, George is accosted by a bunch of angry townsfolk. Jessica tries to stop them, calling them by name, but they are in no mood to listen to her. Donna, the professor’s daughter, drives up in a car and calls to George. He hits, with his briefcase, a townsperson who lunges for him, then runs into the car, which pulls away.
The next scene is of George and Donna arguing. She feels used, and he admits to not telling her about the land grant because he didn’t know how she’d react. (what other motive could he have had for not telling her?) She asks if he has any sense of self preservation, and he says that he has lots, which is why no one knows where he’s staying. On the other hand, he didn’t seem to have much of an escape plan from the town meeting, and he’s implying that he’s staying not that far away, rather than in, say, Portland or some other large city in Maine where the police don’t have a dog in the fight. Heck, Obituary for a Dead Anchor episode establishes that Cabot Cove is only a six hour drive from New York City. He could have stayed in New Hampshire or even Massachusetts and been a reasonable drive away from Cabot Cove. He had no real need to be nearby, if he actually had a sense of self preservation.
Donna has a fun line, “I hope that your reign as emperor of Cabot Cove is a long and happy one.” He asks her to drop him off at where his pickup truck is parked outside of town. (Was his plan for leaving safely really to walk all the way to his pickup truck???) She agrees, but first gives him the warning to be careful. The people of Cabot Cove feel threatened, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of fear to turn a crowd into a mob.
The next scene is in the motel room in Cabot Cove of Donna. Her father drops in and asks why she didn’t tell him about George, and she says that she did, twice. He just didn’t listen. He asks if there’s anything that he should know about her and George, and she says no, they’re just friends. (The scene is actually well written, with good characterization; they offend each other but immediately apologize.) She also didn’t help George with the land grant. he bids her a good night, but instead of going to his room, he goes off somewhere. We don’t see where; the next scene is in Cabot Cove in the morning.
Jessica is going for a morning walk when she pauses because she sees Helen Langley and Attwater talking. The conversation over, Helen then walks back to her house and trips over nothing:
I know I’m nitpicking, here, but her weight was already on her front foot when she started to “trip” on her back foot. Jessica runs up to help her and Helen explains it “I just got a little dizzy, that’s all.” It’s funny how “woman trips” was just a plot point that writers would use back in the day. I think that it a sort of fashion; I don’t recall seeing a woman tripping over ordinary ground being a plot point in movies from the 1930s or 1940s. The apotheosis of this must be the novel Twilight, in which the protagonist running in a forest resulted in her falling so many times her arms and legs were covered in scrapes, and when she was about to be assaulted by a gang of people a block and a half over from a movie theater she adopted a fighting stance rather than running to safety because she didn’t expect to be able to run a few hundred feet on smooth pavement without falling (and she was wearing sneakers, so improper footwear was not an excuse).
Anyway, Helen tripping is really just an excuse for Jessica to see that Helen’s forearm is covered in bruises.
Jessica walks her inside and then gets her a cup of tea. As she’s going into the kitchen to get the tea, we see it in clue-vision:
Murder, She Wrote occasionally does artsy shots but they never crop out the top half of a person without good reason. There’s a pretty good chance that either the murder victim has wet paint on them, or someone who shouldn’t have been visiting Helen will have wet paint on him.
Jessica notices that her eye looks puffy, too, which Helen attributes to doing a lot of crying over the Indian business. Jessica observes that Helen and Addison are fixing up the kitchen, which will look lovely, and Helen says that it’s her handiwork. “Ad’s a dreamer, not a doer.” Helen pauses, looks like she’s about to cry, then says that it’s no secret that Ad’s been drinking again. She hasn’t even seen him since the night before.
She also explains, after a question of Jessica’s, that a few years back Addison got the idea that a piece of land by a creek would be worth something, so he bought an option on it, and it turns out that’s the exact piece of land that Mr. Attwater wants to build his resort on.
In the next scene, Jessica goes over to police headquarters, where Seth, Amos, and the mayor are already in conference. There’s the minor news that the professor left town an hour ago after getting a call from Norman Edwards. A call then comes in that there’s trouble over at city hall, concerning Addison Langley, and the doctor better go too.
There is no way, if that blow from the spear could have killed Langley, that it did so with that little blood. Jessica, instead, notices lots of sand on Langley’s feet (that the camera didn’t show us). Apparently there are traces of sand all along the floor and out a side door.
Seth tells Jessica that Langley definitely didn’t die here, as there isn’t enough blood. He’s right, of course, but he could have gone a step further and said that he wasn’t killed with the spear, either, for the same reason. (To be fair, though, in a stabbing wound much of the bleeding can be internal.)
Amos walks over and asks if there’s anything else he should know about the body, like was there any bruising. Seth says no, just a little varnish on one hand. The time of death was midnight, give or take an hour or two.
Jessica is on her way into somewhere when she runs into Mr. Attwater. Jessica accuses him of the murder (her phrasing is just that the murder is very convenient), and he takes reasonable offense.
In the next scene a truck full of Cabot Covers spot George Longbow in his truck and run him off the road, then chase him down on foot. They bring him, beaten and bloodied, to the Sheriff’s office.
While that’s going on, Jessica tracks Norman down. He’s working on something relating to a mortgage on a house where a nice couple from Boston is buying it. Jessica is surprised that he’s intending to hold the mortgage, given the uncertainty, but Norman is certain that Longbow will pose no more trouble. Jessica asks why everyone in Cabot Cove is so certain that Longbow killed Langley.
I’d like to know why they think that George Longbow having murder Langley would in some way invalidate his property claim. I could see that if this was England during the golden age of detective fiction where Longbow would be hanged for the murder in a few weeks and, dying without issue, his property claim would go away. (More properly the land would revert to the crown, but close enough.)
Jessica grills Norman about his phone call to the professor, and he admits that this morning he offered the professor fifty thousand dollars for irrefutable proof that George Longbow’s claim is fraudulent. Jessica is shocked at that amount of money, and Norman replies, “if that man is who he says he is, my bank is ruined. I’m ruined.” It was a little dense of Jessica not to know this, but I think the goal here is to set Norman up as a suspect.
And to think he’d only have had to pay a lawyer a few hundred dollars! Seriously, they bring in a university professor who’s an expert on Indian history, but no one thinks to ask a lawyer anything. There literally isn’t a lawyer character in the entire episode.
At the Sheriff’s office, Amos is none too happy about the condition in which the people who brought Longbow in delivered him. They show no repentance and Amos doesn’t push the matter, though.
A few minutes later, Tom (Helen’s brother and Addison’s brother in law) shows up with Longbow’s truck. He returns Longbow’s wallet, keys, etc.
Jessica goes and sees George in the jail cell, because apparently no one thought that medical attention was appropriate for Longbow. Seriously, people can die from beatings due to internal bleeding. Bringing him to the hospital (in police custody) would have been entirely appropriate. Jessica’s speech is a little odd, too. Right after she sits down next to him, she says:
Now, listen to me, young man. At the moment, you and I may be the only two people in Cabot Cove who think that you are innocent of this murder. But retreating into stony, self-righteous silence isn’t going to help the situation one bit. Now, you’re much too intelligent to commit such a stupid murder. Now, suppose you tell me the truth, starting with why you really came to Cabot Cove.
He tells her that he doesn’t want to bilk the people of the town for his own personal gain. The money is to be used to fund a scholarship program for Indian youth who otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to go to college. Jessica asks why he used such a confrontational way to open up negotiations, and he said that if he had used conventional means to approach the “town fathers” he would have just been ignored.
Given that the only way to enforce his claim would be through the courts, that really wouldn’t have mattered, though. I’m starting to have my doubts about him being too intelligent to commit a stupid murder. If it weren’t for the varnish on the victim’s hand, which presumably is a continuity error from “wet paint” we saw in Helen’s kitchen, I’d start suspecting George of the murder.
Jessica asks where he was at the time of the murder, and if he can prove it. He was at a motel, and he arrived there at 11:30, after the office had closed, so he can’t prove it.
Amos interrupts saying that he just got a call from the mayor and that they’re to go there right away because the professor has news. Jessica gets up and tells George that she believes him and she’ll do what she can for him. Since he doesn’t know her from Eve, I’m not sure how comforting that is to him.
On their way to their meeting, Amos tells Jessica that his deputy found beach sand in the back of George Longbow’s pickup truck, the same sand they found on Ad Langley’s body.
At the meeting, the professor says that George Longbow is a fraud.
The land grant is genuine enough. No, I’m talking about Longbow himself. Do you remember the flu epidemic that hit this country in 1918, especially in the northeast? Thousands died in this area, and particularly hard hit was the Indian population. The survivors were adopted by the few families that remained intact. Well, under the circumstances, Longbow cannot possibly claim direct and provable lineage to Chief Manitoka.
I don’t see how this is supposed to make such a claim impossible. Longbow could have been from a line that moved elsewhere in the early 1900s. Perhaps he’s trying to claim that when so many were killed by the flu of 1918, all of the Indian birth records were destroyed, and so no one can prove ancestry back that far? But why would the flu destroy Indian birth records? (If, indeed, such records were even kept.) Of all the ways to defeat this claim, this seems like the least certain way to do it.
The mayor and the professor go off to talk to George Longbow. Jessica and Amos pick up George’s motel key and go off to search his motel room. There are shoes with beach sand on them, and there’s beach sand around the floor of the motel, too. There’s only one problem.
The soles of the shoes are gummed soles, and there isn’t a trace of sand on them. (Gum soles are, by the way, soles of shoes made from natural rubber, which is very durable and very sticky, giving good traction. These were what sneakers used to be made from before the switch to the lighter polyurethane.)
Jessica is now sure that George Longbow is being framed.
She and Amos go to Helen’s house. Her brother, Tom, is there, keeping his sister company. Amos doesn’t believe in beating around the bush, she he accuses Helen and Tom of being up to the framing of George Longbow up to their hip pockets.
Jessica points out that Tom knew the motel that George Longbow was staying at because he arrived separately, carrying the motel key and George’s wallet. He used the key to plant the false evidence.
How the timing on this works out, I have no idea. Presuming that he didn’t just donate his own shoes to frame Longbow, he would have had to have been carrying around sand with which to frame Longbow when he and his friends were looking for Longbow to not have to drive over to the beach to get some. Even if he did that, he only arrived slightly after Longbow was brought to the Sheriff’s office, and he had to get Longbow’s truck out of the ditch that it had been driven into, on his own if he didn’t wait for a tow truck.
Jessica points out to Helen that the Sheriff can prove that she was involved, since varnish was found on Addison’s hand and there was wet varnish on the furniture that she was refinishing. Jessica is also pretty sure that no matter how hard she scrubbed she couldn’t get Addison’s blood out of the kitchen floor. Jessica suggests that she tell them what happened—by the way, never take legal advice from Jessica Fletcher—and she does.
Addison came home late last night after walking the beach looking for George Longbow. He really wanted to hit someone and she was the only one around, so he hit her. He wouldn’t stop, so she grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed him.
She then called Tom. She was out of her mind with fear when he got there. He then explained how he covered up the murder and framed Longbow, stabbing the spear into the kitchen knife wound to cover over the real cause of death.
There is an ending scene with Seth, Jessica, George Longbow, and Donna.
Jessica just came from the telephone, and she brings the news that Attwater’s company has been put off by the murder, and are now exploring property in New Jersey. Because murders don’t happen in New Jersey.
Seth and Jessica are thrilled, since they hate anything that brings more people to Cabot Cove. George and Donna have to get going, and Seth offers to drive and Jessica is coming with them, so they go over to Donna’s hotel.
Jessica asks George and Donna what their plans are. They don’t have any solid plans yet, but they’re working on it.
Jessica also mentions to George that there’s a lot of support for the idea of forming a scholarship for worthy young American Indians, and they’ve already formed a committee to get it going. George asks Jessica if she has an Algonquin blood in her. She says that with her complexion she very much doubts it, but if she did, she would be very proud of it.
The professor then comes into the scene and explains that he had gotten halfway back to the university, then turned around. He apologizes to Donna—heaven knows for what—and asks if they can go inside and have lunch. They can make it a table for three. Donna is overjoyed at… something. She says, “Come on, George. I think we’re about to negotiate a peace treaty.”
The three of them then walk into the hotel arm in arm. Once they’re gone, Jessica and Seth start to go home. Jessica asks Seth why, when everyone else was terrified that they were going to lose their homes, Seth was as calm as a mountain lake. He replies that he’s much too old to get caught up in that kind of hysteria. Besides, he rents. Despite Jessica not laughing, we go to credits.
This is definitely not one of the better Murder, She Wrote episodes. It is interesting to consider that it could never be made now, despite TV viewership being much, much lower than it was back when this episode first aired, and despite much of the episode’s (avowed) purpose being to be against anti-Indian racism.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Starting off George Longbow in war paint and throwing a spear was only meant to be sensational and much of the rest was probably as much an excuse to have the beginning as it was anything else. Virtue signaling is not an exclusively modern phenomenon.
I also suspect that this appealed on Murder, She Wrote as much because it was a throwback to the youth of the typical viewer, when they watched Hollywood Indians on TV shows like The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, etc. TV in the 1980s could not be what it was in the 1950s, though. Hollywood was degenerating; TV and movies were increasingly about explicit and illict sex, recreational drugs, and pointless violence (that is, violence which was not about achieving justice in a rough world but merely about titillating the viewer, much like feeding Christians to starving baboons in a circus). They had to pretend to be better about something; various progressive social issues then, as now, served to numb their consciences. Possibly even more to the point, it served as an excuse for people who wanted to excuse it, in much the same manner as you can find people who will tell you that the nude brothel scenes in Game of Thrones were absolutely integral to the plot. Full disclosure: for all I know—I never watched the show—the brothel scenes were essential to the plot as written, but I don’t find it plausible that it would have been impossible for the writers to set the scenes elsewhere, or at least in a brothel before people took their clothes off or after they put their clothes back on.
Something important to understand television is that many people don’t want the writers to be ingenious enough to write Game of Thrones without the brothel scenes. They want moral laxity which they can defend, because they do not want the stringency of being moral, but they also don’t want to admit to themselves that they don’t want it. Hollywood’s hypocrisy is somewhat intrinsic to a town full of people competing to be famous and liked, but it is also intrinsically a reflection of the people who watch it, at least in aggregate.
Be that as it may, the very special episode aspect to the episode is… weird, not well done, and frankly a bit half-hearted. The redneck mob is a staple of Hollywood probably because they love cities and hate small towns, and it’s just as much a caricature here as it always is.
There’s also the very strange aspect of how superfluous to the mystery the whole Indian land grant is. To be fair, it’s entirely reasonable to have a driving force in a murder mystery which is a giant red herring for the mystery. Traditionally the murder has something to do with the main driving force of the story, though; creating an opportunity or stirring into motion something only tangentially related. (In the latter category would be taking advantage of the big distracting thing to commit the murder while it’s going on in the hope of disguising it.) Here, the only relationship was that the thing that Addison was mad about this night was the land grant. That’s pretty trivial.
There is the further problem that, as I said, the whole premise of Cabot Cove being in danger from a two hundred and thirty year old British land grant is… absurd. This just isn’t how land ownership works. The old saying that possession is nine tenths of the law isn’t strictly accurate, but there is something to it, especially when it comes to land. Land must, in some sense, be defended, to remain in one’s possession. I think it stems from the intuition that it is the one who maintains land who really has the right to its fruits, and though that’s not the legal principle, the legal principles aren’t too far from it. You will find exceedingly few instances (that last) where a different person pays for the maintenance of land than the person who owns it. (Renters pay rent, and they will vacuum the carpets, but they do not replace bathtubs or replace worn out electrical wiring.)
The problem with absurd premises is not that they are absurd, but that they mean that all rational rules are temporarily suspended. This removes much of the enjoyment from a mystery. Most of the fun of a mystery is that, while it is a tangle, it is a rational tangle. If the writer of a mystery tells you to stop thinking so hard, it’s just entertainment, he’s writing for the wrong genre. It would be like the writer of a crossword puzzle telling players to stop worrying so much about spelling words correctly when he needs “book” spelled with a “u” in order to make the crossword fit.
Another issue that comes up in this episode is that when the murder is only tangentially related to the driving force of the plot, the driving force of the plot must be resolved on its own terms or most of the story will be a waste of time. Thus we need the story about the Indian land grant to be interesting on its own terms. Since the land grant can’t work out (because this is episodic television), this means we need some ancillary characters. Thus we have the professor and his daughter.
There are two main scenes between them. The first is exploring their relationship and the harm that his workaholism has caused it; how they love each other in spite of having a difficult time communicating. This scene was well done and even compelling.
The other scene was of the two of them reconciling from some huge fight. The only major problem with it was that there was no huge fight for them to reconcile from. Their previous scene together ended on them being on good terms, and with no outstanding problems. Their reconciliation almost seems like it was meant to be the father coming to terms with his daughter wanting to marry George Longbow, except that according to the rest of the episode they’re just friends and only, at the end of the episode, exploring the possibility of their friendship becoming romantic.
Given the rest of the episode, I suppose it’s possible that the father was supposed to object to his daughter wanting to marry an Indian. If that was supposed to be it, they forgot to actually include that part. The other problem with it is that he’s a workaholic who’s dedicated his life to studying Indian history. It’s implausible in the extreme that he would be horrified by his daughter marrying an Indian. But even if this was supposed to be it—I mean, after the land-grant being taken seriously, anything is possible—they straight-up forgot to include it in the episode. So, at best, we’re left with a touching reconciliation scene of two people who never quarreled. Also, it’s never explained why, after he and Donna reconciled at the motel, he went to his room but then turned and walked into the night.
The character of Norman Edwards is kind of an odd non-entity in this story. He’s played by an actor with tremendous presence, but has nothing much to do. I think that he’s meant to be set up as a suspect, since so much was on the line for him. He’s not a very plausible suspect, though, since killing a random Cabot Cover and framing George Longbow for it isn’t much of a plan to save his bank. Granted, the writer may not realize that George Longbow would still have property rights even in prison—as I said, this is one of the problems with reality being arbitrarily suspended.
The other weird quasi-non-entity in the story is Harris Attwater. His intention to build a resort next to Cabot Cove is a driving force for some of the episode, but his presence as a character is completely unnecessary for that. Despite the fact that Jessica accuses Attwater of murdering Addison Langley, he’s never a plausible suspect. Business people don’t go murdering the people they want to buy land from in order to frame someone who might actually own it in order to get rid of that claim of ownership. They either move on, or wait to find out who owns the land and then negotiate with him. Assuming that George Longbow’s absurd claim actually held legal water, he is just as capable of selling the land next to the creek to Attwater as Langley was. Indeed, of the two, I suspect that Longbow would be the preferable one to deal with.
As a side note, it’s curious how often the threat of development near Cabot Cove was a threat. This gets, I think, to the nostalgia of Murder, She Wrote and its theme that old things are still good. Land development implies that things were not good enough the way that they were, or at the very least threatens that the old things will go away.
All of that said, we do at long last have a Cabot Cove episode, and moreover one in which Cabot Cove is actually a small town. That’s a lot of fun. The redneck stereotypes detract from that fun, but it’s enjoyable when Amos knows the owner of the motel and his habits—it would be nice to live in a place where people actually know each other.
Overall, Indian Giver is not a great episode and doesn’t have much in the way of redeeming features. If this had been the typical Murder, She Wrote episode, it would never have lasted twelve seasons. On the other hand, this gets to the heart of what made TV what it was at the time—most of it wasn’t very good, but some of it was, and there wasn’t much else to do, so it was worth it to tune in every week to see whether this was a week we got lucky. And it was easy to guess who the murderer was, since it was pretty obvious the moment that Seth mentioned varnish on the hand of the corpse. It’s a gimme, but those can contribute to the fun.
Midway through Season 4 of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Steal Me a Story. Having recently watched an episode in which the writers had no idea what they were talking about (The Way To Dusty Death), we now have an episode where I actually believe that the writers know a lot about the subject: it’s set around a TV show.
The show is called Danger Doctor and is about a doctor who solves murders. The show is stylized, of course.
Dr: “If that don’t beat all. See that scar?” Nurse: “Well, good heavens, Doctor. That looks like an old knife wound.” Dr: “It sure does. I guess we know what that means.” Nurse: “I’m sorry, doctor. You’re way ahead of me, as usual.” Dr: “Unless I miss my guess, Dalton Ramsey was severely wounded… Oh, I’d say no more than two months ago. Which means he was the one who hid in the alley waiting for Agatha Baxendale’s chauffeur to respond to the blackmail note that had been sent to Agatha’s brother-in-law Sidney, the night before Naomi Randall’s elopment with [Sigfried Permutter]”
We’re actually watching the taping, so the actor doesn’t remember the name of the man with whom Naomi Randall eloped, but it gives a flavor of what the show is like.
The camera pulls back from this recording to show two people talking:
The man is Avery Stone, and he’s one of the producers of the show. The woman is Gayle Yamada, an aspiring TV writer. He explains the important parts of the show, that Gary’s down-home easy going style contrasts with Brenda’s big city point of view. She gets the show access to younger female viewers but isn’t so tough that she turns off the male viewers. (He uses the actors’ names; the doctor is “Dr. Steve Valiant,” I’m not sure that the nurse is ever named.)
Basically, Avery Stone is the businessman who doesn’t care about the art and only cares about numbers and dollars. These people seem very much to exist in Hollywood, from everything I’ve read about it. Hollywood writers like to pretend that the businessmen are unnecessary, that “great art” will attract an audience and take care of everything else. Given how few shows ever succeeded this was delusional at best, but for the most part so was the idea that you could make a TV show people wanted to watch as a frankensteinian mish-mash of popular elements, so there were no good guys here.
At the end, she summarizes the series to see if she understands as, “So, every week Dr. Steve Valiant gets involved with a major crime and Dr. Valiant solves the case with foxy down-home common sense assisted by his street-smart big-city nurse. In the end, Dr. Valiant beats up the bad guys and hands them over to the police.”
When he says that’s correct, Gayle replies that she’s not ungrateful for the opportunity, but she doesn’t think that she could come up with a story that he would like. Stone tells her not to worry, as he came up with a great plot last night.
After she reads it, Gayle thinks that it’s very good. The only problem is that “this business with the poison and the dead brother who faked his death and then the switch at the end with the fire at the mortuary” is the same as J.B. Fletcher’s new book. Gayle isn’t sure that she can just steal J.B. Fletcher’s plot.
Stone is astonished. “Honey, what do you think television’s all about? We haven’t got time to think up new plots.”
I said that I think that the writers are writing about something they know about, and I did mean it, but this conversation is a bit absurd. Plots are not proprietary things, that it is stealing to steal them. When it comes to writing, the saying is “mediocrity borrows, genius steals.”
Moreover, it would be very difficult to take someone else’s plot and put it into a very different setting and not change enough things to make it your own plot. Heck, in television, they’d almost have to change the plot just for cost savings. It costs books nothing to be extravagant but TV shows need to economize on settings. One change leads to another, and pretty soon you will have a legally distinct story even if you didn’t mean to.
Even apart from that, writers tend to want to do things their own way. Just think of how many stories are based on a play by Shakespeare—especially Romeo and Juliet. Are any of them better than Romeo and Juliet? Hardly. And yet they keep getting made, because people want to make their own versions of it.
Even more to the point, network interference is almost always in the direction of changing a story to make it more fit for television—to include car chases, fist fights, and sex scenes that were not in the source material. This is true even when a story is billed as a faithful adaptation of the original! The ideal that a network would insist on keeping a plot from a novel exactly the same in a television episode is… far fetched.
I think what’s going on, here, is oversimplification. It certainly is true that Hollywood was not built on respecting people or ideas or ownership—in fact, aside from having plenty of sunlight for filming, a big part of why the movie industry set up in Hollywood was that it was too far away from New York for it to be practical for Thomas Edison to enforce his patents there.
This setup, absurd as it is, also gives the writers a way to bring Jessica in. Gayle, her conscience troubled, finds Jessica at a local book signing.
She asks Jessica if they can talk privately, and Jessica invites her up to her hotel room. I don’t know what happens to the rest of the people who want a book signed by Jessica, though in fairness there doesn’t seem to be a long line. I do wonder who all of the people milling around the hotel lobby are—they look more like an art gallery crowd than a book signing crowd.
Gayle explains her dilemma—she doesn’t want to throw the opportunity away but she feels bad about stealing the plot to Jessica’s book. Jessica, always willing to help, proposes that they work together to come up with a new story. I have to wonder, though: why is Gayle trying to be a professional TV writer if she can’t come up with even one story on her own? She does realize that TV writers have to come up with a new story for each episode, right?
This is a strange case of writers putting the needs of their plot over verisimilitude that should bother them. TV writers love to come up with stories. The chance to come up with so many stories is a big part of what attracts them to television over writing movies or novels or other media where they come up with only one story every few years.
Gayle says that she couldn’t impose on Jessica, but Jessica asks, “why not? I think it would be a lot of fun.” Yes, it would. Why on earth does it not seem that way to Gayle?
The episode then shifts to what I assume is the next day, where we get to meet some more characters in our episodes. Here’s Gary and Brenda, who we saw above from the back:
Gary doesn’t like the lines he’s given in the upcoming episode such as, “You’re out on a ledge, Rocco. Come to grips with your iniquity while you still have a chance.” After they discuss how little they like the dialog, Brenda goes to see Bert Puzzo, the director:
Brenda asks him, “Perhaps you can tell me what the dramatic values are in this scene we’re about to shoot.” He replies, “It’s about two pages long and we have to have it in the can by 4:00 which means we hit our marks and say our lines.” As character introductions go, I’d say this one is pretty good. We get a good sense of how much this guy is here to get the job for which he is being paid done, and how little it’s about art to him.
This scene doesn’t last, though. We next see Gary talking to someone named “Leo” about how Gary doesn’t want to invest any further money into Leo’s business ventures. He then complains to his girlfriend that he only makes $50,000 an episode and 10% goes to his manager, 10% to his agent, and then after a bunch of other fees there’s barely anything left for him.
I can’t help but feel that he’s being set up as a suspect. (Interestingly, by the way, the actor who played Gary, Doug McClure, played the sheriff in Night Of The Headless Horseman.)
We next meet Sid Sharkey, who comes to chew out the directory for being late:
(If Sid Sharkey looks to you like Grover Barth, owner of the now-bankrupt Corned Beef Castles fast food empire from the episode Corned Beef and Carnage, you’re right.)
He chews Bert out for filming being late, and Bert then complains that the crew he’s working with is terrible. He’s got a blind cameraman, the gaffer is loaded by 10am, and Gary can’t remember two lines in a row.
Sid tells him that he needs to straighten Gary out, and then dangles the carrot in front of him of a new show called Undercover Urchins about 5 rag-tag street kids who work for the cops solving crimes, and if it goes he’s going to use Bert—if Bert can straighten Gary out. Bert doesn’t seem to buy it, but the conversation ends there.
This seems to be part of the realism of the episode—from everything I can tell from reading non-fiction about Hollywood written by people who were in Hollywood, it’s a great deal like the Soviet Union: everyone lies and everyone knew that everyone is lying, but there’s no point in calling anyone on it, and it’s not like you tell the truth either. Heck, one of William Goldman’s books is titled “Which Lie Did I Tell?” (William Goldman is a famous screenwriter who wrote a bunch of important stuff like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and A Bridge Too Far, but most importantly wrote The Princess Bride.)
Next, Gayle pitches the story that she and Jessica came up with to Avery Stone. The dialog is very interesting, primarily as a commentary on television:
G: “And then she starts down the stairs into the dark, damp basement. The dark figure in the shadow steps forward but we only see his feet.”
A: “Yeah, yeah, it’s… it’s… it’s nice. It’s very nice. Listen, Miss Yamada.”
G: “Very nice?”
A: “Well, it’s even pretty good. But it’s not our kind of story. Honey, it’s too original. Our audience doesn’t wanna think about what’s going on. They tune in Danger Doctor to see something familiar.”
Gayle says that Jessica was afraid that this would happen, and Avery is appalled that she went and told Jessica about them ripping off her book. She says that she couldn’t, in good conscience— and he interrupts her to tell her that she should do herself a favor and lose the conscience. This seems very realistic advice for Hollywood.
Gayle talks to Jessica, who says that she has leverage because the network has been negotiating for the rights to one of her books as a miniseries. She makes an appointment with Kate Hollander, who is some sort of generic high-level executive:
She’s on the phone with Sid Sharkey, who pitches her the Undercover Urchins show. She dislikes it and she dislikes him. When that call is over, Jessica comes in. As a side note, I love her 1980s giant hair and giant shoulder pads.
Kate Hollander is insincere, though she fakes sincerity better than did Avery Stone or Sid Sharkey. Jessica calls her on it, for some reason, though that doesn’t go anywhere. Kate knows it, so closes the conversation saying that she’s going to deal with Sid Sharkey in the strongest possible terms. Presumably that means that Sid is going to be murdered and Kate will be a suspect.
In the next scene Sid Sharkey calls Avery Stone into his office and accuses him of sucking up to Kate Hollander behind his back. He then fires him, which it seems unlikely that he can do since they’re partners with a contract. Stone threatens to have his lawyer eviscerate Sharkey. I’m now really guessing that Sharkey is going to get killed, and Stone is going to be another suspect.
The one thing which makes me hesitant that Sharkey will be the victim, though, is that there is no way for Gayle to be a suspect, which would be normal for Murder, She Wrote.
The next scene is of a problem on set, where Gary just walked off stage and Bert (the director) wants Sid to handle it. Sid demands that Bert does, and reminds Bert of several years ago when he found Bert half-fried from cocaine in a Tijuana hotel. He makes it clear that he’s blackmailing Bert, so at this point, with 3 credible-ish suspects, I think it’s a certainty that Sid Sharkey is going to be the victim, even if the police can’t suspect Gayle.
Brenda then accosts Sid and says that she needs to be written out of 3 episodes in order to do a part in a movie, and he tells her flat-out no, she’s stuck in the series because of her contract. “Now it may be a trap but it’s lined with mink so as they say, lay back and enjoy it.” So we’re now up to four credible-ish suspects for Sid Sharkey’s death.
Later that evening, Jessica goes to see Sid Sharkey for some reason, but he’s not in. She meets Frieda, Mr. Sharkey’s secretary, though:
Her hair is even taller than Kate Hollander’s! Frieda takes a phone call about a lunch at a polo lounge, then Jessica asks if she can use the phone to call a cab. Frieda instead offers to drive her to her hotel, since there’s nothing waiting for her (Frieda) at home. She leaves a note for Sid Sharkey, though.
Then we find out what will stand in for Gayle as the innocent that Jessica must save:
Jessica. This seals it. Sid Sharkey is going to be murdered and Jessica is going to be accused of it and is going to have to get herself off.
Later on that evening, Avery Stone was working late and is just going home. He’s talking with the cleaning lady while he waits for the elevator, and they hear somebody near Sid’s office.
“That’s strange, I thought that you were the last person still here.” Unfortunately for Avery, Sid Sharkey was in the elevator he was waiting for. Sid wants Avery to deal with all of the trouble, though, so he apologizes for the blowup earlier.
“No hard feelings?” “No more than usual.”
Sid tells him about the various problems going on that Sid wants straightened out, and among them are the director (Bert) being in his trailer with an anxiety attack. Sid says that they’re going to dump him and replace him in the morning, so Avery needs to find someone to replace Bert with.
This is another time when the writers sacrificed accuracy for the sake of the plot. TV shows do not have a single director for all their episodes. They don’t even have just two or three. In the first four seasons of Murder, She Wrote they tended to average, per season, around eight directors for twenty two episodes. Also, individual directors tended to also work on several TV shows at once. John Llewellyn Moxey, the director of this episode, also worked on the following shows during the same years that he worked on Murder, She Wrote: Jake and the Fatman, Lady Mobster, Outback Bound, Sadie and Son, Deadly Deception, Matlock, Magnum, PI, Blacke’s Magic, When Dreams Come True, Miami Vice, Legmen, and Masquerade. Some of those were TV movies, but I think it makes the point.
Still, while it is a dramatic oversimplification (pun, unfortunately, intended), this does capture the spirit of Hollywood: insincere, back-stabbing, cutthroat, and unstable. If one reads about Hollywood as written by Hollywood people who aren’t promoting a movie or TV show, most of the time you will hear people criticized but sometimes you will hear them praised. On those occasions, I have heard people praised for being skilled, thoughtful, patient, and even (rarely) for being kind. I’ve never heard anyone praised for being honest or loyal.
Sid walks into his office and sees a wrapped present on his desk:
He picks it up and beings to open it with an expression of childish glee on his face. We then cut to watching the result from the next room:
We then get an exterior shot of police cars and ambulances pulling up, and we fade to Jessica making her way to Sid’s ex-office. She runs into Gayle waiting in an office nearby, and asks what happened. Gayle tells her what little she knows. Lieutenant Bradshaw, who is in charge of the case, then comes in.
The detective investigating the case in a Murder, She Wrote tends to come in one of several flavors. This one is gruff. He mentions that a few years back he read several of Jessica’s books, but they were a waste of time. (Why, if they were a waste of time, he read several, isn’t explained.)
Apparently the cleaning lady described the footsteps as a woman’s footsteps, so Lt. Bradshaw suspects everyone woman even remotely connected with Sharkey. This is about as far as it goes with suspecting Jessica, though.
In the next scene Gayle drives Jessica home (well, to her hotel) in glorious rear-projection:
They commiserate over Bradshaw’s aggresiveness. Gayle mentions that she was home, writing from 4:00 until 10:00 when the policeman came to get her. Her only witness was a canary, though since there’s no reason to believe that she ever met Sid Sharkey she isn’t exactly a credible suspect. She asks Jessica where she was at the time of the murder, and Jessica was soaking in a hot tub. Gayle suspiciously asks, “was anyone with you?”
This is a very odd turn for her character to take. It’s far more initiative than she’s ever shown before, and even has a whiff of wanting to take Jessica’s place as a murder-solving writer… which she has shown absolutely no desire for before. It would be an interesting bit of character development if they follow through with it—how Hollywood corrupts even those who hate it—but I really doubt that it’s going anywhere. Gayle only really exists as a plot device in this episode, and I fear she’s going to stay that way until she leaves it.
The next day, Jessica goes to the set of Danger Doctor, where everyone is gathered in a moment of silence for Sid. Avery Stone tearfully says that they will be dedicating the rest of the season to Sid’s memory. This is another bit of Hollywood realism—the moment that someone is dead and no longer a threat, everyone loves him, at least in public.
Jessica overhears Avery Stone telling Bert that he doesn’t want a repeat of last night—he heard that Bert went to his trailer a half hour before dinner break and the assistant director had to do the directing work. This is passed off as characterization, but it does establish that Bert doesn’t have an alibi for part of the night—though without knowing when dinner break was, we don’t know if this happened during the crucial time or not.
As a side note: why would the director have a trailer? This is a TV production on a studio lot, it’s not a movie set on location. People in movies have trailers because they need temporary housing for the short time that they’re at a location. In Hollywood TV shows on studio lots, people commute in to work like a normal job. Bert would live (reasonably) nearby. I suspect that this is as much just because people are more familiar with how movies are shot than how TV shows are shot, but it may also be to make things convenient for the plot—to keep people closer than they would otherwise be.
Jessica talks with Avery, but he doesn’t really want to talk with her. He points out that she has no right to be on the set or on the studio grounds—it’s unclear how Jessica even got onto the studio grounds; they tend to have security guards and fences and what not to keep random people away—and asks her to leave. He then walks off, rather than seeing that she does leave, and Diane Crane (Gary’s girlfriend) approaches Jessica and asks Jessica to come talk with Gary. Jessica complies with this request.
The conversation isn’t very interesting except for one bit where Jessica says that she remember’s Gary’s movies and Gary says that he hasn’t done movies in over 9 years. “I don’t care to. Television: that’s where it’s at. Reaching tens of millions of people, week in and week out.”
There was, back in the day, an interesting cycle that existed, where actors would often get their first roles in television, but would pine for the glory of movies. The lucky few would make it into movies, and the lucky few of them would make it big. They’d be stars for a while, but aside from Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, and Julia Roberts, every star fades and eventually they would come back to television. Angela Lansbury didn’t start in Television—she was too early—but clearly she ended up in television. (In fact the last movie she starred in before doing Murder, She Wrote was Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971.)
He also says, “if you watch television, I’m sure that you know that good writers are scarcer than snowballs in Tallahassee.” He is correct, though I expect that the writers of the show didn’t mean that line seriously.
Anyway, the upshot is that he offers Jessica a job writing for the show. I’ve no idea how he can do this, but Jessica accepts because it gives her access to the studio to investigate the murder. He also claims to have been in his dressing room (or whatever the room is) trying to make sense of his lines from 8:30-9:30 the night before, which is a very oddly specific way to put it. When Jessica asks if he was alone, he clearly lies and says that Diane was with him, and she backs him up.
In the next scene Frieda shows Jessica her new office apologizing that they don’t have any of the good offices but those are given to the movie people.
This is the same set they use for every office, though they redecorate it for every one. It’s cavernous and always has an anteroom with no one in it, I suspect because a hallways would be a lot more expensive to decorate. It’s kind of fun to see all of the different ways they have to make the same office set look different.
Jessica talks with Frieda, who had been with Sid Sharkey for seventeen years. Originally she was supposed to get a chance to produce, but Sharkey never made good on the promise and he paid her too well for her to leave. It’s an interesting bit of character development, and does get to the truth that a great many people in Hollywood never intended to do what they ended up doing but they had to make ends meet while they waited for their chance, which never came, and at least they’re connected to show business.
A clue does come up that Frieda noticed that Sid’s office, post-explosion, had a file drawer that was open, and Frieda would never have left it open. It held Sid’s personal files, such as correspondence, contracts, etc.
There’s a very confusing scene which comes up soon after where Diane finds Jessica and begs her, on Gary’s part, to polish the script for the latest episode. Jessica refuses because it’s a television script, despite having just accepted a job writing television scripts for the show. I really don’t get why Diane is so insistent, and I especially don’t get why Jessica refuses to do the job she just accepted.
Jessica turns the conversation to asking about Diane and Gary, and asks where they really were because obviously they were lying about being together going over a script the whole time, despite Diane’s insistence that they were. I don’t know why this matters much, since her insistence isn’t worth much of anything in a court of law, but in any event Jessica pressures her and she breaks down and admits that she ran home (they live nearby) to get some medicine for Gary, but she was only gone for a short time.
For some odd reason Diane asks Jessica if she thinks that they did the wrong thing by lying to cover up this short absence (since a woman’s footsteps were heard), and Jessica gives the terrible advice to tell the truth to Lieutenant Bradshaw. “He’s a bulldog, but he’s fair, and until he has all the facts, I don’t think that he’ll make any wild accusations.” I don’t think that I’d recommend taking Jessica’s advice about anything, but should you ever find yourself in the odd circumstance of being offered her advice on talking to the police, do yourself a favor and don’t take it. We actually never find out if Diane takes the advice, because this is the last scene that she’s in.
Ironically, though (the irony is intentional), the next scene is of Lt. Bradshaw making the wild accusation that Kate Hollander killed Sid Sharkey.
For some reason there is a reporter and a photographer present for this accusation / interrogation, and Miss Hollander’s publicity agent directs the reporter to take down important information such as how Miss Hollander was about to buy a new series from Sid Sharkey. A mousy guy who might be her lawyer tries to get her to stop answering questions and the publicity guy to stop volunteering information, but to no avail.
Bradshaw asks her if she did or did not say, to Mrs. J.B. Fletcher, “I’m going to deal with Sid Sharkey in the strongest possible terms. You have my word he will no longer be a problem.” I knew that was going to come up again! She laughs, but he declares it to be a threat. He then demands to know where she was from 8 to 10, and she says that she was in bed reading scripts and her secretary was in bed with her, taking notes. That ends the interrogation.
Gayle shows up again in Jessica’s office. She thanks Jessica for her help on their script, and doesn’t want to seem ungrateful, but she’s decided that television isn’t for her. She’s got forty pages of a novel in her desk drawer, and though it means starvation for a while, she wants to give it another try. Jessica wishes her the best and offers to read the novel when it’s finished. They hug and Gayle leaves. It’s interesting that this character gets closure (of a kind), given that she was a very minor character who was basically just a plot device. It also means that what little character development she seemed to have on the car ride with Jessica went nowhere, which is a pity.
After Gayle leaves, Frieda comes into Jessica’s office with the news that she dug through the file drawer and Brenda’s personal services contract with Sid Sharkey is conspicuously absent. Jessica goes and talks to Brenda, who says she doesn’t know what Jessica is talking about. Just then, Lt. Bradshaw shows up.
I really like his line, here. He addresses Mrs. Fletcher: “Maybe we came up with the same three cherries on the slot machine, but I’ve got the warrant.” He arrests Brenda. After arresting her, he interrogates her in Jessica’s office.
No, I’m not kidding. Look:
I can only assume that they didn’t have the budget for a police station set, because this makes precisely zero sense. He’s just placed her under arrest with a warrant for her arrest—he’s supposed to take her to the police station, and from there to jail. He’s not supposed to take her to Jessica’s office. We’re also given no explanation as to why Jessica is there.
He presents the evidence against her, which is that she’s an actress who wanted to do a movie and Sid wouldn’t let her. Motive enough for him.
She replies, “Who says that he wasn’t going to let me off? The fact is: Bert Puzzo told me that Sid was having lunch with Perlman the next day at the Polo lounge. You know what that says to me? Sid was going to sell me off for a big price.” She couldn’t have known that at the time, but no one notices that. (Sid never actually accepted that appointment, either, but I suppose that doesn’t really matter because no one knew that except for Jessica and Frieda.)
She gives as her alibi that she was asleep in her trailer. Jessica plants a trap for her, telling her that the assistant director knocked several times but she didn’t answer. Brenda replies that she herd the knock but ignored it, then Jessica says that she just made it up. Bradshaw pounces and demands the truth, now that Jessica has disproved the hopelessly weak alibi Brenda initially offered.
Brenda admits that she went to Sid’s office to steal the personal services contract, because Sid wouldn’t have copies of important documents like that in a safe deposit box or on file with his lawyers. It was her footsteps that people heard shortly before 9pm. Jessica asks if she saw the pink package, and though she initially said that she didn’t notice, she thinks about it harder and is sure that she did see it on the desk.
Lt. Bradshaw exclaims, “Oh, great. That means anyone could have left it there earlier.”
Apparently he didn’t trust the alibi of being alone in her trailer, but he does believe the alibi of being at the crime scene shortly before the murder. Is that even an alibi? Perhaps he just believes in the force of his imperious commands to start telling the truth?
Be that as it may, Jessica replies, “Not just anyone. Someone specific.” Bradshaw asks her to share, but Jessica instead asks Frieda to come in, after ascertaining that the company is working until midnight. She knows who did it, but they have no proof, so they’re going to need a trap. I love how Jessica puts it: “Look, I don’t know how legal this is or if it’ll work, but without any real proof, it may be the only chance we have to catch the killer.”
I also love Bradshaw’s face when he hears this:
We next see Frieda confronting Bert and telling him that she knows that he murdered Sid, explaining that she knew he was in Sid’s office that night because he told Brenda about the appointment Sid had with Buddy Perlman and that call came in at 7pm, so he could only have known about it when he was putting the bomb on Sid’s desk. She then blackmails him and Avery Stone interrupts saying that he needs some notes typed up. Frieda complains that it will take hours, but Stone insists. Frieda says that she’ll talk with Bert later.
The Lieutenant and Jessica wait in Jessica’s office while Frieda types, but Puzzo never comes in to try to murder her. A police officer comes up and tells them that Puzzo never took the bait. The company broke only once for half an hour to eat, and during that time Puzzo only left to put his briefcase in the trunk of his car. Jessica finds this suspicious, because she has seen his car and it has no trunk.
Technically, she’s right. Earlier in the episode, when Diane was talking with Jessica, we did see Bert get into his jeep. This is the rare case of having to see something in the background of an episode:
A moment later he pulled back, revealing that in fact his jeep does not have a trunk, per se:
That said, saying that he put something into his trunk as a description for putting something into the storage area behind the seats would be a very natural way of describing that. It’s also very curious that they actually worked subtle detail into this scene when something else was going on.
Still, as I said, it’s not very convincing detail. Which is why, I suppose, they had to work into the script that it wasn’t. Jessica asks what kind of car was it Bert put the suitcase into, and where was it parked.
The next scene is a final scene of one of the Danger Doctor episodes:
I find it a little bit amusing that they’ve blocked the actors from our perspective, not from the perspective of the camera which is ostensibly filming. The director then calls cut and it’s a wrap. Jessica urgently talks to Bert. She tells him that something is up with Frieda, but he won’t believe it. When they walk to Bert’s trailer, Frieda approaches them carrying a gun. She demands that they go to her car, as she’s taking Bert in to the police.
When they get into the car, Frieda demands that Bert start the engine. When Bert refuses, Jessica says, “then I’ll do it” and reaches for the ignition. Bert shrieks “no!” and jumps out of the car in a dramatic roll, covering his head:
Police walk in from all angles. Lt. Bradshaw tells Bert that they already removed the bomb from the car that he’d planted. I’m not sure how he’d have planted an ignition-triggered bomb in the trunk, but perhaps he pulled an electrical line from the trunk light switch and wired into that. Bert just looks confused and scared.
The next day, Lt. Bradshaw thanks Jessica for her help. “Well, Mrs. Fletcher, I guess I oughta say thanks. You may not be much of a writer, but you’d make one hell of a cop.” Jessica replies, “Well, I’ll take that in the spirit in which it was intended… I think.” He offers her a ride, but she declines, saying that she needs to go resign as a writer for the show.
On her way to do that, she’s waylaid by Kate Hollander, who pitches the Jessica Fletcher Mystery Hour: the real life adventures of a crime-busting mystery writer. It will be “new, different, original… but familiar.”
Jessica replies, “Miss Hollander, I don’t write gun fights, car chases, or bedroom scenes, so who would watch? I’m sorry, but that is absolutely the worst idea that I have ever heard.” Then she laughs and we go to credits.
Overall, it’s a decent episode. It has interesting actors more than interesting characters, but they’re enjoyable to watch. I think that the weak characters were due to the episode having a larger than ordinary cast, so there wasn’t time to develop any of the characters. Frieda and Kate Hollander could have been cut from the episode with very little loss to it, though obviously with some minor changes. Brenda could have blackmailed Bert, and Sid Sharkey could have taken Kate’s role except for her closing joke (since he was dead by then; Avery Stone could have pitched the new show). Gayle could easily have been cut as well, with only a small modification necessary to bring Jessica in, or else her character could have been expanded if some others had been removed. It also would have done very little harm to the episode if Diane hadn’t been in it.
The plot… was also a bit weak.
There were two main drivers of the plot:
Avery Stone stealing the plot of Jessica’s latest book.
Everyone getting the current episode of Danger Doctor filmed.
Neither of these is really very interesting. I don’t care if anyone steals the plot to Jessica’s book for a TV show where they have to adapt it significantly for it to make any sense on the TV show, and neither, frankly, does Jessica. There’s no way that the episode of Danger Doctor would reduce the readership of Jessica’s book by even a single reader. Apart from changing out the detective, they’re going to change the tone and pacing, and leave out most of what people read novels for. They’re also going to have to restructure the story so that Dr. Valiant could solve the case with a fist fight. I doubt the book would even be recognizable in the episode. Jessica only make’s a (half-hearted) attempt to complain to Kate Hollander as a favor to Gayle.
Speaking of Gayle, I think that her career was meant to be a driver of the plot, too, except that it clearly didn’t drive anything except Jessica that one time. She was being forced on Avery Stone in order to have a female writer—for simplicity they leave out all of the male writers the show would have had, because a hit show at the time would have had a bunch of staff writers—and so all she has to do in order to have the job is accept it. So the episode is forced to have her not want the job, which is more than a little strange. However, her career path is that if she wants the job, it’s hers. There isn’t any danger, there, or at least nothing for Jessica to do, nor for anyone else to do. This is all on Gayle, so it can’t really drive the plot in any way. So much so that in order to try to keep Gayle alive in the story they pretended that Lt. Bradshaw summoned her to the scene of the crime in order interrogate her, despite her never having met the victim and having precisely zero motive.
The other main driver of the plot—getting an episode of Danger Doctor filmed—is only slightly more interesting than is the stealing of a plot from one of Jessica’s books. There are several problems here, one of which is just that as pretend within pretend that we don’t see much of and won’t see the result, it doesn’t really matter to us if the episode is filmed on time. A bigger problem is that none of the characters are invested in Danger Doctor. It is supposed to be a popular show, and yet no one on it is any good, and no one on it even cares. The producers only care that episodes get finished, the director only wants to get the producers off his back, and the actors don’t even want to act. And to be fair to the actors, the scripts are pretty bad, or at least the parts we’ve heard them read are. So why on earth should we, the viewers, care if the episode gets finished?
This is a problem that a lot of murder mysteries can fall into. In order to have suspects, people have to have motives. It’s easier for people to have motives when everyone’s relationships are highly disfunctional. The problem with that is that it’s not interesting to read about highly disfunctional groups of people, since everyone is bad and no one deserves any better than they already have. This can be overcome if the detective, in solving the case, fixes everyone such that the disfunction is made functional, but that’s not easy to do and so is rarely done.
Far more interesting is mostly functional people, were the murderer has a lapse where they give into temptation, rather than the murderer being the person among the group who would have done it given time except that one of them happened to do it first.
Which makes me think of another weakness in the plot: the murder didn’t really affect any of the characters, other than making some people’s lives a little more convenient. Catching the murderer didn’t do anything to restore the community damaged by the murder since the community wasn’t really damaged by the murder, since there wasn’t really a community to be damaged by the murder. It takes much of the satisfaction out of the solution.
The last thing I’d like to consider are the jokes about Murder, She Wrote itself. There were a few, but the final one is sufficient. By the time that Jessica says that The Jessica Fletcher Mystery Hour would never work, Murder, She Wrote was in its fourth season. They couldn’t know it at the time, but it would go on to have eight more seasons. Still, they knew that the concept worked well.
Now, I think the joke would have been funny had Jessica left it at saying that she doesn’t write car chases, gun fights, or bedroom scenes, so who would watch? This implies that there are better things, but perhaps only special people appreciate them. It leaves the door open for most people appreciating them and car chases, gun fights, and bedroom scenes not being as popular as the makers of TV think that they are. When Jessica goes on to say that the Jessica Fletcher Mystery Hour is the worst idea she’s ever heard, this feels more like it’s meant to make fun of people who were iffy on green-lighting Murder, She Wrote. It feels like this all the more because it breaks character for Jessica, since it’s rude. You can see this in Miss Hollander’s reaction to Jessica calling it the worst idea she’s ever heard:
I know I harp on it a lot that, despite being from Cabot Cove in about four episodes per season, Jessica is really a big city character. That’s true, but even people from big cities have manners.
It’s even weirder that Jessica’s reaction to hurting Miss Hollander’s feelings with her rudeness is to then laugh. If you scroll back and look at the freeze frame on the closing credit, that was right after looking at the pain in Miss Hollander’s face.
In the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode The Way To Dusty Death. It is one of the greatest of the Big Business episodes, in the sense of being most about Big Business without knowing anything about business, especially big business. You can see this even in the opening card:
The episode is not set anywhere in New York City, or at least not in any of the buildings pictured here, yet what symbolizes big business better than lower Manhattan with its dominating skyline?
The title of the episode is, of course, a reference to MacBeth’s most famous solliloquy, said immediately after learning that Lady MacBeth had just died:
She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
MacBeth did murder for a kingdom. In this episode, murder is done for a corporation, setting it up as an ersatz kingdom. In many ways this will be the theme of the episode, which is what makes this episode the epitome of Murder She Wrote Big Business episodes.
Murder, She Wrote had an attitude towards big business which was typical of its time in Hollywood. It’s equal parts disgust, envy, distrust, and scapegoat. Businessmen were all, in the eyes of Hollywood writers, unscrupulous and greedy. In many ways they were written as jocks with big wallets instead of big muscles.
This episode will pay tribute to the play MacBeth in a variety of ways. For example, right after the opening credits, the first scene is a psychic rubbing a watch.
He foretells wealth and power for those bold enough to take quick and decisive action for it that most men would shrink from. I suppose having one witch instead of three can be attributed to budget cuts, and it being a man instead of a woman makes it an homage rather than mere copying. He’s telling this fortune to a woman and a man.
This is our Lady MacBeth for the episode (sort of). The episode’s MacBeth is played by a familiar face:
The actor is Richard Beymer. We last saw him as Sydney in The Days Dwindle Down. Here he’s Morgan MacCormack, an ambitious businessman.
The psychic goes on to say that Mr. McCormack must beware of a very determined woman whose will is even more powerful than his.
After the psychic leaves, the wife (whose name is Virginia, by the way) decides that the fortune means that Morgan will be appointed chairman (we’re not told of what, yet). As they debate this, the phone rings. It’s the chairman of the board of directors of Company Corp. He invites the couple to come to his house for the weekend. The chairman intends to make a big announcement. Virginia is certain this means that he’s going to resign and make Morgan the new chairman (because that’s how companies work in Hollywood—though, to be fair, in reality if a former chairman of a board of directors who is leaving under good circumstances and makes a strong recommendation, it is likely to be heeded by the board). The one thing she wonders is who is the determined woman with a strong will? Then we cut to this scene:
The episode strongly implies that the determined woman of strong will is Jessica, though I’m not certain that’s right, in the end. I’ll get to that in the episode analysis later. The woman to the left of Jessica is Lydia Barnett, wife of Duncan Barnett, the chairman of the board of directors of Barnett Industries. (You’ll recall that the king who MacBeth killed to take over the throne was named Duncan.) They are admiring Lydia’s garden when Duncan comes up:
When Jessica turns down the (joking) offer of being gardener on their estate because after all of the effort it took to tame her garden she doesn’t have the heard to begin again, Duncan remarks that Jessica is afraid of nothing, which is why he asked her to join their board of directors. This is slightly odd as it’s normally publicly traded corporations that have a board of directors and the board members of a publicly traded corporation are elected by the shareholders. (Granted, often at the recommendation of the top management of the company.)
Jessica has, apparently, been on the board for some time as she makes reference to the most recent board meeting. Also, apparently the company owns a paper mill near Jessica’s home town which Barnett wants to close and Jessica wants to keep open because its closure will put many of her neighbors out of work (the size and composition of Cabot Cove varies considerably with each episode).
We’re then introduced to two more suspects characters:
The guy on the left is Spruce Osborn, a competitor to Barnett, and the woman is Serena. These two are the first characters who don’t have any obvious analog in MacBeth. Lydia receives them ungraciously for some reason. She directs a manservant (“James”) to show Spruce to a suite that adjoins Duncan’s suite—it was her husband’s specific wish.
It comes up in conversation, once Spruce leaves, that he’s been trying to take over the company—he made Jessica “a very generous offer” for her shares. This really makes me wonder about the ownership of the company. If the majority of shares are owned by Duncan, then Spruce has zero chance of acquiring the company without Duncan selling to him. If Duncan owns a minority of the shares, it’s not his company. I don’t think that we’re ever going to find out because I don’t think that the writers ever thought it through.
The action moves to the tennis courts on Duncan’s estates. We meet another couple who have been summoned to this weekend:
The wife is Kate Dutton, and the husband is Tom Dutton. We also meet another “vice president” who is also a board member—the writers really don’t keep the corporate structure straight—Anne Hathaway:
The name is curious, as it’s another Shakespeare reference, though not to The Tragedy of MacBeth. Anne Hathaway was the name of Shakespeare’s wife. We know approximately nothing about her beyond her name, so in this case it really is the case that any similarity to real people, living or dead, are purely coincidental.
The scene moves to Jessica and Kate Dutton, who are sitting at a table drinking iced tea. Kate remarks to Jessica that she has trouble keeping up with modern women, and Jessica replies that she doesn’t think that modern women are really all that different. I suppose Jessica should know, since she is one.
I know I keep beating on this drum, but Jessica is always written as a big city character. She holds to no traditions and the only thing she disapproves of is getting in the way of other people’s fun. For all that Jessica is supposed to be from Cabot Cove, the only way to tell is that she frequently says it. Though not in this episode, as I recall. If this episode was the only episode anyone saw, they’d quite possibly come away with the impression that Jessica lives in New York City.
That aside, it was a strange remark for Kate Dutton to have made. You can find all sorts of modern women—in the sense Kate means—back in the 1920s. In the late 1980s she really should have been used to them since they were common enough when she was still a babe in arms. Kate doesn’t really defend her remark, though, she just shifts slightly and says that she could never keep up with Anne Hathaway. There’s a bit more discussion where Kate admits that the wives of senior executes go through all sorts of scrutiny and put on performances to help their husbands ascent the corporate ladder.
Another facet of big business, as written by hollywood writers, is that they really want to be writing stories about kings and dukes and court intrigues, and seem to figure that a CEO and vice presidents are basically the same thing, or at least are close enough. I don’t know that this is harmless; I’ve met people whose stupid politics seem to have been based on this sort of nonsense in TV shows. Of course, they also usually thought that kings didn’t have responsibilities, either, so possibly the bigger problem was that all they knew of anything came from TV shows, and I doubt that well written TV shows would have helped all that much for a person in such dire intellectual straits.
That evening, there is a party in formal dress outside of the Barnett mansion:
Duncan comes in talking with Anne Hathaway and his wife reminds him of his medication. He orders a selters with no salt and Spruce Osborn objects, telling the bartender to give Duncan a brandy. Duncan demurs, saying that his doctor only allows him one brandy—before bed—and that’s it. Then he finally makes his announcement. He plans to continue continue being the whatever-the-hell-he-is of Barnett Industries for a very long time. (The writers actually side-step what on earth he is by having him say “the rumors of my imminent resignation have been greatly exaggerated.”)
He then bids his guests a good evening, and retires for the night.
Virginia and Kate follow him and assure him that they’re delighted to hear that he’s going to remain king. He laughs in their faces, and continues on his way to bed.
The next scene shows Morgan and Virginia talking in their room about their disappointment. Morgan reassures his wife that time is on their side, and she suggests that they speed things up. Morgan is reluctant, but she resolves to do it.
We then see a spoon drop white powder into a brandy snifter while Virginia’s voice says that the only reason he can’t do it is that he doesn’t have the guts:
This is a bit of a departure from MacBeth, as in the play lady MacBeth only urges MacBeth to kill his king, she doesn’t actually do it herself. She only takes over after, in performing the coverup.
Though it is a small departure from MacBeth, it is a large departure from Murder, She Wrote. It does not, normally, show us who the murderer is before the investigation has started. This leaves us with only two options:
It is not Virginia or Morgan who is poisoning the brandy.
It is not the brandy that kills Duncan.
In a few seconds, we find out that it’s option #2.
The camera pans over to show that the TV is plugged in, but that doesn’t matter much. Interestingly, when Jessica comes into Duncan’s bedroom to comfort his grieving widow, the glass of brandy is still sitting on the night table. Jessica notices it, too.
They didn’t make this subtle, so we find out that the brandy didn’t kill him within moments of seeing it be poisoned. (I do suspect that there was a commercial break inbetween, so the writers would have expected it to be several minutes, rather than seconds. Also, there’s a short scene of Jessica reading a book, the night before, and the lights dimming for a bit, causing her to look at her clock.)
I’m really not sure what to make of this, because what’s the point in pointing us in one direction only to conclusively change the direction moments later?
There’s an interesting clue presented in the next scene. It’s some time later and Jessica is comforting Lydia (Duncan’s wife) while Spruce Osborn gives her his condolences. He says, “I just wanted to extend my sympathies, Mrs. Barnett. Duncan and I were adversaries, but I wish it hadn’t had to be this way.” Jessica asks, “had to be this way?” and Osborn replies, “I didn’t mean that the way it sounds.” I think that this is meant to be a red herring, though it suffers a little bit from the typical Murder, She Wrote issue of anything that’s too obvious being certain to be a red herring. Plus, you wouldn’t expect the murderer to make so obvious of a slip before anything has had a chance to go wrong.
Spruce makes his goodbyes and leaves with Serena, then Dr. Chatsworth says that Duncan probably suffered very little.
With his weak heart, the electrical shock killed him almost instantly. The doctor figures that he had a heart attack and in struggling to get out of the tub, he pulled the TV in with him. Now, this is the only shot they give us of the TV stand and the tub before things might have been moved:
(the TV stand is the dark wooden stand in the foreground) and it’s not great because of the foreshortening, but in a later panning shot they establish that the stand is a good three or four feet away from the tub. The cord is at basically full extension and is at least 6′ long, with the outlet being right next to the stand. If he had knocked it off of the stand, it would have fallen on the floor. He’d have had to carry it backwards several steps to be able to drop it in the tub. Granted, this isn’t the sort of thing one has an entire course on in medical school, but it does make me question the good doctor’s judgment.
Jessica asks if it could have been the other way around, and the TV could have fallen in the water before the heart attack. The doctor says that he supposes that it was possible it happened that way. Lydia then starts unburdening herself to Jessica, saying that she used to warm him about watching TV in the tub, and even gave him a stand because he used to perch the TV on the edge (confirming that the TV really was quite far away from the tub).
As Lydia gets more emotional, Jessica offers her a drop of brandy. She gestures over at the brandy glass, but it’s missing!
“Strange, I thought I saw a glass of brandy there.”
It is helpful to point out that the glass of brandy is missing, but it is more than a bit strange to offer someone brandy from an already poured glass when you don’t know who the owner of the glass is. Even if she presumed it to be Duncan, “would you like to drink the brandy your freshly dead husband poured for himself but never got a chance to drink?” is not a question I would normally expect Jessica to ask.
I suspect that the problem is that this is not something that they can be subtle about, precisely because it’s a TV show, and a TV show from the late 1980s. That caused two problems which made subtlety difficult.
The first is specific to the 1980s: televisions didn’t show detail well, especially because so many people watched TV on broadcast television and so static was an issue in addition to the relatively low resolution of TVs at the time. As a result, if you wanted viewers to see things clearly, you had to be cropped in fairly closely on what you wanted them to see. As you can see above, to show us that the brandy glass is missing they have to zoom in. In these close-cropped shots, you can’t tell where you are within the room; if they merely showed an empty night-stand we might reasonably think we’re just being shown a different night-stand.
The second problem is more general to television: continuity problems abound in TV shows, so we might also reasonably conclude that a missing brandy glass which the script doesn’t mention was just a continuity error. If you compare the shot of the white powder being poured into the brandy glass with the shot of the missing brandy glass, you can see that they’re not in the same place relative to the lamp, they’re not next to the same lamp, and they’re not next to the same wall. (If you compare to wider shots of the room, they’re not even in the same room.)
Technically, the scene of the powder being poured into the brandy glass could have been meant to take place in an entirely different room, but that doesn’t make sense with either the plot or with the way the scene with the powder was shot. After the powder was poured, the spoon was used to stir the brandy very quietly, as if to avoid detection. Who would bother to quietly stir a glass of brandy in the privacy of their own room, before carrying it over to Duncan’s room? Who would switch brandy glasses and thus have to get the level very close to perfectly accurate, not to mention having to take the trouble of wearing gloves while carrying it or else wipe it afterwards? It was clearly meant to be lacing the glass that Duncan had already poured himself (and told the assembled crowd about at the party, earlier). Yet if you look at the subtleties, the details are all wrong, except for the glass itself. Heck, even the room wrong—in Duncan’s room the bottom 3′ of the wall are a dull green color with dark wood baseboard and a beige carpet, whereas in the scene with the powder we can see a white wall with white baseboard and a tiny amount of green carpet. (You can see the wall-to-wall carpet and baseboard in other shots of Duncan’s bedroom.) So we’re left with two possibilities: the person poisoning Duncan’s drink acted in an absurd manner, or there were continuity errors. My money is on the latter.
Regardless of which way you choose to interpret the different rooms, stands, and lamps, the fact that it’s an open question makes it difficult to rely on subtleties in TV shows. The writers have to work anything the audience is supposed to notice into the dialog, or at least into the plot—such as having a character pick something up and examine it. It could have been done more naturally than offering the widow her dead husband’s glass of brandy he didn’t get to drink, but I think it is more forgivable when one considers the necessities of TV shows, especially from this era.
Anyway, Morgon interrupts Jessica’s observation that there had been a brandy glass on the table by expressing his condolences, then asking to borrow Jessica for business. He informs her that he’s called an emergency meeting of the board of directors for that evening. Jessica is surprised that it’s tonight and asks if that isn’t a little hasty. I can’t imagine why she’d think it would be hasty—Duncan is very clearly dead. It would be one thing if he were lost at sea, or in the woods, or anyplace that he might still be alive and in consequence presuming him to be dead could be hasty. In this case, the doctor has given a death certificate. Also, the board of directors is less than a dozen people. It’s not like there are thousands of members of the board, many of whom will not be able to arrive for days. There’s nothing to wait for that could make this hasty.
Instead of pointing any of this out, Morgan merely says “perhaps” but that there are things that the board must decide before the market opens on the morrow, and that this tragedy is all that Spruce Osborn needs to stage a takeover. How this could help Spruce Osborn to stage a takeover is never mentioned, probably because there is no way for it to help that. Takeovers consist of buying shares from people who own them, not in riding up to castles with armies before the castle has had time to prepare and before they can be sure of who will support them during a siege. Duncan dying is not going to make a large number of people instantly willing to sell, especially if Duncan owned the majority of shares anyway. I think that this is probably just best understood as the need to elect a new king before the French seize on the moment of disarray to invade. There would actually be some truth to that necessity and possibility.
Morgan says that he understands that it’s short notice and that Jessica is very busy and he will understand if she can’t make it. She says that of course she’ll be there and he very clumsily tries to talk her out of it, saying that it will be very boring. Jessica points out that they’ll be choosing a new chairman of the board, and he guiltily admits that they will. If he was trying to lose her vote, he couldn’t have done a better job.
We then get an establishing shot of the king’s castle:
I mean, of the Barnett industries office building. Morgan and Tom Dutton are at each other’s throats, especially Tom Dutton. When Jessica arrives, Morgan welcomes her, and strangely Jessica says that she doesn’t expect to be able to help much, since she doesn’t know much about business. This is a complete change from her earlier stance of it being critical that she be there because they will be electing a new chairman of the board. I suppose that complete change makes Morgan’s complete change of reassuring her that her input will be valuable (“it’s people like you who keep us honest”) at least intelligible. Why any of this happened, I cannot tell.
Then the final board member shows up:
His name is Q.L. Frubson, the former assitant secretary of the treasury (of what, we’re not told; but he makes a point of saying that his boss was the one who was indicted, he resigned without a blemish on his record). He’s played by Ray Walston. Walston was in a ton of things (he has acting 155 credits on IMDB). I knew him best as the judge from Picket Fences, though he wouldn’t do that until 1992. Here, he plays a professional board member who is gruff and doesn’t want to be here. He arrives complaining about the travel to get here and how he as to take a 2am flight to get to his next board meeting the next day at the next company (whose name he can’t recall).
Jessica suggests that they begin with a moment of silence in Duncan’s memory, but Frubson objects saying that there is nothing in the rules of order about moments of silence, and besides Duncan would never have observed one himself. Given that he had to refresh his memory about what company he’s in, it’s curious that he seems to have known Barnett personally.
During an interlude where Jessica speaks confidentially with the secretary, it comes out that Duncan had been taking digitalis since his heart attack, and took two pills every day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Jessica calls the doctor and asks if it would be possible to find out if he had been given an overdose of the medication. The doctor says that it would, but the test needs to be done soon. He hangs up to order it.
It would be a bit odd if Duncan had been poisoned by brandy that we know he didn’t drink, so I’m not sure what’s on Jessica’s mind, here. It would not have been easy for anyone to have poisoned Duncan after dinner when he wouldn’t be likely to eat or drink anything before bed except that brandy.
I want to take a moment to look at the shot of the doctor when Jessica calls him:
Jessica opens her purse before calling, as if to pull out a paper and look up something. It strikes me as a bit odd that the doctor gave Jessica his home phone number, but perhaps she managed to wrangle that out of somebody else, and made a few calls and we’re only seeing the last, successful one. What I find more interesting is the setup. The whole thing just oozes eurdite authority. There’s the bookshelf filled with old books, many of them bound in leather. There’s the high backed chair, the table with tasteful nicknacks, and of course the jacket worn over his dress shirt which is only unbuttoned at the neck. Who, in 1987, gets home after a hard day of work, takes off only his tie, and puts on a jacket to relax? In 1887 Sherlock Holmes might do this because (1) no clothing was particularly comfortable at the time, knit cotton jersey not being common yet and (2) without central heating, indoor jackets were useful for comfort in the cool of British evenings. I really love how antique everything about this shot is except for the electric light and the telephone. It really fits Murder, She Wrote well.
The first order of business is to elect a new chairman of the board. Morgan and Tom each vote for themselves plus each gets one other vote. Anne Hathaway abstains, Frubson votes for Anne Hathaway, and Jessica doesn’t know what to do, so the vote is postponed. Tom and Morgan begin courting her for her vote, with Tom going first, over takeout dinner in the chairman’s office. We get the backstory that Tom has been with the company since he was seventeen, and has been everything from mail boy to factory foreman. Duncan as good as promised him that he would take over at some point.
After they’re done, they walk into Morgan telling Frubson that he knows why Frubson gave his support to Anne and he won’t let Frubson get away with it. Morgan then apologizes to Anne saying that she’s qualified but he’s only being realistic about the market’s perception of a chairwoman. Anne tells him that she understands. It makes no sense that Morgan waited this long to say this to Frubson, given that he wasn’t waiting for privacy to say it. The viewer needed to see it, though, so it’s one of those cases where we just pretend that no one is doing anything while the camera is away. Frubson excuses himself to go call the airline to change his flight.
Jessica forgot her sandwich in Duncan’s office, so she goes back to get it. She walks in on Frubson talking to Spruce Osborn on the phone. He doesn’t notice her as she walks in, but when he finally notices her he pretends he’s talking to the airport. This scene fades to an establishing shot of the next day, on what I’m pretty sure is a different building than the one we saw at night:
It’s hard to be absolutely sure that this is a different building, since the shot at night was not exactly a 4k HDR shot, but at a minimum the angle is very different. That said, I’m 99% sure it has a different number of windows per vertical column. This gets to what I was talking about before—that a problem television has is that you can’t trust visual details because they may simply be a lack of continuity. Frankly, it’s actually doubtful that the outside establishing shots were shot for this episode; if they weren’t straight-up stock footage, they may well have been shots gathered on an expedition (seasons before) to get some b-roll to be used for establishing shots on other episodes. At the time of shooting, they may never have been intended to represent the same thing at all.
(A curious example of this reuse of footage for a different purpose is in the movie Terminator 2, the closing shot of a car driving in the dark over which Sarah Connor gives her closing narration in voiceover was actually shot on approach to the hospital, earlier in the film. It lacked any detail to give away that it wasn’t Sarah and John driving away from where the T-1000 hunted them, though, so it was used in a way to suggest that. TV, with lower budgets than movies, tended to be even more economical about these sorts of things.)
In short, when writing a TV show you can’t expect the viewer to look closely at shots to find clues because the entire nature of television shows is that you don’t want the viewer looking too closely.
Inside the building, the board is still in the board room arguing over who should be the chairman of the board. Jessica gives one of her moral scoldings that might have had some weight if she ever disliked anything besides unpleasantness. (See the conclusion to Murder She Wrote: When Thieves Fall Out.) The upshot is that Tom moves to make Morgan temporary chairman for ninety days. Anne Hathaway, who is the only one really selling the idea that they’ve been up all night, moves that they make the motion unanimous, and everyone agrees, though Frubson is very reluctant to do so.
This is one of those issues with TV, btw, that all of the people who are, theoretically, completely exhausted are all being played by actors who got plenty of sleep the night before the scene was filmed. It’s not very important to the plot, here, but it sometimes is (as in the case of drunks played by sober people). It’s related to how Movies Are Intrinsically Misleading. It actually gets worse later that day, though, when the people who should be even more tired are now all completely wide awake.
Jessica comes into Morgan’s office and talks to him about his accusation to Mr. Frubson the night before. She did some digging and it turns out that Frubson served on four boards of companies that had been taken over by Spruce Osborn. Morgan assures her that he’s going to get Frubson off of the board as soon as possible. How, I’ve got no idea, since that’s not really how boards of directors work, but who cares? This episode isn’t really about corporations.
In the next scene Jessica walks into a room where Anne Hathaway and Tom Dutton are talking in a conspiratorial manner. Anne says that she agrees with Tom, but can be of most use to him if she keeps her nose clean. He insists that she can “get those proxies signed”. Why he thinks this, I’ve no idea. Proxy solicitation is the sort of thing that proxy solicitation companies do. It’s labor-intensive work to try to convince shareholders to have someone be their proxy in shareholder voting. A vice president/member of the board of directors isn’t going to have any special ability to “get proxies signed,” unless she happens to be personal friends with a major shareholder. Who, incidentally, is likely to be Duncan’s widow. At least if the suggestions that Duncan held a controlling fraction of the shares of his company are true, it would basically be up to Lydia to determine who is on the board of directors, so you’d expect the members of the board to be sucking up to her.
Jessica asks for directions to Spruce Osborn, and for some reason Anne knows his home address. Jessica goes and visits him. He tells her that if she’s come to sell her shares, he’s no longer buying, and has withdrawn his bid. Jessica asks him about Frubson, and he admits that Frubson is his man, and because Frubson was unable to complete his mission, he has withdrawn his bid. He sold his Barnett Industries stock this morning, before the news of Barnett’s death got out. He does plan to buy it back if the stock goes low enough. I don’t really follow the logic, here; nothing Frubson could have done would have resulted in Osborn wanting to not sell his stock prior to its value dropping because of the news of Duncan’s death. In fact, as far as I can tell, Frubson’s mission was to prevent a new chairman from being elected, which would, presumably, make the stock plummet even more. That would give him even more incentive to get out of the stock, not less. I really hope that the writers of this episode kept their money in bonds, or gold, or pork bellies, or something that they understood at least a little bit.
Jessica accuses Osborn of killing Duncan (not in those words) and Osborn said that if he had wanted to win, he would have. His advice to Jessica is to look at who did win.
The next scene is of Morgan talking to Virginia about how Jessica knows what they did. He realizes that she must have seen the brandy glass before he took it away. Again, this is strange because it’s just rehashing how they didn’t kill Duncan. Given how pressed for time Murder, She Wrote is, it seems like a waste of time. There is a callback to the fortune teller from the opening, when Morgan identifies Jessica as the woman with a will more powerful than his. Perhaps it was to keep that opening alive? But why? We’ve (pretty) clearly established that Morgan and Virginia didn’t kill Duncan. Maybe this is an attempt at a red herring?
Jessica talks with the doctor on the way into the Barnett house for the funeral. The digitalis test is taking a long time, so instead Jessica proposes counting the pills. The doctor only needs to call his office to find out how many Duncan should have had left. He goes off to do that and Jessica talks with Lydia. When Jessica tells her that she thinks it was murder, Lydia tells Jessica that she knew that Duncan was having an affair with some woman. The doctor comes back and tells Jessica that four pills are missing, and that would have been sufficient to induce a heart attack. Lydia exclaims, “then it was murder!”
Kate Dutton, who was just walking into the room, drops the vase of flowers she was carrying when she hears the word, “murder.” Jessica and the doctor go up to look at the hot tub, and Kate follows them. She tells Jessica that the night Duncan died she passed by his room and heard voices coming from the hot tub. Duncan was in there with Serena—the girl who came with Spruce Osborn.
Jessica and the doctor examine the hot tub area and Jessica finds a gold charm.
The next scene is at the close of the funeral. Some guy (who later turns out to be police Lieutenant Grayson) comes up and gives the results of the digitalis test—there was no overdose of digitalis in Duncan’s system. They ran the test twice just to be absolutely sure.
At the reception at the house, Jessica sees Serena go up to Duncan’s hot tub to look for her missing charm. Jessica follows Serena and confronts her with it. Serena admits to being in the hot tub but claims that she and Duncan never did anything, and Jessica concludes that Duncan had Serena insinuate herself with Spruce to gather information on him, which she admits.
Jessica then goes off to find Morgan to accuse him of attempting to murder Duncan. Morgan denies it but Jessica blackmails him and Virginia admits it. She talks with Jessica privately (and promises to deny everything she will say). She begins by telling Jessica about their psychic’s prediction to be ware of a woman with a powerful will. Jessica asks her about what happened because she’s more interested in figuring out who did kill Duncan than in proving that Morgan and Virginia only tried to. It turns out that Morgan was going to do it but was scared off by the sound of a woman’s voice coming from the bathroom. Jessica remarks, “Oh, yes, Serena.” Virginia doesn’t know, however, because it was impossible to identify the voice with the water gushing and the door closed.
The remark, “the door closed,” gives Jessica the critical insight. Cue clue face:
Jessica then sets the trap to catch the murderer:
The guy is Lieutenant Grayson. (I had to look him up on IMDB.) They mention him elsewhere in the episode, but he got exceedingly little screen time. They go to where Kate said she heard Serena, and Jessica asks if she’s sure that it was Serena. Kate is absolutely positive. Lt. Grayson then uses his radio to tell people in the hot tub to start talking, and we hear muffled voices. Kate says that the door was slightly open that night, and they slightly open the door, though the voices are still too muffled to identify.
Kate then says that she actually saw Serena. Unfortunately for her, Serena left by the connecting door, as Duncan had placed Spruce (and thus Serena) in the room right next to his. The only way she could have known that Serena was there was if she were hiding in Duncan’s room, waiting for Serena to leave.
Kate, confused and scared, said that she doesn’t know what Jessica is talking about, this is obviously Serena’s voice. The Lieutenant leads the way, and it turns out to be the doctor and Anne Hathaway.
Kate tries to blame Anne, though that makes no sense whatever and Lt. Grayson says that Anne has an airtight alibi.
Kate then breaks down, saying that she didn’t mean to kill Duncan. She only wanted to talk to him. It was so unfair the way she had been treating Tom. She begged him to give Tom a chance and his only response was to ask her to adjust the horizontal hold on the way out. (For those not familiar, analog TVs had timing signals that controlled what information was on which line; they could be manually adjusted with dials because the timing signals were not always picked up on properly by the television, especially if there was interference.) As she adjusted it for him, she got angry and threw the television in.
Curiously, in the flashback she walks several steps over to put the TV in the far side of the tub. This is actually consistent with where it was found, which is almost surprising. I wonder why they put it so far from where the stand was, though? The character had no real reason to do it, and I can’t even think of why the TV crew would want the prop there instead of closer.
Interestingly, Kate says that she’s not sorry that she did it. You only get one of those exclamations in about one out of ten Murder, She Wrotes, if that. “He was a horrible man and he just used people. He’d find good men, and just use them up.”
The final scene is at the Barnett industries corporate building. I think that the building in the establishing shot is a a different building yet again, making that three different buildings in three establishing shots of the same building:
As I said, you really can’t trust details in a TV show.
Curiously, we actually get a fair amount of closure on the non-murder plot in this episode. Anne Hathaway is voted chairman of the board, nominated by Tom Dutton. Jessica commends him because it had to be hard, and Tom replies that there was no other choice, with Morgan’s resignation. He would just be a liability, and he doesn’t think that he’s going to be around much longer. Anne tells Jessica that the paper mill is going to stay open. Jessica says that it’s very public-spirited of Anne, but Anne replies that it’s just a business decision. They’ve bought three magazines and her figures show that if they can make their own paper, they will save a lot of money.
Jessica says that the company seems to be in good hands, and Anne gives Jessica her word that it is. “I’m a very determined woman.” Jessica smiles—possibly connecting this with the psychic’s prediction she was told about—and we go to credits.
All things considered, this is a very strange episode. It derives a certain amount of inspiration from The Tragedy of MacBeth, but not really enough to be called an homage. It doesn’t take any of the real insight into human nature from MacBeth, which is what an homage should do. It doesn’t even much steal any of the plot from MacBeth, either. All in all, it’s about as related to MacBeth as Murder She Wrote: Night Of The Headless Horseman was to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I suppose it was a bit much to expect more, but there was a certain amount of promise in the beginning.
One thing that I will give this episode is that it was beautiful. The major locations were luxurious and opulent. Duncan’s home was delightful to look at, the board room had beautiful wood paneling and excellent furniture.
The plot, itself, is fairly basic; a rich man was killed in order to take what was his. The setup was a bit complicated but the mystery itself was relatively simple. Since we can rule out Morgan and Virginia, the only other suspects were Lydia (Duncan’s wife), Spruce Osborn, Serena, and the Duttons. We can rule out Spruce because he’s not the sort of man to do his own dirty work just to complete one more business deal that wasn’t that important to him. We can rule out Serena because her only motive would be… I don’t know. I can’t even think of a motive. Maybe doing Spruce’s dirty work, except that wouldn’t even make sense. So we can cross her off too. As far as I can tell, she was only in this episode in order to have someone in the hot tub with Duncan shortly before he was killed.
Other than the Duttons, that only leaves Lydia. She’s unlikely since she starts off seeming like an old friend of Jessica’s, but that’s not impossible. Old friends of Jessica do occasionally murder people in Murder, She Wrote. She’d have been a good choice in terms of being the least likely suspect, since the entire episode pointed to a business reason for the murder. If Lydia killed Duncan because she was enraged at his infidelity, that would be a reasonable motive and a great way to foil expectations. The real problem was that she just wasn’t enough of a character in the story. She’s a loyal wife in the beginning and seems to have affection for her husband. After that, she’s a grieving widow in about two scenes. Granted, Kate Dutton didn’t have that much more screen time, still, we did at least get some of her motivations. We really have no idea what motivated Lydia.
Actually, it’s a bit worse than that. We really have no idea what Lydia’s relationship to anyone was. She and Jessica speak to each other in affectionate ways about gardening, but there’s no indication that the two actually knew each other before that day. She barely talks to her husband, but does show some concern for him, at least enough to remind him to take his medication. She also cared enough to be jealous of Anne Hathaway. On the other hand, she slept in a separate bedroom and was sure that Duncan was having an affair with someone.
Those last two are a bit strange, actually. I’m pretty sure that she slept in a separate bedroom because it would have been near-impossible to have Duncan murdered in his hot tub if Lydia slept in the same bedroom as her husband. The justification for it we were offered was that Duncan’s idea of relaxing was to listen to stock quotes before going to sleep, which is fair enough. Wanting to go to sleep at different times is a legitimate reason to sleep in different rooms, though Duncan could easily have watched TV in a recliner somewhere before he walked off to bed, which makes one wonder if this was less about simple practicality and more about the state of their marriage.
The part where Lydia was sure that Duncan was having an affair with someone, though, really needed more explanation. Why was she sure of this? Why did she even suspect it? This was the last substantive thing that Lydia ever said in the episode, though. She was interrupted by the doctor coming in, and her only other line in the scene—which is the last scene she’s in—is her telling Kate not to worry about the dropped flowers. I suppose Lydia not getting any closure on her character doesn’t matter all that much with her character never having been developed.
I do want to consider the character of Serena a little bit more, as it doesn’t really make sense either. She was only substantively in one scene, where it’s revealed that her airhead demeanor earlier on was merely for show. She was actually a spy for Barnett, who had planted her as Spruce Osborn’s girlfriend in order to gain information. Completely unexplained was how she and Barnett knew each other. Since she invokes copulating with Spruce on the night of Duncan’s death as an alibi, this would make her a prostitute as well as a spy if she’s being paid for it, and if not, what terms could she possibly be on with Barnett to do this for free? If she was being paid for it, though, why would she undress to get into the hot tub with Barnett in order to convey the information she was being paid for? In 1987 she wouldn’t have had a cell phone to call him to relay this information but landline telephones were easy to come by. She would hardly have moved in with Spruce having only started dating him a few weeks before, so she’d have her own telephone, too. Even if she didn’t want calls to Barnett to show up on her telephone bill for fear of Spruce finding out (somehow), in the late 1980s pay phones were plentiful. There was absolutely no reason to meet Barnett clandestinely at night in order to relay the secrets she acquired, to say nothing of getting undressed to do it. On the other hand, she was very clear that she and Duncan never did anything physical, and had no reason to lie about this. No matter how you slice it, I can’t make out a motivation for her to go to the lengths she did to spy on Spruce Osborn or why she was in the hot tub with Duncan in order to tell him about it.
To some degree I suspect that she was in the hot tub with Duncan only in order to give Kate a way to give herself away. Which brings me to how Kate gave herself away.
It was very curious to have Kate drop the vase when the word “murder” was spoken. Murder, She Wrote doesn’t usually foreshadow the murderer in that way. This is the first way she gave herself away, and I don’t really know what to make of it. On its own, it doesn’t prove anything, but it does make one feel more like she was built up to as a murderer. I’m undecided on whether it’s a fair way of doing it, though. Ambiguous evidence should really be more about things said or done that are related to the murder, not merely to feeling guilty. I suppose that this could be meant as being related to MacBeth, where Kate, and not Virginia, is the Lady MacBeth being eaten by guilt. It’s a bit of a one-off, if it is, though.
The more substantive way that Kate gives herself away is by telling Jessica about hearing Serena in the hot tub with Duncan. There is some reason for it, though not a great reason. In theory she could want to try to frame Serena for Duncan’s murder. I don’t know that this would have seemed all that plausible, though. Serena had no motive and Kate’s testimony is the only evidence that Serena was there (so far as she knew). Even stranger is that she had no motive to actually succeed in framing Serena; all she could have cared about was diverting suspicion away from herself. This is important because, had she been more careful and merely said she thought it was Serena but couldn’t be sure, she wouldn’t have been caught. She could have said that it sounded like a young woman and Serena was the only young woman in the house. She could have said she heard a woman, but couldn’t tell what woman. Jessica even gave her an opportunity to say that she didn’t hear clearly, but Kate expressed certainty that it was Serena. Her conviction that it was Serena did her no good, and proved her undoing.
It’s also a bit curious that she broke down and admitted to the murder with extremely little evidence against her. She said that she was certain that the re-creation voice was Serena, but it turned out to be Anne Hathaway. Had she expressed surprise and then said that she isn’t certain at all, now, because clearly she’s not as good at identifying muffled voices as she thought, she would still have gotten away with it.
It’s always unfortunate when the thing which catches the killer is something that they did afterward, and not a piece of evidence about the murder, itself. This is no exception. Heck, until Kate confessed, not only could Jessica not prove that it was her, Jessica couldn’t even have proved that Duncan was murdered.
Duncan is also a curious character in this story, by the way. He is initially played as affable, but is quickly revealed to be cruel and eventually to be immoral. He invited a bunch of people up to his house at short notice just to get their hopes up in order to enjoy dashing them. He hired or otherwise influenced Serena to prostitute herself to Spruce Osborne in order to spy on him for corporate secrets. In the end, Kate’s description that he was a cruel man who took good men and used them up seems entirely plausible. Which takes this even further away from MacBeth.
Then there’s the subject of how much the writers of this episode misunderstood how corporations work. Heck, they couldn’t even keep CEOs and Vice Presidents straight with chairmen and members of the board of directors. Boards of directors are not the same thing as senior management. Also, public companies can only be purchased in a hostile takeover if a majority of their shares are available for purchase. If Duncan owned a majority of the stock in his company, Spruce Osborne couldn’t have dreamed of taking it over. If he didn’t, he couldn’t have told Spruce Osborne that the company wasn’t for sale.
Oh, and the chairman of the board of directors is not a position for life. Duncan couldn’t announce that he’ll never leave. Well, unless he was the majority shareholder, in which case the board of directors were people that he simply voted onto the board himself, and thus would be yes-men, not corporate climbers. They’d be people like Jessica and Q.L. Frubson—outsiders who did very little, selected mostly for prestige.
It is possible to take the line that this is a murder mystery, not a corporate documentary, so verisimilitude doesn’t matter. There is a sense in which this is correct, but it only goes so far. First, it is possible to get things far more correct than they did here while maintaining the plot. Many of the mistakes were just straight-up laziness. Worse, getting this stuff wrong makes it harder to follow the plot. If a man was killed by a computer programmer and it turns out that the janitor did it because his janitorial work isn’t mopping floors but is actually programming computers, this would be cheating. Bleating, “but it’s just a work of fiction, who cares if janitors don’t really program all the time!” would not excuse it, any more than it is excusable to make perfectly harmless substances poisonous or to have somebody travel two hundred miles an hour on a highway in order to get around their alibi. Since no one’s relationship to anyone else makes any sense in this episode, it’s more difficult to figure out who is and is not a suspect. Would Spruce Osborne murder Duncan in order to seize his company? Who knows? In real life that wouldn’t be possible, but maybe it’s easy in this episode. Would Anne Hathaway try to get Duncan to divorce his wife who gave him no children so she could give him a male heir so his company won’t fall into civil war after he dies? Maybe, given how little the writers understand business. Could she have killed him so that their illegitimate son could inherit the company? Why not? Given that reality is not a tether, here, the sky is the limit!
(There’s also the issue that some poor, unfortunate souls learn about business from TV like this, and so become astonishingly badly informed. I don’t think it’s fair to put too much about general education on the shoulders of television, but it is another reason to not make pointless mistakes.)
Ultimately, this was an ambitious episode that didn’t work. It was beautiful, and to that degree it was a lot of fun, but it was confusing and a bit infuriating in its sloppiness, and Jessica only caught the murderer because the murderer was stupid after the fact. The references to MacBeth were mostly dropped once the episode got going and neither served to make the episode better nor to give any insight into the play. Not that it really could have; a play in which the murderers mentally fall apart is approximately the opposite of a murder mystery.
I called it the greatest of the business episodes, and yet in many ways it’s one of the worst of the Murder, She Wrote episodes. To some degree, those are the same thing. Murder, She Wrote did worst when episodes had any form of business in them.
What people are really referring to is that Murder, She Wrote generally used very clichéd characters. Writers, businessmen, police detectives, lawyers, real-estate agents—these were all variants on the standard cliché of them. Businessmen did business and they cared about numbers and money, especially if the numbers represented money. Real estate agents were always desperate to make sales, no matter what. TV actors were always full of themselves and demanding. (When I say “always” what I really mean is “almost always.) There was a reason for this, though.
Once you subtract out the commercials, an episode of Murder, She Wrote were approximately 45 minutes long (once you subtract the coming attractions, intro sequence, and closing credits). That’s not a long time to tell a complicated story, and if—as I’ve done recently writing episode reviews—you pay close attention to how many plot elements there are in a typical episode, you’ll discover that they’re actually quite densely packed. Once I started describing and analyzing all of the plot elements, it started taking me about a week to review one. This comes from the need to establish why Jessica is present, to give several people plausible motives, to do some basic investigation to uncover clues, and to throw in a red herring or two. Once you consider how much needs to be done, it becomes clear that there just wasn’t much time for characterization.
The characters in Murder, She Wrote were not, in the main, clichés because the writers had no creativity. I don’t want to oversell this; the writers were TV writers. They churned product out on a tight schedule and were not, for the most part, brilliant people. However, they did tend to flavor their characters in creative ways, if sparingly. What they were really doing was using clichéd characters in order to save time. We’ve all seen the characters they’re referring to a hundred times, generally more developed in those other places. Even if not more developed in those other places, a hundred variants on the same idea fleshes it out in our imagination. This is shorthand.
Had Murder, She Wrote used really original characters in each episode, the episodes would have had to be two hours long. That is, they would have been movies.
This shorthand is also part of what makes Murder, She Wrote a kind of comfort food. We’re familiar with all of these characters; we’ve spent a long time with them and now we’re seeing them again. Sometimes even played by the same actors we’re used to watching play them in the old days. This isn’t really a coincidence, it’s part of the show’s theme that old things are still good.
Midway through the third season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Corned Beef and Carnage. It features two Murder, She Wrote staples: one of Jessica’s many nieces and high flying corporate business.
The episode opens in Kinkaid advertising, where Larry Kinkaid and Jessica’s niece, Victoria Griffin, are giving a presentation to Grover Barth, owner of a large corned beef sandwich fast food franchise. I’ve got to say that I think that this is a really brilliant send-up of fast food places. Various fast food places get known for a certain kind of sandwich, but they’re not (usually) named for it, as if it’s the only thing they serve. Further, corned beef is a niche food, which makes it a funny thing to base a country-wide fast food empire on. Here’s Grover, owner of Corned Beef Castle:
The presentation starts out with a wonderfully generic advertising pitch:
We’re goosing up the 18-24 demographics by 17 million impressions. If we can squeeze the franchise holders another 2% of gross for advertising, we’re going to have Grover Barth’s corned beef sandwich over the billion served this year.
When Grover asks how much this is going to cost, Larry replies, “we’ve haven’t fine-tuned it yet, but, rough cut: $11 million.” (According to an inflation calculator, that would be $26.5 million in 2021 dollars.)
It’s very business-y language that sounds legit. Squeezing the franchise-holders for 2% of gross (i.e. revenue before expenses) is actually huge on thin-margin businesses like fast food (i.e. businesses where their prices are only slightly higher than their expenses, including rent and payroll). On the other hand, Larry Kinkaid is supposed to be a slimy character so talking about extracting a huge amount of money from the franchise holders as if it’s trivial may just be him being dishonest.
We then come to one of the driving forces of the episode: Corn Beef Castle is coming up for renewal of its contract with Kinkaid Advertising. Larry tries to get him to sign the renewal, but Grover says that he will look it over and get his wife’s input. Larry suggests that they all have lunch together. Grover then introduces one of the other driving forces of this episode:
“That’s a beautiful blouse, Victoria. Just kinda sets off that peaches and cream complexion.”
Despite that, it’s not Grover who gets murdered. (Larry, by the way, is the guy you can see between Grover and Victoria.)
Grover leaves and Larry panics. Grover didn’t like the presentation and he’s stalling on the renewal contract. The one thing he did like was Victoria. Larry wants her to sit next to Grover at lunch and be nice to him. Victoria says that she can’t make lunch because she’s going to be having lunch with her husband and aunt, but Larry tells her to forget it because they’re talking survival.
There is some dissonance, here, with the setup of the episode. Here is an overview of the advertising suite that Kinkaid advertising has:
It’s also revealed, shortly afterwards, that this is the penthouse suite that comes with a private elevator.
As Victoria’s husband, Howard (the man pressing the button, opposite from Jessica), puts it, “part of the privilege of overpaying for the penthouse suite: you get your own elevator.”
All of this is going to be expensive. Yet the cost for the advertising campaign that Larry was pitching was only eleven million dollars. One has to assume that the majority of that would go to the actual advertising—that is, to paying for television spots, pages in magazines, etc. If we assume that Kinkaid takes ten percent of the advertising campaign for itself, that’s only a little over a million dollars. I doubt that would even cover the rent on the penthouse suite, to say nothing of payroll. This could be fixed by changing the amount Larry quoted, though. Even if so, it’s not obvious what all of the people in the penthouse suite are doing if Corn Beef Castles is their only real account, but perhaps it’s a small advertising agency which is trying to grow past their one good client and is overspending in order to impress future clients. That would certainly be realistic, and in keeping with the character of Larry Kinkaid.
Next we meet Aubrey Thornton, “another one of Larry’s galley slaves”. He ran up, asking them to hold the elevator for him, but they didn’t realize until they were too far away and the door closed by the time they tried to hold it. They apologize and Aubrey says to nevermind.
This is a little odd as the whole point of a private elevator is that it will not be summoned to another floor. It would just be right there waiting for someone to push the button. They needed an excuse to introduce Aubrey, I suppose, but since he knows Howard and says hello to him, merely passing would have been sufficient anyway.
Howard introduces Aubrey and Jessica and Aubrey says that Victoria is great and has everything needed to do well in this business—brains, youth, and a high tolerance for humiliation. When Jessica asks if he’s the resident cynic, he says that he would be but he doesn’t have tenure. He then excuses himself to go to lunch before all of the best bar stools are taken.
Victoria comes out and greets Jessica but says that an emergency with a client has come up and she can’t have lunch. This is another detail that’s a bit odd since Larry explicitly said that he would make the reservation with Grover for 4pm, which is more like an early dinner, and Jessica was here in time for actual lunch. I think this was done to make room for some character building for the couple as Howard complains about this but Jessica says that she’ll stay over and they’ll have dinner. Victoria asks if it can be 9pm and Jessica says that’s perfect.
We next see the lunch. Polly, Grover’s wife, explains that Grover wasn’t impressed by the advertising campaign laid out earlier that day.
Grover clarifies that it’s the same thing they did last year, only with bigger budgets. Larry takes this well, saying he’s glad that Grover said this because he thinks it’s time for a whole new approach. A totally new concept. Larry rattles off some more buzzwords like “fresh” and “exciting.” He wants them to come in tomorrow and he’s going to show them a whole new advertising campaign that will blow them away.
Polly says to her husband that perhaps they will be able to renew with Kinkaid advertising after all. Larry says that he will drink to that and Grover says to Victoria, in as suggestive a voice as he can muster, that this means that they’ll be working closely together. Polly looks at Victoria then her husband, but the look doesn’t seem to convey anything and nothing ever comes of it.
The camera then moves to another table where a man and a woman are talking:
The man’s name is Leland Biddle and the woman’s name is Christine. She remarks that $50M in advertising isn’t chopped liver and he replies that another $50M in corned beef would look very good on the balance sheet. (I wonder who is wrong about how much money Corned Beef Castles is spending on advertising.)
Anyway, she says, in a sultry voice, that the account can be had. He offers her a $100,000 bonus if she brings it in. (Adjusting for inflation that would be roughly a quarter of a million dollars in 2021.) She asks if he’ll throw in a vice presidency and he agrees—if she brings in the account. They drink to her success and we go back to the table with the main characters.
As an introduction of these two new characters it was pretty good. It sets up intrigue, we can see future complications, and it seems plausible that they can cause trouble for our heroes (Jessica and her relatives, since we don’t want Victoria to lose her job). It’s a bit odd for them to be having lunch at a nearby table—they had no way of knowing that Kinkaid was going to take Barth out for dinner as it was a last-minute thing, but this may just be a convenient-for-TV thing.
Back the Barth-Kinkaid table Polly excuses herself saying that talking business makes her nose shiny. She gets up to go to the bathroom. Victoria says that’s a good idea and she’ll join Polly. Once they’re gone Grover sidles up to Larry and confidentially tells him that Polly is going to be out of town tonight and he wants to have dinner with Victoria. Grover makes a horse analogy explaining that Victoria excites him and says he thinks Larry can explain to Victoria how important the dinner is to her future on the account. Larry grins and says that he will ensure that she understands.
At this point I’m starting to wonder if we might be rooting for Christine to get the account. It would at least take Victoria out of harm’s way.
The next scene is of Jessica and Howard sitting on a park bench eating some street cart food and talking. Howard says that Victoria’s career is going well and, considering that she’s got an unemployed actor for a husband, she’s doing great. He barely sees her, though, as most nights she works late. He then switches to mentioning that Larry Kinkaid uses people and then throws them away. For all he knows one of these days Larry’s going to ask Victoria to put her body on the line for a client. Jessica replies that Victoria is “too level-headed for that sort of thing.” Howard then tearfully says that he loves Victoria and feels like she’s slipping away.
It’s an interesting b-plot for the story, since it’s romantic but the couple is already married. It’s a little silly since it’s obvious that Victoria isn’t slipping away and it quickly comes out that Victoria is working the job to allow Howard to be an actor. It’s got overtones of The Gift of the Magi (the sappy Christmas story by O. Henry about a woman who sells her hair to buy a watch chain for her husband, who sells his watch to buy her fancy combs), but at the same time it’s a bit of danger that misunderstanding will lead to worse that can be resolved within the confines of a day or two, which is all the time the episode has.
The next scene is back in Kinkaid advertising, where we meet Larry’s brother and the controller of the company, Myron, is telling him that the company is in serious financial trouble.
They’re spending more money than they take in, receivables are in arrears, and the major account, Corned Beef Castles—they’re holding almost $4M in media bills that Barth hasn’t paid yet.
This is interrupted by Victoria who comes in with a folder containing some new ideas for the Corned Beef Castles advertising campaign, which Larry tells her to put on his desk. That’s interrupted by Aubrey Thornton coming in and asking why he wasn’t notified about the Corned Beef Castles presentation this morning. Larry says that it’s because he’s no longer on the account. Aubrey protests that it’s his account. He brought it to Kinkaid three years ago. Kinkaid replies that when Aubrey brought it, it was a Mom & Pop delicatessen in Buffalo. “You were over your head then, you’re over the hill now.”
I don’t know how to square Corned Beef Castles being a Mom & Pop delicatessen three years ago and now (supposedly) being within striking distance of the billion served mark. It took McDonalds 8 years to go from 1 million served (in 1955) to 1 billion served (in 1963). That 1 million in 1955 was after the McDonald brothers opened their first McDonalds restaurant in 1940 and began franchising it out in 1953 (they started selling franchises in 1952, the first franchise opened in 1953). Copying an existing plan can go faster, of course, but this is doing in 4 years what it took McDonalds somewhere between ten and twenty years to do. That’s not impossible, but it hardly seems likely. Especially given the popularity of corned beef, though that part is as much a joke as anything else. It makes it even weirder for this to be the account that the company depends on for survival, though.
Victoria protests that Aubrey has a lot of good ideas, and Larry replies that she’s a smart kid but not an advertising genius and the only reason she’s on the Corned Beef Castles account is because Grover Barth has the hots for her. He then informs her that she’s going to have dinner with Grover tonight. She refuses. He threatens to fire her and she tells him off.
During the telling-off, she picks up the award on his desk as a prop (she refers to him accepting the fancy awards).
In her conclusion when she announces her resignation, she slams the award down dramatically.
Larry stands up defiantly and replies, “I don’t need you. I don’t need any of you. I am still the best advertising man on this street. I’m going to work here tonight—all night, if I have to—and tomorrow morning when Mr. and Mrs. Corn Beef Castle come marching in here I’m going to show them a new campaign that’s gonna knock their socks off. Now get out of here, all of you!”
He then sits down and starts looking through the folder of ideas which Victoria had put on his desk. As he starts to do that, some sexy saxophone music plays and Christine opens the door to his office.
She says in a sultry voice that his secretary seems to have wandered off, but they had a 4pm appointment.
Christine is an interesting counterpoint to Victoria. They’re both intelligent and pretty, but while Victoria has principles—we assume—Christine is purely ambitious. I think this serves to highlight Victoria by contrast.
In the next scene Aubrey and Victoria talk. Aubrey gives Victoria the advice not to quit before lining something up, but Victoria is adamant that enough is enough. Aubrey says that he intends to go home early, as usual.
The scene goes back to Christine talking to Larry. She seductively asks him for a job and he says that he probably has something for her. He suggests that they get dinner next week and he can look at her portfolio. She’s all smiles. He walks her out of the office saying he has to go put out some fires, then when he’d walked off she recollects she forgot her purse in his office and goes into the empty office to get it… and some other things.
(That’s the folder containing Victoria’s ideas.)
In the next scene Victoria gets home and no one is there. She listens to some answering machine messages. The first is from Howard saying his audition went well, the next from Jessica saying she’s tied up at her publisher’s, and last from someone from the audition calling Howard to let him know he didn’t get the part. Victoria is distraught, and decides to go back to the office, presumably to ask for her job back, though we’re not told.
As she signs in at the desk, the security guard asks if she’s working late again and she replies that there’s something she has to settle with Mr. Kinkaid. This is odd wording for asking for her job back, and the tone she uses sounds more like she intends to have a fight. That doesn’t make sense, though, since she came here out of desperation because Howard didn’t get the part.
She walks off to Mr. Kinkaid’s office and a few seconds later she screams. If you guessed that the victim was Kinkaid, in his office, with the advertising award, congratulations, you win.
Given that Kinkaid fell to the right, I wonder if it’s going to be a left handed killer. It would be really hard to strike a right-handed blow and have everything also end up on the right-hand side. The security guard rushes in and sees this, then looks at Victoria suspiciously and asks her what happened.
I’m not sure what his theory of the crime is—I can’t see how Victoria had the time to commit the murder. I counted based on frames and she was out of the security guard’s sight for seven seconds when she screamed (it’s a continuous shot of him at his desk). We’re never shown the layout of the building but when the security guard was running to her, we see where he started from the door here to when he got next to Victoria, and that took 3 seconds:
That three seconds was running, too, albeit slowly. If it takes only a single second to get from the corner past the security guard to the outer door to Larry’s office, that only leaves her three seconds to murder Larry. That would be enough time if she walked in and immediately picked up the award and whacked him with it, but that would only work if he never looked up. There’s no way to deal a deadly blow across a table with a small award to someone who has any amount of forewarning. All they’d have to do is to lean back and the person swinging the small blunt object would have to reach too much to put any power into the blow. Especially a small woman like Victoria. I looked it up and Genie Francis, the actress playing Victoria, is only 5’5″ tall. Also, 1980s shoulder pads not withstanding, she doesn’t exactly look like she makes a habit of lifting weights. An adult woman, even a small adult woman, certainly has the power to kill, especially if using tools, but not typically when using a poor tool in an extremely mechanically disadvantaged position. I suppose she could have walked around the desk to get a better shot at him but there’s no way he wouldn’t have noticed her and a small piece of metal isn’t such a force multiplier that it would overpower him holding his arms up to ward off the blow.
Then we get to the fact that there wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, enough time for the two to argue, which would mean that this was premeditated. When it comes to plans to murder someone, signing in, walking into his office, killing him, then screaming to attract the security guard is just implausibly stupid.
Don’t worry, though, this won’t stop the police from jumping to conclusions because her finger prints will be found on the murder weapon—remember the scene above where she held it up to make her point about how Larry takes credit for the work of others, right before she quit?
The next scene is of the police investigating the crime scene, of course. Here’s Lt. Spoletti:
(If you’ve watched Murder, She Wrote his face should be familiar. The actor was in seven episodes, mostly as Dennis Stanton’s boss.)
He reads the inscription, aloud, which says “Outstanding achievement in the field of advertising. Larry Kinkaid.” He then remarks that, like they say, this one had his name on it.
He then interviews Victoria and asks her why she screamed. “What did he do to you?”
This is a possibility that hadn’t occurred to me—that she hadn’t killed Kinkaid until after she screamed—but there was no time for Kinkaid to have done anything to her by the time she screamed, so this possibility doesn’t work, either.
He asks what she was doing in his office, whether it was business-business or personal business. Before she can answer, Howard pushes his way past a uniformed officer and Lt. Spoletti says that it’s OK. Jessica comes in with Howard. He then gives the uniformed officer instructions to call the coroner and say that he wants the report on his desk first thing in the morning, and also to call his wife and tell her that he won’t be able to make it tonight. I would have thought that the uniformed officer’s job would be to stand guard over the crime scene and keep people out (like he just didn’t). It’s also slightly odd that the uniformed officer would know Spoletti’s home phone number. I suppose they don’t have the budget for a partner for him, though, so this will have to do.
Howard asks Victoria why she came back to the office. Before she can answer, Spoletti asks Howard if she worked late a lot. He indignantly asks what that question is supposed to mean and before Spoletti can answer he notices Jessica looking at the desk. He asks her who she is and Victoria indignantly tells him that Jessica is her aunt, J.B. Fletcher the mystery writer.
This is the point where the detective either is impressed and thinks that Jessica can help or is dismissive and thinks that she’s an interfering amateur. In this case it’s the latter.
Jessica ignores this and says that the corned beef sandwich on the desk is curious.
It looks like an ordinary corned beef sandwich on rye, but the astute observer will notice that it is entirely intact. Not even a bite has been taken out of it. This raises the question of why didn’t he eat the sandwich? Perhaps because he was killed before he got the chance?
Spoletti proves that he’s a master of deduction by dismissing the corned beef sandwich because the victim was bludgeoned to death, not poisoned.
Jessica points out that if the sandwich wasn’t eaten… no, wait, she doesn’t. She says that if a sandwich was delivered, perhaps it can help to establish the time of death. Spilotti retorts that the body was still warm, which means that Kinkaid had to have been killed around the time that Victoria claims to have found it. Jessica says that it must have occurred to him that someone else had to have been there and suggests that the night watchman might have kept a record of who came in and out.
Apparently this didn’t occur to Spoletti because the next scene is of Jessica and Spoletti interrogating the night watchman. He was at his desk the whole time. Everyone but Kinkaid cleared out by 6:30. Grover Barth visited Kinkaid from 7:00-7:10. A “Mary Jones” signed in and out around 8:30. She’s the interior decorator. The delivery guy for the sandwich was there at about 8:00pm. Victoria came at 9:15, and the watchman mentions what she said about needing to settle something with Kinkaid.
The next scene takes place the following morning. Victoria is cleaning out her office when Aubrey and Myron walk in. Myron looked at the ideas that Victoria gave Larry and they’re very good. Aubrey concurs. As the only living relative Myron inherits the business and they’re planning to save the Corned Beef Castles account and thus the agency. Victoria agrees to stay on and give it a go.
As a side note, the importance of the Corned Beef Castles account is hard to square with the rest of what we’re presented in the episode. Even if we prefer Leland Biddle’s $50M estimate to the $11M that Larry had quoted to Grover, or even if we increase it, it’s very unclear how the agency can be so dependent on the corned beef castles account if it was just a mom-and-pop delicatessen three years before. It’s not impossible to square this, of course; the great success of Corned Beef Castles two years before can have led them to rapid expansion last year and now their obligations are too big to carry without Corned Beef Castles. On the other hand, there’s important evidence throughout the episode that they’ve been in this office for years and didn’t just move here.
Another possible explanation would be that the business has been going downhill for a while except for the Corned Beef Castles account. All anyone has mentioned is foolish expenditures, not lost customers, though. I suspect that the writers never bothered to figure this out, which is a pity, because it would have been good world-building. The scene ends with Aubrey giving Victoria a ten thousand dollar raise. ($23,316.64 in 2021 dollars.) How he has the authority to do this is not explained.
The next scene is of Jessica and Victoria eating dinner together. Victoria unburdens herself about her relationship troubles with Howard. Basically she has the same problems; she only works this high pressure job because it takes the financial pressure off so Howard can devote himself to his acting. Jessica asks if the two ever talk to each other and before she can answer, Christine from Biddle Advertising interrupts them. After a bit of schmoozing, she offers Victoria a job for whatever she’s making now plus ten thousand more. Victoria gratefully declines, saying that she feels she has a commitment to the Kinkaid agency. Christine says that Leland might be willing to go higher, gives Victoria her card, and says, “call me.” As she walks off Jessica looks at Christine’s card and recognizes her name from Larry Kinkaid’s appointment calendar. Victoria asks why she’d have had an appointment with Larry and before Jessica can answer, Lt. Spoletti walks up and arrests Victoria.
The next scene is, of course, in police headquarters where Jessica and Victoria are discussing the evidence that Lt. Spoletti has with while he sits at his desk.
The scene begins with Jessica saying, “this is preposterous.” Why she didn’t say this at the restaurant isn’t explained.
Actually, this was probably the way the episode went out to a commercial break. I’m watching on DVD so I can’t really tell but it has all of the hallmarks—a dramatic moment followed by a break to a scene that you don’t have to have seen what happened right before to follow what’s going on, plus a dramatic moment right before the end of a scene to make sure you come back after the commercial break.
Spoletti lays (or, I should say, shouts) out his air-tight case: the advertising award was definitely the murder weapon and Victoria’s fingerprints were the only fingerprints on it (other than Kinkaid’s).
To be fair, that’s not terrible evidence and Spoletti doesn’t seem to have taken the trouble of finding out how long she was with Kinkaid before the guard got there.
Victoria explains that she had picked up the award earlier in the day to make a point and there are witnesses to that. Jessica adds that if the killer wore gloves, that suggests premeditation. Jessica further suggests that the security guard might have been mistaken about who had come or gone.
Spoletti replies, “The rent-a-cop? the agency fired him. Probably figured that they weren’t getting their money’s worth.” This is useful to know, but not really an answer to what Jessica said. Fired or not, his memory might be fallible, and he’s still available for questioning. It’s not like he was a robot that was smelted for scrap metal.
There’s a bunch more back-and-forth that involves a lot of yelling which recaps evidence already presented. I wonder if this is for the benefit of people who had just tuned in. We’re at slightly over the halfway mark (25 minutes in with 22 minutes to go), which means that people might have just changed the channel after a half-hour show they were watching. This back-and-forth that reviews evidence already presented will help to catch people up who didn’t see the first half of the show. The pig-headedness of Lt. Spoletti may simply be an excuse to re-tread this ground without it being, “now, let’s review what’s happened so far.” (In the more recent show Death in Paradise, they make this more explicit by having a moment when the detectives are stuck and so review the case from the beginning to “come at it with fresh eyes”.)
Finally Jessica points out that the sandwich was delivered at 8:00. If Kinkaid died at 9:15, some explanation must exist for why the sandwich remained uneaten all that time. Spoletti finally admits Jessica might have a point. He gives Jessica twenty four hours to prove her niece didn’t do it. That’s some interesting police-work, but it does give us an excuse for the next ten or so minutes of the episode.
The first place Jessica goes is to Larry’s office, which apparently is no longer a crime scene. Myron is sitting at Larry’s desk and Aubrey is giving him a situation report when she walks in and says that she hopes she’s not interrupting anything important.
I can’t help but notice, again, how cavernous this office is. I suspect it’s the same basic set that was used as both offices in The Bottom Line is Murder, though decorated differently. That also had the strange ante-chamber to the office. It’s possible that it’s so large in order to suggest high-flying luxury, though possibly it’s really just to make it easy to fit all of the camera equipment in the room (it looks like it possible does in fact have four walls). The ante-chamber is especially curious. It served no purpose whatever in The Bottom Line Is Murder, but here is the location of the secretary’s desk. The only time I can remember her being there is when Christine went back to get her purse; every other time anyone went by they tended to mention that the secretary was away from her desk.
Jessica gives her condolences on Larry’s death and mentions that the place is so charming and she wonders why they would want to redecorate it. Myron angrily says that he never heard of Miss Jones, the interior decorator, and Larry just had the place redone last year. “We don’t throw money around for nothing!”
Jessica asks if it was Myron who fired the guard—to save money—and Aubrey replies that it was him. Letting the owner of the company get killed practically under your nose doesn’t speak highly of your qualifications as a security guard.
The next scene is really spectacular. It’s a grand eventually-opening ceremony for a new Corned Beef Castle.
It’s being held on an empty lot to commemorate how there will be a new Corned Beef Castle on this site a year from now. They unfurl a banner proclaiming this (with less specificity) while the band plays slightly medieval music.
Grover introduces the man who will be manager and co-owner of this Corned Beef Castle, and who “in the grand tradition of American free enterprise, will be investing $100,000 in this community.”
Polly then directs the band to play in further celebration. And what a band it is.
The ceremony concludes with a special treat: corned beef, on the house, for everybody!
The images above only hint at the true absurdity of this scene. There have been ceremonies for the intention to start doing something, but they are rare. I can’t imagine anyone spending time and money to announce that someone intends to open a fast food restaurant on a corner parking lot next to a dilapidated radio store. Even harder to imagine would be around two dozen people showing up to watch the ceremony.
There’s some foreshadowing, btw, when the ceremony is over and Polly discreetly asks Grover if the check is certified. He doesn’t get a chance to answer—people are interrupted a lot in this episode—because Jessica approaches them. Apparently they recognize her, though they’ve never met her before. Perhaps an earlier scene where they met was cut. I can’t imagine where it would have gone, but otherwise it’s a very strange oversight.
Jessica asks about Grover’s visit to Larry Kinkaid the night he died. Polly is surprised—Grover told her that he was going to the movies. She explains to Jessica that she was visiting her sister and Grover can’t stand her sister. Grover says that he did go to the movies, but he stopped by Larry’s office because he thought he left his extra pair of glasses there. It turns out, though, that they were in another suit. Polly then drags Grover off because she wants to get to the bank before it closes.
Next, Jessica goes to interview the security guard at his new job.
The scene begins with the guard telling Jessica that he always knew when Mr. Kinkaid was going to work late because he would order a sandwich at around 8pm. On the fateful night, the sandwich delivery guy came up, he phoned Mr. Kinkaid, then sent the sandwich guy in to deliver it—a security guard never leaves his post.
Jessica asks if he was sure it was Mr. Kinkaid’s voice on the line and the security guard thinks it was. He’d only talked with Mr. Kinkaid “two or three times,” but he does think it was his voice. Jessica asked if he could be sure, and he replied, “He only said, ‘OK’.” I’m not sure how to square the security guard always knowing when Mr. Kinkaid was going to work late with only having talked with him two or three times.
Jessica then asks about “Mary Jones.” After the security guard describes her, Jessica shows him Christine’s business card and he identifies her as Mary Jones.
As a side note, I don’t know if they actually used the actress’s head shot for the card or took their own picture, but it really looks like they just used one of her head shots. One convenient thing about actors is that they all have head shots that can be used whenever a photo of them is required. The security guard is surprised that the card says Christine Clifford, and supposes that Mary Jones is her professional name. A towering intellect, that one. Jessica condescendingly agrees, saying, “like a stage name.”
When Jessica gets back to Howard and Victoria’s apartment, Howard is rushing out the door because he’s got a tryout for a TV commercial. It’s with Biddle Advertising and he’s “supposed to see a Christine Clifford.” Jessica asks if she can tag along.
The tryout they give is an ad for Slumberland, which is a cemetary.
“One phone call makes all the arrangements. Slumber ceremonies are available that fit all budgets. Major credit cards accepted.”
Howard thinks he could have done it better but Jessica assures him that he was fine. Christine and Leland think that he’s terrific, but, to no one’s surprise but Howard’s, there’s a catch. He’s got to bring Victoria with him, and she has to bring the Corned Beef Castles account with her.
After Leland leaves, Jessica asks Christine whether she went back to see Larry Kinkaid. When she denies it, Jessica tells her that the security guard will identify her, and basically accuses her of the murder. Christine explains about stealing the folder with Victoria’s ideas in it. Actually, she just says she borrowed “something,” Jessica supplies what it was. I don’t recall Jessica ever having heard of the folder or what was in it; perhaps she saw it when she was leafing through Kinkaid’s desk, though. Or maybe it was in a scene that got cut, just like the first time that Jessica met the Barths.
The big reveal is that Larry Kinkaid was already dead when Christine got there.
The next scene is Christine in police headquarters telling Lt. Spoletti about it. Apparently Jessica talked her into this. It should be noted that Jessica gives absolutely terrible legal advice. PSA: If anyone suggests you voluntarily go to the police and tell them things they can use to try to convict you of a crime you didn’t commit, don’t. You should be especially suspicious of their advice if their niece has been arrested for the murder the police might try to pin on you. Anyway, back to the episode.
Some banter later, Spoletti dismisses Christine by telling a uniformed officer take her statement. Once she’s gone, Jessica pushes him and he admits that if Christine is telling the truth, they got the time of death wrong. (Even if she’s lying that she didn’t kill him, it’s very unlikely that the time of death of 9:15 was correct, since that would entail the death being at about 8:30, which isn’t 9:15.)
Leland Biddle walks into the office saying that he got a confused and hysterical call from Christine asking for his help, so he came to sort things out. When it is brought up that she stole something, he fires her on the spot (even though she’s not there). Then he says that they’re no longer interested in the Corned Beef Castles account. He did some digging and the Barths have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Jessica points out that he didn’t know that at the time, though. He counters that he has an alibi. He was having dinner with Aubrey Thornton from 7pm untill well after 9pm. The police arrived just as they were leaving. Thornton will verify that he never left the table except for a few minutes to make a phone call, which the barman will verify.
The next scene is at Victoria and Howard’s apartment. Jessica breaks the news that Corned Beef Castles is bankrupt, which means that both of them are out of jobs. Howard says that he can go back to his old job at the insurance company, Victoria asks him what about this career, and he says that all he ever cared about was her. They start kissing and don’t stop for the rest of the scene. Jessica, after paying a very rude delivery boy for pizza that was completely wrong, looks at the couple who doesn’t notice her and says that she’s heading out for a while.
The only answer they give her is Howard picks Victoria up and carries her over to the bedroom. It’s kind of refreshing for the passionate implied coupling on a TV show to be between a husband and wife, for once.
This is the last we see of the couple and it’s a satisfying conclusion to the sub-plot of their marital problems. In fact, one of the great things about murder mysteries is that the murder creates a liminal space in which people can have conversations that they wouldn’t normally have. People can be pushed to extremes where we see their true colors. This is especially true of virtues like courage and self-sacrifice, which can only be legitimately displayed when the circumstances force them on a person. This is part of what makes murder mysteries so interesting.
In the next scene we see what Jessica is up to; she’s doing the police legwork of chasing down where the sandwich came from. I’ve been accused of having the police not do obvious stuff in my first murder mystery (The Dean Died Over Winter Break) but that made sense as it was a college town police department that’s used to dealing with theft and drunk and disorderly conduct. This episode is set in New York City during the 1980s—homicide was a daily affair. Be that as it may, Jessica finally finds the delicatessen the sandwich came from on her seventh try.
The gentleman behind the counter seems to think that Jessica is there about some sort of complaint, but he helpfully finds the ticket. No one delivered the sandwich, however, since the guy called and canceled the order.
The next scene is a bit odd. Jessica and Lt. Spoletti are talking to the night watchman in what I presume is an interrogation room. It’s kind of weird to arrest someone on suspicion of… a sandwich not being delivered.
Jessica asks him what the delivery man looked like. He couldn’t remember as all delivery men look alike to him. Jessica asks if the delivery man was wearing gloves. The guard thinks about it for a moment and yes, the guy was. Also a woolen hat, a mustache, and shades (sunglasses).
Jessica has an idea, and asks if Lt. Spoletti would be willing to try it. They bring Aubrey Thornton down to the police station and have him wait with the security guard. The security guard doesn’t recognize Aubrey, though. Jessica then asks if they can talk with Aubrey, as long as they brought him down to the police station.
They discuss the case with him. Jessica accuses him of the murder and talks about how he did it. He had Kinkaid’s habits down very well, knew where he ordered his food from, etc. So on the night he waited for one of Leland Biddle’s frequent phone calls then grabbed the cooler he had hidden somewhere on the ground floor with his disguise and the sandwich in it, and went up the private elevator. He put on the disguise as he was going up. The security guard was fairly new and Aubrey was careful to always leave early so that the guard would never have seen him before. He even took the precaution of having the guard fired the next day.
When she said that, Aubrey exclaims, “So that’s your little game, is it? You kept me cooling my heels out there in the hallway hoping that that security guard would recognize me. Well, it didn’t work, Lieutenant. That guard wouldn’t know me from Adam. He’s never seen me before in his life. You’ve got nothing.”
Jessica asks, “Guard? How did you know that that man sitting out there was the security guard, Mr. Thornton?”
It takes Spoletti a second or two to figure this out, but I love the grin on his face when he does:
Thornton is crestfallen. He tries to bluff for a second, but then gives up. He describes how he did it. Kinkaid didn’t even look up, he just threw the money on the desk. Thornton really wanted Kinkaid to know it was him, though, so he held up the advertising award and took off his glasses. I really love the re-enactment.
There’s a very strange part of the reenactment, though. Kinkaid sees Thornton and the murder in his eyes and slowly starts to get up:
He gets up pretty far, then Aubrey begins the blow. To say that it was telegraphed is an understatement:
That’s a decently powerful position if he was striking right in front of him, but he’s striking at an object a yard or more away. He’s going to have to reach out to hit it. That’s weak position. Especially because Kinkaid was all but standing when Thorton started his strike, which would put his target at shoulder-height or higher. Also, with Kinkaid facing him, a downard blow from in front like this would hit the forehead, which is the thickest, toughest part of the human skull. To be fair, I wouldn’t want to let someone strike me in that position… but then that’s kind of the point. Kinkaid had to let Thornton hit him for Thornton to have any hope of actually hitting him. Further, the same thing I mentioned when Victoria was the suspect applies here: if Kinkaid held up his arms to ward off the blow, there’s no way that it would have been a lethal strike. Worse, Kinkaid was standing. All he had to do was to take a step back and Thornton couldn’t have reached him at all.
Oh well. Kinkaid merely froze, the blow landed, and Kinkaid died without saying anything, which was convenient. It would have been awkward had the guard walked into the office because he heard Kinkaid cry out.
Back at the police station, Aubrey adds that using the award wasn’t improvisation. That was part of the plan. He then, in an almost childlike way, asks, “Nice touch, don’t you think?”
Rather than give him his due that it was a nice touch from the artistic perspective, Jessica’s face falls a little because she will show sympathy to anyone but a murderer, and we go to credits.
Overall, this was a very fun episode whose plot is a bit all over the place. The setting—a high flying Manhattan ad agency with a private elevator—was a lot of fun but I don’t think it’s possible to resolve how big Corned Beef Castles was or how the Kinkaid agency came to be dependent on them. On the one hand Corned Beef Castles had to be huge, on the other hand it had to recently be small enough for Aubrey to have brought it but to no longer be in charge of it.
Lt. Spoletti is played with terrific energy but makes Amos Tupper look like the height of competence. Part of this can be chalked up to TV rhythms. Jessica didn’t point out the corned beef sandwich wasn’t eaten so that it could be pointed out later, so that Spoletti could arrest Victoria right before a commercial break only to let her go right afterwards. And so on.
There are also a lot of loose ends which are left by the end of the episode. Why did Victoria go back to the office and say that she had something to settle with Mr. Kinkaid in that aggressive way? We never do find out why she went back to the office. If it was to ask for her job back, as seems likely, why did she then pack up her stuff the next day rather than talking to Myron?
Why did Christine steal the Corned Beef Castles idea folder? There’s no obvious reason these things would be helpful in getting the Corned Beef Castles account. On the other hand, there’s no indication that she ever talked to Grover Barth, which would be the most obvious route to take. He certainly was… susceptible to a pretty face.
Speaking of Grover Barth, why did he come to the office to visit Larry for ten minutes? If it was to find out about dinner with Victoria, surely a phone call would have been much more natural. Even if it was to ask about dinner with Victoria, that would have taken about two minutes, three at most, since he’d have found out that she quit. Or perhaps Larry would have lied and told Barth that she wasn’t feeling well because he wasn’t exactly the man to give anyone bad news. Either way, that explains at the outside five out of the ten minutes that Barth was there. What was he actually doing?
Also, poor Myron. He wasn’t much of a character but he’s left with a worthless advertising agency and no one to run it. I guess he’ll close it down and move on, but it would have been nice to have some sort of closure on that character.
And then we come to the actual murder. Aubrey was given nothing to do for years but plot the murder of Larry Kinkaid, so I suppose it does make sense that it was elaborate. Given that it was planned so meticulously, though, it was oddly coincidental. His plan depended on:
Larry working late while
Aubrey was having a multi-hour dinner with someone who
would reliably take a several minute long phone call out of view of the table during
the few minute window between when Larry Kinkaid called in his order for a corn beef sandwich and when it would have been made and sent off to be delivered and
the maitre d’ was helping someone to a table both when Aubrey left the restaurant and when he came back so he wouldn’t have destroyed Aubrey’s alibi
I don’t know about you but if I spent months planning to murder someone, I would come up with a plan that didn’t need so many things to go right all at the same time.
Another issue that comes up is that there just aren’t many suspects. If we exclude Victoria on the grounds that Jessica’s niece never does it, and Howard on the grounds that no nephew-in-law of Jessica’s commits murder, then we’re left with the following list of named characters in the episode:
Mary, Larry’s secretary
The security guard
We can cross Mary off because she has zero lines of dialog and the murderer always has at least a line or two. We can cross off Polly Barth for having no opportunity. We can cross off Grover Barth for having absolutely zero motive. We can cross Leland off the list because he had no real motive and more importantly he was not the sort of man to do his own dirty work. We can cross the security guard off the list because he’s got absolutely zero motive and was so dim that he probably would have called the cops on himself if he did it.
We can cross off Christine Clifford for having no motive—the Corned Beef Castles account was no more achievable with Kinkaid dead since Victoria was the real brains in the operation and Christine knew it. That’s not quite 100% true, actually. Kinkaid could have caught Christine trying to return the folder and she killed him in order to avoid prosecution, but the body would have had to have been moved after death because she wouldn’t have just walked into his office with him at the desk, and there was no indication that the body had been moved.
So this only leaves us with Aubrey and Myron. Myron had no motive to kill Larry the night he was trying to save the agency, though. That’s not to say that Myron couldn’t have had a motive if the plot had been changed a little. If the agency had other business that Larry was neglecting in favor of Corned Beef Castles, who wasn’t worth it, he could have had a motive to kill his brother to save the business they built. That’s not this episode, though.
That only leaves us with Aubrey Thornton. He had motive and until moments before it’s revealed that he is the murderer, so far as we knew he didn’t have an alibi. The only thing that really mitigated against him was his forgetability. That, plus even apart from how he achieved his leaky alibi, intercepting a corned beef sandwich order would require somewhat implausible timing given that he had no way of knowing when the order was placed. The murder being implausible is not the best way to shield the murderer from suspicion.
There remains the question of why this episode was so much fun, then. I am inclined to attribute this to the combined effect of several things:
A fun setting — anything that few people have access to is fun to play with in one’s imagination
Intrigue — Biddle Advertising trying to steal the Corned Beef Castles account from Kinkaid Advertising is fun, since subterfuge always involves cleverness; plus it created red herrings
Howard and Victoria are a fun couple — their problems are contrived and sappy, but you root for them anyway
The first one is something I’m trying to work on in my own novels; I think I tend to underestimate how much a pleasant escape from ordinary life is a nice spice to add to a novel. I suspect one difficulty I have here is the hang-up of wanting the setting to be realistic but I don’t have experience of such places. The solution, I suspect, is to sufficiently make up such a place that there is nothing real to be unrealistic about. To make up an example to illustrate the point, perhaps I could do something like a Caribbean cruise on steroids: a connected set of barges that form a floating city. Such a thing would be sufficiently different from a real cruise ship that I don’t need to know how real cruise ships work, while at the same time it would be evocative of something real.
The second is only one legitimate style of murder mystery—having an active plot ongoing, especially during the investigation, can be a lot of fun and certainly is a good way of making red herrings for the detective. It’s possible to make red herrings from other things which aren’t so exciting, though, and this can be better if one wants to relax with a book rather than be excited by it. Since becoming a parent, I’ve often preferred calm books to pulse-pounding ones.
I think that there is a lot to be said for having romantic sub-plots going on during mysteries. One thing, especially, is that the promise of new life intrinsic to romance is a good counterpoint to the end of a life in the murder. It’s not necessary, but it can be used to very good effect.
On the other hand, I do wish that Jessica would show some sympathy toward the murderers she catches. This was something that Colombo did much better. I especially like the episode where the murderer tells Columbo that he couldn’t have caught him without using his subliminal techniques and Columbo agrees. “If there was a reward, I’d put you up for it.”
Winston Churchill once said, on the subject of formal declarations of war, “When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.” In like way, when you catch a murderer, it costs nothing to be magnanimous.
I’m working on another review of a Murder, She Wrote episode, and I wanted to pause to reflect on what it’s been like.
Each review that I write takes me on average about a week to write. I only review episodes that I’ve already seen (typically more than once) but I go through them again as I write in order to ensure that I’m not missing anything, as well as to provide screenshots that capture crucial detail to understanding the episode and the commentary I’m going to give on it. The first few didn’t take me so long, but as I settled into how I want to analyze the episodes, that’s what it ended up coming out to. It’s a lot of time, but I do enjoy the process of paying such close attention.
One thing that’s really jumped out at me as I’ve been re-watching Murder, She Wrote is the degree to which Jessica is not really a small-town retired school teacher. She is, to the last degree, a big-city celebrity who has a private home somewhere that the people don’t really bother her. About the only exception to this is her distaste for people selling recreational drugs, which I would expect a big-city celebrity to be more cool about. Other than that, all of her morays are ones that make sense in a big city—not asking about people’s background or character, not being bothered by things like adultery, fornication, divorce, theft, trespassing, or really anything that doesn’t affect her personally. Most of what she is indignant about is the implication that Cabot Cove lacks anything you can find in a big city. That’s precisely the sort of thing that someone from a big city who is hiding out in a small town would be indignant about. People who are actually from small towns are quite candid that they’re different from big cities—for worse and very much for better. Especially back in the 1980s, people from small towns were proud of the fact that they don’t have to lock their doors at night. Jessica never is.
Another thing that’s really stood out to me is the degree to which the plotting of the episodes was often sloppy. It’s not that, when I watched them as a kid, I thought that every episode was a masterpiece. Further, I understood then and understand now that with over two hundred episodes, they can’t all be winners. As the saying goes, fifty percent have to be in the bottom fifty percent. Still, they’re often unnecessarily sloppy. A flashback will include things that Jessica couldn’t possibly have seen. People will behave in odd ways that could be explained but no explanation is given. Murderers will reveal secrets they shouldn’t have known for no reason, saying things that no one would ever say as if it was normal, like explaining why the person they framed won’t like jail. Jessica will lure the murderer back to the crime scene at night by pretending that an earring is there, when the murderer could first check her jewelry box to see if she’s actually missing an earring.
Having realized this, my examinations of the episodes of Murder, She Wrote have ended up being a little different than the original intention. At first I wanted to look how they were constructed to learn from them. I should say that this is still possible in some cases. If the Frame Fits comes to mind as one of the very well constructed episodes. One White Rose for Death is another. Most of the time, though, the analysis is more about why the episode is interesting despite its plot holes and flaws. In some ways this may be more instructive yet.
When a plot is really excellent, it can be easy to miss all of the other things that go into making the episode good, such as characters, setting, dialog, etc. When the plot is not the strong part but the episode is enjoyable anyway, it forces one to notice the other parts more. The best stories will be well done in every aspect of the story, not merely the plot, so it is well to notice these other things, too.
Early in the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Witness For the Defense. It’s a courtroom drama, which is rare for the series. The action takes place mostly outside of the courtroom, it’s true, but that also tends to be true of courtroom dramas. Interestingly, it takes place in Canada where the court system is pleasingly British.
Jessica, by the way, is the eponymous witness for the defense. She’s been called up to Canada to be a witness in the murder trial of a friend of hers. The scene opens with Jessica being shown into the law office of Oliver Quayle. She meets, however, not Mr. Quayle but his assistant, Barnaby Friar.
Barnaby is an affable, likeable fellow who, it turns out, is much of the reason that people will deal with Oliver Quayle at all. That plus his amazing record at winning murder trials. Which brings us to the subject of why Jessica is there: she was asked to come as a witness in the trial of the Crown vs. James Harlan. Barnaby suggests letting the great man do the explanation. This, by the way, is the great man:
If you can imagine it, his speech is even more pompous than he looks. He’s also very busy; his tailor is fitting him for a new suit while he’s on the telephone. (The call was about a friend who wanted to borrow his jet for a few weeks.)
Instead of telling Jessica what the trial is all about, he has her narrate the events of the fateful night that Jim’s wife died. Jessica, for once, complies instead of demanding answers. I suppose exposition is more important than Jessica’s principles.
It was about six months ago, and Jim was about to publish his second novel, and he had invited her up to look at the galleys…
As a side note, it’s curious how many writers ask Jessica to read their book, regardless of what genre they’re writing in. I suppose her having been a high school English teacher comes in handy, here. Why they all invite Jessica over rather than sending her the manuscript I don’t know; it seems like an inefficient use of time. The writers do need to get Jessica out of Cabot Cove somehow, though, and (I suppose) this is as good an excuse as any. Even so, I can’t help but wonder how Jessica is on such close terms with people all over the world as to read their manuscripts and give them advice on their life’s work. Her myriad of nieces is more plausible.
Jessica explains by saying that she had shown him encouragement on his first book and they had become close. This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s comments on saying that life started on earth because aliens planted it here: it’s just kicking the can down the road. If memory serves, his analogy was that it’s no answer to where did the ghost in the cemetery come from to say that it came from a neighboring cemetery. She was asked to give him advice on his second book because she had given him advice on his first book doesn’t really answer anything.
Still, I can be sympathetic to the problem of how you call your amateur detective in. It’s not easy, and the writers of Murder, She Wrote had to do it two hundred and sixty four times. With that many times of calling Jessica in, they can’t all be winners.
Here’s Jim worriedly asking what she thought of the book:
(If you recognize him, that’s because Christopher Allport, the actor playing Jim, had previously played Donald Granger in If The Frame Fits.)
After Jessica talks about how wonderful his book is, a car pulls up outside. Jim goes to the window and announces that Patricia is back. Patricia is his wife, and in the picture below is the one in blue. As she and a friend named Monica Blane walk out of her expensive sports car…
They look over at the gardener, who winks at Patricia.
She nods her head in acknowledgement, then goes into the house. How Jessica knew either about the winking or the nodding I have no idea, because Jessica was toward the back of the room with a curtain on the window and couldn’t possibly have seen either. (She’s in the same place in the room you can see in the picture of Jim asking her how she liked the book.)
There’s some schmoozing and Jim and Patricia seem genuinely affectionate. There are a few important points, though:
Monica has to leave on a 7:40pm flight
Patricia has a lovely brooch that is a gift from her husband on their first anniversary and
a family heirloom that belonged to his grandmother.
Patricia booked an appointment to have her hair done at 6pm so she asks Jim to run Monica to the airport for her.
Jim agrees and talks about stopping for some drinks with Monica on the way to the airport in a highly suggestive manner.
When this clue session is over, Jessica then skips the narration to that evening, when they gathered for dinner at precisely 8:30pm in the Harlan town house in the city. Jim’s mother, Judith, will let nothing interfere with her routine.
After a bit of chatter in which Judith seems to imply that Jim’s book isn’t any good, a servant comes in and tells her that there was a fire at the country house.
Jessica then returns to the present and tells Mr. Quayle that Jim was devastated when he learned that Patricia died in that fire. Mr. Quayle then goes on about what a great witness Jessica will make, with her national standing and Cabot Cove Maine down-home background. He asks if she has a straw hat with violets in it and says that Barnaby will get her one to complete the look. Jessica indignantly protests that she will not play a country bumpkin for him or for anyone else when he’s interrupted by a phone call from his ex-wife.
I find it difficult to take Jessica’s indignation seriously. She is not so scrupulously honest that she never lies during her investigations. In Night of the Headless Horseman she pretended to be Dorian Beecher’s mother. Mr. Quayle isn’t even asking her to lie—he’s just asking her to dress in a way that will be particularly sympathetic to the jury. This isn’t the sort of thing that anyone should be indignant about, let alone a woman who will lie and wear costumes during an investigation and who is never bothered adultery to say nothing of fornication.
As Quayle’s phone call with his ex-wife—which, oddly, contained an amount of affection which might have been excessive had it been his wife—concludes, Barnaby reminds him of his next appointment and he leaves a flustered Jessica without answers. The next scene goes to the Harlans’ town house at night where Jessica asks Jim why he’s been charged for murder. He explains that the authorities believe that the fire was arson. His mother then comes down and he goes up to bed. During the conversation with Judith, it comes out that Judith thought that Patricia was a bad woman. “Jim was such a serious, studious boy, that he really had no experience with that sort of person.”
In the next scene we go to the courtroom where the prosecutor for the crown (Miss Pirage, pronounced “peer-ahj”) asks a witness what he concluded after his laboratory investigations. I can’t tell what her accent is supposed to be; she pronounces laboratory “lah-bohr-a-tory” as the posh English do, but this is in Canada. Quebec, even, which makes it strange that the trial is conducted in English, and even more strange that the judge, learned counsel, etc all have quasi-English accents rather than French accents. C’est la vie, I suppose.
In his laboratory investigations, he discovered that a gas line in the hot water heater in the basement was disconnected, allowing gas to escape. A gas jet in the stove had been left on upstairs, causing a gas explosion. I’d have thought that all this would have been easier to determine in a crime-scene investigation than a laboratory investigation, but perhaps in Canada they have better lighting in their laboratories and no flashlights. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Canada. I don’t remember what it’s like up there.
Mr. Quayle cross-examines in a pompous style that’s pretty funny. He begins by clarifying whether it’s Miss Pirage or Mrs. Pirage, and explains that he prefers to be precise and would hate to begin by giving her a husband she does not have. She quips back that if she decides she wants a husband, she’ll remember his generous offer. The actors pull it off, and it does come across as funny.
Mr Quayle then begins his cross-examination; he very theatrically elicits from the witness that all he found was an open valve on the stove which is the limits of his knowledge, and is merely surmising that it was left on and was the cause of the fire.
The next witness is the gardener, who testifies that on the day she died he heard Patricia and Jim yelling at each other. She wanted a divorce. Jim’s answer to this request was, “before I give you a divorce I’ll see you dead.”
Mr. Quayle’s cross-examination is basic character assassination; he brings up that the gardener passed a course in auto-repair from a penitentiary institution, and was fired for theft. He concludes, from the way that the gardener shouts that it was a lie, that he was going to ask if the (the gardener) bears the Harlan family ill-will, but the question is no longer necessary.
The next witness is a doctor who testifies that autopsy was very difficult because the fire had almost entirely destroyed the remains. They could only identify the body from the jewelry on it—a engagement ring and engraved wedding band. She does elicit from him—he’s prone to tangents—that what was left of the victim’s skull had a large fracture in the frontal lobe, and there’s no question about it, the victim died from the blow to the head.
We do not see Quayle’s cross-examination. Instead we go back to Mr. Quayle’s office where Jessica, Judith and Jim are sitting on a couch while Barnaby is pouring them tea and Mr. Quayle is asking Barnaby for a list of doctors they’ve used in the past. What they’re all doing here, I’ve no idea; I can’t see why Jessica and the Harlans would go back to their barrister’s office. Anyway, Jessica goes into Mr Quayle’s office as he’s doing research and informs him that it seems to her that Patricia was dead before the fire started. Mr. Quayle asks if she has some medical expertise and she replies that it’s just a matter of common sense—it must have taken some time for the gas to have gotten up to the top floor and if she were alive she would have smelled it.
Quayle replies that it’s up to the crown to prove that she didn’t die in the fire. Jessica answers that it’s not a matter of proof, it’s a matter of logic. I think this is supposed to come off as dishonest Quayle vs. honest Jessica, but she just seems a bit thick-headed to not realize that in a murder defense, ambiguity is on the side of justice if the defendant is innocent.
Quayle is interrupted by his secretary, who tells him that his ex is on the line. This turns out to be another ex-wife, who he addresses in terms equally affectionate as he addressed his previous ex-wife.
Jessica walks back into the waiting room and talks to Jim. She tells him that if Patricia did die prior to the fire, he may need to establish his whereabouts. He reminds her that he took Monica to the airport. How that’s supposed to help, I’m not sure. Her flight was at 7:40pm and even back then you didn’t drop someone off at 7:39 for a 7:40 flight. Unless these things are far apart he would have had plenty of time to get back, murder Patricia, and arrive on time for dinner. Jessica decides that it’s very important to track Monica Blane down. She goes and asks Mr. Quayle if he’s tried to track her down and he tells her that he has decided that her (Jessica’s) testimony will not be necessary, Barnaby will reimburse her for expenses, and he wishes her a pleasant trip back to Maine. (Judith slipped into Quayle’s office before this; it seems possible that she might have had something to do with it.)
Jessica and Jim then go for a walk past a Mounty to talk over the case.
Jessica then asks Jim about the gardener’s testimony. He says that Patricia had been going through a lot of money and refused to account for it. They both got upset and said things that they didn’t mean, but he didn’t threaten Patricia and never would have hurt her. Jessica says that the question is, then, why the gardener was lying.
Jessica then takes a cab to the gardener’s shack where he’s working on a vintage car.
Jessica pretends to be a country bumpkin who is hoping to get a story into the Cabot Cove Gazette. I suppose she won’t pretend to be a country bumpkin for Mr. Quayle or anyone else; she’ll only pretend to be a country bumpkin for herself. I believe that in modern parlance that sort of selfishness is supposed to be independence, or integrity, or something. Be that as it may, it’s things like this that make it very hard to take Jessica’s indignation seriously. And be that as it may, she does manage to pump the gardener for a little information. It turns out that he saw Patricia lying on the floor (presumably dead) through a window before the fire. He didn’t say anything about it because he doesn’t get involved with the police and he would deny what he told her if anyone else asked about it.
For some reason we now get back to the cross-examination of the crown’s medical witness by Mr. Quayle. He asks whether the skull could have been crushed by a falling beam during the fire, or if in fact it is not most probable that the skull was crushed in that fashion. The medical examiner admits that it is possible.
The crown next calls Nathan Klebber, whoever he is.
He turns out to be the owner and operator of the Blue Sky Motel on Aviation Boulevard near “the airport”. I find that last little imprecision amusing because it makes sense for television but is out of character. If the learned counsel is going to the trouble of specifying the Blue Sky Motel and the street it’s on, it would be natural to specify its distance from the airport and also which airport. I haven’t checked but it seems likely that there is more than one airport in Canada. That’s the sort of detail that screenwriters often leave out, in part because it’s (almost) certain you won’t get sued by a real person or business if you don’t actually name them. It’s a little odd not to make up a fake name for it, though.
The learned counsel for the crown asks if on May 14 “of last year” whether he rented a room to an attractive blond woman in her early thirties. He replies that he did; he punched “the card” at 6:53pm. He then leans forward and in his sleasiest voice says that with everyone travelling he sometimes rents by the hour. She gave the name “Monica Blane” on the registration card. She came into the office alone but there was a man with him, and he saw the man. He then identifies Jim Harlan.
This is a strange turn of events for several reasons. The one that stands out most in my mind is that the sleazy motel owner makes a remarkably confident identification for a man he saw out his office window and in a car, somewhere around a year ago.
Actually, this time frame is itself a problem because when Jessica gives her narration to Mr. Quayle in the beginning of the episode she says that the events she narrated took place “about six months ago”. Six months from May 14th would be in November of the same year. Even if one stretched eight months to be “about six months” that would only place the episode in early January. As I’ve previously noted, I’m not an expert on Canada. That said, it is my distinct impression that Canada, in January, tends to be cold. It’s not really the sort of place that a person would work on a car outdoors with rolled up sleeves. Moreover, the exterior scenes we’ve seen so far all showed the lush greens of late spring or summer. Jessica’s flashbacks, likewise, showed lush greens—the gardener was outside trimming bushes—so I don’t see any way for this trial to be less than about a year ago, despite Jessica’s putting it only six months ago.
So how valuable is the identification provided by one of the sleaziest witnesses ever to sit in the witness box of a man he saw a year ago, through his office window, sitting inside a car? Moreover, when there was absolutely no reason for the motel owner to have attached any significance to the event?
To be fair on that last point, it’s likely that the police, during their investigation, would have questioned him days or weeks after the event. Presumably he would have identified Jim from a photograph then and his testimony in court a year later is merely referencing his earlier identification. They don’t show that, but it’s more reasonable and plausible with what they’ve said. Even so, though, that identification would have been under the really terrible circumstances I described above. I also have to question why a motel owner who rents by the hour would even look at his guests enough to notice them. When you deal with the general public they tend to become a blur. Perhaps Jim stood out because Monica was so pretty and he was curious who was with her? That’s not absurd, but it would have been nice to establish.
However that goes, Mr. Quayle does not tear the motel owner to shreds but instead asks to cross-examine at a later time, which the judge grants. The crown then calls Jessica Fletcher to the stand!
Some very dramatic music plays. Mr. Quayle looks surprised then looks at Jessica as if she’s betrayed Jim. She looks around as if he might have been looking at someone else.
Or perhaps she was just looking away in shame.
The sum total of what she’s asked is all she would have testified had Mr. Quayle called her—that Jim and Monica left the country house just before six o’clock and dropped her off at the Harlan town house just after 6:30. He then left with Monica and the next she saw Jim was at 8:30 for dinner. The learned counsel for the crown dramatically asks if Jessica has no knowledge of Jim’s whereabouts between 6:30 and 8:30 and Jessica confusedly says that’s correct.
The learned counsel for the crown then states that these two hours were plenty of time for the defendant to go back to the country house, murder his wife, then get back to the city for dinner.
Perhaps so, but if it takes over half an hour to get from the country house to the city house, as the learned counsel for the crown just established, what on earth is her theory of the crime given that she was the one who called the witness to testify Jim was checking into a by-the-hour motel with Monica Blane at 6:53pm? I suppose that the airport could be right next to the country house, but unless that’s the case and we’re further to suppose that Jim and Monica didn’t actually do anything in the hotel room they rented, the learned counsel for the crown just established Jim’s alibi.
Instead of thanking the Queen’s Counsel for proving the innocence of his client, Mr. Quayle immediately cross-examines Jessica and engages in one of the most entertaining courtroom character-assassinations I’ve ever seen.
He begins by asking if she has ever used the alias “J.B. Fletcher,” and when she says that it’s the name she uses on her books, he asks, “So, you admit that you are a writer?” When she admits this, he asks, “And it was in the guise of a writer that you wheedled your way into the confidence of the Harlan family?” A moment later he asks, “Do you deny that the plot for your next book was stolen from an unpublished manuscript by James Harlan?” Quayle replies to her denial that it’s a matter that they will leave to the civil courts to decide. He then asks if she remembers being committed to the State of Maine Institute for the Criminally Insane in 1985.
The learned counsel for the crown objects and the judge sustains the objection, but Jessica answers anyway—she wasn’t committed, she entered the institution voluntarily. Mr Quayle asks if it was under the care of Dr. Sidney Buckman, a specialist in the field of criminal psychosis (whatever that is). Jessica says yes, she was researching a book. Mr. Quayle then commends it as a perfect subterfuge. Jessica replies that the book was called Sanitarium of Death and was dedicated to Dr. Buckman. Mr. Quayle surmises out of gratitude for the care which she received.
He proceeds to ask whether Jessica’s neice, Victoria Griffin, was arrested for murder last year. Jessica says yes. (This is referring to the third season episode Corn Beef & Carnage.) He also asks whether another neice, Tracy Magill, was also arrested for murder. (This is referring to the second season episode Dead Heat.) And that her nephew, Grady Fletcher, was arrested for murder not once but twice? (I forget which episodes this would be and there are too many with Grady to spend the time refreshing my memory of the plots of them all, unfortunately.) He concludes that “it seems that one of New England’s most respected families is a breeding ground for homicidal lunatics!”
Part of what I love about this character assassination is how completely pointless it is. Quayle had no interest in discrediting Jessica’s testimony—she gave Jim an alibi up to 6:30pm and placed him at the townhouse at 8:30pm, which was better than he was doing without her. Moreover, this testimony was in no way different than what he had previously said was a small but vital role for her to play in getting Jim off of the charge. In any event, it’s not like the jury is going to not believe Jessica about being dropped off at the townhouse at 6:30pm because she comes from a family that’s frequently arrested for murder. About the only possible reason that Mr. Quayle had for performing this pointless character assassination was to keep in practice.
It was a lot of fun to see an episode of Murder, She Wrote that actually acknowledges previous episodes, though. Further, the actor playing Mr. Quayle (Patrick McGoohan), plays him very over-the-top. It’s just delightful.
Quayle says that he has no further questions and Jessica, bewildered and appalled, gets up. The learned counsel for the crown buries her head in her hand as if something bad just happened for her case.
As I noted, I think that something bad did just happen for her case, but it was what the last two witnesses which she called testified to. Quayle did her a favor in discrediting Jessica, if indeed we are to assume that he succeeded in that. No one seems to notice this, however, so we move to the next scene in some sort of cafeteria, where Jessica, sits down with the Queen’s Counsel at her invitation.
The QC condoles with her, saying that it feels like being mugged. Jessica asks whether she really believes that Jim Harlan murdered his wife, and Miss Pirage (the QC) says that she intends to prove that Jim Harlan conspired with Monica Blane to kill Patricia.
Next we see Jessica and Jim driving in a car. Jessica asks Jim for the truth, and he agrees to tell her. He and Patricia tried to keep up appearances but their marriage was sinking fast. Patricia went through money like Jessica wouldn’t believe. Even on the day she died she took out twenty thousand dollars in cash. (It was never found.)
Jessica asks about Monica Blane and the motel. Jim admits that it’s true. He left at 8pm. Monica took a taxi to get to her flight. Given that her flight was at 7:40pm, that taxi must have driven awful fast for her to make it on time. Jim went straight back to the town house to it make it there for dinner. Jim says that he’s embarrassed by it, but Jessica points out that at least Monica Blane could give Jim an alibi. If she could be found.
That evening while Jessica is getting ready for bed, Judith knocks on her hotel room door and asks if she can come in. She apologizes for the vicious way that Mr. Quayle attacked her. After some conversation, it comes up that Judith found out that Patricia had spent a year in jail for embezzling funds from a previous employer and that she had been nothing more than a common Las Vegas showgirl when Jim had met her. Jessica surmises that Monica Blane was not an old schoolmate of Patricia’s but in fact had met her in prison, and was blackmailing Patricia. Judith had paid Monica a great deal of money to disappear through an intermediary—a private investigator.
The next day Jessica goes to Mr. Quayle’s office and talks to Barnaby where she gets him to show her a copy of the police report. It’s got a picture of the jewelry that Patricia’s body was identified with. Jessica asks where the diamond brooch is that Monica was wearing, and Barnaby tells her that there was no mention of a brooch.
Just then a private investigator walks in and announces that he’s there to see Mr. Quayle with information about the location of Monica Blane in exchange for “five large”.
Since Mr. Quayle isn’t around, Jessica goes to meet the private investigator instead. Then Mr. Quayle shows up. It doesn’t matter much because either way they get the location of Monica Blane.
The next day in court, before Mr. Quayle can call Monica Blane the Queen’s Counsel does instead. Monica testifies that she did spend time with Jim at the motel, but then she took a taxi to the airport because she had a 7:40 flight. When asked if it’s true that Jim did not drive her, she said that no, he said that he had to go to the country house to straighten some things out with his wife. Jim stands up and shouts that this is a lie and Mr. Quayle tells him to sit down.
At this point I don’t think that the timing works out no matter who you believe. The motel owner testifies that they booked the room at 6:53pm. Even back in 1987, arriving 47 minutes before an international flight was cutting it close. But she didn’t teleport to the airport, she spent time with Jim and then called a cab. Given the time it would take to call a cab, for a cab to arrive, then to drive Monica to the airport, it’s not very plausible that she spent any time with Jim and still made her flight.
More relevantly to the case, if we assume that the couple only spent ten minutes together… coupling, then Jim has an alibi until 7:03pm. Since it takes well over half an hour to get from the country house to the town house, where Jessica put him at 8:30, this gives him less than an hour to go from the motel by the airport to the country house to kill his wife and arrange the gas. I suppose that this depends on where the airport is, but my impression was that the town house was on the way to the airport, which would make the timing extremely close and pretty implausible. Outright impossible if the couple was together for twenty minutes and the airport was at least ten minutes further away from the country house than the town house was.
No one bothers to think about this, though. The next scene is at Mr. Quayle’s office, where Jessica and the Harlans are seated, talking. Jessica offers the suggestion that if Monica was blackmailing Patricia, perhaps she was trying to incriminate Jim in order to distract from her own crimes. This possibility really should have occurred to Jessica when she was spending so much effort to try to locate Monica to help Jim.
Mr Quayle arrives, yells at Jessica, then demands the Harlans come with him into his office. Mr. Quayle’s secretary comes in looking for an earing, which Jessica finds for her. She remarks that it’s not worth much but has a lot of sentimental value to her. Jessica then realizes who murdered Patricia.
The problem is how to prove it. Jessica talks to Barnaby and explains her idea. The gardener had told her that he went back to the house long after everyone had left. Perhaps he killed Patricia and stole the brooch. It would be stupid to sell the brooch so soon after the death, so if he took it he probably still has it hidden somewhere. Barnaby interrupts Mr. Quayle’s conference with the Harlans to propose this idea (Jessica thought Mr. Quayle would be more receptive if it came from Barnaby), and Mr. Quayle thinks he may be on to something. He instructs Barnaby to telephone a judge to get a search warrant. I guess in Canada private citizens can get search warrants? What a strange country.
Anyway, the next thing we see is a shadowy figure in a fancy car driving up to the gardener’s shack (where Jessica had interviewed him).
Oddly, for Murder, She Wrote, they didn’t disguise the figure very well, and in fact in the very next scene they show us that it’s Judith, wearing sunglasses and gloves but also distinctive jewelry and with her unusual hair on full display.
This strikes me as being about a 3% disguise. I suppose that there was no real point in trying to hold out the suspense of who the murderer was since the options were:
Option 1 isn’t impossible, but it’s highly unlikely since Jim is a friend of Jessica’s and also a writer. I don’t think that they’re ever the murderer. Also, I can’t remember Murder, She Wrote ever pulling a bluff by having Jessica working to clear the murderer the whole episode while the dumb police officer turned out to be right.
Option 3 would be very difficult to believe, even given the sloppy way that this episode plays with time. Jim alibis Monica until some time after 7pm and at a motel near the airport. Wherever exactly the airport is, it’s clearly not in walking distance of the country house, so Monica would have had to take a cab or rent a car to get there, both of which would have been idiotic. Plus, Patricia was Monica’s cash cow. The blackmailer doesn’t kill the victim for the same reason that children are told the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs.
Option 4 is unlikely, too, since the gardener had no motive to kill Patricia and also didn’t use the time-delay given by the gas leak to try to establish an alibi for himself. It’s not outright impossible. If Jessica was wrong about the blackmail, the gardener could have seen the twenty thousand dollars in cash and tried to steal it, killing Patricia in the process. The only problem, there, is that he would have had no way to know that anyone was searching for the brooch so he couldn’t be caught moving it to a better hiding place and we could hardly expect him to sneak into his own shack to plant the brooch on himself to throw suspicion onto himself.
That just leaves Judith. Since we don’t have any options, I guess that there was no point in pretending that we did.
As a small point, I wonder how Judith knew or expected that the gardener would be away from his shack. It would be very awkward for him to have found her there. She does call to him several times to make sure he’s not there, but I can’t imagine what she would have done had he been there.
Be that as it may, Judith is caught planting the brooch…
…by Jessica and the Queen’s Counsel, Miss Pirage. Normally, I’d say that this was a strange choice for an authority figure since prosecutors never go on searches for evidence because if anything happens during the search, they will be unable to prosecute the case because they are now a witness in the case. Who else could do it, though? There is no police detective in the case and it’s too late to bring one in. Jim wouldn’t be a great choice and Mr. Quayle or Barnaby would be worse choices. The gardener would technically be a possibility, but I know I wouldn’t want to rely on his testimony. It’s kind of curious that he’s not there, though, since without his permission Jessica and Miss Pirage are trespassing. Perhaps that’s not illegal in Canada?
Judith asks Jessica how she knew, and Jessica says that she had to ask herself who would take an antique brooch and leave a five karat diamond. The answer is someone to whom it was a family heirloom. Judith says that her mother was very fond of it, and it was a gift from her father.
Judith decides to confess to everything. Patricia’s appointment was not with her hairdresser (what a shock!) but with Judith. She was going to confront Patricia with everything that the private investigator had found out about her background. She offered Patricia a lot of money to quietly divorce Jim, without scandal. Patricia was not only greedy but abusive; she hit Judith. Judith grabbed whatever was nearby—the poker in the fireplace—and struck her down. She’s the one who disconnected the gas. She calculated that she had enough time to get to the town house before the fire consumed Patricia’s body. She couldn’t bear to see her mother’s brooch destroyed so she removed it from the body.
I find it curious that the brooch was the only thing of sentimental value in the entire country house. It was fortunate, I guess, that all of Judith’s sentimental attachments were stored in the town house.
Miss Pirage leads Judith away as if she has some sort of authority to arrest her, and before leaving the shack Judith turns to Jessica and says, “I hope you realize that I never would have let Jim be convicted for something I had done.” Jessica nods.
The closing scene is of Jessica and Barnaby talking. Barnaby says that their ploy worked, so I guess he was in on it. Jessica replies that she hopes Mr. Quayle appreciates what Barnaby did for him, and Barnaby shows off his new title.
Jessica comments that it has a “good, solid sound.” Mr Quayle walks in and Jessica says goodbye to him. He corrects her that it’s not goodbye, but au revoir. He’ll see her again a few months for the trial. He’s going to defend Judith. “Even the guilty deserve their day in court. I’m going to get her off. I always get them off.” Jessica says that it’s a trial she would rather skip, and Mr. Quayle says that she can’t. He’s going to call her as a witness.
The episode ends on Jessica’s look of horror.
There are a few things which are not small points that this episode leaves unanswered. Why did the gardener testify that Patricia asked for a divorce and that Jim replied that he’d kill her first? I suppose we’re meant to assume that he lied about it to try to hurt the Harlans in revenge for having been fired, but this would have been nice to establish. It’s also a somewhat strange motive. Again, we have to assume that this is based on testimony he gave the police in the days or weeks after the crime; without knowing that the fire was started intentionally, it would be a somewhat odd lie to tell. On the other hand, if he was telling the truth about having seen Patricia’s body before the fire, perhaps he thought that Jim really did do it and was trying to help the police get him. Which would be out of character, since he doesn’t like to talk to the police. Come to think of it, why did he cooperate with the police enough to lie about the fight but not enough to tell the truth about having seen the body on the floor prior to the fire? I don’t see any way that this makes sense.
Another question that is left unanswered is what actually happened with Jim Harlan and Monica Blane? I don’t see any way that she actually made her 7:40pm flight, but if she didn’t, what happened to her? Why did she try to incriminate Jim in the death of Patricia if she wasn’t involved? It doesn’t help her to make an enemy of Mr. Quayle (even if she doesn’t know him by reputation). Having just testified that they spent time together then she took a cab to the airport would have been her safest bet.
Another weird point is how on earth the two ended up getting a room together. They were, so far as we can tell, barely in each other’s company prior to driving Jessica to the town house and in Jessica’s company from then until about twenty minutes before they got a motel room next to the airport. I realize that some people move quickly but this rivals how fast Pepe le Pew falls in love. Perhaps Monica Blane, with her criminal background, might be this impulsive. Jim Harlan, the studious and sensitive soul, would hardly be likely to jump into bed with Monica twenty minutes into what seems to be his first private conversation with her. Especially since he wanted his marriage to work out.
Another question that’s completely unanswered is what existed between Patricia and the gardener? If Monica Blane was blackmailing Patricia and Patricia was paying, that would mean that Patricia wanted to stay in her marriage. Why would she cheat with the gardener if she wanted to remain married to Jim? Was she even cheating with the gardener? The only real evidence we have is the gardener winking at her and her nodding back—all of which happened in Jessica’s retelling and which Jessica couldn’t have known.
Also, on the assumption that Patricia was paying Monica blackmail money, why was she? The things that Judith’s private investigator found out about were that Patricia had spent a year in prison for embezzling money and that she was a las vegas showgirl when Jim met her. Presumably Jim already knew she was a showgirl when he met her, so what harm was there in her past coming out. It would be embarrassing to have served prison time for a crime, but why would she wreck her marriage over keeping this secret?
These questions aside, I was really shocked when the completely unidentifiable corpse turned out to be who it was assumed to be on the basis of jewelry and not the person who has been missing ever since then. I had assumed that the corpse was actually that of Monica Blane until she was located. That the mystery was not so complicated was a kind of twist, but not the good kind. Nothing was made of it; none of the characters were misled by it. Nothing was covered up by it. It almost seems like it was just an accident that this was possible until it wasn’t anymore.
The unwritten rule of mysteries is that it only counts as a twist if the story turns out to be more clever than it seems.
Overall, this is a very curious episode. As a mystery, it isn’t very good. It’s overly simple. Absent Jessica’s interference, the learned counsel for the crown had probably proved Jim’s innocence herself. Failing that, the murderer would have revealed herself had the person Jessica was trying to save been convicted. Most of the ends were loose ends; very little was made to fit. On the other hand, as an episode of a TV show, it was extremely entertaining. The courtroom scenes were enjoyable, especially Oliver Quayle’s over-the-top pomposity. It was especially fun to see a nod toward the ridiculousness of all of the episodes when put together. The supporting characters were also fun, except for Judith who was kind of grating but she turned out to be the murderer so that was OK.
All things considered, Witness For the Defense is a good lesson in how strong characters can carry a weak story. It’s better to have strong characters in a strong story, of course, but strong characters are, clearly, worth an awful lot.
Several years ago, I did some research into the origins of the phrase The Butler Did It. This led to a series of posts on the subject, and I even tracked down and read some of the original source material. You can see the posts on the butler did it tag. One annoying thing about tags is that they have the newest post first, but this makes more sense to scroll to the bottom and start reading from there. It’s worth checking out as I came across some interesting and mostly forgotten history in mystery fiction. Nothing earth shattering, but interesting.
The final episode of the third season of Murder, She Wrote is titled Murder, She Spoke and for some odd reason is one of the episodes that stands out in my memory most from when I saw it as a kid (explaining why will involve spoilers, so I’m leaving that to later in this discussion of the episode).
The episode opens with a band recording a country song.
They sing for a bit about a fellow named Lucky who has a silver dollar in his pocket but doesn’t have a woman to his name. As a side note, having a silver dollar in his pocket is pretty unusual for any recent historical time. The last silver dollar coins that were in general circulation were minted in 1935.
The singer’s name is Stony Carmichael, and he’s played by Charlie Daniels, perhaps most famous for his song The Devil Went Down to Georgia. If you’ve never heard it, here’s Charlie and his band playing it in a concert:
I’ve no idea how they got Charlie Daniels to do this but he’s great in the part and it explains why Stony’s band sounds so good. Anyway, we then discover why we’re here. In another booth in the studio, Jessica is recording an audio book version of one of her books.
The body was discovered by Edie Babbage on November 2nd, at 3:30 in the afternoon. She knew it was 3:30 because she was late returning from her marketing. She checked her watch in the elevator, bothered the dinner wouldn’t be ready. Nothing fancy, just her husband’s favorite stuffed cabbage. But it took at least four hours. She was equally certain about the location of the body—the man’s throat had been slit and he was making a dreadful mess all over her freshly scrubbed kitchen floor. It had not been Edie’s day…
The sound engineer interrupts and asks her to take two steps back because her voice is too authoritative. She does, but then can’t read the manuscript. The woman who seems to be directing her from within the recording studio, where her breathing and every moment would be caught on the microphone, moves the stand for her and calls that “emergency procedure number 483.” The sound engineer says that they’re ready to roll, but she says that she wants to give someone another minute, he should have been here by now. I’ve no idea why it was OK to roll before, but not now, or why they didn’t figure out where Jessica was supposed to stand before recording.
The scene moves back to Stony, who just finishes up. The sound engineer says that it’s pure gold, but Stony says that Al would say that the partridge family was platinum if it would get them out of the recording studio. This, by the way, is Al:
Stony wants him to play the recording back. Al is reluctant, but Stony insists and Al acquiesces. We then go back to the studio with Jessica, where the woman has finally given up on the man coming and tells the sound engineer to start recording, then instructs Jessica to forget that there’s a microphone in front of her. Just then the man she was waiting for walks in. He introduces himself as Greg Dalton. He’s the producer of the audio book.
He doesn’t wear sunglasses indoors because he’s cool, though. It turns out he’s blind. We find this out by him bumping into the music stand that Jessica’s manuscript is on. Somebody, he concludes, must have moved the stand. The camera pans over to show his cane. He doesn’t need it in places that he’s familiar with, except when people move things on him. They kind of got this wrong because he went to where Jessica was now, rather than where she would have been had the music stand not been moved. And it would have been a bit weird for him to try to walk between where the music stand had been and Jessica, standing (what he thought was) several feet behind it. It would have made more sense to walk around it.
The woman turns out to be Greg’s wife, by the way. There’s then a weird joke where he reaches out to take his wife’s hand and she takes his, then he kisses the music stand as if he didn’t have her hand in his. He then makes a joke about it. I’m not sure why, but they’re really doing a bad job with setting up the blind jokes. (These are actually a setup for character development later, they’re not here to make fun of him for being blind. It would probably be more accurate to call them blindness-related mistakes.)
We then get a few more characters introduced.
The guy in the white jacket walked in from an outside door and just ran into the woman in denim. Her name is Cheryl and she seems to be the executive assistant to the head of the studio, which seems to be him. She relays several messages he missed while he was at dinner.
We then get a bit of character development on the young woman with the band. She turns out to be Stony’s niece. She tells him to stop treating her like a kid, but replies, “Honey, you are a kid.” He then tells her that the first rule of being a musician is to take care of your band and orders her to go get them some sodas.
Stony walks into the sound engineering room where the head of the studio stopped in to listen. He shows them a bootleg cassette tape which he found at a “swap meet” for $20. They’re even using the official cover.
Granted, covers aren’t always complicated, but this cover is just some words on white over a picture of Stony (from what I can only assume is a long time ago). That’s actually about the quality I would expect of a bootleg-original cassette cover. The only thing even slightly difficult about it in 1987 would be the lettering. I’m so used to doing that sort of thing on a computer that I’m not even sure how one would have done it back then. Other than that, it could easily be made on the photocopy machine at the library by having two strips of paper with the words on them over the photo of Stony.
The studio head says that he told Stony that there was a risk in pushing back the release date, and that he’s equally mad about them since it’s money out of his pocket, too. Stony replies that he talked to a fancy uptown lawyer who said that if he can prove that the bootleg cassettes are coming out of the studio, it will nullify his contract with them. The studio head says that he’s Stony’s friend and if Stony wants out of the contract, all he has to do is say so. Stony points out that according to the contract he signed if he does that he’ll be liable for all expenses the studio incurred, plus fifty percent of any future contract he comes up with. The studio head replies that no one held a gun to Stony’s head to sign the contract when he found him “in that dive in Waco”. Stony replies maybe not, but somebody got him mighty drunk. “I guess I’ll even be billed for the liquor, too, huh?”
It’s pretty well established that these two are not on good terms. Odds are pretty good that one of them will be a corpse before the episode is over.
The studio head then asks Al what he knows about it and Al replies that the place used to be very loose before security was beefed up—anybody could have come in and dubbed the masters. Something not said is how all of this happened while the album is still being recorded. Even lax security won’t let people dub master tapes that weren’t recorded yet.
The studio head then notices a monitor of a different room in which Jessica is recording and remarks that no one would mistake her for a rhythm and blues girl. “That’s the last book for the bleeding blind you’re gonna catch outa here.”
In the next scene the studio head is in the recording studio telling Jessica, “Thanks for being here, Mrs. Fletcher. This is such an important series.” He then ignores Jessica’s reply as he talks to the sound engineer.
Greg then gives them the news that this is the last of the Mystery Books For the Blind series that will be recorded in this studio. That was why the studio head had taken him out to dinner—to tell him.
Both his wife and Jessica are aghast. Jessica says, “but can’t you take the series to another company?” He replies, “That’ll be tough. This isn’t exactly a money-making proposition. I can’t say I blame him.”
At this point we can be pretty confident that it’s the studio head who’s going to end up dead, given how many people have been established to have motives to hate him. This one is a bit weird, though. By 1987, audio books were being regularly made. The Sony Walkman—which helped in no small part to create demand for audiobooks because of the many places they could now be played such as when going for walks, commuting to and from work, etc.—had been released in 1979. Eight years later, there was a real and growing market for audio books. Moreover, mysteries are popular and Jessica’s mysteries, which were best sellers, would almost certainly have been financially worthwhile to any company to do. This feels like someone had taken a plot for a different show, written about ten years before, and just recycled it to Murder, She Wrote. It’s the plot we’ve got, though, so we’re going to have to run with it.
As they discuss what to do, Jessica notices the studio head having an argument with the sound engineer. (“Perhaps this isn’t the best time to approach Mr. Witworth.”) The studio head, whose name turns out to be Randy Witworth, then goes back to his office. It turns out his wife is waiting for him there:
Her name is Margaret Witworth, and if you’re wondering about the apparent age disparity, she’s rich. That said, the actors are only six years apart. Constance Towers, who played Margret, was born in 1933 while Patrick Wayne (second son of the legendary John Wayne) was born in 1939. This would have made them fifty-four and forty-eight, respectively. It’s atypical, but not a huge gap at their ages. They were recently married, by the way.
She expresses some jealousy over how late his secretary works and he assures her that she has nothing to worry about. She drops her purse while they kiss and he picks it up for her (odds are good that something will have fallen out of her purse that will be a clue, later). He tells her to go home and start one of her special bubble baths and he’ll join her at 10 O’Clock. He’s got a business appointment with a “Carl” in a few minutes.
We next go to Jessica continuing her reading.
But what really bothered Mrs. Babage was, the body was dressed in her only fromal gown…
They then laugh over the typo and Greg excuses himself to go get a drink. I really don’t get why both and he his wife are in the recording studio with Jessica. The only things they can add are unwanted noises. That’s why there’s a room that can see in and talk over microphones to the sound room, but normally is isolated from it, where the sound engineer sits.
We move over to the other recording studio, with Stony, and Al places a call to Randy. Then we cut to outside where the businessman that Randy is waiting for arrives.
If audio books not being profitable was an anachronism, that car is a straight-up antique. Lord Peter Wimsey might have owned it at one point.
The lights on the recording studio go off just as he’s walking up to the door. The scene cuts to complete blackness and we hear Al complaining to Randy that this is the third time this month and that he and “Carl” have to get some people in who know what they’re doing. Randy replies that the electricians were just in. Curiously, during this conversation, Al doesn’t let Randy interrupt him and just keeps on talking.
Various people talk to each other. Greg’s wife tells Jessica that this has happened before and she knows her way around so she’s going to go look for the circuit breaker. The businessman who came up walks in and asks what happened to the lights. Then the lights come back up.
Al, on the phone, asks Randy if he’s OK, and Randy replies that he’s hurt. Somebody…
Sally Ann starts screaming, and the camera moves over to her. It pans out as the Texan businessman comes in and holds her to comfort her and Al is just getting to the room.
Randy, it turns out, has been stabbed to death. Actually, that’s not quite right, since he isn’t dead yet. He’s able to say “help me,” “stabbed me,” and “somebody stabbed me. in the dark.” He’s rushed off in an ambulance. He doesn’t make it, though, so it’s close enough.
The police arrive, including Lieutenant Farady, played by G.W. Bailey. He had, only three short years before, played Lieutenant Harris in the slapstick comedy, Police Academy.
Bailey played a straight man in Police Academy, and seems to play a different sort of straight-man here. In Police Academy he was a rigid disciplinarian. Here is is a rigid misogynist. That’s not quite the right word; he doesn’t hate women, he merely regards them as children. He has a Kinder, Küche, Kirche attitude, except without any respect for these things. Why he was written this way, I have no idea. I imagine that it’s supposed to be funny, except it isn’t.
In the old vaudeville days they said if you have a funny man you have a bit, if you have a straight man, you have an act. There is some truth to this because the funny man does much better when he has a straight man to play off of. Humor is related to contrasts and the straight man sets up a stream of contrasts for the funny man to play off of. What somebody seemed to have missed in this episode is that the act does, in fact, also require the funny man. If all you have is the straight man, you don’t even have a bit.
This strange shtick comes up in every scene that the Lieutenant is in but it serves no identifiable purpose. It’s not funny, it doesn’t advance the plot, it doesn’t hinder Jessica—it doesn’t do anything but annoy the viewer. It continues throughout the rest of the episode, but I’m going to ignore it from here on out.
Jessica points out to the Lieutenant that if someone had been in the office with Randy when he was stabbed that person could easily have left and no one would have seen since it was dark. While true, this is of dubious relevance because Randy probably would have mentioned the person with him if there had been anyone. It’s also just unlikely that someone would be with Randy, with a knife at the ready, and just luck out that a blackout happened right then.
The Lieutenant is in Randy’s office speculating with his deputy when Jessica brings Greg in. He was taking a pill at the water fountain—he has a circulation problem in his leg—when he heard someone run past him and something drop. The Lt. asks if this was when the lights were out and Greg says that he doesn’t know, since he’s blind.
Jessica sees something on the floor.
The Lt. says that the cleaning lady will get that in the morning, and he noticed it too. It’s a splash of paint. How there was supposed to be a splash of wet paint on the carpet in the middle of an office in which no painting is going on, he doesn’t explain. Apparently he didn’t notice the bottle of nail polish that’s pretty obvious. Jessica asks to borrow his pocket handkerchief and use it to pick the bottle up, then screw the lid on, though I can’t imagine that any fingerprints survived the vigorous wiping she gave the bottle while she screwed the lid on. Before moving on, I really would like to know how on earth the nail polish was supposed to splash like that then bounce 8″ over without leaving any nail polish, then lay on its side not dripping at all.
The Lieutenant suggests that Jessica take the bottle of nail polish home with her as a souvenir. At this point I’m going to refer to him as Lt. Idiot, and also reference my previous statements about how a straight man without a funny man isn’t even a bit.
Jessica identifies the nail polish as “Moné Mauve,” an extremely expensive brand of nail polish. It’s still wet, which means that it must have been dropped very recently. So recently that I really doubt that it would be still damp, given the time it took for the police to come and begin their investigation. It really should have stank to high heaven, though, given how man VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) nail polish gives off while it dries. Oddly, no one comments on that.
Jessica recommends that Lt. Idiot find out who it belongs too but he seems reluctant to follow up on clues. A phone call comes in on the phone in Randy’s office, which Lt. Idiot picks up. Randy Witworth was dead on arrival at the hospital, making this a murder investigation. How on earth the hospital had Randy’s office phone number or why on earth they called it is not explained.
Shortly afterwards, they find the murder weapon behind a soda machine.
Jessica says that it must be what Greg heard drop. Jessica notices that Greg’s wife recognizes it.
It was the sharp intake of breath that Alerted Jessica.
The scene moves to the next day, where Greg and Jessica are taking a morning run. Jessica tells Greg, as they run, that she admires how he doesn’t let anything stop him. They get home and Greg’s wife is making breakfast. Greg does basically everything himself, barely letting her do anything. Then he gets a call from Carl, who I believe was the Texan businessman, who cancels Mystery Books for the Blind. “Does he have the power to do that?” Jessica asks. “Guess he must have,” Greg replies. I’m not so sure, Jessica says. So they visit Carl at his house.
In the conversation, it comes up that the Stony Carmichael tape that Jessica saw on Randy’s desk was a bootleg. Jessica pursues the subject of ownership of the company, because the previous night she saw a sizable cashier’s check attached to a contract transferring Carl’s ownership to Randy. Carl replies that a lot has changed since last night.
When they get back from this meeting, Lt. Idiot is waiting at Greg’s house. Lt. Idiot has a warrant to search the house. It turns out that they had a barbeque at their house a few days ago and most everyone from the studio attended. Jessica goes to help Greg’s wife with the coffee, and finds her reaching into the dryer.
Jessica chides her that Lt. Idiot isn’t stupid and will look in the dryer, too. Given that he told Jessica to take a bottle of nail polish from the crime scene home as a souvenir, I find this highly doubtful. Anyway, Nancy (Greg’s wife) had hid their knives in the dryer because one is missing—the murder weapon. Jessica tells Nancy that she can’t withhold evidence, and the knife may clear Greg.
In the next scene they’re standing in the living room and Jessica is exasperatedly telling Lt. Idiot that anyone could have stolen the knife at the barbecue, as the prints were wiped off the murder weapon. Lt. Idiot replies that Greg was standing next to the master switch when the lights went off. Apparently they put the master switch to the electricity in the building not in a locked service closet on an exterior wall where the electrical service comes in, like it normally is in commercial buildings, but on the wall next to a drinking fountain in the hallway.
Lt. Idiot’s main case is that the person most capable of operating in a blackout is a blind man, hence Greg must be guilty. He does have a motive, though. Randy said that he was cancelling books for the blind and Greg got angry. He said that Randy owed him.
Greg then elaborates. “A man owes something to somebody he blinds in a car accident. But not his life. A job, maybe. But not his life.”
This eloquence falls on deaf ears, as the next scene is in the police station with Greg under arrest. For some reason Jessica is interrogating Greg and no police are present.
She asks Greg if he can identify anything about the person who ran past him. Greg replies that sometimes he can tell the difference between a man or a woman, but not when they’re wearing soft-soled shoes. Jessica asks if he can say anything about it, such as “but did they sound heavy or light, did they move fast, were they young?” Given that they were running, I’d say he already answered the question of whether they were moving fast.
Nancy tartly tells Jessica that he’s not an eyewitness, he’s blind. When Greg objects, Nancy yells at him that he’s not superman and can’t do everything by himself, and it will never be the same as it was before the accident. Greg objects that he’s happy, with a good life, and she asks why he has to be so damn happy.
Basically, she complains that he’s dealing with his problems like a man, by dealing with them directly, and not like a woman, by talking about them with other women (note: generalization with exceptions). She also complains that he doesn’t confide in her anymore. This is the character development I said that the earlier issues with him stumbling into things were leading towards. I didn’t like this sub-plot, but it was intentional and worked for its intention.
After Jessica finished interrogating Greg, she and Nancy left and Jessica asked her about the previous power outages. Nancy asks if she thinks that they were related and Jessica says that if she were going to pull a murder in total darkness and frame a blind man, she’d want a few dress rehearsals under her belt.
Jessica then goes back in to talk to Lt. Idiot.
He’s checking out a “night scope” on his hunting rifle. “This night scope is great! The deer don’t even see you coming.”
Aside from this being obviously related to the plot, night vision scopes, before the advent of digital ones, did not work during the day. In fact for many of them it would damage them to be used during the day with bright light going into them.
Lt. Idiot then gets a call from someone or other and he has the last piece of evidence he needs—the blood on the knife matches the victims. As if a knife covered in fresh blood could have been dropped behind the vending machine from some other stabbing and be unrelated to this case! Anyway, now that the blood type matches (they weren’t doing DNA ID in 1987), the case against Greg is complete, so Lt. Idiot orders the studio unsealed. Jessica goes to the studio just as the police are removing the tape from it.
Jessica walks in and we get a shot of the main power switch:
Actually, this is the second shot of it. We got another shot of it ealier, for a moment, when people were running past Greg:
You can see the sign saying “DO NOT TOUCH! THIS MEANS YOU!” on it better in the shot with Greg in it.
It’s really convenient that they have a master switch for the electricity for the entire building here, where if you’re doing electrical work you’ll be plunged into complete darkness and then have to grope your way over to wherever they have the switch breaker panel, since installing new electrical lines or changing out switch breakers is the only reason to shut off the power to the entire building, rather than to shut off just one circuit. I wonder why they didn’t go whole hog and have it be an old time two-pole knife switch.
As Jessica examines this weird plot device attached to the wall, Stony and his neice arrive, as does Al on his motorcycle, not wearing a helmet.
As he goes into his office Jessica walks up to him. He asks if there’s anything she can do for him and she says says. As he comes in and puts his leather jacket next to his motorcycle helmet on the coat rack…
…Al says that Greg used to invite them over for barbecues, so he can’t believe Greg did it. He then excuses himself because he has a ton of work to do.
Jessica mosies on over to the other sound engineer’s recording booth, where she asks him some questions. The most important of which is whether it’s possible to tell the difference between a power outage due to electrical failure and one due to the master switch being thrown. The recording engineer says that they look the same, but he knows that it wasn’t the master switch because during other blackouts he checked the master switch and it was in the on position. The lights just come back on when they want to. The electricians can’t figure it out and it always happens during a recording session. Jessica asks if it’s during a recording session of mystery books for the blind, and he says, “come to think of it, during Stony Carmichael’s sessions too, as I recall”.
Jessica then asks the engineer about his fight with Randy. Randy accused him of selling the bootleg Stony tapes and he took exception to that. But he never saw anyone mad like Stony was about them. If Stony wasn’t in the recording studio at the time Randy was stabbed…
Jessica then goes out and runs into Sally Ann trying to work a vending machine. Under cover of helping her with the vending machine, she asks Sally Ann where she was in the blackout and is surprised that Sally Ann said she waited until the lights went on to leave because Sally Ann was the first to discover Randy. Sally Ann takes offense at this clumsy attempt to pump her for information because it looked like she was being accused of murdering Randy. Why Jessica sometimes does these clumsy interviews when she’s capable of tact, I don’t know. Perhaps Sally Ann’s angry reaction is meant to make us suspect her?
Jessica goes into Randy’s office and looks around. Margret Witworth (the widow) walks into the office with Carl. He leaves to get Jessica’s tape from the sound engineer. Jessica notices Margaret’s nail polish. When Margaret claims she last saw her husband in the morning, Jessica calls her on it. That goes nowhere, she just does and the scene ends. The end is coming so we need some suspicion to be sprinkled around, I guess.
After Carl escorts Jessica out to a Taxi, Stony accosts him and tells him to stay away from his neice.
Apparently she came to him to help her with her singing career. “Yeah, she came onto Randy too and I straightened him out just I’m going to straighten you out right now. What you got in mind for my neice sure ain’t no singing career. She’s got a tin ear and a voice like a screech owl which means that she’s only good for one thing.”
As a side note, Charlie Daniels turns in a good performance here. I’m surprised he didn’t do more acting than this (at least, I didn’t see on IMDB that he did any other fiction work).
This scene ends with Carl looking embarrassed as Jessica stops peeping and gives the taxi driver directions.
The next scene is that night at Greg and Nancy’s house. Jessica says that something has been bothering her, which is that how did the person who ran past Greg run in the dark? Greg replies, “maybe he had a flashlight?” Nancy says that she didn’t see one, but I don’t know that she would have.
Greg then plays the tape of Jessica, which he is eager to do because all he can think of is trying to salvage the mystery-books-for-the-blind program with some other company. That he needs this tape that has Jessica reading a few paragraphs—when it is made clear by earlier dialog that they have already produced completed audio books—makes no sense. It’s a ploy to have the tape playing, but it would have been just as natural to play the tape for fun. This is the part of the book Jessica was reading on the tape. It seems to have come right after what he had heard before:
…only ten minutes before Lt. Garfield arrived. Garfield took in the scene quickly. It wasn’t a pretty picture but he’d seen worse. He noted the swarthy man with the hideous bloody grin cut into his throat, noted the gown he was wearing, and dryly observed that he appeared to be wearing a size 12. It seemed bizarre that he was wearing a dress belonging to the lady of the house, but as Garfield said, we’re lucky at least the corpse wasn’t wearing makeup. Even more bizarre was the fact that there were no bloodstains on the dress.
During this reading Lt. Idiot calls on the phone to talk to Jessica. He hears the tape playing and asks what all this is about the corpse wearing makeup. Jessica replies that it wasn’t her, well, it was, but not her on the phone…
Jessica then realizes who did it and how it was done. As I’ve mentioned before, Jessica having to be given an idea by someone accidentally, which allows her to solve the mystery, is primarily there not because it makes for a good story but because it gives the audience time to process the clues and make a guess as to who did it. This isn’t necessary in a book, though you sometimes see it there just to distance the final clue from the realization that it’s the final clue and thus not draw excessive attention to it. In broadcast television, though, one cannot set the episode down for a minute to think about the story so far so the writers have to consciously give the audience time.
Lt. Idiot doesn’t see this look on Jessica’s face, though, so he proceeds to tell her what he called to tell her: he really wishes that she hadn’t accused Margret Witworth, because Mrs. Witworth has been talking his head off for the last hour about it. All rich people have the privilege of talking the heads of police detectives off, it seems, even though there’s no indication that this is a small town or that Mrs. Witworth is rich enough to get everyone on the city council elected and thus be owed favors. American rich people are basically just the English aristocracy from the early 1900s, I guess.
Jessica tells the chief to never mind Margret Witworth, she didn’t do it. Jessica knows who did it, and how, but she doesn’t know how to prove it. (This means that an elaborate stunt is going to be required to make the killer confess.) Greg shouts, “Who did it? Who?” and Jessica wheels around. I suspect that this was the out to a commercial break. The next scene is at the recording studio as the members of a rock band pack up their van. (Their band name appears to be Larry & The Lashers.)
We then cut to inside the recording studio where Al and the other sound engineer are talking. Al thanks him for the help and suggests that he go home for the night. The other sound engineer thinks that’s a good idea and leaves. Al then takes a screwdriver out of his pocket, turns toward his sound board, and the lights go out.
The door to the recording room—in desperate need of oiling—loudly creeks. Al asks who’s there. It’s Greg. He asks Al why he wanted to frame him (that is, to frame Greg). “You knew I could move around in the dark, Al. And I can. I’m getting closer.” Al then shouts at him that he’s crazy and to stay away, then hits a switch on the bottom of his sound board, which turns the lights back on.
Apparently Al has a switch on the bottom of his sound board which can turn on the lights to the building even if it wasn’t the switch used to turn them off. I’ll get to this more in a bit, but I guess when he installed the switch it was a 3-way switch with whatever switch Jessica & friends used to turn the lights off. That was very forward thinking of Al, assuming that he wanted to get caught.
Al then looks up and sees an unwelcome sight.
Somehow all four of these people, none of whom were familiar with the room and only one of whom was blind, managed to walk in and surround Al without bumping into anything. At this point they proved that anyone could have pulled off Randy’s murder, but no one remarks on this.
Al says, “What do you know, the lights came back on.” Jessica replies, “No, Al, you switched them on. Just as you switched them on the night you killed Randy Witworth.” When Al says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Lt. Idiot reaches down to a different place on the sound board than Al had used and flicks the lights off, then flicks them back on again.
You can very clearly see that Randy used his right hand, to the right of his leg, to hit the switch. Lt. Idiot is equally clearly reaching to the left of Randy’s left leg. I really should check the credits to see if there was a continuity person… I just checked. No, there was no continuity person in the credits. That might explain a lot.
Anyway, Jessica tells Al that she realized he had to have rigged a way to turn the studio power on and off and he wouldn’t have had time to dismantle it with the studio being sealed and then recording sessions all day from the backlog. Al replies, “Just because I have a master switch here doesn’t prove anything. How could I see in the dark?”
Not exactly the greatest comeback of all time.
Lt. Idiot replies, “With this! We figure.” and picks up Al’s motorcycle helmet. Jessica points out that he didn’t wear it into work that morning but when she went into his office it was already there, which means that it had to have been left in the studio since the night of the murder. That seems odd. Was it because he figured he would be searched and in being searched the police would discover that the motorcycle helmet has an infrared visor?
They go over some other details, then we get a shot of infrared motorcyle helmet vision:
Curiously, this is why this episode stuck with me all those years. Here’s another shot of infrared motorcycle helmet vision:
I’m going to include one more shot of infrafred motorcycle helmet vision because it shows a few major problems with the plot, taken together with the previous one:
That door on the left is the door to recording studio A, which is Al’s studio and where he returns in a moment. You can’t see her clearly in this picture because of motion blur, but standing perhaps 8 feet away from the door to Studio A is Nancy, Greg’s wife. In other words, in order for Al’s brilliant plan to work, he had to somehow open the door to the studio, slip in, and close the door, all with neither Greg nor Nancy hearing the door move. The plausibility of this is… low.
And then we come to infrared motorcycle helmet vision.
While it is true that there is such a thing as night vision which can use illumination from an infrared light source to see in the dark, it’s a system of optics that tends to give a narrow field of view, it’s not a thin sheet of plastic with a wide field of view. It also requires an infrared flashlight to do that illumination. They’re also horribly blinded by daylight, so Al would have had to have brought a regular visor for his motorcycle helmet if he was going to wear the thing into work while driving anyway. In the 1980s infrared scopes were analog and those processes tended to make the night vision tinted green, not red. What they’ve actually done—and this is related to why it stuck in my head, so bear with me—is to just put a red filter on top of the camera and shoot in regular light. Probably the easiest way to tell is that things do not reflect infrared light the same way they reflect visible light. They do to a surprising degree; white things tend to reflect infrared well and black not nearly so well, so black letters on a white background is often readable. Where you really see the difference is in colors. Some blues and greens reflect infrared well and look white under infrared. The greens of plants, in particular reflect fairly well. Under a red filter, greens and blues tend to look black—like in the images above—rather than white, as in real infrared vision.
All of this went together to make me think that Al just had a red-tinted visor. I must have misheard “infrared visor” as “red visor”, which was then confirmed by the shots of what Al saw which were, clearly, just using an ordinary red filter. I puzzled over this at the time because it doesn’t make sense that removing light helps you to see in the dark, but I recall that I chalked it up to not quite understanding it. I may have even tried turning off the lights and looking through red cellophane, and been disappointed. I vaguely recall that I did.
All this while, it turns out that the episode just got it wrong. A motorcyle helmet could be tinted red, but it can’t give you infrared night vision. Infrared night vision doesn’t look like daylight filtered through red plastic. Oh, and you’re not going to have a simple toggle switch to the master power for the building hidden in a sound board.
The more direct way of doing this would be to run the main power lines to the building through Al’s sound board, but they’re probably about 2″ thick and he’d have no way of running them over or of hiding them in a sound board. Only slightly more plausible, then, would be for the switch in Al’s sound board to run over thin wires that remotely control a battery-powered switch that interrupts the electrical feed to the building. He’d still have to run these wires from the bottom of his sound board over to the ceiling and through the ceiling over to someplace he has access to the electric feed to the building. Oh, and he’d have to shut off the power to the building while he was installing this switch. All without anyone noticing what he was doing.
I suppose he could have stayed late, past when everyone else went home, then waited out the cleaning staff, then in the wee hours of the morning shut off the building’s power and installed a remote-operated cutoff switch. A cutoff switch that the electricians who had been called in to diagnose the blackouts missed.
So it turns out that several decades of me wondering how it’s possible to use a thin piece of red plastic to see in the dark is just the writer of this episode having no idea how technology works and the film crew being lazy.
Back to the episode, Al says that Jessica is crazy, that anyone could have rigged up the board, and that his lawyer will make sushi out of them. Lt. Idiot tells Jessica not to feel bad, he’ll find a way to make Al confess. Jessica points out that since they searched Al the night of the murder, and didn’t find a cassette tape on him—why would anyone have taken note if they did find a cassette tape on him?—it must still be there, in the recording studio. Unless Al wasn’t an idiot and erased the tape or recorded over it while he was there all day, of course. Probably not a big worry in this episode.
The next day Jessica is packing her bags into a taxi at Greg and Nancy’s house when Lt. Idiot drives up. He got Al to confess—he was the bootlegger. Jessica asks if he found the tape, then, and Lt. Idiot replies, “after 10 hours”. I guess Al was an idiot, after all. Lt. Idiot sees her into her taxi, and thanks her for her help in wrapping up the case. His final words are, “as long as I live, I will never again underestimate the power of women’s intuition. Jessica laughs and we go to credits.
It’s interesting how often Murder, She Wrote ends on Jessica laughing. This is something I forgot to comment on in my analysis of Mourning Among the Wisterias. Probably three out of four episodes end with Jessica laughing, about one out of four on a more somber note. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why some end on a somber note—it may just be timing as much as anything else. Part of the ending-on-laughing is probably just that it’s a good note to end on. As it says in the old song, always leave them laughing when you say goodbye.
I think it does have a greater artistic significance than this, though. As I’ve described in my post Detectives as Christ Figures in Mystery Stories, the detective story is a suspension of normal. With the crime the world has been broken by the misuse of reason and the detective, through the right use of reason, steps in and fixes it. During the investigation the detective takes on many attitudes and passes as many different characters. When the investigation is over, laughter serves to indicate that things are back to normal. It’s not the only way for a mystery to end, of course, that serves this purpose. It’s merely a very succinct way to achieve the purpose.
So, watching this episode again, thirty four years later, I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed that one of the most (to me) memorable episodes was not one of the best. It had its charms, of course. Charlie Daniels was great as Stony Carmichael, though it’s a pity that he and Jessica never got to interact. The title was great. Really, that’s about it, though.
The plot was a mess. It depended entirely on technology which was completely misunderstood at every level. This isn’t like the murder weapon in Unnatural Death being an empty syringe whereas in reality it would have to be an extremely large empty syringe. At no point was the size of the syringe of any great consequence to the plot. How the killer would have gotten a syringe of sufficient size might pose some difficulties, but not insuperable difficulties. In the worst case they had bicycle pumps and needles hooked up to tubing in the 1920s. Dorothy L. Sayers got the details wrong, but not in a way that mattered much to the plot.
By contrast, night vision equipment and how it could be concealed and detected was central to the plot of Murder, She Spoke. Had Al been given a realistic night vision scope, if he didn’t hide it like a moron Jessica would have had no reason to suspect he had it at all, and that’s what led her to him. There was no realistic way for Al to have switched off the electricity to the building from his sound board. Without that, he could not have carried his plan out. There was no way for him to get into and out of his office without making any sound and his plan required a blind man—someone they go out of their way to point out has extra keen hearing—only a half dozen paces from the door. Moreover, his plan involved running past that blind man and into his own office and following a trail of sound is easier than locating an isolated noise.
The other major problem I have with the plotting of this episode is that the solution to the central problem is just the obvious technology for it. How could anyone see in the dark? It can be an intriguing question, but not if the answer is, “by using the technology specifically designed to do that.” It would be like having the reveal to, “how did the killer manage to reach such a high place?” be, “he used a ladder to climb up to it.” Or “how did the killer manage to separate the paper into two pieces so cleanly?” be “he used scissors.” It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that the killer did the thing in the obvious way when there was no misdirection away from the obvious way. Al’s plan only came close to working because Lt. Idiot didn’t bother searching the recording studio for clues.
I’m not saying anything about the weird sub-plot of Mystery Books for the Blind being unprofitable making no sense in 1987 because, though they spend a bunch of time on it, it really has no effect on the plot. It sort-of gives Greg a motive for killing Randy, but since Randy was established to be responsible for Greg’s blindness and bum leg, it’s superfluous. (Frankly, it’s actually slightly a problem because it’s pretty ridiculous to suppose that Greg had brought a steak knife from his house to dinner just in case Randy should cancel the mystery books for the blind program that night.)
Oh, and the motive for the murder doesn’t make any sense, either. Al made bootleg tapes of Stony Carmichael’s comeback album, which Randy didn’t know, so he murdered Randy and framed Greg. He had been rehearsing the murder for weeks prior to Stony discovering the bootleg tapes in a “swap meet”. Worse, Randy had no evidence that Al was behind the bootlegging and didn’t even suspect him. In fact, he suspected the other sound engineer, not Al. Moreover, killing Randy didn’t solve any problem for Al. Stony still knew about the bootleg tapes and was still boiling mad about them. Whoever inherited the studio would still try to investigate to find out who was responsible for the bootleg tapes.
Killing Randy didn’t even get rid of any evidence. The way to track the bootlegger down would be by asking the person selling the tape at the swap-meet where he got it from and tracing this back. As far as I can see, killing Randy would have achieved exactly nothing for Al. He might as well have killed the other recording engineer or even the janitor. At least, then, he could have planted evidence on their corpses that they were the bootlegger. As it was, Al had precisely no motive.
I’ve got nothing more to say about the episode as a mystery, but I want to take a moment to put together all of the text of Jessica’s book as we heard it:
The body was discovered by Edie Babbage on November 2nd, at 3:30 in the afternoon. She knew it was 3:30 because she was late returning from her marketing. She checked her watch in the elevator, bothered the dinner wouldn’t be ready. Nothing fancy, just her husband’s favorite stuffed cabbage, but it took at least four hours. She was equally certain about the location of the body—the man’s throat had been slit and he was making a dreadful mess all over her freshly scrubbed kitchen floor. It had not been Edie’s day… But what really bothered Mrs. Babage was, the body was dressed in her only fromal gown… only ten minutes before Lt. Garfield arrived. Garfield took in the scene quickly. It wasn’t a pretty picture but he’d seen worse. He noted the swarthy man with the hideous bloody grin cut into his throat, noted the gown he was wearing, and dryly observed that he appeared to be wearing a size 12. It seemed bizarre that he was wearing a dress belonging to the lady of the house, but as Garfield said, we’re lucky at least the corpse wasn’t wearing makeup. Even more bizarre was the fact that there were no bloodstains on the dress.
I suspect that snippets like these are as much jokes as anything, but it is curious to see what J.B. Fletcher’s best sellers are supposed to be like. I do find it curious that they don’t give Jessica a detective that appears in more than one of her novels. Ariadne Oliver had Sven Hjerson and Harriet Vane had Robert Templeton. I suppose that the less continuity they had the easier it was to farm scripts out to non-staff writers. It’s a pity, though. It would have been fun for people to ask her what her fictional detective would do in various circumstances.
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:
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):
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.
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.
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.