Dorothy L. Sayers, with her famous detective Lord Peter Wimsey, is best known for writing literary detective novels, while Agatha Christie is known for writing clever detective novels. Until we come to Gaudy Night, however, Dorothy L. Sayers writing more literary than clever novels was not really for lack of trying. As she said in her chapter of Titles To Fame:
When in a light-hearted manner I set out, fifteen years ago, to write the forst “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…
Whose Body? was conventional not merely in the form of its dialog and the actions of its hero—the best example that comes to mind is that Lord Peter took measurements and examined all manner of things carefully with a magnifying glass. Whose Body? was also conventional in that the mystery had, at its heart, a clever twist. As I alluded to before, she would keep this up for most of the Lord Peter novels until she got to Gaudy Night. The thing I find curious is that, unlike Agatha Christie, the twists mostly wouldn’t have worked. (If it’s not obvious, spoilers will follow.)
Whose Body? Is the main exception to the twists not actually working, because I think it would have worked. A surgeon with access to cadavers for dissection could probably have made the switch and done the relevant dissection work well enough to get the head to look like it fit on the wrong body.
In Unnatural Death, the murder weapon—injecting air into the veins—would not be much of a problem at all unless the syringe was comically large. One estimate I saw was that it would need to be the size of a bicycle pump. Since the victim was drugged at the time of the injection, this is not an entirely insurmountable problem as the murderer had time to pump air in with many strokes, but that would be exceedingly difficult to do without making the injection site obvious, which it needed to not be.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club put the twist in the domain of human relations rather than in the method of murder itself, which meant that the murder would have worked. That said, I am dubious that forensic science in 1928 could measure the amount of digitalis in a person’s blood post-mortem, especially since according to Wikipedia digitalis was first isolated in 1930.
Strong Poison relied on the murderer being able to develop a tolerance to lethal doses of arsenic and thus to give himself a lethal dose at the same time as his victim, by poisoning a shared meal. While this was believed to be possible in the 1920s and 1930s, it turns out to not be possible at all. (The evidence that had been used at the time was the “arsenic eaters” who would eat large lumps of arsenic. It turns out that the thing that saved them was not tolerance but rather the lack of bio-availability of arsenic eaten in lump form. While they were consuming large doses of arsenic, they were also excreting virtually all of it in their solid waste. This does not apply to arsenic dissolved into liquid and put in an omelette, which would have been as fatal to them as to anyone else.)
The Five Red Herrings has as its twist the forging of a railway ticket which, in some strange way, provided an alibi. This one might work out, for all I know; it depends upon the details of the working of the Scottish railway system in 1929 or 1930, which is a thing I doubt is knowable with certainty in the year of our Lord 2023. I couldn’t stand anything about this book, and I still don’t know how I feel about the twist ending making the unbearable time-tables pointless. That said, “he forged the railway ticket” isn’t really a clever twist. Anyone could do it. It’s just in the category of “This obvious thing was surprising because I thought it was against the rules.”
Have His Carcase is a brilliant book and quite possibly my third favorite Lord Peter novel (after Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon.) The twists and turns are done extremely well, with evidence of suicide and evidence of murder alternating masterfully. The solution of hemophilia is both not-obvious and well-laid. The problem, though, is that I don’t think that blood behaves the way that it was described in the book. Granted, I’ve never slashed a healthy man’s throat on a hot rock in the sun but I’ve butchered deer and not cleaned up until the next day and the blood looked liquid enough. Even if human blood behaves differently, the timing doesn’t work out. Harriet took about twenty minutes to take pictures and collect things from the body such as a shoe. It was stated that for the blood to be in the condition described the man could have been killed ten minutes before at the outside. Thus either Harriet should have noticed the blood clotting as expected before she left twenty minutes after finding the body, or else blood doesn’t actually clot that way, or else Harriet mistook what clotted blood looked like, or else something was wrong with the blood. Whichever alternative you prefer, the characters should really have known that the timing was not as tight as they thought. That said, it was great to watch the characters deal with the problem of contradictory evidence and persevere.
Murder Must Advertise doesn’t really have a twist, so it’s an exception to the rule. It does have a massive drug-gang and action which is almost more in the realm of the spy-thriller than the detective story, which I suspect take the place of the twist. That said, using a slingshot to hit someone in the head with a stone scarab in order to knock them unconscious so they die by falling down the stairs is… an uncertain way to commit murder. It could certainly work—blows to the head can be surprisingly fatal. That said, if I wanted to commit murder, hitting a moving target in the head with an irregularly shaped rock using someone else’s slingshot would not be high on my list of methods. It would be too easy to miss the vital few square inches and then there would be a lot of explaining to do.
The Nine Tailors is, perhaps, my second-least favorite of the Lord Peter stories, so I’m probably not the best person to do it justice. That said, the twist in it was that the death was accidental, not intentional. The victim had been left tied-up in a belltower and couldn’t be retreived before an hours-long bellringing event and the loud noise killed him. The problem is that a bell, even close by, isn’t nearly loud enough to kill. To rupture the eardrums, maybe. To cause long-term hearing loss, sure. But to kill with sound requires sound energy approximately on par with explosions—or being way too close to a jet engine. (Sounds with this enormous amount of energy cause air embolisms in the lungs; it does not kill through the ears.)
Then we come to Gaudy Night, which had no twist at all, and I think was also the greatest of the Lord Peter novels. It’s not perfect, but it is a masterpiece.
In fairness, I should mention that Busman’s Honeymoon did have a twist, or at least a very clever trap used to commit the murder. While it would have worked to kill the victim, I am a bit dubious that it could have been set up quite as described without the victim noticing, despite his age and it being dark. This is a minor quibble, though, since the basic premise was sound, and it would not have been too hard to have made the trap less obtrusive.
I don’t really know what to make of all of this, other than the clever mystery seems to have been been very much in the water during the golden age, so much so that even writers who set out to not write them still ended up including elements of them. I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the clever mystery, either—Agatha Christie did them brilliantly. To some degree I’m just “thinking out loud” as I find it curious that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote them even though it was not really her thing.
One of the characteristics I’ve noticed quite a bit in detective stories from the golden age of mysteries (roughly, From 1890 until the start of World War 2) is how many detectives had a theory of detection which they discussed.
In the very early days, the detectives differentiated themselves from the police through their use of forensic investigation. In the 1890s, Sherlock Holmes performed chemical analysis to prove a stain was blood and wrote a monograph on how to identify cigar ash. In the early 1900s, Dr. Thorndyke looked at everything he could under a microscope, and what he couldn’t he would look at with enlarged photographs.
Sherlock Holmes did not long predate real forensics, though. By 1901 Scotland Yard was using fingerprints to identify people and in 1902 the first conviction was obtained with the use of fingerprint evidence. (See Fingerprints And Forensic Evidence.) It did not take the police long to make use of this kind of forensic evidence, and private detectives began to shift their methods. G.K. Chesterton would revolutionize the field of private detection in 1910 with Father Brown’s psychological approach to solving crimes, and to varying degrees this has been the primary tool of detectives ever since, so no advances in forensic technology can make psychology obsolete.
Through all of these changes, there remained an air of novelty. The brilliant detective during the golden age was not merely brilliant; he had a method. He got his results because he brilliantly followed his method while others either followed the wrong method or else had no method.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies this as well as the unjustly neglected second Poirot novel, Murder On the Links. Poirot’s method is contrasted very strongly with that of the indomitably forensic M. Giraud. Giraud examines the crime scene with the utmost care and uncovers impressively small clues. Yet Giraud dismisses a section of pipe as being of no importance because it’s not the kind of clue he’s looking for. As Poirot remarks to Hastings, “Mon Ami, a clue of two feet long is every bit as valuable as one measuring two millimetres! But it is the romantic idea that all important clues must be infinitesimal!”
Poirot considers all clues because his method is to adjust his theory until nothing is out of place; Giraud’s method is to ignore whatever does not fit his preferred kind of evidence. The point, here, is not the specifics of the contrast, but that the contrast is so important.
Another, though less important, example that comes to mind is in The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner. In it the detective, Malcolm Sage, delivers a lecture on how the Police misunderstand the evidentiary value of photographs and fingerprints. They think that photographs are for identification while fingerprints are evidence; in reality fingerprints are for identification and photographs are evidence. He took a series of photographs of the crime scene and announces that they will be the principle evidence at trial, and then uses fingerprint evidence to show that the butler is actually a wanted criminal. I don’t know that the police ever ignored the identificative value of fingerprints or the evidentiary value of photographs, but that’s not the point. In a short story written for entertainment value, the writer and editor thought that the audience of the newspaper would be entertained by a lecture on how the police don’t understand the proper use of evidence.
I’m not sure exactly when this aspect of detective fiction died off. Certainly you can’t find it in the Cadfael series, which started in the 1970s. I can’t think of any detective fiction I’ve read from the 1940s through the 1960s except for Miss Marple. I haven’t read any of the Poirot stories written after 1947 (yet). I don’t remember this in the Miss Marple stories from that time period, but then I don’t recall it in the Miss Marple stories from the golden age, either. (To be fair, that’s only one novel, though it is also most of the short stories.) Miss Marple was never really a detective, though. People told her things and then she would give them the solution. With the exception of Nemesis, and to a lesser extent A Caribbean Mystery, she never went looking for clues of any kind. On the other hand, there were her typical reminiscences of people who committed similar sins in Saint Mary Meade, which was certainly a unique style of detection.
By the time we get to television detectives like Columbo in 1971, the aspect of a unique method is missing. While it might be objected that Columbo is a policeman and therefore cannot contrast with policemen, he is still a contrast with the other officers who do not get nearly the same results.
There is similarly no trace of in the 1980s’ Murder, She Wrote.
So, what happened?
Alternatively, what was special about the golden age?
I’m really not sure which of these questions we should be asking. It is tempting to think that there was something special about the time that the golden age happened. To some degree it was the first time police forces were getting organized and police detectives were becoming a real thing. Advances in technology also made various kinds of detection newly possible, or at least newly practical, and so the whole thing had an air of novelty to it.
On the other hand, it’s also possible that there was simply a fundamental split in the mystery genre, with mysteries taking the psychological and logical aspects of detection and police procedurals taking the forensic aspects of detection.
On the third hand, it may just be that all of the possible theories of detection have been expostulated and all that remains is to do one of them well.
Something curious about the ITV version of Poirot is that (with the exception of The Mysterious Affair at Styles) all of its episodes were set in the 1920s. Not literally the 1920s, per se; I’m sure that plenty of the technology or fashions were from the 1930s, but neither the Great Depression nor the looming war due to the military buildup of Germany ever feature.
This is not true at all of the novels.
The Poirot novels are always set contemporaneously to when they were written and current events, or at least current conditions, play into the plot. The only anachronism is Poirot himself; when Agatha Christie first wrote him, she presented him as being at least in his sixties. In her autobiography she mentioned that this was an unfortunate choice on her part, but she had no idea how popular he would be or how long he would last, and as of the time of her writing about it he had to have been over 100 by then. She simply ignored this problem and made Poirot always an old man of unspecified age.
When ITV made its version of the stories with David Suchet, they chose to set all of the stories in the same few years, though rarely with anything that would date them. There were practical reasons for this, of course. For example, it would be difficult to age the actors appropriately by decades in order to follow the real stories. Wardrobe and set decoration would be far more difficult if they kept track of the changing styles. Moreover, a series of episodes (or short movies) would be far more jarring if they skipped forward by years every few weeks or months, while the books always skipped ahead by however long it had been since the last one.
However many practical reasons to set Poirot in the span of a few years, though, I suspect that the biggest reason was that the 1920s are simply far more interesting, and far prettier, than later decades. This isn’t the totality of the 1920s, of course. Poirot was a celebrity and tended to deal with clients of means. Accordingly, the stories are set largely among the prettier parts of the 1920s. This is as it should be. Detective stories are stories for the common man, and so they should deal with things that he will not normally come across. Fiction about the lower classes is the domain of the upper classes, who need to read about drudgery and difficulty to find variety from their lives.
There are complex reasons why this should be, but the one thing I think it isn’t is rose-colored glasses from anyone’s past. By the 1990s when ITV was making the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, the 1920s were seventy years before. No one remembered them. Instead, if we look to the specifics, we will find a decent answer. The 1930s were an interesting time but heavily influenced by the world-wide Great Depression and in the later portion by the looming war on the European continent. The 1940s were dominated by the second World War, to the point where no one ever talks about the events of 1946-1950. The 1950s had a primarily industrial aesthetic, as people took refuge in the post-war plenty which was so different from the great depression and the war years. In more rarified circles, architects and designers were greatly attracted to anything which was not beautiful. This was the era of the Helvetica font and the beginning of the era of buildings which no one likes. The 1960s spiraled off into kaleidescopic colors that meant nothing but were fun and new. The 1970s were, of course, varied, but let us leave it with two words: shag carpet. That takes us to the end of when Poirot stories were written, but for completeness: the 1980s were the era of big shoulder pads and bigger hair with leather jackets and denim jackets, while the 1990s… I wonder what the style of the 1990s even was? T-shirts and jeans or shorts? It’s been thirty years since 1993, and has anyone figured out anything to be nostalgic for? Classic video games are the only thing that I can think of.
Anyway, I think that I’ve made the point. The 1920s are an era with a fascinating aesthetic that’s pleasing to look at, and it was the last time to have that for quite some time. (Portions of the 1930s were more-or-less continuous with the 1920s, but I’m counting them as part of it since they were, aesthetically, a continuation of them.) There will be others, of course. At some point our fascination with trying to see how little clothing people can wear will be over, and people will try to make their clothing interesting rather than revealing, again.
This is not the same thing as nostalgia for the 1920s, by the way. I don’t think that it being fun for Poirot to be set in the 1920s is nearly the same thing as wishing to live in the 1920s. It’s merely a recognition that the interesting parts of the 1920s were very interesting, while the interesting parts of later decades weren’t nearly so interesting.
There is also the argument to be made that the 1920s (and 30s) were the last real era of the private detective. After World War 2 we live much more in the era of the spy thriller. In the spy thriller people kill and are killed for governments and large organizations; we don’t care nearly so much for the concerns of the individual. There may be some truth to this, though for all that people still go on murdering people for their own reasons even in the 2020s, and people even still care when people are murdered. It may be fewer than in former times, but detective stories were always about unusual people.
In the novel The A.B.C. Murders, Hercule Poirot asks an interesting question about a murder victim. There are two versions of it I’m aware of; one is the version that Agatha Christie wrote and the other the version in the ITV version starring David Suchet. I’m going to quote both versions because they’re interesting to compare.
First, the original:
“Pas ga. I wondered — if she were pretty?”
“As to that I’ve no information ,” said Inspector Crome with a hint of withdrawal. His manner said: “Really — these foreigners! All the same!”
A final look of amusement came into Poirot’s eyes.
“It does not seem to you important, that? Yet, pour une femme, it is of the first importance. Often it decides her destiny!”
Then, the ITV version (which replaced Inspector Crome with Chief Inspector Japp):
Poirot: Was she pretty? Inspector Japp: There he goes again. Poirot: That does not seem to be important? Mais pour un femme, it is of the first importance. It often decides her destiny.
Curiously, that’s rather different than how I remembered it, and much closer to the book. I remembered the exchange in the ITV version as something like:
Poirot: Was she pretty? Japp: What does that matter? Poirot: Poor girl, it mattered a great deal to her. It decided the whole course of her life.
It is interesting to me that I misremembered the ITV version so much, though to be fair to me I like my version better. Since you, dear reader, are not me, I presume that Agatha Christie’s version is the most interesting, here, and quite rightly so.
A great deal of detective fiction might be written by a male or female author, but occasionally one comes across a passage that seems like it could only have been written by one or the other. This is one such passage. I can only imagine a woman writing this. It’s not that only a woman would know it; we all know that physical beauty affects the lives of both sexes. Perhaps the best way I can describe what I mean is another example of this, from the Hamish MacBeth story Death of a Gossip.
I had mentioned to a female friend of mine that the story was very markedly written by a woman and she jokingly asked, “what, did it have no descriptions of women’s breasts?”
“Oh, no, it’s got plenty of descriptions of women’s breasts,” I replied. “Just never in admiration.”
In the exchange above, whether the woman was pretty was quite relevant to the detection. She was strangled with her own belt and it takes an unusual kind of man to charm the belt off of a pretty woman for the simple reason that she will be used to getting attention from men and so to charm her he will need to be above average. Or as Poirot puts it:
Betty Barnard was a flirt. She liked attention from a personable male. Therefore A.B.C., to persuade her to come out with him, must have had a certain amount of attraction — of le sex appeal! He must be able, as you English say, to ‘get off.’ He must be capable of the click!
Since it is directly relevant to the solving of the murder, any author might have thought of it or mentioned it. There is just something about how it was mentioned which seems distinctly feminine to me, even though it is put in the mouth of a male character. It’s hard to articulate what, since it’s subtle.
I think it’s the sympathy involved.
Males are tempted to treat beautiful women better than plain women and so it is a mark of virtue to a male to treat plain women as well as he treats beautiful women. A male recognizes the temptation otherwise, but (a virtuous one) regrets it as the effect of a fallen world. Since women are affected by this temptation but are not actually tempted by it, their primary concern is on its effects, not on avoiding it. When Poirot says that whether a woman is pretty many decide her whole destiny, it only speaks to concern with the effect.
However that goes, it is a relatively subtle point that Agatha Christie handled very deftly. Her writing tended toward the plain side, but her psychology and her plots were masterful. This may well be why she is one of the best selling authors of all time; the plain style of her writing makes it extremely accessible, while at the same time the brilliance of the plot is easy to see.
During the golden age of mysteries, a great many of the stories were (of necessity) set against the backdrop of drastic changes in society. These changes often provided motives as well as opportunities for the murders. Motives would often be the desire for money to be used on something other than maintaining the vestiges of an old way of life that the new generation is not interested in. The opportunity provided is often along the lines of a large house with few people in them. It’s that latter part that really interests me at the moment.
Large, derelict houses make great settings for mysteries, and I think that this is especially the case in mysteries for children. Scooby Doo was very frequently set in large houses with few people in them, isolated from their neighbors by large plots of land. These are things that most easily happen when societal changes make things that had been popular, or at least populous, less so. When things get abandoned, or even just partially abandoned, there become the remnants of things that people used to do without there being the people around to explain what they were. This makes such a setting is intrinsically mysterious. Whatever crimes a villain is currently committing, there are many things that need an explanation but without the people present who know what they are to give the explanation. Figuring them out, then figuring out which of these is innocuous and which nefarious can provide a wealth of things for the detective to use his intellect on.
This scope for investigation provided by the former scene of a bustling community now in some state of abandonment can be amplified by the intertwining of the current mystery with previous events. This can take the form of treasure which can be discovered or inherited, but it can also take the form of the deeds or misdeeds of the past influencing revenge in the present. It can take the form of both, separately or intertwining.
So how do we make use of this in contemporary murder mysteries? (I mean, murder mysteries set in at least approximately the time of their writing, as opposed to historical murder mysteries.) Many of the social changes which formed fertile ground for Golden Age murder mysteries are, in the twenty first century, over. The remnants of the medieval system are now pretty much entirely gone in England and, to the degree that the southern plantations and robber barons of the United States formed some counterpart, they’re gone too. We still have billionaires, of course, but for a variety of reasons they have fewer servants. (Part of this is technology, part of it is a more efficient economic system where things like cleaning and landscaping are more efficiently done by companies with specialized equipment who service multiple clients.) Even where a billionaire has something potentially interesting like a hundred million dollar yacht, the things are all new. An American billionaire’s household was assembled fairly recently. The odds are pretty good that his house was built fairly recently. The odds of a billionaire’s parents being billionaires is… not high. There are wealthy families, of course, and some of them even have history. I think these can work for this kind of murder mystery—the wealth of wealthy families tends to substantially diminish with each generation. There are exceptions, of course, but children are so frequently different from their parents that it’s rare for the grandchildren of someone who built up a fortune to have even a quarter of their grandfather’s talent for making money, and even less of his being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of that talent.
I suspect that there is more, in the contemporary United States, that can be made of institutions falling on hard times. That happens in all ages, but especially in our contemporary industrial times. Businesses, schools, hospitals, and more go out of business all the time; plenty come close to it or shrink before they’re bought out by competitors. Not every business would be ripe for this kind of setting, but I suspect a lot would. If one couples this with the advisability of Fun Settings for a Murder Mystery, there’s a lot of fertile ground, here.
Published in 1935, Three Act Tragedy was the eighth novel by Agatha Christie to feature Hercule Poirot. It is unusual among (early) Poirot novels in that Poirot is not the main detective in the story.
The basic setup is that Famed Actor Sir Charles Cartwright is hosting a dinner party at which Poirot is attending (I can’t recall why Poirot was in the neighborhood; he might have been retired at this point) and one of the attendees of the party—a charming older vicar—keels over dead with no obvious cause. A few months later, one of the other attendees at the party, a psychiatrist by the name of Sir Bartholomew Strange, keels over dead at a party at his own house in the same way. This time instead of attributing it to heart trouble, it is discovered that he died of nicotine poisoning. Sir Charles and another of the guests, Mr. Satterthwaite, investigate, along with a precocious young woman who goes by the nickname Egg. The three occasionally consult with Poirot during their investigation, which is his involvement until he reveals the murderer at the end.
NOTE: there are spoilers after this point.
This book was very much about the theater, or at least about theatrics. It begins and ends with theatrics, and much of it is taken up with the theatrical personality of Sir Charles Cartwright. It is even divided into three acts which are titled, in theatrical terms, Suspicion, Certainty, and Discovery. It’s a bit hard to relate to this; stage actors are a different breed from movie actors. By 1935 movies were well on their way to replacing the theater as the dominant form of acting-based entertainment, but this novel was not really about 1935. Sir Charles had retired from the stage by now; Three Act Tragedy was about the aftermath of things that had been, not things that are currently.
The most memorable scene, to me, was Sir Charles employing his acting skill to reconstruct what the butler Ellis had done based on clues and to find the sheets of paper which no other detective had found. It’s a vivid scene, but it is diminished in the recollection by the fact that Sir Charles had planted the papers there himself, and Ellis had not, in fact, been interrupted.
The story is well constructed and like most Christies, the plot is original and clever. The murder of the vicar being a dress rehearsal for the murder of Dr. Strange was certainly an original motive for murder and yet a plausible one. Not so plausible when described as Sir Charles following his actor’s instincts and doing a dress rehearsal, but if it’s not presented so theatrically, testing out a type of poisoning which is supposed to go undetected on a victim to whom one has no motive to kill him is reasonable, if diabolical. But demons still have their reason, and it makes sense.
It’s also curious that this book ends with an explanation that was probably much inquired about Poirot:
“You’ll excuse me—” said Mr. Satterthwaite.
“Yes, there is some point you wanted explained to you?”
“There is one thing I want to know.”
“Why do you sometimes speak perfectly good English and at other times not?”
“Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say—a foreigner—he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people—instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.’ That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added. “it has become a habit.”
That is not the actual ending, though. A little after this comes the true ending:
Mr. Satterthwaite looked cheerful.
Suddenly an idea struck him. His jaw fell.
“My goodness,” he cried, “I’ve only just realized it. That rascal, with his poisoning cocktail! Anyone might have drunk it. It might have been me.”
“There is an even more terrible possibility that you have not considered,” said Poirot.
On the thirtieth day of October in the year of our Lord 1988, the second episode of the fifth season of Murder, She Wrote aired. Titled A Little Night Work and set in New York City, it features the introduction of the recurring character Dennis Stanton, though he may not have been intended as a recurring character in this episode. (Last week’s episode was J.B. As In Jailbird.)
The scene opens at a party in a hotel. (The party has something to do with celebrating the candidacy for the senate of business magnate Axel Weingard.) Here is Axel and his wife Marta:
They make it clear in a few short sentences that they are both loathesome people, the sort that make one regret that Murder, She Wrote almost never has a double-murder in it.
A couple who they know come over and the woman gushes over Marta’s necklace. The man asks if it’s wise for Marta to actually wear the necklace, especially in New York City. Axel says that normally he would agree, but in this case they live in the hotel (top floor), so Marta won’t be wearing it on the streets.
As Axel walks off, a busboy named Andy looks at him ominously:
I think this puts the probability of one of Axel or Marta being killed at about 99%, and the odds that Andy did it at about 0.1% but the odds that he’s suspected of it at at least 80%.
Next Theo Wexler, played by Klinger Jamie Farr, comes up and introduces himself to Axel.
He’s a literary agent, and, as it turns out, he’s Jessica’s new agent. He calls Jessica over as she walks into the room and introduces her to Axel (one of the businesses he’s in charge of is Windsong House, which is, presumably, a publisher). Axel is delighted to meet her, but when Theo tries to talk business he is very stern that he conducts business during business hours. I’m not sure if the idea is that he is rigorous about enforcing a work/life balance or that he’s trying to get elected to the senate right now and this is not time to discuss other kinds of business, or just that he deals with shlubs like Theo only when he has to.
After Axel excuses himself, Jessica is rather annoyed with Theo because he is not, in fact, her new agent. Her long-time agent just retired and Theo merely bought out his agency. Jessica has not signed with Theo and isn’t sure that she will. I guess that a man who tried to get out of the Korean war by wearing a dress doesn’t seem to be Jessica’s type of agent.
The star of this episode then walks in.
It’s interesting to pause a moment and think of the extras in a scene like this. The woman in green and the man whose arm she’s holding didn’t have speaking parts so they weren’t credited and there’s no way (for me, at least) to find out who they were. It must be an odd experience to go to Hollywood and try very hard to be an actor and to get a part that involves being on screen for all of about two seconds, and that in the background as a character with lines walks in. They act well; it’s as easy as anything to forget that they’re not actually a well-to-do couple coming to this party for whatever reason a well-to-do couple would come here. They do a good job of looking like they know each other and like each other and have the concerns of a couple at a party. The actors may well have just met this day; they could have been assigned together as a couple no more than an hour before. Each may well have taken acting classes and this was the pinnacle of getting to use those skills that they developed. I don’t know whether anyone would consider it worthwhile to go to Hollywood to be an extra in an episode of Murder, She Wrote, but it is important work, relative to the importance of any acting work. We watch for the main characters, but without the extras it would very difficult to suspend our disbelief and enter into the pretend reality of the story.
There is a useful analogy, I think, to the minor characters in novels. Characters with only three or four lines can still be very important to get right.
Back to the story, a man who was standing by himself and looking glum notices Dennis Stanton and walks over, greeting him.
He remembers Dennis from a party at South Hampton over the summer. His name is Miles Hatcher and he’s in real estate. After some banter, Dennis walks off. We then see Miles talking with Theo and Jessica. He tries to push some luxury apartments he’s developing. They’re called Shinnecock Park. Theo says that he’ll run it past his business manager, and they arrange to meet later.
Theo notices someone he wants to try to get as a client and excuses himself. Noticing the opportunity, the busboy, Andy, comes over and offers Jessica some more coffee, then tells her that he’s an admirer of her work, and that he’s writing a novel, and he’d be just so gosh darn golly gosh grateful if she’d take a look at it. He then notices that his boss sees him bothering one of the guests and says he has to go.
This is another actor who wasn’t credited. His one scene was far more expressive than the line of some of the actors who only got one line and are thus in the credits, but we have no way of knowing who he was. Perhaps he, too, took years of acting classes and this was his biggest role. If that’s true, I have no way of knowing whether he considered them worthwhile, but at least he did a good job here. (Or perhaps he went on to be a famous actor I just don’t recognize and this was an important stepping stone in his career.)
Jessica is now alone at her table, but only for a moment. Dennis Stanton walks up, introduces himself, and asks for the honor of this dance. They flirt with each other a bit; he says that it speaks poorly of Theo’s intelligence and upbringing that he’s left the most attractive woman in the room totally alone. Jessica replies that it’s been a long time since she’s been picked up by a tall, handsome stranger. They talk as they dance, and he professes to be a fan of her work. The song ends and a more energetic one begins, and he galantly leads her through it; people on the dance floor begin making space for them.
We then fade to later that evening with Jessica alone in her room. It’s a bit past midnight but the time probably doesn’t matter much because the camera doesn’t stay on the clock long enough for us to see it clearly. As Jessica is getting ready for bed, Dennis Stanton drops down onto her balcony. Well, I say drops down, but he’s actually climbing up over the railing:
He explains that he had been outside on his balcony getting some night air when he discovered that he’d locked himself out. So he dropped down onto her balcony because it was either that or jump, and he’d misplaced his parachute. He goes to leave but before he can get out the door he suddenly comes back in (we hear some commotion outside). He asks Jessica if he can stay longer, which she is not happy about. He then explains that he was actually in the room of a married woman and her husband just returned, though he describes this in very delicate terms. For some reason Jessica is extremely understanding of this. He then checks the door again and the coast is clear, so he takes his leave of her. He says that meeting her has been a delight that he will cherish forever, kisses her on the cheek, and leaves. Jessica just laughs and goes to bed. He really is delightfully charming, and everything he does is done well.
At the bottom of the hotel, as people are leaving the party and being photographed by the press for some reason, we hear the sound of police sirens. We then see Dennis Stanton coming out of the hotel’s underground parking garage. He, too, hears the sirens and looks around the corner, then abruptly pulls back when he sees the police cars coming.
After observing where the police cars went to, he sneaks off in the other direction. Clearly Dennis has been up to something, though equally clearly (because of Murder, She Wrote conventions) it wasn’t murder.
We fade to black and go to commercial break.
When we come back it’s the morning and Andy brings Mrs. Fletcher the room service she ordered. Jessica is surprised to see him and remarks that they seem to work him twenty four hours a day. Andy laughs and says that he bribed the head waiter to let him take her food up. He hopes that she doesn’t mind and Jessica says not at all. When he starts to tell her about his novel, though, she’s distracted by the morning’s newspaper. It has an article with the headline, “Thief makes Off With Million Dollar Necklace.”
Actually, I can’t help but pause here and look at the newspaper.
I doubt that one would have been able to make out the type in the original TV broadcast, it’s quite difficult to do in this still. But here’s the left hand column:
There was a jewel robbery here at the hotel last night. And it was stolen some time between midnight and twelve thirty from Mr. Axel Weingard’s penthouse suite. Craig reside in a facility we could use for [bringing] a wide cross-section of people closer to the museum,” Attiyah said. “The type of individuals who are really able to help us are individuals who appre-ciate the personal touch of being in the director’s home.”
Black’s housing allowance is considered taxable income, and
The columns to the right, also under the headline, are also about the purchase of a house by a museum, and how this probably doesn’t violate applicable regulations. If you look closely, the part about the jewel robbery isn’t even in the same typeface as the rest of the article and isn’t properly formatted with it; this was just pasted on top of some real newspaper article. Thanks to google, I found out it’s an article from the December 29, 1987 edition of the LA Times. I suppose that in 1988 it would have been harder to print off a newspaper page with random text than it would be today. The image was only on screen for a few seconds and there was no real danger of anyone reading the text.
Back to the story, the time of the robbery gets Jessica to thinking. She asks if Axel Weingard’s penthouse would be on this side of the building. Andy thinks about it for a bit and answers that yes, in fact it’s right above her room. Andy then tries to talk to her about his book but she is preoccupied with the theft. She gathers her things, tells him that she’ll talk to him later, and leaves.
As Jessica comes out of the elevator she sees some uniformed police offers walking with purpose, so she follows them. Axel Weingard’s body has just been found in a laundry cart (the body rolled out after the cart was dumped).
The police officer stooping over him is Lt. Bert Alfano. He says that there are bruises all over the corpse’s neck, so he must have been strangled. In another shot we can see that his right hand is bloody, though Alfano does not remark on it.
Jessica comes up and says that she may know something relevant, though she begins by asking questions. Alfano gets her back on track and she tells him about Dennis Stanton’s midnight visit to her hotel room balcony.
The scene shifts to Theo’s office, where Miles Hatcher is trying to get him to invest in the luxury apartments Miles is developing.
Miles tries to convince Theo to invest, but Theo says that he talked to his business manager and he said “better I should invest in igloos in Saudi Arabia.” Miles offers to show him financial reports and Theo says that the word on the street is that Axel Weingard is in for 40% of the apartments but is about to pull out. Miles admits that he’s having trouble with Weingard, but that’s all the more reason for Theo to join in. “For God’s sake, Theo, you hate him worse than I do.” Jessica walks in right as Miles says this.
Theo, spotting Jessica, ushers Miles out. As he ushers Jessica into his office, he tells his secretary to hold all calls, “and if Norman Mailer calls, tell him I’m in conference with Rupert Murdoch.”
Rupert Murdoch, at the time, was the owner of a collection of newspapers, mostly in Australia and the UK, though in 1985 he had bought Twentieth Century Fox (a movie studio). Norman Mailer was an novelist, journalist, actor, director, playwright, etc. etc. who seems to be the sort of Extremely Important Author who doesn’t actually matter at all. As far as I can tell, he wrote two kinds of stuff: “important” (read: bad) that no one read, and sexual-when-it-wasn’t-everywhere that sold well. He’s the sort of person that Jessica should have heartily disapproved of but actually respected because he had cultural cache with the sort of people that Angela Lansbury hung out with, though not with the kind of people that Jessica Fletcher hung out with.
Be that as it may, this lie is quite interesting for several reasons. The first is that he’s telling it to impress Jessica, which is a weird kind of miscalculation. You don’t want to impress your potential clients with your dishonesty. The second reason is that it doesn’t even make sense for its primary purpose. Telling Norman Mailer that he’s in conference with Rupert Murdoch suggests that Jessica is not as important as Rupert Murdoch, while his ostensible goal (apart from the pretense that Norman Mailer might call) is to show Jessica that he thinks that she is extremely important. This certainly does not do that. It actually contains a strange insult to Jessica, because it implies that telling Norman Mailer that Theo is unavailable because he’s talking with Jessica Fletcher would be completely unacceptable.
I also find his secretary interesting.
She doesn’t have any lines, she just gives him this look, so she’s not credited. She communicates quite a bit of disdain, though, which is interesting. Why does he keep her around? You’d expect a man like Theo to have a secretary who’s—at a guess—thirty years younger, and a lot more eager to please.
In his office, Jessica tells Theo that she’s had a long and very comfortable working relationship with her former agent, which makes me wonder if the writers forgot that Jessica is a retired school teacher from Maine who only started writing after her husband died. Jessica is speaking as if he had been her agent for almost half a century, when in reality he couldn’t have been her agent for even a decade. At her age, that’s almost the blink of an eye. I’m only forty three years old and I think of people I’ve worked with for seven or eight years as recent acquaintances.
Theo begs her to not leave him as his business is hanging on by a thread. Axel Weingard recently dropped four of his clients out of personal spite for Theo. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Jessica corrects this to “was” and explains that Axel Weingard is dead. Theo practically jumps for joy, then immediately calls his business manager and instructs him to sell shares of Weingard’s company short. (For those unfamiliar: this means to sell shares in the future which he does not have now but will then; if the market price of the shares is lower at the time of sale than the agreed on price, the short seller makes money.) “I’ll get back everything that S.O.B. has cost me, and then some!”
Jessica is not enthused by this attitude toward murder, and in any event Theo is busy, so she departs. On her way out she runs into Dennis Stanton, who explains his presence by her having mentioned that she had a morning appointment with Theo, so he decided to take a chance. He invites her to lunch, and won’t take “no” for an answer.
Jessica insists on some straight answers, which Dennis does not give. He does mention that he has an alibi for the time Jessica identified him, which is that he was playing gin rummy from 11pm until 2pm on the night in question with his brother-in-law, who is a city counselman. Dennis shifts the subject to lunch, which he observes Jessica is not enjoying, so he invites her to come have dinner at his place where he can cook something really good for her. She declines, citing that she has a 5:00pm flight home. She promises to have a date with him the next time she comes to town.
Later on, as Jessica is packing her clothes, someone drops down from the floor above.
Jessica locks the door, but the person takes off her hat revealing that she’s a pretty young woman and thus safe because pretty young women always have someone else do the violent stuff for them, and then shows her identification.
Her name is Shannon MacBride and she works for the Susquehanna Fire & Casualty insurance company as a special investigator. They insured the diamond necklace which was stolen. She’s sure it was Dennis Stanton who stole it—she’s been on his trail for years, but she’s never been able to catch him. She gives Mrs. Fletcher her card and asks her to tell Dennis that there’s a one hundred thousand dollar reward for the return of the necklace, no questions asked. When Jessica voices her disinterest in passing on the message or ever seeing Dennis Stanton again, Shannon offers Jessica fifty thousand dollars (personally) if Dennis returns the necklace.
Jessica coldly wishes her a good day as the phone rings. It’s Lt. Alfonso. He just wants Jessica to know that he’s arrested Andy for the murder and, he doesn’t want a lawyer, he wants to talk to Jessica. She looks shocked as we fade to black and go to commercial.
When we come back, Jessica is in the police station talking to Lt. Alfonso. When she asks what evidence he has against Andy, Alfonso explains that Andy wrote a book and sent it to Weingard about a year ago. He has since accused Weingard of ripping off his book. To that end, he sent Weingard a threatening letter.
Dear Mr. Weingard,
As you steal my work so you steal my name, my very soul. I beg of you, take your fingers from my throat. I am neither rash nor vengeful but there is something in me, dangerous, which you would be wise to fear.
Jessica then goes to see Andy.
Jessica begins by asking Andy why he threatened Weingard with Shakespeare. I haven’t read every Shakespearean play, so my not recognizing the lines isn’t dispositive, but if this is actually Shakespeare and I just don’t recognize it, I find it weird that if you google any of the sentences in the letter all you come up with is a transcript of this episode. I found it strange that the writers would fake a Molière quote in Deadpan. I find it very strange to fake a Shakespeare quote, since Shakespeare is far better known.
Be that as it may, Andy explains that every time he put his thoughts in his own words it just sounded dumb.
Andy then launches into telling Jessica about his book. It’s set on an asteroid in the year 3001. It’s about a tyrannical father and his four sons. The oldest is is a fortune hunter. He and his father fall in love with the same woman. The old man dies accidentally, but since the oldest son had threatened to kill the father, he’s arrested and put on trial.
Jessica remarks that this seems very familiar.
Andy brushes this aside and says that three months ago Weingard came out with a book, set in the Canadian Yukon, about a logging family which has all of the same characters and plot points. To his impassioned cry that they stole his book, Jessica points out that Andy stole his book from Dostoevsky’s book, The Brothers Karamazov. Andy protests that he didn’t steal from The Brothers Karamazov, he adapted it, and he thought of adapting it first. Jessica’s reaction is apt:
She leaves Andy and goes back to talking with Lt. Alfonso. She asks about how the thief managed to steel the jewels from around Marta Weingard’s neck. Alfonso then narrates a flashback of what happened. Around 11:30pm, Marta Weingard was feeling the effects of way too much champagne.
She wants to go outside. She and her husband argue, then Axel demands that if she goes outside she must at least give him the necklace. She pulls it from around her neck and throws it to him, then goes outside. Axel goes back to his hotel room. When Marta comes back to their suite at 12:30, she finds the safe open and the necklace missing, so she called the police.
Jessica points out that if Andy killed Weingard—which she thinks is unthinkable for some reason she doesn’t explain—the motive would have been revenge, not theft. Alfonso doesn’t even bother to point out that a person can steal after committing murder in order to try to disguise the motive of the crime, and Jessica drops the point in favor of arguing about Dennis Stanton being in her room at 12:30. I find it curious that neither of them brings up that Axel Weingard’s body was hidden in a laundry cart and, as a result, only discovered in the morning. Moving the body through the hotel involved a not-inconsiderable risk of being seen doing it. The killer had to have a motive for that. It’s hard to see a jewel thief having such a motive; his best bet would be to simply get away.
Anyway, Jessica argues with Alfonso about Dennis Stanton—Alfonso doesn’t want to upset city hall by calling the Counselman a liar—but Jessica bullies him into looking into Dennis Stanton as a suspect. Jessica suggests that she accept Stanton’s dinner invitation while wearing a listening device, and Alfonso goes along with this. Jessica calls Dennis on the phone to make the arrangements.
The scene of Dennis receiving the call is fascinating. Here’s Dennis before the phone rings:
There is taste and class, here. The gold-and-ivory telephone with separate mouth piece and ear piece is elegant and has a curious sort of timelessness to it. It looks to be of modern construction. It’s got a vinyl-covered coil cord, which as far as I can tell was first made in the 1940s, but by then phones had moved to smaller and more integrated handles. This may even have been the era when the telephone company owned the telephone and they were all black plastic and nearly indestructible. Dennis’ phone is a callback to the early mouth piece and ear cup designs, though with modern conveniences, and fits very much into Murder, She Wrote‘s theme of appreciating old things.
Also fitting into this theme, as well as into the character of Dennis, is that his leisure is spent reading a leather bound book. The camera panned over it closely enough, for a moment, that it was possible to see the gold letters on the spine proclaiming it to be The Return of the Native. It’s a novel from the late 1800s, written by Thomas Hardy. From reading the description of the plot I’m not sure that it’s a good book—it seems to be, for the most part, a bunch of people doing bad things and then suffering the miserable consequences of their iniquity. According to Wikipedia:
Because of the novel’s controversial themes, Hardy had some difficulty finding a publisher; reviews, however, though somewhat mixed, were generally positive. In the twentieth century, The Return of the Native became one of Hardy’s most popular and highly regarded novels.
The point is that Dennis is reading a classic and highly regarded novel in his leisure time when no one is watching (we don’t count). His erudite manner is no pose; he really is highly cultured.
Jessica tells Dennis that her plans have changed, and they make dinner plans for her to come over to his apartment.
On her way over, Lt. Alfonso goes over the plan, including the listening device Jessica will keep in her purse.
It’s funny now times change. Jessica asks if the transmitter is powerful enough since it’s so small. Looking at it in 2023, it looks huge. Alfonso says that she has guts and it’s not too late to back off. Jessica muses that the murder is the one thing that doesn’t fit (she doesn’t explain why).
She then double-checks about some things in the reports. In particular, a petal from a red carnation was found on the floor with minute drops of blood on it. The victim was wearing a white carnation, so the petal must have come from the murderer’s flower. There were also lacerations on the victim’s right hand. (They had showed us this in a closeup when his body was found; that they’re bringing it up again here shows that it must be a very important clue.)
At dinner, Dennis is charming as always. He asks about the change in her plans, and Jessica replies that she came on business—she conveys Shannon’s offer. Dennis laughs and says that Shannon MacBride is a persistent little terrier with the instincts of a bloodhound. He goes on, “for several years now, she’s deluded herself that I’m sort of modern-day Raffles, the gentleman jewel thief.”
This is rather interesting because, if you look up “gentleman thief” on Wikipedia, Raffles seems to be the first example (in literature). I’ve only skimmed the first of the Raffles stories, and I can’t say that I’m likely to read more. They were written by the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, apparently for money, and to some degree in imitation of Sherlock Holmes but in, as it were, photographic negative. The reference to Raffles is interesting because it serves to ground Dennis in a tradition, though I don’t know that it’s really important to do so. The “gentleman jewel thief” is a fairly self-defining thing. He must be charming to be able to gain the access he needs to rich high-class people, and he must steal from them because, as Willie Sutton was supposed to have said when asked why he robbed banks: that’s where the money is. A gentleman thief could never support his life style stealing rags and broken cooking pots from the poor.
A gentleman thief must, then, steal from the rich. If he steals from the rich, he must, then, be charming. If he steals from people he knows socially and manages to not be caught for some time, he must also be patient, clever, an observer of human beings, and a decent judge of character. From this it follows that he will almost certainly be well read and cultured, as his intellect will need something to feed upon when he is not stealing.
There are many gentlemen thieves possible, of course, but the point is that we don’t really need a prototype; the moment one hears that a person is a gentleman thief, one knows all this. It doesn’t matter, therefore, that most people will have no idea who Raffles is.
Dennis goes on to reveal his backstory, though in the guise of being hypothetical. Years ago his wife died of a catastrophic illness and the Susquehanna Fire & Casualty insurance company found a loophole and avoided paying anything, leaving him with a quarter million dollars in medical debt (in 2023 dollars, this would be about $630k). He decided to get out of debt by stealing things insured by Susquehanna Fire & Casualty. He did have a code, which is that he would never steal anything that the victim couldn’t afford to lose (which would be most anything insured) and he would never steal anything of sentimental value.
Jessica asks about the murder of Axel Wineguard. Dennis says that not only did he not kill Axel, but, “I fact, I hate to admit it, I didn’t even steal the necklace.” He then recounts what happened. He went to the roof of the hotel and lowered himself onto the balcony. He jimmied the lock and let himself in, when he heard voices. Axel and a woman’s voice he couldn’t identify. They were arguing and at one point Axel shouted, “Put that gun away. Are you out of your mind?” He started toward the bedroom door so Dennis went back out onto the balcony. Axel came in, but then went back out. Dennis waited for twenty minutes, but as he heard nothing he went to investigate. He listened at the bedroom door and didn’t hear anything, so he chanced it and opened the door. There was no one there and the wall safe was open. Just then, Marta Weinguard entered and noticed the open safe.
She ran to the phone and asked the desk to call the police. At this point there was nothing more to be gained by staying, so he left.
Jessica clarifies that he never actually went into the living room, and Dennis responds that he hadn’t. This doesn’t make sense to Jessica because the police report said that a petal from a red carnation was found in the living room. At the mention of the police report, Dennis figures out what’s going on.
“Oh. And are you in the habit of reading police reports?” he asks. For some reason she initially denies it, which I find weird because not only is she in the habit of reading police reports, it’s an extremely natural habit for her to be in. Her reticence tells Dennis what he needs to know, though. He snatches up her purse and pulls the transmitter out, saying, “Forgive me. This isn’t gentlemanly, I know, but this isn’t exactly ladylike.”
He steps to his balcony and observes a surprisingly high number of unmarked black cars. The police start to bang on the door. After telling Jessica, “You’ll understand if I don’t buy your next book,” Dennis leaves by the balcony. Jessica gets up and lets the police in, but it’s too late. Dennis has escaped. Then we fade to black and go to commercial.
When we come back from commercial we’re at police headquarters where Lt. Alfonso and Jessica play the tape from the recording device for Shannon MacBride, for some reason. It’s a meeting that makes no sense—at least one of Jessica and Shannon are out of place here. I think Shannon is here, as much as anything, to express disbelief at Dennis’ story. They wanted someone to do it, and if they use Shannon, that’s one less person to cast. After she leaves, Jessica and Lt. Alfonso talk a bit more. It comes up that he’s put a tap on the phone of Dennis’s brother-in-law. Jessica points out that it looks like Andy wasn’t involved, and Alfonso tells Jessica to “get the kid outta here before I get myself into a lousy mood.” I suppose Jessica has been officially deputized, by this point, so that the lower ranking police officers will take instructions for Andy’s release from her.
In the next scene Jessica is at her hotel and Alfonso calls her. The wire tap on the city councilman’s phone line paid off. Dennis called and said, “I have to leave town, but as soon as I dispose of the merchandise, I’ll send you a piece of the action.”
Jessica then looks at a red flower petal that fell from the rose in her room, considers it, then goes and looks at the newspaper on her desk.
This is from outside the hotel as a press team photographed the guests as they left. I still have no idea why the press photographed people as they left this party. The headline seems to be something like “PROMISES 2.1 MILLION POLITICAL I.O.U.’S.” So I suppose that the picture was supposed to be an illustration of a major campaign event? It all seems more than a little unlikely, especially since this was the sort of party at which pretty unimportant people like Jessica’s agent and a guy trying to peddle luxury condominiums showed up.
Be that as it may, after looking at the photograph in the newspaper, Jessica then figures out who killed Wineguard and picks up the phone as we cut to a bus station.
After a bit of sinister music and some showing to us of someone walking in only by his feet, we then discover that Miles is meeting Dennis.
Dennis complains that Miles is late and Miles says that he got stuck in traffic. “A couple of young hoods tried to rob a liquor store.” Dennis replies, “Crime runs rampant.”
Miles then gives Dennis the diamond necklace and says that this is where it ends. The necklace buys Dennis’s silence. If he ever tries to shake Miles down again, Miles will kill him. The announcement comes on for Dennis’ bus, and he bids Miles adieu with, “I’d wish you good luck, but the fact is, I hope they catch you.”
As he walks off, Lt. Alfonso gets in his way. As Miles tries to inconspicuously leave, the police stop him too.
The scene changes to Miles Hatcher being interrogated in the police station by Lt. Alfonso, Jessica, and Shannon MacBride. Miles protests his innocence but Alfonso tells him to not waste his effort. They have the whole picture thanks to Mrs. Fletcher.
Jessica then explains the evidence against Miles. It’s not just Dennis’ testimony, it’s also the missing carnation. If you look in the newspaper picture, the carnation is missing from Miles’ tuxedo. It was destroyed when Axel Wineguard grabbed out as he was being strangled.
They then give us a flashback to Jessica’s supposition about how Axel’s hand got mangled as he grabbed out in desperation.
Alfonso suggests that if they test Miles’ tuxedo around the lapel, they’ll probably find traces of Wineguard’s blood. This does it. Miles sighs and says that they probably will.
After a recounting of the murder from his perspective, we cut to outside. Dennis walks out of a room with a tall, solemn man. He congratulates Shannon that her tenacity has paid off and his days of larceny are over. She replies, “for ten years, at least” and walks off. Dennis then remarks to Jessica that Shannon will be so disappointed when she finds out. When Jessica asks what, Dennis explains that he is to receive a suspended sentence and a few years probation because of his cooperation in prosecuting Miles.
He then changes the subject. “The thought of pursuing steady employment is absolutely terrifying and it occurred to me that there might be some profit to be made out of lending my name to a book, or a series of books, about a roguish jewel thief. A wonderful idea, isn’t it? I’ve already been contacted by an agent who wants to represent me. In fact, I think you know him—a fellow called Wexler. Says he’s been your agent for years.”
We get Jessica’s reaction, then go to credits.
This was a fun episode. Having said that, my enjoyment of this episode may be colored by how much I enjoyed Dennis Stanton when he was a detective (technically, insurance investigator) in later seasons. I find it impossible to watch this episode except through the lens of it being an introduction to an interesting character. Which brings up the question of how much Dennis Stanton was intended to be a detective in the show. He wouldn’t appear again until the eighth episode of season 6—more than a full season into the future. He wouldn’t investigate a crime on his own until the nineteenth episode of season 6, meaning that if they were setting that up now, they were playing a long game.
Trying to consider this episode without knowing that Dennis would be back, as one certainly would not when this episode first aired: it’s still good. Jessica does very little actual detecting in it but she spends most of the episode chasing a very charming red herring. The murder itself holds together well enough. Miles had a motive, and approximately everyone had the opportunity. Miles’ motive was sufficiently pressing. In fact he was nearly the only person who did have a motive, if we discount the attempt to make Theo a suspect.
I’m not sure that it’s entirely fair to discount Theo as a suspect, but he was never very plausible. His motive would have been either revenge for Weingard dropping his clients, or else to make money off of Weingard’s death. The former doesn’t really work since he now has a new, shiny client (Jessica) that Weingard won’t be able to help but want. Theo is clearly an opportunist who would not hold a grudge where he has the power to get what he wants. The latter motive would have been incredibly risky. Short-selling Weingard’s company would have been excellent evidence that he knew about Weingard’s death, and waiting for Jessica to tell him about Weingard’s death—when it was pure luck that Jessica found out about it before the newspapers did—would have been a ludicrously risky way to make money. When you put it together, he’s just not much of a suspect.
This murder does suffer from what a lot of Murder, She Wrote murders suffer from—the means of inducing decease probably wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as the murderer needed it to. In this case, strangling a taller man from the front with your bare hands is not an easy thing to do. This is not helped by Miles Hatcher being a middle-aged businessman in the 1980s when a businessman playing squash once a week was in the top 10% of athletic shape for businessmen, and Miles probably wasn’t in the top 10%. It’s not impossible to kill someone this way, it’s just very difficult. The person being strangled is close in and at a mechanical advantage, compared to the person doing the strangling who is reaching further away. (This is why effective strangulation is usually from behind.) Also, with Axel being taller than his attacker, he could out-reach him and just push him away—assuming he was being gentlemanly and didn’t attack Miles’ eyes.
All that said, there was nothing about this murder that required strangulation from the front. Axel could have turned his back and Miles surprised him, or else stabbing would have been entirely viable as well. I think, in consequence, this sort of slip-up is easy to forgive.
There are a few parts of the story that don’t hold together well, though in general they’re inconsequential. When Denis was about to leave Jessica’s room, there was no reason for him to suddenly come back in just because he heard some people talking. No one had seem him in the Weingard suite and there was no one it could have been trouble to run into in the hallway. It also was not in Denis’ interest to do this, as it just annoyed Jessica. It doesn’t really matter, but it is a little bit irksome that there is no payoff to it.
It’s also a bit annoying that the joke at the end of the episode, where Denis says that he was approached by Theo Wexler, who claims to have been her agent for years, contradicts Denis’ suave approach to Jessica at the beginning of the episode where he tells her that it speaks ill of Theo’s intelligence and breeding that he left the most attractive woman at the party totally alone. It doesn’t matter, but again, it’s irksome.
That’s about it, though, and for Murder, She Wrote that’s very tight writing.
It’s interesting to consider how the episode handled Andy, the bus boy. He was introduced in a slightly sinister way, then he was a likable youngster, then he was a plagiarizing idiot, then we heard no more about him. He wasn’t any of these things for very long; I suspect that he was just an excuse to keep Jessica in town when she would rather have gone home. But if that’s the case, why have her want to go home? I suppose it does add a little bit of drama—at least a reversal of intention or two—but the episode would have been fine without Andy at all and with Jessica in town for a few more days rather than changing her plans. It’s interesting to consider whether the unnecessary complication added anything.
Another consideration is that every moment Andy was on screen, Denis wasn’t.
Oh well, next week we’re back in Cabot Cove for Mr. Penroy’s Vacation.
On the twenty third day of October in the year of our Lord 1988, the fifth season of Murder, She Wrote opened with the episode J.B. As In Jailbird. (Last season ended with The Body Politic.)
The episode begins with Michael Hagarty (an MI6 agent) walking through the shadows in a dingy apartment building. He cocks his revolver, then knocks on a door and claims to be the maintenance man, here to fix a bad pipe. A sweaty man (“the Bulgarian”) sitting on the bed tells him to come back later.
There’s a bit of arguing and he tries a passphrase on Michael.
It may snow in the Sierras before the weekend.
This is proper spy stuff. Unfortunately, Michael doesn’t know the countersign, so he just keeps up with the maintenance man act. The sweaty man exits out the window as Michael kicks the door open. The man fires some bullets at the door, then goes down the fire escape. Just outside the fire escape is Jessica getting out of a car.
He man demands the keys from Jessica, but she doesn’t have the keys. When he threatens to kill her if she doesn’t give him the keys, Michael shoots him dead.
Moments later, as James Bond-inspired music plays, a police car drives up. Michael, hearing the sirens, runs away. The cops see Jessica standing over the corpse and arrest her.
The camera moves over to a front business where a British man named Lancaster berates Michael.
It turns out, though, that it wasn’t Michael who shot the sweaty man, it was “The Cobra”. No one knows who he is, and even this time Michael never saw him. His theory is that The Cobra doesn’t like loose ends, and the sweaty man was a loose end, so The Cobra tied him up when he panicked.
The subject then turns to Jessica. Michael ran into her at the airport and thought that she would be good cover for him leaving the airport, so he offered her a ride to his hotel. When Lancaster called him on his car-phone and told him about the meeting, he had no choice but to leave her in the car while he went in to try to fix the Bulgarian’s plumbing. Lancaster is worried that Jessica will talk to the press but Michael says that he’s taken care of that, temporarily.
The scene then goes to the police station where Jessica is waiting to be processed. Jessica talks to a Sergeant, who asks her who she really is. The real Jessica Fletcher reported her purse and luggage stolen at the airport. They book Jessica as “Jane Doe”. Jessica says that her nephew, Grady, will vouch for her.
The scene then goes back to the place with Lancaster and Michael. They are reviewing the case “from a damage control perspective.” In two days, Leonard Matoso will give a speech at Berkeley.
He’s an opponent of his African nation’s government, but he’s too popular for them to assassinate him at home. For some reason that isn’t specified, they can do it in America, however, “with clean hands”. I guess in America any number of people might want to kill him, whereas at home only the government would? Seems a bit backwards, but I’m not a spy. Anyway, this is why there are Bulgarians in this episode—to provide the hitman. Michael suggests that Matoso’s own people might be the ones who have hired the Bulgarians, in order to be the match which sets off the powder keg back home.
Be that as it may, the word from the Bulgarian embassy is that Cobra has accepted the contract. The Americans doubt the British information, and their official position is that their security is adequate for Matoso to come give his speech ad Berkley.
There’s another British agent in the room who’s somehow involved, though it’s not at all clear how. His name is Roger Travis.
He and Michael don’t get along. He implies that Michael killed the Bulgarian contact, while Michael says something about how he (the other agent) was supposed to be guarding someone that The Cobra killed, vaguely implying (I think) that maybe this agent is actually the Cobra. Michael ends up grabbing Roger by the lapels, and Lancaster threatens them both with disciplinary action to calm things down.
The scene shifts to the police station where Grady comes in to identify Jessica, but says that he’s never seen her before in his life. We fade to black and go to commercial break.
We come back to Jessica begging Grady to identify her, and he overdoes it on the denials. After he leaves, he talks with the Sergeant, who explains that she “iced a commie agent” and they have her figured for being an enemy agent.
The Sergeant, whose name is Nash, goes back to his office, where he meets another Sergeant, Joe Santiago, from the Miami PD. He’s here to extradite someone. While he was waiting in the office, he was looking over the file about the Bulgarian. It reminded him of another case that was like this, with a Greek national iced in an alleyway and a woman who looked a bit like their Jane Doe spotted at the scene. He asks to speak to her and Nash says that’s fine.
The scene shifts to Michael and Grady walking along a street and Michael asks how it went. Grady is upset and Michael explains that it’s for Jessica’s protection. He tells Grady a bit about how there’s an assassination attempt in the works and tells Grady to go home and call him if anyone comes nosing around about Jessica.
The scene shifts back to police headquarters where the two Sergeants are interrogating Jessica. Eventually she demands to call her lawyer. They inform her that her lawyer is here now and she can talk to him. Her lawyer is, of course, Michael Hagarty, under cover as a southern lawyer Derek Dawson. I wonder if he showed up and said, “Hi, I’m Jane Doe’s lawyer. We put tracking devices on all of our clients, which is why I’m here without having been called” and instead of blinking an eye they put him in a conference room and asked him if he wouldn’t mind waiting for a few minutes while they interrogate his client without him present.
Anyway, they’re talking, and after a bit Michael drops the act and fills Jessica in on the Cobra.
When Grady goes back to his apartment a strange looking woman is knocking on his door.
Her name is Glenda Morrison, she’s a reporter from “The Chronicle”. She had an appointment to do an interview with Jessica. When Grady indicates some recognition, she says that he might have heard of her from a series she did on the Afghanistan war, or the assassination of a Nicaraguan general. Glenda leaves her number asking for Jessica to call her immediately.
Back at the British spy warehouse, Lancaster and Michael are talking about Cobra. Michael says that the Cobra is too good, like he’s working with inside information. Lancaster mentions that The Cobra made a fool of him before in Kenya. The Cobra managed to blow up a bus full of police. Lancaster wonders whether that was the reason he was exiled to California. He intends to retire in three months, though, and the Cobra will be somebody else’s problem.
They’re doing a good job of spreading around suspicion of who The Cobra is, I’ll give them that. So far it could be any of Joe Santiago, Glenda Morrison, Lancaster, or Roger Travis.
Lancaster then gives Michael a message that Roger took from Grady. Michael goes off to get lunch.
Roger Travis then walks in and talks to Lancaster, saying that his source at the Bulgarian embassy said that the sweaty man definitely took the payment with him. Yet no money was found on the body. Travis says that this is a troubling contradiction if one believes Michael’s version of events. Lancaster warns Travis not to make accusations without hard evidence. They then discuss Jessica, but don’t really say anything of substance.
Michael meets Grady. Grady tells him about Glenda Morrison. Michael is dismissive at first, but then Grady says that he phoned the chronicle and they’ve never even heard of a Glenda Morrison. Michael asks to see the phone number she gave him. While Grady is fishing it out of his pocket, a car pulls up, a tinted window lowers, and a gun with a silencer sticks out of the slit at the top.
Michael notices the gun, grabs Grady, and dives to the ground. The gun fires but doesn’t hit anything and the car speeds away. We see that Grady and Michael are fine, then fade to black and we’re off to commercial.
So far, they’ve done a pretty good job with the spy thriller elements. Suspicion is everywhere and the tension is high.
When we get back we’re at the police station. Kevin Styles, special attorney with the State Department shows up and introduces himself to Lt. Nash. He’s there unofficially, and is asking about the situation. He says that they’ve told the Bulgarians that it was a non-political robbery gone bad. He’s also certain that he’s seen Joe Santiago before. He wonders if it was in Paris last year. Joe says that he was in Paris last year on some liaison work with Interpol, but he didn’t attend any parties, and he says that if they’d met, he’d have remembered. Styles asks Lt. Nash to get him a copy of the file, and not to tell anything to the press without running it by him, first.
Back in the jail cell, Jessica is examining the book she had been holding when she was arrested—she asked if she could have it back and Sergeant Nash was indulgent. She finds a postcard in it.
She’s interrupted in her investigations by Roger Travis, who’s dressed as a uniformed policeman. He talks to Jessica, identifies himself as British counter-intelligence, and asks her to testify against Michael, but she protests that she wasn’t working with him and didn’t see him do anything. Travis tells her that she’ll never see a penny of the half million dollars, but she has no idea what half million dollars he’s talking about. She threatens to call Sgt. Nash to talk this over with him and Travis sneaks away.
The next scene is back at the hotel where Jessica is supposed to be. Glenda Morrison comes to the door, knocks, calls out Mrs. Fletcher’s name, and enters. Michael then tackles her and pins her to the couch. She admits that she exaggerated her resume and she’s just a freelance reporter who was hoping to score an interview with Jessica Fletcher which she hoped to sell to Rolling Stone, but people usually aren’t interested in talking to freelance reporters writing on spec.
Back at the station, Jessica meets with Michael (posing as her lawyer) again, where she tells him about Roger Travis’ visit. There’s some speculation, but the big piece of info is that the money would not have been passed as cash, that would be too bulky. It would have been something like a claim ticket or a swiss bank account number.
Back in her cell, Jessica looks at the post card again, this time taking a close look at the stamp.
At Jessica’s hotel, Glenda Morrison is hanging out in the lobby and Grady is watching her. Lt. Joe Santiago comes in and asks the desk clerk for Jessica’s room. Glenda casually walks up to hear the conversation. He flips his badge and tells the clerk that Mrs. Fletcher reported a robbery at the airport.
Glenda follows him. Grady follows her. Music that’s as close to James Bond music without legally infringing on its copyright plays.
Joe looks around in the room like he’s trying to find something hidden, then notices Glenda and Grady. He pulls out his gun and demands to know who they are. We fade to black and go to commercial.
When we get back there’s a bunch of prevarication but not much that’s interesting, then Joe leaves. Glenda stays and there is some comedic bickering, as well as a scene where Donna (Grady’s wife) calls and hears the voice of another woman in Grady’s room, but of course there’s no chance to explain because Glenda tries to steal the phone to talk (she thinks to Mrs. Fletcher) and accidentally unplugs it. I suppose now that she’s comic relief, we can scratch her off the suspect list.
The next scene is back in Jessica’s jail cell. For some reason Kevin Styles is talking with Jessica.
She explains that she knows a lot of influential people in Washington and needs his help to get out of jail. She points out that if he goes to any bookstore he’ll see her face on the dust cover jacket. He says that he’ll do just that. He asks if there’s anything he can do for her in the meantime, if she wants fruit or anything to read, then notices that she has a book. He proclaims that he, too, is a Zane Grey fan, though he hasn’t read this one.
He examines it very closely with his back to Jessica for some reason, then hands it back to her when Sgt. Nash and a police woman come to the cell door. Styles says that he’ll be in touch and leaves.
The woman in the cell next to Jessica is about to go for her court appearance, so Jessica asks her to make a phone call to Grady. “You might even say it’s a matter of life and death.”
The next scene is back at the spy office, where Lancaster is feeding fish.
Travis explains to Lancaster that he saw Jessica in the police station and it confirms his theory that Michael Hagarty is dirty. Lancaster points out that the interview, based on Travis’ description, provides exactly no support for this theory, but sighs and says that they should get this out in the open. He asks Travis to summon Hagarty, but he’s nowhere to be found.
We then go back to Jessica’s cell, where Kevin Styles returns. His manner is entirely changed. He says that he’s really rather pressed for time and wants the stamp. He pulls a knife out and tells her to give it to him. He adds that “we have your nephew” and if he doesn’t walk out of the cell now, and with the stamp, Grady will die. Jessica says that he’s very persuasive and that it’s in the toe of her shoe. She kicks it off and it lands across the cell.
He picks it up and as he stands up, Michael Hagarty disguised as the woman who used to be in the cell next to Jessica’s reaches through the bars and grabs Styles around the neck, points a gun at his head, and tells him to relax or the next sound he’ll hear is a .38 soft nose crashing through his brain pan.
In the next scene Jessica is being released, and Nash apologizes for the mixup. Jessica is very understanding and tells him that it wasn’t all his fault. Nash asks how she knew that the stamp was the payoff to the hitman. Jessica explains that she didn’t notice it at first but then it struck her that the cancellation marks didn’t run across the stamp, but rather the stamp was on top of the marks. (For those who have never sent a letter, the post office marks stamps that are used to prevent their re-use. The mark not appearing on top of the stamp showed that the stamp was never used to pay for the post-card being used.) So she took off the stamp and replaced it with another one. When Styles came to see Jessica, he was very interested in the book, and after he left, the postcard was missing.
Michael comes up and tells Jessica that all’s well that ends well, to which Jessica enthusiastically agrees. Michael then says that she’ll be at the airport in plenty of time for her flight, and Jessica says that she hates to put Michael to all this trouble. He replies that it’s no trouble at all, but he did promise his chief that he’d pick up some microfilm from an agent in Chinatown, it will only take a minute, and it’s on their way. Jessica then tells Grady to call a cab, and we go to credits.
Well. That was a weird episode to begin the season with. It was, at least, better done than the last episode that tried to be a spy-thriller (Murder Through the Looking Glass). Like a lot of spy thrillers, though, it made a lot of interesting promises and fell apart when it came time for there to be a payoff.
The person who turned out to be the Cobra barely had any screen time and only showed up after the second commercial break. None of the characters doing suspicious things had any payoff, not even a threadbare explanation for the suspicious things that they were doing. I suppose Lancaster is an exception in that (by default) he turned out to just have been embarrassed by The Cobra before and it’s a coincidence that the Cobra showed up here. I suppose that Roger Travis is another exception; we can conclude that he just groundlessly suspected Michael Hagarty because he’s overly suspicious and not concerned with evidence. But what’s the deal with Lt. Joe Santiago?
Did he really just leaf through a report that was on Lt. Nash’s desk to pass the time? Did he really think that a Greek killed in an alleyway in Miami and a Bulgarian killed in an alley in California were actually similar enough to warrant suspicion? Was there really a woman whose description by a cab driver was similar to Jessica’s? Why did he go looking for something in Jessica’s hotel room? So far as he knew it wasn’t Jessica Fletcher who was found with the body. What could he possibly have hoped to find in her hotel room? Why did Glenda Morrison wait in the lobby for Lt. Santiago when she’d never seen him before and had no idea who he was? Why did she listen in to his conversation? How on earth did a freelance reporter working on a spec article on Mrs. Fletcher for Rolling Stone Magazine get a key to Mrs. Fletcher’s room?
None of this is answered, and given the ending, it can’t be answered. It’s all fake mystery.
Not as mysterious, but still something that needs explanation: why did someone (The Cobra?) take a shot at Grady or Michael Hagarty? Which actually was it? If this was The Cobra who shot at one of them, how did he find them? If he followed Grady, how did he know how to do it? This was before Kevin Styles got a copy of the file on the case so he had no way of knowing that the woman in the alley was Jane Doe claiming to be Jessica Fletcher or where she was staying in the city. So how did he follow Grady? Or, if he followed Michael instead, how did he follow Michael? Why did he follow Michael? Why did he take a shot at either of them? How could the death of either benefit the Cobra in any way?
The setup of the episode also bears very little scrutiny. Why did the African nation hire an extremely expensive assassin to take out Leonard Matoso? Why did this involve payment being handled by Bulgarians? Why did the handling of payment by Bulgarians involve sending it through the Bulgarian embassy in America? Why was the Bulgarian embassy in America reporting its handling of funds for assassins to the British intelligence service? Bulgaria was never part of the USSR, but in 1998 it was still within the USSR’s sphere of influence and not exactly on friendly terms with Britain. Or was there supposed to be a British spy within the Bulgarian embassy in America?
For that matter, why did The Cobra shoot the Bulgarian who was supposed to pay him? The Bulgarian had no idea who he was, all he knew was a sign and countersign to recognize the guy he was supposed to deliver payment to. From his perspective, if the Bulgarian got away, he might still get payment when a new location for the handoff was decided on. If he shot the Bulgarian in the alley, it was extremely unlikely he’d ever receive payment because dead men don’t make handoffs. And how did he even know that the guy who just ran out of the fire escape was the guy who was supposed to give him the payment? They were using a recognition code to meeting at a hotel room. Was he walking up and just assumed that a guy running out of a fire escape was the guy who was supposed to give him payment, and so needed to be shot for some reason? Had he memorized the hotel layout ahead of time so he knew which fire escape window belonged to the hotel room he was meeting his payment at? And why was The Cobra there but didn’t pick up the payment? This may come down to the prop and special effects departments more than the writers, but we can see approximately where The Cobra needed to be:
Based on the angles, The Cobra actually should have been in view directly behind the Bulgarian. We can see that there was no entrance wound on the man’s upper back in this shot before he falls over:
So that rules out a shot from above. It almost rules out a shot from behind, too. But if you look at how close he was to Jessica when he was shot, it would have been very hard to shoot from behind her (behind her would be in front of the Bulgarian). Above and behind her might work, but then he’d be in full view of Michael Hagarty.
And, frankly, whether The Cobra was above and behind Jessica or even higher above Michael and the special effects department just got this wrong, neither place makes any sense for him to be when his purpose is to pick up a payment. Taking a sniper position in case a British agent shows up at the hotel door and the courier flees out of the window seems counter-productive to the goal of getting paid.
My point, in all of this, is not to nitpick. My point is that the air of mystery and intrigue which this episode relied on was formed by the hints that all of these details gave. If you got rid of these details, or changed them into other details that didn’t need an explanation, you wouldn’t have much of an episode.
The ending was also extremely strange. Jessica spent the entire episode angry at Michael for getting her into jail and keeping her there. Then, after catching The Cobra, all is immediately forgiven. So much so that Jessica says that she doesn’t want to put Michael to the trouble of driving her to the airport. Huh? Forgiving this quickly isn’t like Jessica at all. Especially since Michael never expressed contrition or even apologized.
And speaking of Michael, what the heck was the ending where Michael was dressed up as the woman in the cell next to Jessica? How did he get there? Jessica indicated surprised to Kevin Styles that he was back so soon. Given that he was just walking to a bookstore to look at the dust cover of a book by J.B. Fletcher, she could not have reasonably expected him to take long. And Jessica’s message went by way of someone going to a court hearing, to Grady, who got in touch with Michael, who came to the police station and… what? If people can just waltz into the cells, it’s not much of a protection for Jessica. Did Michael confide in Lt. Nash and get his cooperation? Would a California police station really let a British spy into their jail with a gun on his say-so?
Overall, this was not one of the better episodes, but it did have good qualities. They did a good job of pacing the hints in the first half of the episode to create a lot of intrigue. They didn’t have to have the thing completely fall apart; whichever writer pitched “instead of paying off anything we suggested in the first half of the episode, how about we introduce a new character and he’s the bad guy, and once he’s caught we pretend that nothing ever happened?” didn’t need to be listened to. Either of Roger Travis or Lancaster would have been a much better Cobra. So, for that matter, would Joe Santiago. Glenda Morrison as someone working for the Cobra would have been a big improvement, and would also explain her garish makeup as a disguise to make her hard to recognize, like a lone ranger mask. (Lone Ranger masks work shockingly well, since we have a tendency to focus on details that visually distinguish someone from everyone we could confuse them with, and an obvious detail like a lone ranger mask or garish makeup would do that, resulting in not paying attention to any other features that the person has.)
What probably would have been even better would be for several people to be “the Cobra.” It would have explained how “the Cobra” was too good. Roger Travis and Joe Santiago working together as “the cobra”, plus Glenda Morrison as a helper, would have been a vastly more satisfying ending and far more interesting. It might have even allowed Lancaster to have done something useful—say, catching Roger Travis—which would have been a cool arc for that character. Lancaster was an interesting character.
Next week we meet Dennis Stanton, one of the better characters of Murder, She Wrote, in the episode, A Little Night Work.
On the eighth day of May in the Year of our Lord 1988 the last episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote aired. Called The Body Politic, it’s about an old friend of Jessica’s whose is running for the US senate in some unspecified state in the middle of America. (Last week’s episode was Deadpan.)
It begins with a black-and-white slideshow of the main not-Jessica character (Kathleen) for this episode as she is campaigning. Over this slideshow the sounds of a convention play as people are enthusiastically nominating someone. Then it fades to color and Kathleen is on a talk show debating with her opponent.
Kathleen’s opponent is Arthur Drelinger. He’s seated on the far right. The man in the middle, Edmund Hall, is the reporter who is moderating the show Face the Issues. We’ve come in at the end, and Edmund asks Kathleen about rumors in a newspaper that she’s sleeping with her campaign manager. She denies it. He then says that five years ago when she was governor that there were persistent rumors that she had an affair with a married man. Before she can substantively answer, he says that’s all the time they have. Drelinger interrupts Edmund’s goodbye with, “Thank you, Edmund. And I, for one, am certainly willing to overlook and forget any of Mrs. Lane’s past indiscretions.”
During the banter, we get a picture of a bunch of the characters for this episode.
On the left is Bud Johnson, Kathleen’s campaign manager, and the man she’s accused of sleeping with currently. Next to him is Nan Wynn, who also works for Kathleen’s campaign. To the right of Nan (our right, her left) is C.W. Butterfield, who runs Drelinger’s campaign. On the far right is Jackson Lane, Kathleen’s husband. Interestingly, James Sloyan, who plays C.W. Butterfield, previously played Lt. Spoletti in the episode Corned Beef and Carnage.
Bud excuses himself to go make some phone calls. The only one we see is to Cass Malone, who is at campaign headquarters.
She gives him the bad news that the speechwriter that they had been wining and dining has quit. Bud is disappointed, but takes it in stride. He then tells her that his wife is taking their children up to the farm for a few weeks, and invites Cass out to dinner. She tells him not to start. (Apparently, they have some kind of romantic history, but it’s long-dead and she wants it to remain that way.)
This does pretty effectively show that the rumors about Kathleen and Bud are false, though it doesn’t put Bud in a good light.
After the show, Jackson (Kathleen’s husband), Kathleen and Edmund talk. They complain about his attacking Kathleen, and Edmund tells Jackson to be glad that he’s digging up dirt on Kathleen and not him. Apparently there are various issues with back-taxes he owes, which he claims to have paid off.
In the next scene Butterfield and Nan talk to each other. There’s a bit of back-and-forth, but the gist is that he offers her a job in Drelinger’s campaign for the main race once he beats Kathleen. (Apparently, this is only the primary race.)
The next scene is Bufferfield talking with Edmund. Edmund says that The Post was fed the story on Kathleen and her campaign manager, but he’d really appreciate it if the next bit of dirty attack material was fed to him. Butterfield tells him that the Drelinger campaign would never smear an opponent, but if anything does get sent to Edmund—no promises—it would come from an anonymous source. Edmund says that he understands perfectly.
Next we get an establishing shot of a large and luxurious-looking hotel:
Jessica is talking to a desk clerk, who says that there is no reservation for her. She didn’t make it herself, so she doesn’t have a confirmation number. Kathleen shows up, warmly embraces Jessica (they’re old friends), and tries to deal with the problem, though she is embarrassed by assuming that the desk clerk would know who she is and he has no idea.
She and Jessica talk about the problems of running for the senate. Then she asks Jessica to write her speech for an upcoming event because her head speech writer just quit. Jessica declines, but Kathleen talks her into it.
Part of this talking Jessica into taking the job is that shortly before she tried to ad-lib a speech and nearly promised maternity leave to a group of veterans of foreign wars. I believe that this is supposed to make her endearing, but it has me questioning her qualifications as senator on several levels.
The scene cuts to a TV station and Edmund Hall gets a call from an anonymous source with dirt. He says that he’s interested, and we cut to a bus station where Edmund hall is waiting dressed in what I can only describe as a spy getup.
A phone call comes in on a pay phone and a muffled voice tells him to check the phone book. He does and in it there is a key. He asks who the guy is and he hangs up. The key turns out to be to a locker, in which there is a manila envelope. Hall opens it and looks at what’s inside (which is out of frame) and his jaw drops open.
In the next scene, Jessica is writing at Kathleen’s headquarters. She asks Bud how the speech is going (she shows him a copy) and they discuss it. Then Nan comes in and says that she left Kathleen at an elderly center, and she’ll be back late because she’s going to see the party chairman who asked her to come over for a meeting.
The scene then fades to Jessica in bed. Before the camera pans over, though, we get an establishing shot of a travel clock:
The time is going to be significant, of course, but it’s interesting how much these sorts of closeups were necessary because of the quality of broadcast TV at the time. If things were going well, on an expensive TV, it might look a lot like the picture above. On the other hand, if one had a cheaper TV, and if one wasn’t in a great place, if the weather wasn’t cooperating, if one’s antenna wasn’t well aligned, or if there was just electromagnetic interference, it might have looked more like this:
The camera pans over to Jessica, who’s reading a book. She then checks the time, sets it aside, and turns on the TV. There is a special broadcast by Edmund Hall. He has obtained photographs of Kathleen and Bud:
There’s a second picture, as well, which looks more incriminating:
“According to campaign sources, her husband was out of the country at the time.”
Jessica tries to call someone but gets no answer, so she leaves her room. She runs into Nan, who also saw the broadcast. She asks if Jessica has seen Bud, who is not in his room. Jessica answers that she hasn’t seen him and that Kathleen is not in her room, either.
The scene shifts to the front of the hotel, where Kathleen is getting out of a sedan as a police car pulls up. A large number of people are milling about an area with police tape around it. Kathleen sees Cass, and asks what’s happened. Cass replies, “Oh Kathleen, he must have fallen from the balcony.” Kathleen looks down and sees Bud on the ground in a bathrobe, he head in a pool of blood. We fade to black and go to commercial.
When we come back, Kathleen, Jessica, and Nan are sitting in a hotel room and Lt. Gowans is interrogating Kathleen. His opening question is whether she had any idea why he might have killed himself. His theory is that he saw the news, knew he had finished her chances of winning the nomination, and ended himself so he wouldn’t have to face that.
Kathleen protests that they were not lovers, but Lt. Gowans asks why he jumped from her balcony. When she can’t answer, he asks her if he recognizes a bracelet. It’s hers, and was found in his bathrobe. She last saw it when she took it off to shower. While she’s answer this question, Nan looks a bit surprised and concerned, like perhaps it concerned her somehow. Lt. Gowans doesn’t notice this, though, and goes on to say that every guest of the hotel is issues a bathrobe, all identical, but hers is missing.
Jackson calls and Gowan says that she can take the call in the bedroom. He’s then called over to look at some evidence in Bud’s room, so Jessica has a minute to inspect the door to the balcony, which a forensics man is busy with.
Jessica finds Lt. Gowans and points out that it’s strange that there were no fingerprints on the handle of the balcony door. Who goes out on a balcony to end it all but wipes his prints off of the door handle first?
Lt. Gowans does some more interrogation of Kathleen. She had gone out to meet the party chairman, but apparently the message got fowled up because no one was there. She waited for a bit, then drove back to town. Gowans points out that since the valet saw her arrive right after Bud’s body was discovered, and he was the only witness she had, she could easily have arrived earlier, threw him off the balcony, left, and came back. Kathleen angrily storms off to her new room.
On the way out of the room Lt. Gowans finds a piece of paper which says “A.D. 53|K.L. 46”. Jessica suggests that it’s poll information. Nan confirms this, saying that they’re preliminary figures from a poll taken this afternoon. Gowans asks if she gave them to Kathleen or Bud, and she didn’t. They were phoned over at 10pm and she brought them to Kathleen but she wasn’t back yet. She knocked and no one answered, so she slipped the note under the door. Jessica finds that odd—how did the note get onto the table?
The scene moves to Jackson and Kathleen talking. She explains that the photos were innocent. She had just beaten Bud at ping pong and he began to pout, so she consoled him. Jackson asks what the score was and she says twenty one to three. He encourages her to continue with her campaign. They go to bed, then the scene shifts to the next day where Kathleen is at a press conference. She denies any impropriety, and will continue running. A reporter asks Jackson about whether he was really there and he says that he was on a business trip in the Bahamas, but has total faith in his wife. He then adds that when she started she was twenty points behind Drelinger but now is only seven points behind. He predicts that Kathleen will win on primary day.
There are some more questions, and Edmund Hall argues with Kathleen a bit. He then asks, if she wasn’t at the hotel, if Bud had his own key to her room. At this, Jackson storms toward Hall to attack him, and it requires four or five people to hold him back. Jessica shakes her head, the scene fades to black, and we go to commercial.
When we come back, we’re at police headquarters. You can tell because the building actually has the words “Police Headquarters” engraved in stone above its entrance:
There’s something fascinating about establishing shots. Somehow a few seconds of the outside of some building and you really believe that the next scene takes place in it. Here’s the Lieutenant’s office, or at least half of it because the camera just panned over from him pulling darts out of a dart board:
As he took the darts out, he told Jessica, “Yeah, it’s murder, and yeah, I think she did it. But proving it: I’m not so sure about that.” Jessica replies, “Meanwhile, she’s being convicted on the front page of every newspaper in this state.” Both intone it as if they agree, but they don’t agree at all. It’s a pretty weird exchange.
Jessica suggests that she’s being framed to destroy her candidacy, and Gowans admits that it’s possible. Jessica tries to bully him into looking elsewhere because Kathleen is incapable of deceit or subterfuge or murder, etc. etc.
On her way back to her hotel, Jessica runs into Edmund Hall. He asks her to come on his Sunday show, and she says that she will consider it if he tells her who gave him the photos. He admits that he doesn’t know, and could hardly admit to getting them from an anonymous source in a bus station locker. She asks if it never occurred to him that it was Drelinger’s campaign and he levels with her—C.W. Bufferfield suggested he had something, but he doesn’t know if it was the photos.
Jessica then talks to Kathleen. She talked to the party chairman, who never asked for a meeting with Kathleen. The message came in through Nan. Jessica then goes off to see the Arthur Drelinger campaign.
Lt. Gowans beats her to it, though. He interrogates Drelinger and Butterfield. They were at the Onyx lodge for Drelinger to receive the man of the year award from 8pm-11pm, but Gowans heard that they left at 10:30. Butterfield clarifies that they were in his car at 11pm, went to Drelinger’s hotel room, and stayed there until midnight. Drelinger confirms this with an air of bewildered surprise, and Gowans says that if he needs anything more he’ll be back.
Gowans runs into Jessica coming on his way out. He says that her speech got to him and he decided to work on those loose ends, but he’s turned up nothing. She goes in to see Drelinger and Butterfield.
She accuses them of the taking the photos and giving them to the press, but they deny it. Then Nan Wynn walks in. She doesn’t notice Jessica and says that new poll numbers are out and Kathleen Lane is officially dead. Then she sees Jessica, the scene fades to black, and we go to our final commercial break.
When we come back, Nan and Jessica are walking in a park and talking. Nan insists that she was not a spy for Drelinger, and Jessica asks about the phone message. The man on the phone said that he was an aide to the party chairman.
Jessica then turns the subject to why Nan has left Kathleen’s campaign. It’s because Kathleen’s polling numbers have taken a nosedive. Jessica objects to polls as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and Nan replies that self-fulfilling or not, they’re taken and thus meaningful. She shows Jessica Kathleen’s polling over time. She started at 20 points behind, then moved on to 12, then 10, then 5. Jessica asks about that, and it was the day Bud died. Jessica points out that the poll numbers on the piece of paper were 7 points apart, and Nan says that that was a mistake. She then says that she told Jessica and Lt. Gowans and no one else.
This makes Jessica realize who the murderer is.
This is curious because there don’t seem to be many options. There are Drelinger and Butterfield, of course, but neither is very likely. Drelinger wasn’t a real character and Butterfield is too obvious. Plus, it’s not obvious that Butterfield had exhausted all his dirty tricks, which he’d certainly do before resorting to murder for the sake of his job. There’s Cass and Nan. Of the two I’d say that Cass would have been the most likely if Bud had fallen off of his own balcony. As it is… I’m not really seeing either of them. It could turn out to be either, as we just need a new bit of evidence to show that Bud tried to force himself on one of them, but we haven’t got it so far. It is possible that it will turn out that Kathleen did it, but that’s unlikely in the extreme. Jessica declared her incapable of murder, and Jessica is never wrong about that. There’s Edmund Hall, but that would make absolutely no sense. The only other character is Jackson Lane, Kathleen’s husband. He’s got no motive and while he’s gotten a fair amount of screen time it’s never been as much of a character. That said, he did make reference to a seven point spread which was the spread on the piece of paper that was the one solid clue found near the scene of the crime, and no one else is connected to it.
Anyway, this is surprisingly early in the episode for Jessica to figure out who did it: there are about nine minutes left. Which makes me wonder how they’re going to pad the episode out.
It turns out that about a minute and a half of that padding is Jessica self-righteously haranguing Edmund Hall about how journalists shouldn’t report on the crimes and bad actions of politicians that Jessica likes. Or possibly that journalists should stick to “the issues,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Kathleen is in favor of spending enormous amounts of money, so perhaps that would mean pointing out that all of the things she’s in favor of would mean either unsustainable debt or huge tax increases? Jessica probably wouldn’t like that either.
I do remember in the late 1980s people expressed a great distaste for “mudslinging” in campaigning. I heard about how awful “mudslinging” was a lot during the Bush-Clinton campaigns. Admittedly, that was actually the early 1990s; 1987 was the Bush-Dukakis campaign, which I don’t remember as well. anyway, there was a great deal of complaining about this, as if big character flaws in elected representatives don’t matter when their actual policies were not that far apart, as they weren’t in the 1980s. This is especially the case in primaries where the candidates will mostly agree. In any event, this has aged very poorly.
It’s also weird that there’s so much complaining about mudslinging instead of focusing on “the issues” but literally the first words out of Kathleen’s mouth in this episode were, “If my opponent can’t find a way to pay back the $600,000 he owes from his last campaign, then how can the voters expect him to do anything about the federal budget?” That’s more of a personal attack than Dilinger’s response, “I certainly wish I had a millionaire spouse like Mrs. Lane, here. Perhaps the fairness doctrine would allow your husband to help repay my debts.” Kathleen’s opener was more of a personal attack and no more about “the issues” than Dilinger’s reply was. I suppose that this is one of those episodes in which if Jessica didn’t have double standards, she’d have no standards at all.
Jessica goes inside the house and finds Kathleen and Jackson. Kathleen says that she’s ending her campaign. She’s found out the hard way that the media has two stories; when she was twenty points behind they built her up as the underdog, when she closed the gap they started tearing her down. She just can’t take it anymore. Her attempt at public service cost her her dignity, her sanity, and nearly cost her her marriage.
She goes out to publicly announce the end of her campaign. Jessica asks Jackson if she can talk with him for a minute. She tells him that she knows who took the photos of Kathleen and Bud and leaked them to Channel 8. Partway through her explanation Gowans shows up, but doesn’t interrupt. Jessica explains that he is relieved that Kathleen withdrew, because his business dealings couldn’t stand the kind of media scrutiny involved in running for office. His slip was quoting Kathleen as having been seven points behind Drelinger when the only place that information ever existed was a mistaken memo slipped under Kathleen’s door.
This clinches it, and Jackson confesses. Bud had found out that he wasn’t really in the Bahamas. When the photos came out, Bud would start to put it together that Jackson was the one who took the photos and was trying to sink Kathleen’s campaign. Then it came to him that Bud’s suicide would finish off Kathleen’s campaign for good. So he got Kathleen out of the way, called Bud to his room, hit him on the head with a hammer, dressed Bud in Kathleen’s robe, and threw him off Kathleen’s balcony.
He summarizes his motive:
The people that I dealt with in those day— well, the people I deal with now… I didn’t get where I am by being a choir boy. And they were getting awfully nervous about those rumors. It wasn’t jail. I was looking at… much worse, and I couldn’t think of what else to do.
Gowans takes him away. Jessica steps out as Kathleen is finishing her announcement,
And now I’m going to step out of the goldfish bowl and once again become Mrs. Jackson Lane—the devoted wife of a wonderful, loving husband.
Jessica looks on and is sad, and we go to credits.
I really did not like this episode. It was an unpleasant subject that was mostly an excuse to complain about politics, and that complaining about politics took up so much time that there was approximately no characterization of any of the characters and very minimal plot.
To be fair, Jackson’s slip-up did at least appear on-screen, unlike the evidence in last week’s episode, but that’s about all that I can say for this. He doesn’t make any sense as the murderer. Even apart from it being absurd that he thought it would be all fun and games for his wife to try to get elected as a senator when he was involved in very illegal things. Just logistically, how did he have access to Kathleen’s hotel room? Her campaign is moving all over the place, it’s not like the hotel is a long-term headquarters that she’d have given him a key. Another weird issue is the casting. Eddie Albert, who played Jackson Lane, was 82 years old at the time the episode aired. Even if he was playing younger, Jackson Lane would be in his seventies, and he certainly didn’t look like he exercised as regularly as, say, Jack Lalanne. Are we really supposed to believe that he killed Bud with a hammer, changed his clothes (changing the close of someone who is not cooperating requires a surprising amount of strength, because it’s awkward) and threw his corpse over a balcony?
And then why on earth did he try to frame his wife when all he was doing was trying to make Bud’s death look like suicide? Sending her on a wild goose chase to keep her away, I get, since he needed her to not be on hand to interfere. But why dress Bud up in her bathrobe, and why throw him off of her balcony? Neither of those things were necessary to get Kathleen to lose the primary. Further, Jackson had a major interest in his beloved wife not being convicted of murder.
It is a relatively minor issue, but once again we also have no obvious way for Jessica and Kathleen to be good friends. We’re not told what state this is, but Jackson identifies it as “middle America.” Five years ago Kathleen was the mayor of her “home town” in this state. I get that Jessica and Kathleen being old friends is just a setup so that we can have this episode, but at the same time the writers could have spent a few seconds explaining how this unlikely friendship between a small-time politician in Middle America and a retired schoolteacher from Maine was formed in the early 1970s. Or between a housewife in middle America and a schoolteacher from Maine, given that Kathleen might not have been in politics at the time and Jessica probably hadn’t retired yet.
The whole episode was badly conceived. Even the opening makes no sense because it’s the sounds of someone being nominated for something, while the episode takes place before the primary has happened. People aren’t nominated to run in their primary. Worse, this episode is about politics. Politics is not merely the setting for a murder mystery, the murder mystery is an excuse for the setting. The complaining about mudslinging in politics gets undermined by the solution to the murder—it turns out that it wasn’t the Drelinger campaign playing dirty, it was Kathleen’s own husband trying to get her to quit. If he hadn’t been trying to sabotage her campaign, there wouldn’t have been all of the mudslinging.
I really wish I could say something good about this episode—that’s why I do these reviews—but I can’t think of anything. Eddie Albert gave a really good performance during his confession scene, but that’s just a credit to him as an actor. Oh well.
Thus ends the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. Season 5 will begin with J.B. As In Jailbird.
On the first day of May in the year of our Lord 1988, the episode Deadpan aired. It was the second to last episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. (Last week’s episode was Showdown in Saskatchewan.)
We’re in New York for the opening of a play based on Jessica’s book. The play is called Mainely Murder, based on Jessica’s book Murder Comes to Maine.
We then meet our first character.
His name is Elliot Easterbrook and he’s a TV theater critic, and has an impressively negative tone. His first line is, “It has been said that the theater is a temple. If so, it is a temple which has often worshiped false gods. Only time and astute critical judgment will tell if Mainely Murder, which opens here tomorrow night, will honor the gods or, yet again, profane them.”
He goes on to interview some of the major cast members—the cast of the episode, not the cast of the play.
The first is Shayna, the producer of the play.
Elliot says that she has brought the theater such notable works as the musical biography of King Louis XVI titled Heads You Lose. He says it as if the play was terrible, but Shayna points out that it ran for 524 performances.
Jessica is also here. The Elliot remarks in his acid tones that Jessica looks just like one would picture a mystery writer from Maine to look.
Then we meet another character:
The young man is new to writing for the theater, but is the person who adapted Jessica’s book into a play. His name is Walter Knapf. Elliot asks how it was that Jessica, an experienced writer, allowed a neophyte to adapt her play. Jessica answers that Walter was a very talented student of hers. Being a protegé of Jessica’s makes it very likely that the police will suspect him for the murder that will happen this episode, if not outright arrest him for it, poor kid.
Elliot is confrontational, trying to pin Jessica down about predicting the play’s success. She says, “Isn’t it true that the only thing you can predict about the theater is that it is unpredictable?” Elliot replies, “Oh bravo, Mrs. Fletcher. You must have stayed up all night thinking that one up.” Jessica answers, “No, actually. Molière did it for me about 200 years ago.”
It’s a good zinger, but there are a few issues with it. Molière was, if you don’t know, a French playwrite and actor (I had to look it up to find out that he was also an actor). Googling, I can’t find that Molière ever said anything like this; quotes of this episode are the only things that turn up when you search for it. That’s not dispositive but what are the odds that no one has ever talked about this quote other than this episode of Murder, She Wrote? Especially since you can find pages of Molière quotes? Also, and this is a smaller thing, Molière lived from 1622 to 1673. At the time of this episode, the most recently Molière could have said this was 315 years ago. So Jessica’s zinger was made up and off by at least a century. Now the question is: was that intentional? Was Jessica meant to be better educated than Elliot and the writers used fake facts to portray that, or was she meant to be just to be a good actress who could pull off the authority to convince Elliot that he didn’t know a fake quote which he probably should have known? Both would work for their intended purpose, with the former just being a short-cut over real research to come up with a legitimate zinger. It would be interesting to know.
Anyway, the last part of this happens as we watch it on TV:
The camera pulls back to reveal two new characters. I’m going to get to them in a moment, but I find this very interesting. Why would the people who edit Elliot’s show leave this in? There’s no way that something as unimportant and likely to involve downtime that should be edited out as a pre-show interview would be broadcast live, so the presence of this exchange had to be a deliberate decision on the part of the editor. I don’t think that there’s really any way of defending it and it’s just a cute way of segwaying into introducing the new characters—a rival theater critic and his assistant. So, about them:
The theater critic—his name is Danny O’Mara—is the guy in the blue sweater vest. His assistant—Denise Quinlan—is the woman sitting in the chair. He writes a column in a newspaper (“The Chronicle”). Evidently he has a strong antipathy for Elliot. The scene began with him celebrating Jessica’s put-down (“Pow! Right in the kisser!”) and ended with him saying that everyone forgets what Elliot said by the time the woman is on to give the weather. The only reviews anyone remembers are Danny’s.
The scene shifts to a restaurant where Jessica, Walter, and someone we haven’t met before but whose name turns out to be Barney Mapost and whose job is publicist are having lunch. As they discuss how much Jessica doesn’t want to do more interviews Danny comes in and introduces himself. He professes himself to be an admirer of her work, by which he means her putting down of Elliot. When he hears that she will see a dress rehearsal of the play right after lunch, he suggests that—from what he’s heard—it would be advisable to make it a light lunch, his tone implying that the play is quite bad. He leaves, but his assistant reassures them that he’ll give them a fair shot. She then says she’ll see them tonight at the party. After she leaves, Jessica expresses surprise at inviting critics to the opening night party. Barny says that it’s Shayna’s idea, then says that they need to rush over to get to the dress rehearsal. I suppose it was a very light lunch indeed, since they never ordered.
Then we go to the dress rehearsal.
The scene of the play we come into has a farm set, and on it a witch casts a spell.
Double Trouble, Spoil the bubble! Make the haystack Turn to Rubble!
The lights flash, and a pyrotechnic special effect at the top of the haystack fails.
It seems that Danny O’Mara heard correctly.
There is some humorous dialog where various people ask Jessica what she thinks and she tries her best to be diplomatic.
Then we skip to opening night. Walter is nervous and Jessica tries to calm his nerves. Danny O’Mara finds his seat as an announcer says that the part of the woodsman, normally played by Tony Jasper, will be played by Craig Donner. I must confess that I’ve never actually been to a broadway play (once, in middle school, I attended a school trip to a dress rehearsal of a broadway play, but I don’t think that’s the same thing). That said, do they really announce cast substitutions?
Elliot arrives late and Shayna personally ushers him into the play. He remarks to her, “I hope you don’t think by inviting me to your postprandial party you’ll color my reaction to your little play.” Shayna graciously replies, “No, but missing the first scene might,” and opens the door into the theater for him.
I wonder if the misuse of “postprandial” is intentional. “Postprandial” means “after a meal,” and usually refers to something happening right after a meal since human beings eat several times per day and so everything a person does, except in a famine, is normally not many hours after some meal. The opening night party of a play is going to be right after the play, not right after a meal. If anything, it’s likely to have food served at it because it’s been a while since anyone has eaten. “Postprandial” is not the word to use to describe an after-play party.
This reminds me of a joke my oldest son told me recently: “I use big words I don’t understand in order to seem more photosynthesis.”
So, is Elliot Easterbrook the sort of man who would use ten dollar words he doesn’t know the meaning of in order to impress people, or did the writers of the episode just get it wrong? Or did they just not care? In television in the 1980s writers tended to rate accuracy below everything else—it would be easy to imagine them mis-using a word because they figured that 99% of the viewers wouldn’t know what the word meant and would assume it was used correctly. This is actually a bit frustrating as it would shed more light on the character to know the answer. On the other hand, he probably won’t be alive for much longer, so it may not matter much.
We skip to the intermission, where we follow Walter on his way to the bar and pass various people who are complaining about how bad their day was. Walter takes it as a bad sign that no one is talking about the play. Danny O’Mara then walks up to Elliot Easterbrook and tells him, “all you TV blowhards know about theater is makeup and hair.” They trade insults for a while until Elliot leaves. Walter tells Jessica that he needs many more drinks that he just had (he brought Jessica white wine and had ordered, for himself, a “double anything”). He leaves, telling her that he’ll see her at the party.
The scene then fades to the party.
There’s some small talk, then a broadcast of Elliot Easterbrook’s review of the play. I question how influential his reviews can be if they’re are broadcast close to midnight, but in any event I think it’s worth quoting the review in its entirety:
It is always difficult to review a mystery without giving away the plot. This unpalatable witch’s brew is such a muddle of clichés and troll dialogue that it is impossible to figure out the plot. Neophyte playwright Walter Knapf at least has the excuse of inexperience. As for the cast, Vivian Cassell brings her usual long-in-the-tooth charm to the lead. And Barbara Blair shines briefly as a witch. Tony Jasper as the woodsman is appropriately wooden. If you’re looking for a good thriller, walk right by the Woolcott Theater. The only mystery about this one, folks, is how it ever got to Broadway in the first place.
The scene fades to later on with Jessica putting her coat on to leave. Shayna asks her to stay until the early newspaper reviews are out but Jessica protests that it’s after 1am. They then notice that Elliot Easterbrook has accepted the invitation to join the party, which everyone finds surprising. Walter then staggers in, drunk, holding an early editing of the next day’s newspaper. He proclaims that the play will run forever: Danny O’Mara wrote them a glowing review.
Mainely Murder is mainly magnificent, the one must-see of the season. This is a real audience-pleaser, just the kind of show a certain low-caliber, high ego TV critic is sure to hate. You know who I’m talking about. That Live at Five guy who thinks he’s smarter than you. If he hates this show, maybe you should let his TV station know you’ve had enough of his condescending crap.
Jessica’s reaction while Walter reads this aloud is interesting:
This review is indeed quite surprising. It doesn’t square with what O’mara’s warning to Jessica, nor with common sense.
Anyway, Elliot Easterbrook expresses outrage at this review and declares that “someone has to silence this undereducated, ill-informed windbag… permanently.” He then storms off.
The police get a call reporting that shots were fired and dispatch units to the location of the call. Two uniformed officers break down a door, then see the corpse of Danny O’Mara lying on the floor with Elliot Easterbrook standing over the corpse holding a gun pointing at the corpse. They never show the whole thing in a single shot, but I think that the most interesting part is how the gun is being held:
After the camera pans up to Elliot’s face, which registers minor confusion and surprise, we fade to black and go to commercial.
It turns out I was wrong about who was going to get murdered. It’s easy to imagine a lot of people wanting to kill Elliot. Who would want to kill Danny?
When we come back from commercial break, Danny’s assistant, accompanied by Jessica for some reason, show up at the scene of the crime. The detective for the case, Lieutenant Jarvis, is interviewing Elliot.
Elliot claims that he arrived only moments before the uniformed police officers and picked up the gun because he was worried that the assailant was still present. Jarvis isn’t buying it, so Jessica pulls him aside and points out that Mr. Easterbrook left the restaurant only moments before they did and they came straight here, so Elliot wouldn’t have had time to kill Danny. Further, if the shots were just fired, wouldn’t there be a smell of gunpowder and furthermore, why does Danny’s skin have a bluish tint?
Jarvis, who is at the end of a double-shift and exhausted, doesn’t have time to think about these things and directs that Elliot be arrested. As Elliot is being escorted to the police station, he rudely tells Mrs. Fletcher to mind her own business and to leave his defense to more capable hands.
The next scene is back at the theater, where Shayna and the director talk about how wonderful things are, largely thanks to Danny O’Mara’s positive review. There is also some discussion of a positive review by another critic. When Barny is asked if he’d read it, he replies that he wrote it. Writing columns for reviewers in their voice makes their lives so much easier they’re much more likely to give you positive coverage in exchange for saving them the time of doing the writing themselves. Not too much is made of this but it’s clearly foreshadowing of the only possible explanation for why Danny O’Mara wrote such a glowing review of such an awful play.
There’s also some discussion of Shayna wanting Walter to make more changes, and then he privately talks to Jessica to ask for help. She just wants to get back to Cabot Cove, but he reminds her of the theme in her book upon which this play is based—not walking away from injustice. So Jessica resolves to stay and figure out who killed Danny.
This scene is quite weird. I get that Jessica wants to get away from the play as soon as possible but this is the first time I can remember that she ever wanted to desert a place more than to solve a murder, even for a moment. Usually someone is trying to get her to leave and she’s refusing. It feels out of character.
The first stop in Jessica’s quest to satisfy justice is to go to the office at his newspaper. The scene at the newspaper opens with an interesting joke about the former theater critic that Danny replaced. He was a very gentlemanly reviewer and the best theater critic that the paper ever had, but after his stroke he couldn’t handle broadway anymore and so is reviewing television programs. Murder, She Wrote doesn’t often go in for self-referential humor, but this is certainly not the first time. In Steal Me A Story, a producer suggests to Jessica doing a show called The Jessica Fletcher Mystery Hour, about the real-life exploits of a famous mystery author solving crimes. Jessica replies that she doesn’t write fist fights, bedroom scenes, or car chases, so who would watch it?
Like in that case, I think that this joke relates to the Murder, She Wrote theme of old things still being valuable. It’s a bit tangentially; the theater being so much more important than television isn’t going to be deeply relatable. Not many people born in the 1910s or 1920s (and hence be in their 60s and 70s in the 1980s) will have gone to shows on broadway, or even off-broadway. They might, as youngsters, have attended local plays before movies largely replaced them, but I doubt that they’d have remembered those as high art since they probably weren’t high art. People born in the 1930s and after almost certainly would not have gone to any meaningful number of plays.
The gentlemanliness of the former critic is also interesting. Supposing that he was seventy at the time of his stroke, and that this was five years ago, he’d have been born in 1913. The 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s were not a time people were gentlemanly—being modern was the big craze then. So his formative years would not have valued gentlemanliness. People might have tried to be gentlemanly in the 1940s and 1950s, and perhaps into the 1960s, so maybe he adopted it, but that was not a big thing in the 1970s. On balance, I’d guess that this aspect of him having been gentlemanly was pure wistfulness, without any direct reference in reality. That is, it was mere, abstract, “things were better back then”. (Of course, it can be simply explained as individual quirkiness, and need not be taken symbolicly.)
Anyway, Jessica pretends to be doing research for a new book, and pumps the editor for information. It turns out, though, that Danny didn’t come into the newspaper to write his column. He wrote from home. There’s an interesting bit where Jessica asks if it was picked up by courier, and the editor laughs and says that they’re all using computers, these days. O’Mara wrote it on his home computer and send it in via modem. The computers time stamp everything, so he can say that the review came in at 11:15pm.
Jessica next goes to visit Denise at Danny’s apartment. It’s a little odd that she should be cleaning up his effects at his apartment rather than a family member doing that, but it saves on time and casting, and Murder, She Wrote generally fits a ton into a fairly short time, to say nothing of having a cast so large they rarely get to develop a character in more than a few lines.
Denise shows Jessica Danny’s program from the night before, on which he took notes. Jessica looks it over and remarks that it’s odd that the notes are nothing like Danny’s review. Denise says that she didn’t have a chance to look at it, does so now, and remarks, “Well, this is weird. Why would his review be so favorable?”
This is a very strange question for Denise to make, seeing as how she was Danny’s assistant. Barney Mapost introduced her as “Danny’s right hand, his left hand, and entire brain.” She said that this was inaccurate and she was more like the guy who walks behind the elephant in the parade. Either way, it’s weird that she had no idea what he thought of the play since she sat next to him at the opening performance.
At Jessica’s request, Denise then shows her the original review which was on a 5 1/4″ floppy disk.
This is the same thing as what Walter read out loud the night before. Curiously, it contains no reference to Jessica, despite the director remarking in the banter I summarized above that Danny had given Mrs. Fletcher “quite a nice mention.” But there’s plenty of space on the screen below the text, and nothing there. Be that as it may, Jessica looks it over and remarks that it doesn’t square with Danny’s notes.
Denise replies, “I gather you don’t write on a computer, Mrs. Fletcher.” This makes no sense as a reply; writing on a computer doesn’t make people radically change their opinions of the quality of fiction. Instead of pointing that out, Jessica merely replies that she doesn’t, and far prefers her bucket-of-bolts typewriter. It’s noisy, but comfortable. Denise then says that she should consider switching, but Jessica refuses, saying that she’s heard too many stories of people pressing the wrong button and losing everything. Denise then demonstrates that it’s not quite that easy. She deletes the review from the disk, then undeletes it to show that things are recoverable.
Jessica, eagle-eyed as always, remarks on there being two files that were undeleted. They then look at the file which had been deleted before they started:
Denise is perplexed at the existence of this review, so different from the one that published. Why did he change his mind so drastically, she asks in a way that suggests she doesn’t have two brain cells to rub toghter? Jessica theorizes that whoever killed Danny O’Mara also killed his review.
The scene shifts to Police headquarters where Jessica gives his information to Lt. Jarvis. Jarvis says that the substitution of the review doesn’t rule out Easterbrook, but Jessica says that he was on the air giving his review of Mainely Murder at 11:15pm and she checked—it was a live broadcast. I find that more than a bit odd—who would watch a theater review at 11:15pm at night? And why bother broadcasting it live? That first part is probably more germane to the episode as a whole—how influential can a TV theater critic be if his reviews are broadcast live at 11:15pm at night? Granted, New York City is the city that never sleeps, but even so.
Anyway, in the conversation some weird details come out. The police got an anonymous call saying that shots were fired, but O’Mara was killed with only one bullet and no other bullets were found in the apartment. None of the other tenants ever heard any bullets being fired. And the coroner’s report indicates that O’Mara might have died earlier than he was found.
Jessica suggests that the killer must have been someone from the play, but Jarvis says that it’s likely that everyone can alibi each other at the party, and asks her to try to recall who showed up late. (Answer: Walter, but Jessica only realizes what she’s done as she walks out.) Jessica calls Walter from a pay phone at the police station but only gets his answering machine, and leaves a message saying that it’s urgent that she talk to him.
She then goes to see Elliot, who has quite an office.
Are we really to believe that a TV theater critic whose reviews are broadcast at 11:15pm at night has a corner office? Anyway, Elliot has his unpleasantness dialed up to 11, as usual. Jessica asks him if it doesn’t get tiresome being so tiresome, but he just replies in a tiresome way. They hit something of a detente and discuss the case.
Jessica wonders who wrote the fake O’Mara review, and Elliot suggests the director, since O’Mara had panned his last five plays. Jessica goes to talk to him.
The directory, though, is only interested in blaming Jessica for finding the real review of Mainely Murder, saying that now the play is doomed. I have trouble believing that a glowing review could do much to save a play as bad as Mainely Murder is supposed to be, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. The only thing that really comes up is that everyone was at the party, the whole night, except for Walter.
Jessica tries to find Walter at his apartment, but he’s not there. Jessica runs into Barney, taking down the quote from the O’Mara review. She all but accuses him of having written the fake review, but he replies that he never tried to imitate O’Mara because O’Mara wasn’t the kind of critic who appreciated being sent plugs. Walter is in the back of the theater working on rewrites. (I wonder why this theater would have office space for writers, but again this probably just a time-saving thing.)
Walter is saying that he put a lot of the original stuff back in and Shayna actually likes it. With all of the changes that went on, she doesn’t remember what she cut anymore! He thinks this will save the play. Jessica tells him to nevermind the play and to tell her where he was during the cast party. Lt. Jarvis walks in and says that the way he figures it, Walter was busy murdering O’Mara. He arrests Walter, and we go to commercial.
When we come back, Jessica and Jarvis are interrogating Walter in Jarvis’ office. Before anyone can say anything of substance, though, Jarvis sends for Mrs. Rizzo, who after some complaining says that she saw Walter in the hallway. She lives on the first floor of the building where O’Mara lived on the third. It was 11pm—she knows because the news just came on—and Walter banged on her door saying that he needed to speak to Mr. O’Mara. She told him that O’Mara lived upstairs, and Walter went away.
As a side note, I’m really curious how Walter was supposed to know what building O’Mara lived in. For that matter, why on earth did Mrs. Rizzo know that Danny O’Mara lived in her building, two floors up? A lot of people live in her building, and NYC is not a place where people get to know their neighbors, especially not their neighbors who live on a different floor.
Anyway, she leaves and Walter gives his version. He was hoping to find O’Mara and beg for mercy. When he couldn’t find O’Mara’s apartment he realized he was so drunk he couldn’t think straight, so he gave up and went out to get even more drunk. There is some general bickering, and a reference to a different casting for a part gives Jessica an idea.
She visits Martha Blair, who played the witch who, in the play, cast a spell to reduce a haystack to rubble. It turns out that she was romantically involved with Elliot Easterbrook in a very minor way. She had dinner with him, which consisted of four hours of him talking about himself. This was at Shayna’s instigation, so Jessica goes to talk to Shayna.
The conversation with Shayna doesn’t reveal much, but when she is previewing a tape of Elliot Easterbrook’s review in order to pull a few words out of context to seem favorable, it repeats the part where he said that Tony, as the woodsman, was appropriately wooden. This gives Jessica the clue she needs.
Jessica excuses herself to Shayna, saying that she needs to see a man about a play.
It’s interesting how Murder, She Wrote has a visual language all its own. The next scene has Jessica sitting (apparently) alone, on stage. We hear a door close, which means that Jessica has invited the murderer to her impromptu accusing parlor.
She calls out to him. It’s Elliot Easterbrook. She thanks him for coming, and he assures her that it is nothing more than curiosity.
Jessica explains how Elliot did it, though she frames it in a proposal for the plot of a new book. The setting is the theater, and the killer plans his crime meticulously. After the play he kills the victim, then two hours later puts in a fake call about gun shots in order to have the police arrive with him standing over the body and frame himself. Once the time of death is established to have been two hours earlier, he’ll be exonerated and it will be extremely unlikely anyone will look his way again. He created an alibi for himself by transmitting the fake review he’d planted to the newspaper from his own office, rather than from the victim’s apartment.
Elliot says that it sounds far fetched, but like a perfect crime. Jessica said that it would be, except that Molière was right—the theater is unpredictable. There was a last-minute cast change which Elliot didn’t know about because he came late. Thus he got it wrong in his TV review, but, critically, also in the fake review.
Elliot points out that even a fictional jury wouldn’t be likely to accept this as conclusive proof. Jessica agrees, but says that they would be willing to accept his TV station’s phone log. It shows a five minute call to the Chronicle at 11:15pm.
Elliot, crestfallen, says,”Even the finest works of art have their flaws. Congratulations, Mrs. Fletcher. The only thing missing is a motive.”
Jessica says that she’s wondered about that.
Elliot decides to tell her. It’s fascinating, so I’m going to quote it in full:
Imagine a young and impressionable writer who has his first play produced off-off-off Broadway. It’s not perfect, but he has talent, and it’s a start. And imagine a critic from a second-rate newspaper trying to make a name for himself. His review of the play is devastating. So devastating the young playwright never writes another play. No, instead, he becomes a critic himself and vows to best his destroyer at his own game. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to eradicate the pain. Only one thing can do that.
At this point Lt. Jarvis walks in from the wings (Elliot had moved onto the stage, with Jessica) and announces his presence.
Elliot looks at Jessica in surprise.
The detective in the wings, Mrs. Fletcher? I suppose I should have expected a climax so cliché.
The uniformed officers escort Elliot away. Jarvis remains and talks to Mrs. Fletcher. He asks how she knew that the TV station logged its phone calls. Jessica replies, “Well, if they don’t, they ought to.”
And on that note we go to credits.
This was an ambitious episode, so I think its many plot holes can be at least partially forgiven. That said, it has a lot of them. I think, for me, the biggest is that the key evidence—the evidence by which Jessica knew who the murderer was and the only evidence she didn’t make up when she confronted him—never appeared in the episode. At no point when the fake review was read or put on screen did it mention the actor who played the woodsman. This is unusual for Murder, She Wrote. They’re normally better about showing us all of the evidence (that Jessica doesn’t lie about—they could hardly show us that). It’s not like there was any other evidence to lose track of and no excuse can be made on account of time. They put up the text of the review a second time, so they could have put up the relevant section of the review instead of just repeating the part that Walter read aloud at the party.
There’s also the issue that the fake review failing to mention the cast change hardly proves that Easterbrook was the culprit. Anyone who wrote the fake review earlier in the day would have used the name of the actor who had been cast in the role, as would anyone who just didn’t pay close attention to the announcement, was in the bathroom, etc. Since the purpose of the fake review was to be discovered and cast suspicion on someone who would benefit from the play getting a good review it didn’t deserve, it’s not like there was a motive to get the fake review right. Mistakes in the fake review would draw attention to its inauthenticity, and thus help it serve the murderer’s purpose. So, not only did they not show us this evidence, it doesn’t really point to Elliot as the murderer anyway.
The part about Elliot Easterbrook framing himself is hard to know what to make of. On the one hand, framing himself with a fake time of death that will be disproved has some merit as a way of leading suspicion away from himself, but it only really makes sense if suspicion was at all likely to go his way. There was no real connection between him and Danny O’Mara, so there’s no reason why it would have. If anything, O’Mara seemed to hate him far more than he seemed to hate O’Mara. All clumsily framing himself did was connect him to the murder more than he would have been otherwise. That said, he was a narcissist with an obsession. It’s not entirely unbelievable that he loomed much larger in his own imagination than he did in anyone else’s and so he might assume he would be suspected because he assumed that everyone thought about him all the time.
That said, his approach to framing himself was riskier than the episode made it out. Estimating the time of death is not an exact science and it was so close to when he framed himself for that there was no guarantee that he would be exonerated. Indeed, all the autopsy report showed was that the time of death could have been hours earlier. “Could have been earlier” is not a slam-dunk acquittal. The transmitting of the review at 11:15pm would be a stronger alibi, but only if the falsity of the review was discovered. That only happened by accident, and Elliot was in no position to do it himself if no one else did it for him, so this instance of framing himself is particularly weak.
To be fair, though, given that it would have taken the police several minutes, at minimum, to arrive at Danny O’Mara’s apartment after getting a report of “shots fired,” holding that Elliot had just shot Danny would entail him standing over the body, gun in hand, for several minutes. That would be quite strange, to say the least. I suspect that a defense attorney could make a lot of that.
Perhaps oddly, I actually find the motive in this episode to be on the more believable side. Superficially, of course, it’s ridiculous. Who could want to kill a person because they wrote a scathing review of his play twenty years before? And yet, Elliot Easterbrook comes off as a man consumed by hatred. Especially as Dean Stockwell plays him, he is an Ahab character. He cares for nobody and nothing because he’s obsessed with his white whale. Indeed, the part about him dating the young woman who played the witch didn’t add anything to the plot but it did add some very interesting characterization of Elliot—he spent four hours talking about himself. A man who can spend four hours with a beautiful woman talking about himself is the sort of man who can resent a scathing review of his play to the point of murder, and hang onto this resentment for decades. Also, the time frame works well. A man like Elliot wouldn’t go for murder immediately. He would brood for a long time before going there. Having spent decades wrapped up in his hatred, trying and failing to destroy Danny O’Mara through lesser means—that might might work him up to the point of murder. Especially considering how, in his early fifties, he might be starting to reflect on how his quest for revenge deprived him of a wife and children. He would blame O’Mara for that, too. Most people would not react this way, but this sort of hatred is the kind of mistake a human being can make. There’s no such thing as a good reason to make a bad decision, so motives for murder cannot be evaluated on the basis of whether there was a good reason to commit the murder. They can only be evaluated on the basis of there being a human reason to commit the murder. Offended pride, nursed for a long time—that is a human reason.
There’s an interesting question about how this episode falsifies all sorts of details in order to fit things in. For example, there’s no way that a TV theater critic is going to do a live broadcast of his review of a new play at 11:15pm at night. Similarly, there is such a thing as the morning edition of a newspaper, but it doesn’t come out on the streets for purchase before 2:00 am. Mrs. Rizzo knowing where Danny O’Mara lived when she lived on the first floor of her building and Danny on the third is beyond improbably. In NYC people are extremely outgoing if they know who lives in the apartments right next to them. They have no idea who lives on other floors of their building. If Elliot brought the fake review on his own floppy disk, he would have either had to write the “real” review which accorded with Danny’s notes on his program or else he would have had to copy his fake review onto the floppy disk that Danny saved his review on. This would have involved copying it to the hard drive, then removing his disk and inserting Danny’s disk. Further, the name he gave the file relied on Danny misspelling his version of it. Or else he did some weird file renaming. None of which is impossible, but is oddly convoluted and I’m pretty sure was not intended by the writers since Jessica didn’t mention it.
Many of these things were important to the plot, and in fairly irreplaceable ways. On the other hand, many of them were just shortcuts. I think that it’s important to cut Murder, She Wrote slack on these sorts of things because it’s hard to cram so much into 48 minutes as it is. This is something that may apply to a short story, but does not really carry over into novels. Shortcuts are nowhere near as forgivable when time is not so precious. (A big part of what I seek to do in my reviews of Murder, She Wrote episodes is to see what can be learned from them to bring over to my novels; Murder, She Wrote was great in spite of most episodes having fairly large plot holes, so if we can figure out what made it great in spite of them, perhaps we can borrow some of that and have something even better when our novels don’t have plot holes.)
The way that Jessica and Denise find the deleted file may possibly be classed under the heading of “shortcut,” but I can’t help but think it could have been done much better. They segway from the review being irreconcilable with Danny’s notes on his program (to say nothing of common sense) to a demonstration of undeleting files without any kind of natural hook for the change of subject. It’s not even a single change of subject, either. Jessica complains about pressing the wrong button and losing everything, not about how easy it is to accidentally delete a file. Back in the 1980s it was common for computer programs to crash and far too many people didn’t save their work until they were done. File corruption on disk was also a not-uncommon problem. Undeleting a file doesn’t address either. The issue is not that they didn’t take the time to address all possible failure modes on a computer, but that they could have written what they meant in the same time. Instead of “pressing the wrong button and losing everything” Jessica could have said “accidentally deleting the wrong file”. And instead of the business with the program, Jessica could have just asked if Denise really liked working on a computer. I’m not sure Denise being caught completely off guard by Danny’s not liking the show is fixable, though. She sat through the play with him. How could she be under the impression that it was possible he liked it? Even if he didn’t talk about it and she never noticed a single one of his reactions, shouldn’t she have picked up on what he likes and doesn’t like in plays?
Overall, and despite the many plot holes, I think that this episode was a lot of fun. As I mentioned at the start, this was an ambitious episode. It contained a play, drama about the production of a play, and even a layer about criticism of the play. Also, while the story has plenty of plot holes, it also has things which stick together. For example, it actually makes sense that Elliot chose the play that he did to use for his murder. He needed a bad play, but it would help if it had a lot of money riding on it, as, presumably, Mainely Murder did because of J.B. Fletcher’s name would attract investors. I think that what really makes it, though, is the ending. Elliot’s explanation of why he murdered Danny was poignant. Some of this is up to the skill of the actor, of course, but the writing rings true. “It’s not perfect, but he has talent, and it’s a start.” That is how an awful lot of writers starting out feel. And I think his ending, which probably should have been the actual ending, was great.
“The detective in the wings, Mrs. Fletcher? I suppose I should have expected a climax so cliché.”
There is a sense in which this is Murder, She Wrote poking fun at itself, but there is another level to it. Elliot is just a man, and not, in truth, a special man. It is fitting that when he is caught, he is caught as other men are. The essence of sin, in a sense, is the refusal to recognize that one is man. But Elliot should, indeed, have known that.
Next week’s episode, which is the final episode of season four, is The Body Politic.
A while ago I wrote about the problem of how to put characters above suspicion in a murder mystery so that readers could become fond of them. The problem, as I mentioned, is that golden age mysteries loved to try to put the murderer as far above suspicion as possible. However, we need some characters to be actually above suspicion so that we can have an enjoyable story. So, how do we put them above suspicion in a way that the reader can believe? I gave one answer before, but another recently occurred to me.
A reliable way to put a character above suspicion, for the reader, is to tell the reader the character’s thoughts. Obviously this relies on the story seeming to adhere to the spirit of Fr. Knox’s detective decalogue, or otherwise just that the author is honest. An author who would purport to tell us what a character is thinking but leave out the most important things that they’re thinking is just being dishonest, even if they don’t outright lie. So as long as you have the reader’s trust, telling them a character’s thoughts, which are not about the murder at a time when they would be about the murder if the character was the murderer, will enable the reader to trust the character.
This doesn’t need to be done in such a way as to turn the character into a main character, either. Perhaps an extreme example of this might be Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice.
Persuaded as Miss Bingley was that Darcy admired Elizabeth, this was not the best method of recommending herself; but angry people are not always wise; and in seeing him at last look somewhat nettled, she had all the success she expected.
We are not, that I can recall, ever told Caroline’s thoughts before or after (except in the final chapter, which gives a summary of the next few years).
Like all techniques it must be used judiciously, but I think that it could be used well.
I recently read the first Hamish MacBeth murder mystery, Death of a Gossip. It has a certain charm to it, but I must say that it was not in the least surprising that the author got her start in romance novels. I looked at the blurb on Amazon for her first novel, My Dear Duchess, written under the name Ann Fairfax. It ran:
Sloe-eyed, winsome Frederica Sayers, fresh from the schoolroom, married the Duke of Westerland–and set the Ten-thousand a-twitter! All because her social climbing stepsister, Clarissa, missed her chance to snare him, never guessing he would soon claim a coronet. Now the beautiful Clarissa again casts her shimmering nets for his lordship. And jet-haired little Frederica, wed in haste, must win her young Lord’s love…before he succumbs to Clarissa’s golden charms.
(I had to look up “sloe”. “Sloe” is another name for blackthorn, which has deep blue berries. “Sloe-eyed”, I take it, means having deep blue eyes.)
Note: spoilers follow.
While Death of a Gossip is, technically, a murder mystery, it’s really more of a romance novel in which a murder eventually happens and then a murder investigation forms the backdrop for the romance novel plot in the foreground. Except that every romance in the novel ends in disappointment. I haven’t read enough romance novels to know whether that’s common—I’ve only read one—but it’s very disappointing in a murder mystery. Romance, in a murder mystery, is best when it is a counterpoint to the murder. When the romance makes the murder look cheery by comparison, it’s just kind of a downer.
The novel, as a mystery, certainly doesn’t operate on play-fair rules. The investigation happens primarily off-screen, mostly through Hamish making telephone calls. This is a weird thing about the book being set in the early 1980s, by the way—telephone calls are common, but expensive. You will find telephone calls being expensive in mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s, but phone calls are (relatively) uncommon. Also, the 1930s does not feel modern. The setting in the 1980s feels modern, but it’s been a while since the price of phone calls mattered. This is not anything against the novel, it’s just a curious experience while reading the story.
Anyway, back to the play-fair aspect: there’s one clue we’re given, which is a torn photograph found near where the corpse was found that had a picture of a woman’s head with a tiara on it and the letters “BUY BRIT” (they ended at the tear).
For some reason Hamish gathers the suspects together, goes over everyone’s motives for committing the crime, then he reveals who did it. It turns out—Hamish learned this from a phone call—that the letters were not “BUY BRITISH” referring to a campaign in Brittain in the 1960s, but rather were “BUY BRITTELS BEER” which was a local beer made in a suburb of a city that one of the suspects came from. This beer only exists within the novel, of course, but that doesn’t matter because we only learn of the existence of “Brittels beer” during the reveal of who the murderer is.
The amount of luck involved in Hamish gathering his evidence was a bit extraordinary, but in a sense this barely matters because it was also so flimsy that Hamish just made a guess at who the murderer was, accused them, tossed in a fabricated witness, and got a confession.
As I noted in my post about play-fair rules, they don’t really work for their intended purpose of giving the reader an equal footing with the detective for solving the case, but adhering to them does a lot to make the story better because it forces the author to structure the story in a way that holds together relative to the mystery being investigated. Part of this is that, having time to think over the clues, there will be a greater urgency on the part of the author for them to make sense.
For example, in the reveal Lady Jane was murdered where she was because she had decided to torment one of the fishing students with proof of the fishing student’s past—the photograph with “BUY BRITTELS BEER”—in private. But this was at a location over a mile from the hotel, up steep terrain that had everyone exhausted when they went there as a group to fish and discovered the body. This is hardly the place one would go to have a private conversation. With all of the evidence explaining what had happened coming out in just a page or two with the suspects gathered, and Hamish managing to obtain a confession, there wasn’t time to think about that.
Then there are some basic problems with having the murderer be American. How is an American supposed to care what a British gossip columnist writes about an obscure American, in the 1980s? If the gossip columnist had gotten something really juicy about an extremely famous American, I can see this making its way over to America, mostly because someone in England would think to tell someone in America. There was no internet and no google. The London Evening Star (a newspaper which only exists within this book) was not likely to be an international newspaper; when I was a boy in the 1980s my father read a lot of newspapers and I don’t recall ever seeing a British newspaper available for sale in the US. So the odds of some secret about Americans no one in America has ever heard of passing over to the US to influence local elections in the NY metro area is… pretty much zero.
Indeed, it was so far fetched that even the author didn’t quite go there. There’s a line where Hamish says that this wasn’t really the motive, and the murderer admits it, saying, “She messed with me, that’s all. I don’t like no one messing with me.”
Somehow this led to strangling Lady Jane with a fly fishing leader—a strange thing to have on hand during a clandestine evening meeting. I suppose we are to assume the murderer had a fly fishing leader in a pocket even though this was after dinner and everyone had changed out of their fishing clothes. Granted, Lady Jane was found in the pool in her usual fishing clothes, and I suppose that would make some sense to change into in order to go walking into the woods, but why on earth did she go walking into the woods with a person to reveal their deep dark past? All she really needed was a table in the hotel restaurant where she wouldn’t be overheard if she didn’t speak loudly. Some explanation for this would have been nice. Especially since both the murderer and victim were unfamiliar with the area and had no way of knowing where the river pool was. Hiking a mile through unknown mountain wilderness just to tell someone you knew what they did for a living a decade ago is… weird.
A fly fishing leader is also a really weird thing to strangle a person with. It’s a very narrow cord. Very narrow. Looking it up, we’re talking about the thick end of the leader being less than 1/32 of an inch (that’s around .6mm, for people who like their measurements to be power-of-ten multiples of the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second). That’s a little thicker than dental floss, but not by a whole lot. This would cut into the hands of anyone trying to use it to strangle someone else. And I don’t just mean cause pain—unless a person had stout leather gloves on, this would cut the skin, leaving clear marks to be seen the next day.
There’s also the issue of the thin nylon cord being strong enough to do the strangling. Fly fishing leaders can hold a small animal like a trout or a salmon, but the forces involved in trying to strangle a struggling human being who’s well over 100 pounds would snap it. (The force of a struggling salmon snaps fishing lines unless the angler has skill in playing out the line when the fish is pulling, then retracting the line when the fish is tired and resting.)
And once all these problems are dealt with, how did the murder get behind Lady Jane? They’re alone in the wilderness so that Lady Jane could torment the murderer with the murderer’s past. It’s hard to picture Lady Jane turning her back and letting the murderer slip up behind her.
And then, Lady Jane somehow having been killed, the murderer wrapped chains around Lady Jane’s legs and tossed her into the river pool. The motive is straight forward enough but the means make no sense. Where on earth did the chains come from? Are we to suppose that the murderer also just happened to have them in another pocket? It’s not like there was some sort of house or building nearby from which they could have been scrounged. Again, this was a long and difficult hike away from the hotel.
Now, I’m not saying that had the author stuck to play-fair rules that she would have done all this better. I merely think it’s likely that, had she doled out the evidence to the reader at the same time as she gave it to the detective, she’d have thought about it a bit more. If nothing else, Hamish would probably have been forced to talk about it at least a little bit with someone, and one of the characters might have pointed out the problem, forcing the author to notice. (Characters have an annoying way of doing what they want to do regardless of what the author wants them to do.)
I could say more, but I suspect I’ve gone on long enough on that subject.
The character of Hamish MacBeth is also a bit weird. On the one hand, he’s a likable character. On the other hand, he’s a bit of a scoundrel. He routinely breaks the law by poaching. He mooches off of people for things like food and coffee when he’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself. He trespasses into people’s homes and places international telephone calls at their expense, without their permission. He only wanted to investigate this murder because the Detective Inspector who took over the case was rude to him. (And that only happened because the Detective Inspector took offense at Hamish not reacting to a complement with even common politeness.)
Having said all this, it is often the case that first murder mysteries are nowhere near as good as later ones. It is quite common for an author to figure out, when the first book is done, what the best parts of the detective were and to do his best to forget about the rest. I will probably read the next one in the series, Death of a Cad, but I found Death of a Gossip to be a bit of a downer and I suspect that I will need some time to get over my trust issues with Marion Chesney (the real name of M.C. Beaton).
I recently finished Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novel, The 4:50 From Paddington. Published in 1957, it was the seventh Miss Marple novel which Agatha Christie wrote, though I’ve been reading them out of order so it’s the ninth that I’ve read. It’s an interesting story with an interesting premise. It moves quickly, with a lot of twists and turns. The odd thing is that it ends quite abruptly. In order to explain what I mean, I’m going to give a brief synopsis of, approximately, the first half of the book. If you don’t want spoilers, go read it now. (You’ve had more than 60 years to do it, so I’m going to go ahead.)
Miss Marple’s friend, Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy, was travelling on a train from London a few days before Christmas when another train ran next to it on a parallel track. Suddenly the curtain in one of the private compartments flew open and Mrs. McGillicuddy saw a man strangling a woman. The tracks then separated and the other train went out of view. She told the porter, who clearly thought she was dreaming, so she did the only sensible thing: she went to her friend Jane Marple and told her. Miss Marple then did the sensible thing and waited a day or so for the body to be discovered, as it probably would be. When that didn’t happen, she took the investigation on, telling Mrs. McGillicuddy that she (Mrs. McGillicuddy) has done her duty and there’s nothing more she can do.
Miss Marple then enlists the help of the Vicar’s son (grown up from the end of the first Miss Marple novel, Murder At the Vicarage, published back in 1930), who is interested in cartography. He gets for her the necessary maps where she can look at where the murder might have actually taken place and where the body could have been thrown off from the train without being found. This plus a trip on the train that had to be the one Mrs. McGillicuddy saw lead her to conclude that the only plausible place for the body to have been thrown from the moving train (without being seen) was next to the grounds of Rutherford Hall. Not up to doing the investigation herself, she hires Lucy Eyelesbarrow, who is a professional domestic and a very interesting character (more on her later) to take a post at Rutherford Hall and try to find the body. This, Lucy does (including finding the body in a rarely used spot on the Rutherford Hall grounds).
The quest becomes one of trying to identify who the corpse was, since no one recognizes it. Lucy stays on because she’s become interested, and various clues turn up. The clothes on the corpse are mainly French, so it is a working hypothesis that the victim was French or had at least lived in France until recently. One possibility that various investigations the police do turn up is a french ballerina. Another is a French woman by the name of Martine who the eldest brother in the family had said in a letter to his sister that he was going to marry shortly before he was killed in World War 2. They never heard from her until about a month ago, when she wrote a letter asking for help for her son who was the child of the dead brother, but then she wrote a telegram saying that she unexpectedly had to return to France and they never heard from her again.
There are many twists and turns, with interesting clues, and a few of the characters turn into corpses before the end, too. Right as the identification of the corpse is nearly certain, it falls to peaces. With the mystery at an extremely high pitch, Miss Marple summons Mrs. McGillicuddy who was on vacation, and when she arrives plays a trick at Rutherford Hall that catches the murderer and gets him to confess. We then get a four-page final chapter with some explanation and a little wrap-up, and we’re done.
Now, while it is abrupt, it is not unfair. The wikipedia page for the book quotes a critic by the name of Robert Barnard who says, “Miss Marple apparently solves the crime by divine guidance, for there is very little in the way of clues or logical deduction.” This is unfair. There are sufficient clues and, while Miss Marple doesn’t show her logical deduction, I was able to guess the solution before it was revealed because it was possible to logically deduce it.
My objection isn’t really to the pacing of events in the book, but to the pacing of the book, specifically, the pacing of the last few chapters. After the murderer is revealed he tries to defend himself asking why he’d kill a woman he’d never met, and Inspector Craddock reveals his motive. What we’re never told is how on earth Craddock knew the motive, since the last we had heard of him was somewhere between hours and a day before (the exact time is not specified) and he was completely bewildered about every aspect of the case when he left Miss Marple.
It just feels rushed, like the last two chapters were written in a tremendous hurry because it was a day before the deadline and she had to finish it somehow.
In one sense, this is plausible. On the other hand, by 1957 Agatha Christie was enormously popular and sold extremely well, so if she told her publisher she needed an extra week or do, I doubt the publisher was in a position to tell her, “no.”
Lucy Eyelesbarrow was an interesting character. The premise of a highly competent person who did menial labor because she could do all of it well and deal with everything, and who charged enormously high prices for it because there was so little competition, is interesting. It would be difficult to call it realistic, but then consulting detectives are not realistic, so that’s a difficult complaint to make in a murder mystery. She has the plausibility of internal consistency, which is what we can ask for.
The other curious thing about it is that its instability makes sense in context. She is a young woman who is interested in marriage and can probably make a match where she will not need to work for pay. She enjoys domesticity, too, so probably will not want to work for entertainment. She’s not a marxist, so doesn’t believe that the worth of a human being is his economic output. In short, while she is not on the lookout for a husband as soon as she can get one, the long-term viability of her profession was probably not high in her list of considerations. (To put things in perspective, if she was in her early twenties in 1957, she would be in her mid fifties in 1990.) And I must say that Lucy does make an interesting detective, at least until Miss Marple comes on the scene and takes the more prominent role.
The method of disposing of the corpse is, I think, very interesting. It’s very strongly English, since it relies upon a very specific kind of change in circumstances to produce a stone sarcophagus in a barely-used barn on a lonely estate that’s falling apart. It would not be easy to come up with that in America. You can find abandoned buildings, of course—abandoned factories come to mind—but they don’t have the aspect of people regularly using them. It’s the people inhabiting the grounds which tends to make one not think of it as a place to hide a body. It would be possible, of course, to hide a body in a rarely-used shed on the grounds of some building one has access to in a modern American story, but there is the issue of how to avoid the stench of decomposition giving away the body’s location. One solution I’ve seen is sealing the body in plastic, which I suppose would work. That lacks the style of the sarcophagus, though.
How easily one could do it in a modern story aside, it is interesting that Miss Marple really has two triumphs, the second being the uncovering of the murderer. The first is the discovery of the body, and of the two it is the most satisfying. While part of that is the abrupt way in which the murderer is discovered, I think it makes for a very interesting story that the detective has a brilliant victory early on, that victory only producing more work for the detective to do.
Overall, while I don’t think that it’s the best Miss Marple novel, I do think it was quite a good one, aside from the abruptness of the ending. It has some very interesting ideas that, I suspect, could be used profitably.
At the end of Three Act Tragedy, after the murderer has been revealed and some after-discussion is happening, a character asks Poirot an interesting question:
“You’ll excuse me—” said Mr. Satterthwaite.
“Yes, there is some point you wanted explained to you?”
“There is one thing I want to know.”
“Why do you sometimes speak perfectly good English and at other times not?”
Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. but, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despite you. They say—a foreigner—he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people—instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.’ That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added. “it has become a habit.”
Three Act Tragedy was published in 1935, after Murder On the Orient Express and before Death in the Clouds. It is set quite late in Poirot’s life; he was, at this time, retired.
This habit of Poirot’s solves a problem that all detective writers face: a lot of people don’t like to talk to detectives. There are different solutions to this problem; Poirot in general likes to set people at ease and make them think that the easiest way to deal with him is just to humor him. This was taken even further by Columbo, many years later, but it certainly makes sense as an approach.
It also makes sense that Poirot decided to turn his disadvantage—the famous dislike of the English for foreigners, especially for French-speaking ones—into an advantage.
My recent musings on the coincidences that went into Mystery Science Theater 3000 being a success got to me to thinking about coincidences in murder mysteries. The general rule is, of course, that coincidences may not help the hero of a story, and this was codified in Fr. Knox’s decalogue in rule number six. It would be a fool’s errand to try to count up which rule was most often broken, but I suspect it might be this one.
I should clarify that I mean broken but not to the benefit of the story. Agatha Christie managed to break several of the rules in ways that produced a good story, but not this one. (There are two examples I can think of in Agatha Christie’s work that involve coincidences, one in Poirot and one in Miss Marple. In the case of Poirot, she even went to the trouble of saying that Poirot considered the case a failure because he would not have solved it except for the coincidence.)
Having said that, I don’t think it’s impossible to use coincidences in mystery stories. One tolerable example of this is a coincidence which brings the detective in to the case. A good example of this is the Lord Peter Wimsey novel Unnatural Death. Lord Peter learns of the case by the accident of being seated in a restaurant next to someone who was telling a friend about it. He then weedles his way into an acquaintance with the man who told the story and sneakily gets enough information about it out of the man that he can begin investigating. Thus even in this coincidence Lord Peter has to do work to really get started.
This kind of coincidence is tolerable, I suspect, because it’s just a somewhat exaggerated form of the sorts of coincidences which are necessary for the detective to be involved at all. If Sherlock Holmes is to be called into a case, the murder must take place in London, or at least in England. If a man murdered another in the central African jungle in the cleverest possible way, Sherlock Holmes would never hear of it. This is even clearer in terms of time; if a man in the 1980s murders another, Sherlock Holmes could not possible have heard of it, at least Holmes as written by Conan Doyle. Nor would a fiendish plot ever come to the attention of Holmes which happened upon a whaling ship at sea which was lost in a storm before it ever reached port, with all hands dying. For a detective to embark upon a case, many things need to be coincident with his location in time and space. To add on top of this someone happening to talk about the mystery at lunch with a friend at a table next to the detective is just more of the same.
So what are we to make of the sort of coincidences which are more than this but less than just giving the detective the solution?
One of the more difficult ones are coincidences which look like they help the detective but are actually misleading. Probably the best example I can think of, here, is in the story Have His Carcass. Harriet finding the fresh blood seems to be helpful in pinning down the time of the murder with unusual precision but actually confounds the investigation almost until the end of the story. It definitely was quite interesting in that story, though I think it would be difficult to pull off well.
Then there are the coincidences which only seem to be clues, but actually aren’t.
These are often quite interesting when they happen prior to the detective getting on the scene. Red herrings are probably the most obvious example of this. Finding out that the maid’s earring was in the parlor where the body was found because the butler had been stealing jewelry and secretly hiding it in the chandelier above the door (which was never used) is, properly speaking, untangling a coincidence from the main problem.
Red Herrings are not the only such coincidence, of course. Sometimes things look weird for the murderer to have done because the murderer did not do them, but at the same time the person who did is not available. There might be a book missing from the library because someone—perhaps a neighbor—borrowed it a week ago and no one (still alive) knew that or noticed it then. It’s possible that someone was mistaken about which book is missing, and the person who borrowed it didn’t say anything because they were asked about the wrong book and weren’t told why they were asked, so couldn’t tell that there might be a mistake. Perhaps the police are withholding the evidence that the book is missing because they don’t want to tip off the murderer that they know, and so the person who could have easily told them didn’t know to come forward. All of these would work well in a story.
Then we come to the cases of coincidences that do actually help the detective, though they are not merely handing him the solution. Can these work?
I want to say that they can—the safe answer is to never say never—but it’s hard to think of how it can be done. One obvious answer is for the help to be trivial. The problem with that solution is: then why bother at all?
I suspect that the answer has to be something that preserves the detective working hard and being the only person who could solve the crime even with the luck. I suspect that the best way for this to work would be for the detective to manufacture his luck. That is, it is only through his knowledge and effort that he was in the place to receive the luck at all.
A good example of this would be reasoning that if there was evidence to prove who did it, it would be of a particular kind that would then have fallen in a particular place. Since it is not there to be found, if it ever was there it must have been picked up by a particular kind of person and so if he circulates word among these people—or interviews them, or some such—the evidence will fall into his lap. I have a memory that Sherlock Holmes did this, perhaps more than once. I can’t place the story, but I have a memory of more than one person coming, hat in hand, saying that he heard that Mr. Holmes was looking for someone who saw something-or-other, and he did, and getting rewarded for it.
The other, I suspect inferior, kind of luck would be something coming completely out of the blue, but only the detective understands its true significance. An example which comes to mind, though it is a very imperfect example, since it wasn’t discovered by luck, would be the evidence given by the nanny in the Poirot story Five Little Pigs. The nanny thinks that the evidence she has proves the guilt of Caroline Crale (which is why she withheld it), when Poirot knows that it proves Caroline’s innocence. If that kind of evidence were to come to the detective, even by accident, I think it would still work.
To bring this back to where I started: I think that coincidences are acceptable only when something unusual and special went into taking advantage of them. This is very much true of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yes, a lot of unusual circumstances came together to make it possible, but it was a special group of people who took advantage of those circumstances and made it happen. Most people would not have made something great in the same circumstances.
On the tenth day of April in the year of our Lord 1988, the Murder, She Wrote episode Showdown in Saskatchewan first aired. It was the third from last episode in the fourth season. As the title implies, it takes place in Canada, making it the second episode this season to be set in the Great White North. (The first was Witness For the Defense.)
After some scenes of people driving in, we meet two of our main characters:
Her name is Jill Morton. She’s one of Jessica’s many nieces, which is why Jessica is going to be in this episode.
Here’s a better picture of the man she’s with:
His name is Marty Reed. As you might be able to guess, he’s a professional cowboy. Rodeo star is probably more accurate, since he does not in fact ranch cattle but ride ornery bulls and ornery horses and such-like.
After some discussion of dinner (and after-dinner) plans, Marty leaves and we meet another character:
Her name is Carla Talbot. She’s the wife of (aging) big time rodeo star, Boone Talbot. It comes up that it was Carla who invited Jill to spend the summer with her and Boone on the circuit; this places her in a difficult spot because she’s supposed to be watching over Jill, not being a pretext for Jill to live with Marty as if she was his wife. Jill’s mother has been calling Carla, making life difficult for her.
In the next scene, Jessica gets a call from Jill’s mother (Louise).
This was right after an establishing shot of Jessica’s home. I find this extremely domestic shot of Jessica quite interesting. They could have picked nearly anything for Jessica to be doing. They could have had her working at her typewriter or reading over galley proofs or reading a book or any number of book-related things. Instead, they chose to depict her cleaning her oven.
Jessica as detective is meant to contrast with Jessica as retired schoolteacher in Maine; with Jessica going to Canada there won’t be many opportunities to establish this dynamic. Taking a moment to lay it on thickly, here, works, I think.
In the next scene Jill is called to Carla’s trailer, but when she knocks, instead of Carla, Jessica comes out. Jill is pleased to see Jessica, but then realizes what she’s there for. Jessica owns up to having come in order to spy on Jill on behalf of her mother. They go for a walk to talk to each other. Jessica is compassionate and understanding, but also points out that Jill’s mother has a right to know what sort of a man Marty is, and what the situation really is. Jill doesn’t like it, but understands that Jessica is right.
Jessica meets Marty, who is very charming to her. We then meet another character:
His name is Luke Purdue. He works with Marty as some sort of partner/assistant. Marty invites Jessica to join them all for dinner at the restaurant that night, and she accepts.
At the restaurant there’s music and dancing. A rodeo clown named Wally introduces himself to Jessica by commiserating about not being able to go all night (she had begged off dancing again as the scene began, and he has a bum leg). Then we meet a new character:
His name is Doc Shaeffer. He’s the rodeo association’s official doctor, but Luke and the rodeo clown give him the reputation of not doing a good job. In fact, the rodeo clown used to be a rodeo player until he broke his leg and Doc Shaeffer set it wrong. In the present, Doc is drunk and ornery, and tries to force Carla to dance with him, but Boone intercedes, angering the doc. The Doc’s wife, Consuela, comes up to try to get him to back off. Doc does back off, though angrily, and Consuela apologizes to Boone.
A few minutes later, Doc comes over and issues a challenge: whichever of Boone and Marty can stay on Doc’s bull the longest gets $500 ($1206 in 2022 dollars). The bull is apparently an extremely mean bull, even by rodeo standards. Boone accepts, since it was a public challenge, despite this being an obviously stupid idea.
The bull is in an open pen and no one actually manages to get on the bull. It chases them around and hurts Luke pretty badly. In Doc’s trailer, he pronounces Luke to have a hairline fracture in his leg, and he’s going to give Luke a walking cast. Marty was also hurt, though slightly; the Doc says that he got a concussion and he’s medically disqualifying Marty for the next day at least. When Marty protests, he tells Marty to leave before he medically disqualifies him from the whole rodeo. Marty storms off. He runs into Jill, who tries to calm him, but he yells at her too and then leaves.
That evening Boone is looking pensively at the bull when he notices smoke coming from the medical trailer. He runs over to it and it turns out to be very much on fire.
After calling for help, Boone goes in, calling to Doc. Instead of finding Doc, he stumbles over Luke, on the floor, who he drags out. Others run up and he tells them that Doc and Consuela are still in the trailer, but they only find Doc, who is dead. Consuela comes running up. She cries out when she finds out that he’s dead, and she cradles his body, sadly repeating “Doc, doc.”
The scene fades to black, and we go to commercial.
When we come back it’s the next day and the rodeo is starting. Amongst others riding through the gates to kick things off are the mounties. The camera zooms in on the mounty who will conduct the investigation into Doc’s death:
His name is Inspector Roger McCabe. He begins his investigation by interrogating Boone. He seemed to think it a suspicious coincidence that Boone was up and saw the fire. He also asks about their previous altercation with Doc. When Boone asks what’s up, McCabe says that the preliminary report indicates that the fire may not have been an accident, and if it’s not, he’s going to have a lot more questions so Boone should keep himself available.
Jessica runs into Jill, who is upset because Inspector McCabe is asking questions about Boone and Marty. She doesn’t seem very concerned about Boone, but is very worried about Marty. She hasn’t seen him since their fight the previous day (this is when Marty yelled at her when she tried to calm him down when he said that Doc suspended him for a day due to concussion). She asks Jessica to investigate, for Marty’s sake.
Jessica wanders around until she finds Inspector McCabe. At first, he’s none to pleased to see her (she crossed a police tape to find him), but his manner changes completely when he discovers who she is, as he’s read most all of her books. When she explains what she’s doing there, he invites her in to the scene of the crime, to fill her in on what’s known.
The fire was started on the couch, and didn’t actually get much farther than that.
The fire marshall found traces of a “flammable liquid” sloshed on the couch. Further, a crude time-fuse fashioned out of a matchbook and a cigarette was used to ignite the flammable liquid. Jessica notices a warped piece of plastic which Inspector McCabe explains was an x-ray. Possible, he suggests, used as fuel to help start the fire, though if so the perpetrator was unaware that x-ray film doesn’t burn well. Also, the window above the couch was found shut, but not locked.
Jessica asks if his theory is that someone tossed the flammable liquid and the time-fuse in through the window and didn’t enter at all. McCabe says that it’s a possibility. Neither of them seem to consider that it would be unlikely that the perpetrator also tossed an x-ray in through the window.
Jessica asks why someone would do this. To kill the doctor? To kill Luke? To frighten someone? Just to destroy the trailer? McCabe says that the reason is immaterial; the doctor died of smoke inhalation and everyone know that he had emphysema, so any way you look at it, it’s murder. I think he missed the point of Jessica’s question, but she doesn’t press it.
In the next scene, Jill finally finds Marty, who is flirting with (or at least being flirted with by) a blond woman in a shiny red shirt.
After getting rid of the blond woman, Jill demands to know where Marty was. His story is that he was playing cards with “some of the boys”, had a few beers, and slept it off. She doesn’t entirely believe him, but he points out that she doesn’t own him.
The scene shifts to the rodeo, where Boone rides a bronco. He looks like he does a great job. The announcer says that it wasn’t a great ride. (There’s a bunch of dramatic looking from Boone to Inspector McCabe, so I suppose McCabe was supposed to have ruined Boone’s ride by making him unable to concentrate.)
The scene then shifts to the hospital, where Jessica runs into Consuela (Doc’s wife). After expressing her condolences, and just as Consuela turns to leave, Jessica remarks that it was very lucky that Consuela wasn’t in the trailer when the fire started. Conseuela says that it was unfortunate, as she never let Doc smoke his cigars. Jessica asks if there was a particular reason she wasn’t in the trailer, and she says that she wanted no part of Doc when he was drunk, so after helping him with Luke she spent the night with a friend. At this point she picks up on Jessica’s questions being pointed and asks what’s up. This is a frequent thing in Murder, She Wrote—Jessica asks remarkably non-subtle questions as if she is being subtle. I never really understand it; it mostly just makes Jessica look incompetent. Given that she’s an older woman she should be able to make being nosy look perfectly natural. Maybe it’s just that I’ve recently been reading Miss Marple stories. Miss Marple never arouses suspicions.
Anyway, Jessica tells her that the fire wasn’t an accident. Consuela isn’t surprised. Doc was a mean man and not good at what he did, so he had a lot of enemies. She mentions that before he worked at the rodeo he worked in a prison for ten years, and she wondered if he might have been on the wrong side of the bars. She’s not sorry he’s dead, she only feels relief.
That conversation over, Jessica visits Luke. He’s fine except for his leg, but when the orderly offers to get him an x-ray, he aggressively refuses it. As he’s going to leave Inspector McCabe shows up. Luke is in a hurry to get back to the rodeo, so McCabe offers to drive him there.
Luke scoffs at the idea that anyone was trying to kill him. His enemies would face him down with a knife, not set a fire. When Jessica asks if he remembers anything, he says that he kind of woke up at one point and heard footsteps and a jangling, like of fancy spurs. He was on a lot of pain killers, though, so he’s not sure of anything.
In the next scene Jill is giving Marty a massage while she tries to talk about their future. Marty will have none of it. Their agreement was one season on the circuit then she would go back to college and hit the books.
In the next scene Jessica talks with Carla. It comes up that Wally (the rodeo clown) had Luke as a manager when he was injured; he didn’t like the look of the bull but Luke made him ride it.
In the next scene Inspector McCabe is talking to Consuela. Jessica comes up and asks if it was generally known that Luke was heavily sedated. Consuela says that it is, but Doc kept asking Luke questions anyway, such as where Luke worked before the rodeo and where he lived. Consuela takes her leave, then Jessica tips McCabe off about the rodeo clown.
Jessica is pulled away from this conversation by Jill, who wants to talk to Jessica. She asks Jessica for advice about Marty, who she loves and she feels loves her too, but who she also suspects isn’t ready for commitment. Jessica gives her the advice to talk to Marty about her concerns, and to ask the hard question, and if he won’t answer, then that is her answer. At this point Marty steps out of his trailer and a child cries out “Daddy! Daddy!” and runs up. He picks up the child, then kisses the woman who was with the child and asks what she’s doing here.
Well, we now know why Marty is afraid of commitment (with Jill). We get a few significant looks between the various parties, and we go to commercial break.
When we get back from commercial break, we get a very strange scene:
Her name is… actually, we don’t learn her name. Based on the credits, it might be Mona. Anyway, she’s his wife. She stays home during the rodeo season because they have a little ranch back home, and Buster is too young for all of the traveling. She’s just so gosh-darn lucky to be married to Marty, who is the greatest. She’s so naive it’s cute, if completely implausible. She’s from a small town in Montana. If small town folk are known for anything, it’s for suspecting sexual interaction when attractive women are hanging around attractive men without supervision. I mean, have the people who wrote Murder, She Wrote never listened to country music? (An example that leaps to mind is Dolly Parton’s song Jolene, in which she begs a prettier woman to not steal her husband. It came out in 1973.) In the 1980s, a hick from Montana might not suspect something new like cocaine use or recently popular sexual perversions. Infidelity is as old as the hills. Be that as it may, Marty comes over to get her and she says it was nice meeting some of his friends—it’s the first time she’s ever met any of them.
The next scene is more rodeo, this time bull riding. Boone has a great ride, at least according to the announcer, though it doesn’t look any better than his bronco ride (which looked good but was called bad). Next up is Marty, who is thrown from the bull and then attacked by it while he’s on the ground. We see Boone, who hadn’t left the arena yet, start to run over and the scene goes to Jessica receiving a phone call in her hotel room (Jill is with her). It’s Carla. Boone’s been hurt. Jessica says that they’ll be right there.
The next scene is Marty talking to Boone. He asks Boone what he did that for, was he going for hero of the year? Boone asks if there’s any prize money for that, and Marty replies, “not as I’ve heard of.”
We get more of the story from the rodeo clown, who met Jessica on the way. The bull was going for Marty and Wally couldn’t distract the bull but Boone ran out in front of the bull, which then started going after Boone, and Boone is lucky to be alive.
They talk to Boone a bit, then Marty comes up, and when asked says that he feels fine except for his arm. “The medic says that it’s not broken, but what does he know?” Luke then walks up and angrily demands what Marty thinks he’s doing, pulling out of the competition. He only needs one more event to beat Boone. Marty explains that his arm hurts too much. (Marty’s arm is obviously fine, and is throwing the competition in gratitude, so that Boone will get the prize money.) Luke angrily storms off.
After this, as Jessica and Jill are walking away, a woman we haven’t seen before is in Doc’s trailer and calls out to no one in particular that someone is calling Doc long distance, and she doesn’t know what to do. (For those too young to remember, in the late 1980s telephone numbers were tied to particular locations, and telephone numbers for locations that were far away were expensive to call—often in the range of $.25/minute or more. Such calls were called “long distance”.) Jessica says that she will take the call. When she asks to whom she’s speaking, it turns out to be Warden Barnes of the Oregon State Penitentiary.
He’s been trying to return Doc Shaeffer’s phone call from last night. Doc had called at about 9pm, which Jessica says would have been 11pm Saskatchewan time. Jessica asks, and it turns out that the prison Doc Shaeffer had worked at was the Oregon State Penitentiary. He had quit 8 years ago, but for the decade prior had been the prison surgeon there. Jessica thanks the Warden, saying that he’s been extremely helpful. More than she can tell him.
Jessica then calls Inspector McCabe. She asks about whether there was oxygen in the trailer, since Doc suffered from emphysema. He checks the report, then says that there was. An oxygen tank was found on the floor inside the door, nearly empty. He remarks that it was strange that it was empty, but Jessica says, “No, not strange at all.”
The scene then shifts to a bar.
Jessica and Inspector McCabe come up. He gets Luke to identify a picture of Wally, but it was just a ruse to get his thumb print on the photo when he handled it to look at it. McCabe tells him this, saying that Mrs. Fletcher has a theory that Luke is actually an escaped prisoner from the Oregon State Penitentiary. He’s going to hold Luke in protective custody until he finds out. Luke strikes him down with a beer mug and tries to steal his gun, but police officers rush in from both entrances and point their guns at him. Luke knows that he had it and surrenders.
The explanation comes in the next scene, in Boone’s room at the hospital. Luke’s real name is Carl Mattson. He escaped from the Oregon State Penitentiary thirteen years ago. He grew his hair out and grew a beard, which is why Doc didn’t recognize him. Presumably Doc recognized his own handiwork in the x-ray he took of Luke’s leg, though, which is why the x-ray was destroyed. Luke must have heard Doc’s phone call to the penitentiary and knew he had to do something quickly. He staged the fire, ensuring that the x-ray was destroyed, and then used Doc’s oxygen tank to keep himself alive until Boone broke the door down.
Jessica then tells Jill that they need to go as they have a plane to catch. Outside, Jill worries because her Mom will kill her. Jessica says that if she does, it will be asphyxiation from excessive hugging. Then she hugs Jill and we go to credits.
This was a fun and interesting episode.
It was more complex than the typical episode, or at least the complexity was more pleasing. The character of Boone Talbot was interestingly drawn—the aging athlete who still has it but is recovering from injury and won’t have it for too much longer. This is a very real phenomenon. People do come back from injury to be on top, but it’s very hard, and over time it’s not even so much that the athletes are older as that they’ve got a lot of accumulated injuries, especially smaller ones. For a while they can work around this because they’re getting more skilled and doing fewer stupid things like staying up late drinking, but eventually the injuries add up. I like that he’s a genuinely good guy, too.
The character of Marty Reed is a great contrast to Boone, especially once we learn his true character. Initially he’s charming and has great manners and is a young up-and-comer with a very bright future. He turns out to have few morals and poor self control. Eventually this helps explain how he was working well with as bad a character as Luke. It also fit in that when his wife turned up and so his using Jill was exposed for what it was, he didn’t say anything at all to her. He was not a good man, but he was a polite man, and there was nothing polite to say.
I do wish that Carla had been given more depth. I’m not sure how old Carla was supposed to be. Cassie Yates, who played Carla, was 37 at the time the episode came out, and Larry Wilcox, who played Boone, was 41. Presumably they were both playing younger, so perhaps Boone was supposed to be in his mid thirties and Carla her early thirties? It’s a bit strange that there was no mention of children, for example, or how she got involved with Boone or even what she does other than come with him.
Jill Morton, Jessica’s niece, was also an under-drawn character. She’s foolish and a slave to her impulses, which wouldn’t be too bad as a starting point if there was some character growth from learning this about herself. There really isn’t. As she is, she’s mostly an excuse to get Jessica up to Canada and into this strange world with which she has nothing to do.
The murder itself was interesting and, by Murder, She Wrote standards, the motive was fairly plausible. Luke was a bad guy and the sort of person who would murder in order to protect himself, especially as far away from where his motive for murder would be known. He’s been a criminal and caught before, and he’s got no morals, so taking a criminal risk that didn’t look too big but turned out to be is in character. He was made just clever enough to do it but not so clever as to not do it. It was a nice touch that big prize money seemed within reach, which is why he didn’t just run away as soon as he figured out that Doc suspected him. On the other hand, that suspicion was a weak link in this plot.
Doc Shaeffer suspecting that Luke was actually an inmate at an Oregon penitentiary thirteen years ago who escaped, and suspecting this because he recognized something in Luke’s leg that showed up on an x-ray is… implausible. There’s really no aspect of this which is believable. It’s hard to believe that Luke had some sort of thing in his leg which would really stand out as so unique it would be memorable to someone who looked at a lot of x-rays. The idea that it was Doc Shaeffer’s handiwork is even less plausible unless Luke’s leg was badly damaged and the bone had to be held together with an unusually high number of titanium bolts, or something like that. Merely setting a broken leg badly isn’t likely to be as unique as a fingerprint. Moreover, even if Doc Shaeffer had seen something in Luke’s leg thirteen years ago which was highly memorable, why would he have heard about Luke escaping in a way that he would connect with what he remembered in the x-ray? Unless for some reason he knew that Luke had been in prison for a very long sentence (and why would a prison doctor know this?), on recognizing Luke in the present day from his x-ray, he’d have no reason to think that Luke had escaped. At most he’d think that he knew Luke a long time ago. On top of all this, Doc Shaeffer was a drunkard. They’re not known for their powers of recall.
All of this relates to two small plot holes: Luke’s aversion to x-rays. If, somehow, Doc Shaeffer had recognized Luke by the x-ray of his leg, this was a power unique to Doc Shaeffer. Luke had no reason to burn the x-ray Doc had taken of his leg and no reason to avoid an x-ray at the hospital. No one else could have recognized Doc Shaeffer’s handiwork from thirteen years ago when he was a prison doctor. This could be explained away, though, as Luke panicking because murdering someone makes one paranoid.
Next week we’re back to New York City for the episode Deadpan, where a critic is murdered after the opening night of a play based on one of Jessica’s books.
Having read a fair number of Agatha Christie mysteries lately, and especially thinking about her earlier mysteries, has led me to think about ingenious murders and the related subject of ingenious plots of murder mysteries. Agatha Christie was, I think, the queen of outwitting the reader. Certainly, she broke more of Fr. Knox’s rules in a way that forced him to amend the rules than anyone else I know of. This was a trait that was much appreciated in her day, and I think still is, though I suspect less so now. Which leads me to ask how important it really is.
The main thing, it seems to me, that a really ingenious murder gives a story is the ability to present all of the evidence up front and maintain an air of mystification among the characters while keeping them reasonably intelligent. It also, of course, makes for a very satisfying reveal at the end of the story.
Of course, if this is not done well—if, for example, the solution is obvious—it makes for a particularly uninteresting murder mystery in which all of the characters seem to be idiots. The best example I can think of this is The Benson Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine. It was extremely obvious that the brother of the victim had killed him, and the entire rest of the novel until the last chapter was uninteresting filler because it obviously bore no relationship to the characters figuring out whodunnit. Worse, Philo Vance (the detective) already knew that it was the brother, too, so he was fairly explicit that he was wasting everyone’s time. The Benson Murder Case is a book that I cannot recommend too little. If you ever have the opportunity to not read it, I strongly suggest you take it.
The downside to the clever murder with the facts set out early—when it’s done well—is that re-reads have a very hard time being satisfying. This is not necessarily a problem for most people, but I prefer to read, as far as possible, only books that are worth re-reading. On this score, murder mysteries were the detective must find evidence, which leads him to the next evidence to find, etc. tend to have significant advantages.
This can be ameliorated, however, by the introduction of red herrings which require additional evidence to eliminate. If done well, the red herrings, prior to elimination, make the solution possible but improbable. Once the red herrings are gone, we get to Sherlock Holmes’ famous dictum that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the case. This, I think, tends to be far more satisfying on re-reading because the work is necessary and not merely killing time until the detective realizes the true solution.
Perhaps the best example I can think of this is my favorite Cadfael novel, Saint Peter’s Fair. (spoilers ahead.)
Once the killer of Ewan of Shotwick is found out to be Euald, on top of Turstan Fowler having given evidence against Philip Corviser and having been found by Ivo, drunk but suspiciously recovered in the morning—it is possible to guess that Ivo was responsible and Euald and Turstan were acting under his orders, but it was by no means probable. It took more evidence for Cadfael and Hugh Beringar to see Ivo’s evil as really possible. The getting of this evidence by Philip, which foreclosed other possibilities, was very helpful, and in consequence it’s one of the great things to re-read in the novel each time I do.
The third Miss Marple novel, The Moving Finger, was first published in 1943. In some ways it is more of a love story than a detective story, though the two do intertwine. Miss Marple appears only at the end of the story, and then only for about as many pages as she appeared in many of the short stories featuring her. (Spoilers below.)
Miss Marple is in the book at all because, towards the end, she is called in by the vicar’s wife as a specialist in solving murders. How the vicar’s wife knows Miss Marple and further how she knows that Miss Marple is good at solving murders is completely unstated. We don’t even have a decent sense of how far away St. Mary Meade is from Lymstock.
The narrator, Jerry Burton, is a decent enough chap. The premise of the story is that he was badly injured in a plane crash and is recovering. His doctor recommends complete rest, so he rents a house for six months in a quiet little town in the English countryside (Lymstock) with his sister, Joanna, who is five years his junior. Shortly after arriving they receive a nasty letter accusing them of not being brother and sister, which is ridiculous. It turns out that many other people have had similar letters, equally inaccurate. Jerry takes an interest in this and after one woman commits suicide and another is murdered, he ends up unofficially working the police, though it is eventually Miss Marple who actually solves the case.
There are a decent number of hints given throughout the story, the narrator even sometimes calling attention to them. For example, it is mentioned that the address on a letter for Miss Burton was originally addressed to Miss Barton (the old maid from whom they’re renting the house), with the ‘a’ being changed to a ‘u’. Jerry comments that this should have been a significant clue to them, if they’d had the wit to realize it at the time. There are some clues which are not discussed, however. For example, the poison pen sends letters accusing people of things to the people themselves, rather than to the people who might be angry at the secret. That is, the poison pen will send a letter accusing a woman of cheating on her husband, not to the husband, but to the woman. Such a thing would be unpleasant, but it would not be particularly dangerous or apt to cause her any problems if the letter is promptly destroyed. This strikes me as being at least as significant as the letters all being entirely false. Miss Marple points out that the falsity of the accusations was a clue that a man had written the letters, since a woman would be more aware of the general gossip and would, thus, have come much nearer the mark. This is, I dare say, true enough, but I think it’s more important that the letters were not written in such a way as to accomplish anything, not even a deranged goal, which showed that they must be a smoke screen.
Before we got the hints, there was a decent amount of anticipation in the narrative, as until the six or seventh chapter (if I recall correctly) the story had some mild element of mystery in it as to who was writing the letters, but other than that it was just a domestic story of a young brother and sister from London finding it interesting to take up resident in a country town. I think that, ultimately, the foreshadowing did work to keep the reader’s attention, but it is interesting to consider that this was necessary.
I’ve read, at this point, most of the Miss Marple novels and all of the Miss Marple short stories, and I find myself wondering how much I like Miss Marple as a detective. In some sense this is not really even a well-formed question because (apart from Nemesis) Miss Marple is not a detective. She’s really much more of a mystery consultant. Which is fine; it suits her character. It does, however, lead to her being very little in her own stories. In consequence, Miss Marple stories are far more of one-off stories where you’ve never met the characters before and won’t meet them again. (The major exception to that is The Body In the Library.)
The Moving Finger is a good illustration of how much Miss Marple stories are one-off stories. All of the characters in it are new and we’ll never see them again. The only exception to that is Miss Marple herself, but she’s a very minor character. If this was your first Miss Marple story, you’d come away with almost no impression of her.
To be fair, it is all but necessary for most of the characters in a story to be new each time; you can’t go about having the same characters keep killing each other off. The usual counter-balance to this is to have a detective and his side-kick form a major part of the story. Contrary to popular belief, the Watson is not there merely to make Holmes look brilliant; the include not only of two recurring characters but of a recurring relationship (which is not antagonistic) provides a great deal of familiarity and stability.
The author’s voice is, of course, another constant throughout the books and one that does provide familiarity to the reader.
I don’t yet know what I think. It’s a subject I need to mull over, more.
In the year of our Lord 1932 the first thirteen Miss Marple stories were collected into a book, The Thirteen Problems. The 1953 edition of this book contained a forward by Agatha Christie in which she said that Miss Marple is better suited to short stories (unlike Poirot, who does better with novels). I find this quite interesting:
I enjoyed writing the Miss Marple stories very much, conceived a great affection for my fluffy old lady, and hoped that she might be a success. She was. After the first six stories had appeared, six more were requested, Miss Marple had definitely come to stay.
She has appeared now in several books and also in a play—and actually rivals Hercule Poirot in popularity. I get about an equal number of letters, one lot saying: “I wish you would always have Miss Marple and not Poirot,” and the other “I wish you would have Poirot and not Miss Marple.” I myself incline to her side. I think, that she is at her best in the solving of short problems; they suit her more intimate style. Poirot, on the other hand, insists on a full-length book to display his talents.
These Thirteen Problems contain, I consider, the real essence of Miss Marple for those who like her.
This may contain something of an explanation for why Miss Marple is so little in her own books. She is more in them than she is in her short stories—she’s often only in a page or so of the short story—but the belief that she is better at solving short problems may shape the novels so that other people do the long work and it is presented to her as only as a summary, such that for her it is a short problem.
I can also see what Agatha Christie has in mind. Miss Marple does a little investigating in A Caribbean Murder and most of the investigating in Nemesis, and as much as I liked both I have to admit that it didn’t quite feel right. People should come to her, rather than the other way around. In some sense I think that the essence of Miss Marple is not precisely that she is intimate, but that she is domestic. This relates to how Sir Henry Clithering would always tease Miss Marple about how the people in a crime remind her of people from the village; the whole point is that the public world was not really larger than the domestic world. When Miss Marple does the investigating, she ventures outside of the domestic sphere. It is right, in a sense, for someone else to do the investigating in the public world then bring it to her, where she uses her knowledge of the domestic world to solve the problems of the public world.
That said, the way she does the investigation in Nemesis does not violate this; one of the parts of the domestic world is visiting other domiciles. Old ladies visit each other, and pay calls, and chat about local and family things, and Miss Marple mostly solves the mystery in Nemesis using these tools.
All that said, of the short stories and novels, I’m inclined to say that The Body in the Library was the best of the Miss Marple stories. So I suppose I must respectfully disagree with Dame Agatha, though I will say I think that she’s right when she said that the Thirteen Problems contain the essence of Miss Marple. They give you a clear sense of who and what Miss Marple is, but I do not think that they are her at her best.
Published in 1965, At Bertram’s Hotel was the second-to-last Miss Marple novel written, though the third-from-last published. (Like with the final Poirot novel, Curtain, Agatha Christie had written the final Miss Marple novel, Sleeping Murder, in the 1940s and put it in a safe with her lawyers to be published after her death.) It is a strange story, more a light thriller about a police detective who on the trail of an organized crime syndicate than a mystery. Miss Marple, as is often the case, does not feature heavily in the story, but when she does it’s as a witness, rather than as a detective. (Spoilers below.)
In fact, we don’t even get a murder until a few chapters from the end, and there isn’t much of a mystery in the story until the murder comes along. I suppose that there is a bit of mystery about what the deal is with Bertram’s Hotel, but it seems plausible that it’s simply an expensive hotel with an old-timey gimmic. It’s not that expensive to have a dozen varieties of tea, to make real muffins with lots of butter, and to have real seed cake. Granted, these things would have been more expensive in England 1965 than in America in 2022 (which I’m used to), but food rationing had been over for 10 years by then. It doesn’t require astonishing amounts of money to have these things and old furniture.
The idea that the whole thing is a front for organized crime, and that’s where the real money comes from, is also a bit far-fetched. Crime does pay, but it rarely pays well. It has large ongoing costs, but can only opportunistically generate revenue. That revenue tends to be a small fraction of the value of the goods stolen, too, since the pool of people who will buy stolen goods is fairly small, and will tend to insist on a huge discount for the risk that it’s taking.
Crime also has higher costs than legitimate business since it has a limited labor pool and can’t outsource contract enforcement to the courts and the police. That limited labor pool also tends to have few highly talented people, since highly talented people can probably make more money through legitimate businesses. The entire labor pool—high or low talent—also has issues with reliability. Carefully planned robberies that require a dozen people or so to all do what they’re supposed to, when they’re supposed to—you can’t use just ordinary criminals for that.
When you put it all together, it makes more sense for Bertram’s Hotel to be able to run because it is expensive and serves a niche who will pay for it than because it is a front for a criminal organization. Moreover, what good did the hotel actually do for the criminal organization? They weren’t using it to store stolen goods until the heat cooled down. As far as I could tell, the mastermind more-or-less lived there, and they had a very strange habit of having character actors impersonate recognizable guests who were staying at the hotel.
Speaking of which, why did they bother with the impersonations of recognizable people who were all staying at the hotel they ran their criminal empire from? Some sort of costume makes sense, but why impersonate a specific person? Moreover, why impersonate a specific person who was staying at the headquarters of the criminal organization? They didn’t need to keep exact tabs on the whereabouts of the people being impersonated. All it did was serve to point to their headquarters by giving the police a weird and unexplained coincidence. I could see the point if they had selected some other hotel from which to choose the people impersonated; this would serve to send the police on a wild goose chase if they noticed the odd coincidence.
(I do suppose that impersonating people from Bertram’s allowed them to borrow the actual clothing of the people in question, but this is a very curious sort of cost-cutting measure.)
Also very strange is that Miss Marple is on vacation in this novel, both literally and in many ways, figuratively. She was given a two week stay at the hotel by her niece-in-law as a treat, and is in the plot mostly because her various reclinings in high backed chairs and shopping expeditions put her in places to witness things relevant to the plot. She does make deductions, of course, but no earlier than the police make them; her only assistance to them is telling to them what she saw.
I can’t help but wonder why this novel is the way that it is. It is always possible that Mrs. Christie had gotten bored and wanted a change, or else that her life was busy and she wanted to write an easy novel. In her autobiography she said that thrillers were much easier to write than murder mysteries since you could make things up as you went along in thrillers.
It is also the case that tastes change, over time. Agatha Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916 and it took her three years to find a publisher. Detective fiction was wildly popular at the time, and still quite new. Detective fiction is still extremely popular, though it is not nearly so new. The 1960s, however, were a very strange time. The mystery stories written during the inter-war period knew that they were at the end of an era and stories written in the 1950s (and set then) seem to know that they are at the transition point. In the 1960s people knew that they were at the beginning of something else, but not really of what, because it was completely unsettled. Nothing old was really appropriate, but nothing new was really any good. (You can tell this, in part, because of how bad—by which I largely mean nihilistic—popular culture became in the 1970s.) Truth be told, things haven’t really settled down even yet. If you look closely at popular culture, it’s still a rebellion even though it is in many ways a successful rebellion and should have moved on to being conservative. Bishop Barron once described it as modernity needing to constantly tell its founding myth, but I think it’s actually more that the fundamental nihilism at the core of modernity requires an enemy in order to give it a framework to define itself. (Hence, incidentally, why so many moderns are busy trying to re-tell older stories, badly. They need enemies.)
The 1960s must have been a strange time to write a murder mystery in, and Agatha Christie wrote in order to please her audience, so she would have been at least partially sensitive to the times. Especially since she wrote during the golden age of detection fiction, she would have been in a difficult place to keep writing the same kind of things. It is relatively easy for young people to look back at a golden age and say, “I want to write that kind of thing” since we will never have a sneaking suspicion that we’re simply stuck in our ways. For us, to write the good old stuff is to swim against the currents, and as G.K. Chesterton once observed, while a dead thing can go with the flow, only a live thing can swim against the current. Agatha Christie was not quite in this happy position; she must have had doubts that people still wanted the classic stories when so much else of their tastes have changed.
I don’t want to exaggerate this, of course. Nemesis, the next Miss Marple story, published in 1971, was in many ways a classic detective story, or at least much more of a classic detective story. Still, after almost fifty years, it’s not shocking that she should try something a bit different. I guess what I wonder is why Agatha Christie put Miss Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel if she didn’t intend to make it a Miss Marple story. She was quite willing to write stories which had neither Poirot nor Miss Marple in them.
This story reminds me a bit of the Dorothy L. Sayers story Murder Must Advertise. There aren’t many direct parallels, but both are quasi-thrillers about about the police taking down a massive crime syndicate. Lord Peter is far more in Murder Must Advertise than Miss Marple is in At Bertram’s Hotel, of course, but he spends a lot of his time under cover as Death Bredon and his personality is significantly shifted when he does, especially when he goes further undercover. I don’t really remember it because it’s been many years and I don’t really care for the story. It’s another mostly-action story where the murder is solved almost as an afterthought, a bit like The Maltese Falcon. For some reason the part of the story that stands out to me the most was when Lord Peter, in whatever alias he was in at the time as an underworld criminal, dives off of a statue into a shallow pool of water. I suppose Lord Peter might have picked up the skill of shallow diving at some point. To be fair, there’s really no reason that he shouldn’t. It just felt so random and out of character, and certainly never came up before or since.
A problem that I have with both is that I really don’t like the thriller genre. As such, I have no good way of determining if these are mediocre examples of it, or if they’re quite well done and I just don’t like this kind of story.
Poisons were a common method of killing people in golden age detective stories. The two primary ones were arsenic and cyanide. I believe that this was the case primarily because of availability. (It seemed that they were commonly sold as weed killer and insect killer.) I’ve seen more than a few references, however, to people using exotic, undetectable poisons (often from South America) in murder mysteries, though I’ve never seen its actual use in them.
I’ve recently been reading some Miss Marple stories, and while the Miss Marple short stories began in 1927 and the first Miss Marple novel was in 1930, the bulk of the Miss Marple novels were in the 1950s and 1960s. Times had changed, especially with regard to poisons.
I found the description of a poison in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962) extremely interesting:
Heather Badcock had died as a result of four grains of hy-ethyl-dexyl-barbo-quinde-lorytate, or, let us be frank, some such name.
This drug turns out to be a (fictional) anti-anxiety medication which goes by the brand name “Calmo.” It is by this name that it is typically referred to throughout the rest of the book.
A similar device was used in A Caribbean Mystery (1964):
“They found he’d had a lethal dose of something that only a doctor could pronounce properly. As far as I remember it sounds vaguely like di-flor, hexagonal-ethylearbenzol. That’s not the right name. But that’s roughly what it sounds like. The police doctor put it that way so that nobody should know, I suppose, what it really was. The stuff’s probably got some quite simple nice easy name like Evipan or Veonal or Easton’s Syrup or something of that kind. This is the official name to baffle laymen with. Anyway, a sizeable dose of it, I gather, would produce death, and the signs would be much the same as those of high blood pressure aggravated by over-indulgence in alcohol on a gay evening.”
I strongly suspect, though I can’t prove, that Mrs. Christie had no real medication in mind, in either case, and I must say that this does greatly simplify the job of the mystery writer. There is the question of whether this violates the fourth commandment of Fr. Knox’s ten commandments of detective fiction, but I think that it does not. The point of the commandment is not whether the poison is known to the reader, but whether it is known to the medical science of the people in the stories. The point is that the big reveal at the end may not be a completely made-up poison, since if it is the solution becomes completely fictional. If the poison, though fictional, is known in the middle of the story, then the reveal at the end will rely on real human things such as motive and opportunity.
This approach does leave off a few issues of verisimilitude, though. One of the great problems with a poison is the dose that is needed to kill. It’s not that hard to make people feel sick, but actually killing—especially in a reasonably short time frame—requires an accurate dose. This will vary considerably with the individual chemical, and the LD50 of a particular drug is not always easy to come across. You can often find information with google on the LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of the population) of medications for rats and mice, but human LD50s are not always available, and the values for rats and mice can vary considerably. This is not just about making the dosage appropriate in the book, for the murderer to use the poison, he probably needs to have some idea of how much he should use in order to feel confident at the attempt.
To pick an example at semi-random (I had to google about five different medications before I found one with human info), Citalopram, sold under the brand name Celexa, has a human LD50 of 56mg/kg. For 110 pound people, this means that a dose of 2,800mg would kill half of the people you gave it to. To put this into perspective, the dosing is usually about 30mg/day, though possibly up to 40mg/day. Let’s assume the source of the pills are 40mg pills, this would mean having to give a 110 pound person 70 pills in order to have a 50/50 shot at killing them. You’re not going to manage putting 70 ground up pills into someone’s coffee. You’re probably going to need something like a stew, but it’s going to have to be one heck of a stew to cover over 70 pills worth of magnesium stearate or whatever chalk-like substance makes up most of the pills. (This, incidentally, is why pills tend to be mostly inert ingredients—it is extremely effective at preventing accidental overdose in significant quantities.)
Now, I doubt that I happened to select the most dangerous drug with human LD50 information on my first few tries, but it would be quite a coincidence if the murderer did, too. This means that trying to kill someone with medicine would be very unlikely to be a spur-of-the-moment thing, and would need to be researched. (To be fair to Mrs. Christie, btw, medicine has mostly gotten safer since the 1960s, so things weren’t quite as bad for murderers in her day.)
I also suspect that, if one were doing a properly researched murder, it would be a better idea to try to play off of drug interactions. There are a lot of combinations of drugs that are far more dangerous than simply a larger dose of the one, and of course many of these also interact with alcohol which is a lot easier to get into somebody’s blood in large quantities than most medicines are, since the victim might well put the alcohol there on purpose. Though it might be more effective, this approach is, perhaps, even less of a spur-of-the-moment weapon than a simple overdose is.
There is also a curious problem on the other end of the murder mystery—identifying the stuff in a corpse. Chemicals are identified by tests with reagents, which means that they must be specifically tested for. The police lab must, therefore, have some reason to test for the medicine in order to find it. Merely having the police report that a high level of an unpronounceable poison was found is cheating. And that is, of course, supposing that the medicine would even still be in the blood to test for. All sorts of chemicals break down in the body over the course of a few hours, many medicines among them, and cannot be found even if you know to test for them unless you run the test immediately. I suppose that this later part can be hand-waved away by simply not giving the made-up medicine this property, but there’s no real way around the test needing to be specific.
Ultimately, I think that this approach to medicine-as-poisons (just making them up) is fine, but doing it right would be so much work that it probably would be easier to use a real medicine. I think better than medicines, though, are recreational drugs. LD50 information tends to be readily available on these, and owing to being illegal they are generally available (to the degree that they are available) in pure forms quite in excess of a lethal dose. Further, since they are illegal, anonymous procurement does not greatly stretch the imagination.
Of course, there would be no harm in mixing recreational drugs with other drugs for synergistic effect. As long as it was planned well ahead of time.
One of the things which comes up in Poirot novels and short stories is how immodest Poirot is. He is very willing to say that he is the greatest detective ever, since it’s an indisputable fact and is often relevant to clients. Hastings, whose ideas of modesty are more English, frequently teases Poirot about this. I find this aspect of the stories very interesting, especially because Agatha Christie seemed to think it was funny enough to include quite often.
It is also curious to consider the contrast: Poirot was immodest but humble. Captain Hastings was modest but not humble.
I’m not really sure what to make of this; sometimes Agatha Christie seemed to hold it against Poirot and other times she seemed to side with him. Poirot has asked, quite reasonably, why it is considered better for a man who is good at something to lie and say that he is not. At other times Poirot seems to stray out of merely stating relevant facts and becoming boastful. I suppose to some degree we cannot expect a character written over the course of more than forty years to be entirely consistent. For that matter, real people are not always consistent even within a day, to say nothing of being consistent in many different circumstances over the course of forty years.
(Actually, the duration of Poirot stories is not really calculable; as Agatha Christie observed in her autobiography, given how she made Poirot of retirement age in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he must have been well over 100 by his later cases, since they were all—or at least, mostly—set contemporaneously.)
A curious contrast to this is Miss Marple, who is extraordinarily modest. In a most Victorian style, she will not allow anyone to say anything positive about her without some sort of disclaiming it; the closest she comes to acknowledging the truth is a qualification to her disclaimer (“though it is true that I’ve been of some little assistance once or twice…”).
Modesty can, of course, be an enormously useful social grace. Being boastful can come at enormous social cost. That said, there is a danger of these things being confused with the far more important moral virtue of humility. Captain Hastings, in the books, frequently thought himself far more clever than he was, though he never said so except in his memoirs. In consequence he made all sorts of mistakes and occasionally made situations worse. In contrast, Poirot’s boasting was always in service of a practical point; he wanted clients to trust him because it was to their benefit to trust him. He wanted police inspectors to trust him, because their cases would go better if they trusted him. He never boasted of his abilities for his own benefit, but only for the benefit of those to whom he boasted.
Agatha Christie was, in her temperament, closer to Miss Marple than to Poirot, though based on her biography she was not greatly like either. Still, I do wonder how much she was actually able to see Poirot’s point of view. Authors cannot give characters what they do not have, but authors can give characters what they do not know that they have. It would be curious to know how much this is a case of that.
So far I’ve read 13 Miss Marple short stories (the first thirteen) and the novels Murder at the Vicarage, The Body in the Library, and A Murder Is Announced. These span 23 years (from 1927 to 1950), and while the environment of the mysteries changes quite considerably (especially in A Murder Is Announced, which is clearly set after World War II), there are some strongly consistent elements throughout.
The consistent element which strikes me the most is the degree to which Miss Marple stories are not about her. If it is the case that in Poirot stories Poirot emphasizes that he does not get down on his hands and knees to look for clues because that is the work of others, who bring what they find to Poirot so that it may be understood, nevertheless Poirot features quite heavily in Poirot stories. If he’s not in every chapter, he’s certainly in most of them.
Miss Marple is far less prominent in her stories.
The short stories, I suppose, are not so surprising in this regard. In the golden age of detective fiction short stories were quite frequently meant—and read—as decorated logic puzzles. It was common enough for them to be a recounting of the events to the detective, followed by the detective giving the solution, and these were most of the Miss Marple short stories.
Novels, however, are different. Detective novels are stories about a detective, or at least stories that involve a detective, in which the problem and its solution makes up only one thread of the story. In these, it is far more common for the story to be about the detective, to at least some degree. Miss Marple stories are not about her; in fact she’s not even the primary detective in her stories. I don’t mean that there is, technically, a police detective in charge of the case. I mean that the police detective does most of the work, and, more to the point, most of the time in the novel is spent with him (while he does it).
I find this very curious. It’s not bad, and doesn’t make the novels less enjoyable—though it does rob them of the comfort of having familiar characters. Murder mysteries necessarily involve new people in each novel—you can’t keep killing off the same victim, after all—but there is something very comforting in getting back together with familiar characters. This may be most pronounced in my experience in the Cadfael series, where after a few novels we have the familiar characters of Cadfael, Hugh Berringar, Abbot Rodulphus, Prior Robert, Brother Jerome, and several other brothers such as Edmund the infirmarer and Petrus, the cook. These characters are not only familiar, but form a community.
Part of what I find curious about this is that Miss Marple is, herself, an extremely settled character. She has spent nearly her whole life in the village of Saint Mary Mead. She has even lived in the same house during the entire time she’s been there. She is a Victorian who is well settled in her ways—though not so much that she can’t adapt to changing circumstances. It is also significant that she is a spinster. The life of a parent changes very greatly over time—there is marriage, then a child, then children; the children start out as young children and grow, their needs constantly changing with their size and age. Eventually they become adults and may well give their parents grand-children, which is yet another set of changes in the grandparents life. A spinster’s life, by contrast, changes far less, or at least has far fewer necessary changes of such direct magnitude. In short, Miss Marple, the character, is a very settled character.
I wonder whether part of this is that Miss Marple is a feminine character. Agatha Christie very much wrote Miss Marple as a woman, not merely a gender-swapped man. A great many female characters, especially in modern times, are very masculine women, or more often characters that were written as men and then cast with a woman playing the part of the man. Agatha Christie tended to write genuinely female characters for her women, and I think that this is true of Miss Marple, who has the feminine characteristic of liking to be unobtrusive. This is not at all the same thing as liking to be passive—Miss Marple is most certainly not a passive character. Like a great many women, however, she does have a marked preference for not being noticed by people too far outside of her social circle, and for not drawing too much attention to herself within it. This is a difficult thing for males to understand because people are so much less interested in us than they are in women. We like when people pay attention to us because it happens so rarely. We are also trained from a young age to be used to the downsides of publicity, because women like to use males to shield them from public interactions that they don’t want. Miss Marple was raised as a lady and thus would want her privacy; Miss Marple books being largely about others may, in a subtle way, be related to this.
I recently watched the David Suchet version of Murder On the Nile with my oldest son, then out of curiosity read the novel so I could compare. While the movie version was quite faithful to a lot of the story, it did have some changes, I think mostly to make it shorter. Unfortunately, I think it cut some of the best parts.
The novel was published in 1937 and is, by my count, the fourteenth novel featuring Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie would have been approximately forty six years old when she wrote it, and the depth of characterization in it reflect both her experience as a writer as well as her greater experience of life. It is still, fundamentally, a murder mystery more than a novel—in distinction to Dorothy L. Sayers later work, especially Gaudy Night. That said, it certainly has a lot more meat on its bones than does, say, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. To be clear, this is in no way a knock against Styles; for that matter Dorothy L. Sayers’ first novel, Whose Body? was, as she put it, conventional to the last degree. My point is just that Agatha Christie has really developed as a writer; this book has not only the sort of brilliant plot that Christie’s books have always had, but also several human themes.
(As a warning, spoilers follow.)
The main theme of the book, of course, is how dangerous love is. Jacqueline really loved Simon Doyle too much, so she was willing to use her brains in service of his evil ends. Simon nearly got away with murder because she loved him too much. Jacqueline was willing to murder two people—one by stabbing—in order to protect Simon and help him to get away with his murder. Poirot tried to warn Jacqueline off from her course, but it was too late because she loved Simon too much. And then, finally, at the end, where Mrs. Allerton said, “Love can be a very frightening thing,” and Poirot replied, “That is why most great love stories are tragedies.”
This is all quite true. What’s really being described, of course, is not love, but idolatry. Jacqueline would do anything for Simon because, to her, he was God. A most inadequate God, to be sure. She recognized his flaws. Yet, she made her choice and would not go back on it.
Another interesting theme in the book is the immorality of Mr. Ferguson. He has the full measure of loathesomeness of a communist, and in one sense is merely a realistic portrayal of how bad such a man is, down to complaining about everything while he takes a pleasure cruise and pretends that he is “studying conditions”. It is interesting, though, that he is not merely malign. He has a curious trick of getting to know people; he relates all sorts of personal information about various people at different times. He has no pity and cares only for himself; his communism is merely an expression of that. This can also be seen, I think, in the way that his clothes were shabby but his underclothes were high quality.
Another aspect of his evil is his refrain that it is not the past that matters, but the future. (This is evil because it can be used to justify anything, and only people who want to justify evil use justifications that will justify anything. For people who mean well, ordinary justifications will suffice.) He has no pity for anyone, and no loyalty. All that matters is what people can do for him, now.
(As a side note, I also find it curious that this—presented slightly differently—is the theme of the Star Wars sequel Episode VIII: he Least Jedi.)
It is very interesting that the book ends with Mr. Furguson, and his philosophy of life.
[News of Linnet Ridgeway’s death spread.] …and it was discussed in the bar of the Three Crowns in Malton-under-Wode. And Mr. Burnaby said acutely: “Well, it doesn’t seem to have done her much good, poor lass.” But after a while they stopped talking about her and discussed who was going to win the Grand National. For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future.
Perhaps the most classic golden age murder mystery story is that of a murder taking place at a dinner party in a country house. It didn’t happen very often in the golden age novels; I suspect it may actually be more common in plays from the time since it lends itself to the confines of a stage so well. It certainly made it to the board game Clue (or Cluedo, if you’re from England). If we broaden out a little to a murder in an English Great House, this certainly becomes more common in novels, though still by no means the norm. I think that these sorts of murder mysteries are so classical—so typical—because the setting particularly captures the imagination. But why does it?
I think that the answer is that an English Great House is a small and, to all appearances—except for the murder—harmonious society. Modern society, both from the changes brought about by technology and from the deterioration which started with Modern Philosophy (that doubted truth), has been especially discordant. This makes us long for society whose parts fit together.
When we look at the parts, I think that it is actually the servants who are the most important part of this. But not for the reasons many people think.
Though the servants are not frequently major characters in the story, they are a major part of what makes the English Great House harmonious. The key thing about them is that they have their varied roles and are content with those roles. That is not to say that the servants’ dreams have all been fulfilled, or that they would do these jobs if they didn’t need the money; neither of those is an important part of being content. It is also not to say that they enjoy their work. That’s not a part of contentment, either. The servants do not make demands past what they are owed for their labor, and they (it is always implied) receive what they are owed. The gardener does not covet the parlor maid’s job, nor does the parlor maid covet the gardener’s job. The cook makes no speeches about how she should be the lady’s maid. The servants work together with acrimony, jealousy, and spite.
This is not to say that they never like anything about their job. You will not infrequently see servants who have been with the family for many decades will be fond of people they served as children. I think that this is often misunderstood; it really just refers to the human tendency to grow fond of what is familiar, and also to easily grow fond of children, especially when their bad behavior is a distant memory. It’s also typically a housekeeper or a butler who is fond of the young adult who used to be a child; these are people who would mostly see the children having fun but would not be responsible for disciplining them. It’s a common enough experience to grow fond of an employer’s children one happened to come into regular contact with but was never responsible for.
For that matter, it’s also common for people who have worked in a workplace for a long time to become fond of the people with whom they’ve worked, including their boss if he was a good boss. The loyal servant—who is almost invariably old—is no great stretch of the imagination if they regarded their work as a job of which they had no great complaint; it is the nature of human beings to start to think of as family those who are in our lives for a long time. This is a common phenomenon in modern workplaces; it’s not mere romanticization to think it also happened in workplaces a century ago.
The family who lives in the Great House also forms a part of this society, of course; in a sense the more stable part (except for how one of them has murdered another of them), since they cannot be sacked and will not give notice because they’ve accepted descent from some other ancestor. (That said, they can leave because of marriage, so I don’t want to make too much of their greater stability. Sometimes it’s the other way around, where a servant has been with the family for fifty years but a daughter left at twenty two when she married.)
The families of Great Houses tend, in murder mysteries, to be far more discordant with each other than the servants are with each other, and here again the servants help to make the whole thing work. The family may quarrel, but their relationship with the servants is harmonious. In the main the family asks the servants for things which are reasonable enough and within the servants’ job description, and the servants generally do them in reasonable ways. The relationships between the family and the servants are quite unequal, but they are reasonably stable and no one actively fights them. That is the essence of a harmonious society. (By contrast, in high school, at least within a grade, everyone is equal and there is a great deal of discord.)
When people admire the English Great Houses and the society of the time, or say such things as “wouldn’t it have been great to have lived back then?” it is, I think, really this social harmony that they long for. And I think it is this longing for such social harmony which makes the English Great House such an iconic golden age mystery setting. It is perfect to set off what the detective story is—because of all of those caveats I had to add about “except for the murder”.
In the English Great House we have a harmonious society which is suddenly thrown into disarray by the murder of one of its members. But no one knows who did it because the murderer has used his cleverness to conceal his identity. That is, the society’s right order was put wrong through a disordered use of intellect. Into this once-great-now-broken society comes the detective. He moves about the house and gets to know it, and then by a rational process deduces the identity of the murderer. With the murderer’s identity known justice may be served and the society can continue, constructed differently because of its changed members, but this new ordering will once again be a harmonious ordering. That is, the detective restores, through a right use of intellect, a proper ordering of the society.
Regarded in this way, I think it becomes clear why the Great House is so iconic. Like icons, it paints the picture in bright colors and clear lines that make it easy to see the important parts.
Incidentally, this might be why, in good murder mysteries, it’s almost never the case that The Butler Did It.
Detectives in the golden age of mysteries were frequently described as ugly in one way or another. Sherlock Holmes was pictured with a hawk-like face and a large, hatchet nose, and Conan Doyle was disappointed when Holmes began to be drawn as a good looking man in illustrations. Lord Peter was described with his face looking “as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola”. Poirot was short, had preposterous military mustaches, and an egg-shaped head. (The main exception to this trend which comes to mind is Dr. Thorndyke.)
I’ve had occasion more than once to wonder why this is. One possible explanation, of course, is that it was true of Sherlock Holmes for whatever reason Conan Doyle chose to do it and everyone else merely copied him. They certainly did copy him in a great many ways, typically quite consciously, so this can’t be entirely ruled out.
If it is the case, then Conan Doyle’s reason for making Holmes ugly is worth considering. Unfortunately, I don’t know that he ever gave it. Certainly, he was trying to convey intensity, for intensity is the chief mark of the descriptions of Holmes. Holmes was unusual, and I think that the degree to which he was an unusual man was meant to be stamped on his features. Beyond that, I don’t know. His physical description was not of primary importance to Conan Doyle, since we got none in the chapter in which Holmes was introduced.
Detectives being ugly may not have been merely in imitation of Holmes, however. The main exception that I alluded to above—Dr. Thorndyke was quite handsome—may be brought to bear in support of this, because Thorndyke was remarkably a copy of Holmes in most other respects. Thorndyke had a not-very-bright doctor friend who ended up sharing rooms with him and chronicling his cases. Thorndyke was a coldly logical calculating machine with little regard for the bumblers on the professional police force. Thorndyke was austere in manner and uninterested in women. If you read the stories (such as The Red Thumb Mark or The Eye of Osiris), you will see even more how much Thorndyke was a copy of Holmes. And yet Thorndyke was not ugly. Perhaps, then, this was not regarded as an integral feature of Holmes.
So why, then, was it so common? Even if it was in part an imitation, why was it so frequently imitated when other things—for example, Holmes’ drug use—was not.
I’m inclined to think that it was about balance. Writers feared making their detectives too great, and so sought to give them some flaws. The problem with giving your characters flaws is that flaws tend to be unpleasant to others. One must pick the flaws of one’s main character very carefully. It’s all to easy to make a story unreadable by having a main character who one wants to throttle, not read about.
Flaws of appearance are well suited to written stories, since they will not be frequently felt by the reader. This also explains, I think, why they do not tend to survive to plays and movie versions—an ugly leading man will be felt quite a lot by the viewer.
Having said that, these flaws frequently do not survive long even in print. They’re not interesting. Moreover, we grow to like the detective and we do not like picturing our friends as ugly.
I believe that for the most part writers in the second century of detective fiction don’t bother with ever having their detectives be ugly. This shows better sense, I think (in this very limited way), but I wonder if it may be in part that brilliant detectives are so well accepted that we no longer feel a need to try to counterbalance their brilliance so that readers will accept them.
The episode Just Another Fish Story first aired on March 27, 1988 putting it late in the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. It is a Grady episode, set in New York City, and features Grady being engaged to a young woman named Donna.
The first scene opens with an introduction to a shady character:
“Listen, just because it’s you, how about 1,000 for the lobster and 2,000 for the caviar?” he says quietly, so no one can hear. He asks if the other party wants it delivered at the usual time, and answers some question with, “Hey, they haven’t noticed so far. Why should they now?”
We then cut to Jessica in a taxi cab looking at her watch and saying to the driver that she would like to stop off at her hotel and freshen up but Grady said that they can’t change the time of the reservation for anything, so she doesn’t have time. The driver replies that if they hit cross-town traffic, she’ll be lucky to get there for desert, if the place is still open by then. A lot of places have opened and quickly closed on the block she’s going to.
Jessica mentions that Grady advised her to invest in this restaurant, and it seems to be doing well. The driver mentions that he took a lot of people to a Serbo-Croation restaurant at the same address last year, and it was doing well, then, too. This cab ride fit a lot of exposition into a short space, and made it all the more entertaining with glorious rear-projection and the occasional camera shake to make it seem like the car was going over a bump.
When they get to the restaurant, Grady is outside, dressed like a cowboy for some reason.
Apparently this is the dress code for accountants at Alice’s Farm Restaurant, where Grady works. Or perhaps it’s Donna, his fiancé, who works there, and Grady is just dressing appropriately for a theme restaurant. He doesn’t say.
Their sign is interesting:
I can’t help but wonder if this is meant to be a reference to Arlo Guthrie’s song, Alice’s Restaurant. It was a somewhat famous 1967 anti-vietnam war song (sort of) and also a film of the same name based on the song. I’m pretty sure that the plot has nothing to do with the song or the movie; at most it would be meant for a humorous moment.
When they get inside it turns out that the shady character from the first scene—his name is Chaz—is the maître d’ of the restaurant and cannot find their reservation. He keeps interrupting the conversation to welcome famous people and bring them to their table.
Chaz excuses himself to see to someone exceptionally famous and a new character, Doug, walks over and greets Grady.
He’s apparently the brother of the Alice after whom the restaurant is named. They have a convenient arrangement: he stays out of her kitchen and she stays out of his books. Once he finds out that their reservation has been lost he angrily finds Chaz and points him to the reservation. Chaz claims he mis-heard the name and sheepishly says he’ll have their table ready in a few minutes. Doug takes them to the bar to buy them some drinks.
A famous video artist named Narissa walks in and hands Chaz money to get her a table, which he gladly does. Doug walks up and tells him that he’s had it with Chaz selling off tables and snatches the bribe, but Chaz snatches the money back and replies, “Look, amigo, I don’t take orders from some punk who rides in here on his sister’s apron strings.” Doug angrily walks off to the kitchen where he talks with his sister about what a problem Chaz is.
Doug suggests buying Chaz out but Alice doesn’t really care that Chaz takes bribes since he brings in a lot of investors and also attracts the right sort of clientele. In her words, “Look, he brings in the right kind of people, OK? The kind of people who think there’s something chic in paying $22.50 for fried chicken.” That would be $53.47 in 2022 dollars, which for an exclusive Manhattan restaurant isn’t all that expensive. Considering that in 2018 you could get 10 gold-covered chicken wings for $30 (I’ve got a post talking about its symbolism, btw), this is closer to the value-side of Manhattan pricing than it is to the Ritz.
It also puts the character of Chaz in a strange light. He’s sleazy, but his partners accept him being sleazy. Also, for that matter, he’s a partner. It’s a bit weird that he’s stealing from the restaurant for relatively petty amounts, considering that the restaurant is, at the moment, highly profitable, and he’s making plenty of money on bribes for tables, too. Greed knows no bounds, however, so it’s not implausible.
Back at the bar, the bartender, Harry, is pouring wine for Jessica. The same wine he poured for “Tennessee”, presumably Tennessee Williams. Jessica likes it.
Given that Tennessee Williams died five years prior to this episode, that bottle must have been open for a long time. He then does something where we get a closeup. I don’t know what it means, but it’s got to be a clue—Murder, She Wrote doesn’t give closeups for non-clues.
He said that he’s got a wine cork signed by Hemmingway. Given that Ernest Hemmingway died in 1961 and this restaurant is only a year old, it’s a bit strange that he keeps this treasured memento here. Anyway, we can see that the drawer has no handle and Harry uses some sort of knife to open it; it has scratches from where he did that many times before.
Shortly after, another character comes up.
Her name is Mimi and she writes a gossip column. Harry introduces her to Jessica with, “meet a real writer.” She’s rude and brash, and also seems to be given Jessica and Grady’s table.
They don’t have long to lament that their table has been given to another, though, as Grady’s fiancé Donna walks in.
Fun Fact: in real life Michael Horton, who played Grady, and Debbie Zip, who played Donna, are married (and were at the time of filming, too).
Donna is thrilled to meet Jessica and, if anything, is even more nervous than Grady is. She also has the news that her parents are throwing a party for her and Grady at their house up in Fishkill and she’d like terribly if Jessica could come. Her parents are looking forward to meeting both Jessica and Grady.
It strikes me as a bit odd that Grady is engaged to their daughter and they’ve never so much as met him, but the 80s were a strange time.
Jessica asks them to tell her about their plans for the wedding, and is greeted with an embarrassed silence. Neither one wants to be responsible for making any decisions and the conversation devolves into them assuring the other that whatever the other wants would be fine.
Finally they’re seated at a table and Jessica tries to order caviar. The restaurant is out of caviar, though, but the waiter recommends “Alice’s Farm Caviar”, where instead of fish eggs it’s made of “oeufs de poulet”, aka chicken eggs.
Presumably they’re out of caviar because Chaz sold it. This means that he’s not only greedy and dishonest, but also stupid. It’s one thing to steal some lobster and caviar such that they need to be ordered more frequently than makes sense. It’s another thing to clean the place out; that just draws attention.
By the way, given how the place is southern-country themed and sells fried chicken for $22.50, why do they have lobster and caviar in their freezer?
Alice comes over and thanks Jessica for her investment and asks how the food was. Jessica says that it was marvelous. She didn’t know it was possible to get yellowtail on the east coast, and Alice admits that it was frozen. Jessica is surprised; she never would have guessed that.
In the next scene, Grady and Jessica drop Donna off at her place, then Grady smashes his fingers in the door getting back into the cab. Jessica relates the story of how Frank (her deceased husband) had a broken leg when she and he got married.
The scene then shifts to Chaz stacking up boxes of frozen lobster in the empty kitchen (presumably it’s late at night). He checks his watch, then the scene shifts to the next morning. The phone rings while Grady is singing in the shower so Jessica answers the phone. It’s Donna, in distress.
The police have come to her apartment to take her to the restaurant. Chaz was just found murdered at there. Then the scene fades to black and we go to commercial break.
It seems a bit weird that they are escorting Donna to the scene of the crime, but there is an explanation and we find out what it is as soon as we come back from commercial break:
It turns out that there is a ledger that has entries whited out, and the detective wants to know what they were. When Donna says that she doesn’t know off the top of her head. He asks her to find out. Now.
Lt. Rupp goes to look at the body and Jessica follows to ask if Donna can look up the books after the weekend (because of the party). In the freezer, where the corpse was frozen, Jessica finds a pocket knife tucked away.
We never got a good look at the tool that Harry used to open the drawer, but it might well have been a pocket knife, which means it’s highly like that this is his pocket knife.
The cause of death is currently unknown. The victim was slashed across the chest but the wounds seem too shallow to cause death. He was also hit on the head by something. After Rupp is done examining the body he talks to Doug about a slip found on the body. Alice interrupts to announce that they’re missing six cases of lobster (Lt. Rupp had her check). That’s about $1,500 worth of lobster ($3,564 in 2022 dollars). Lt. Rupp suggests that Chaz interrupted a thief at work.
That’s a curious suggestion because, while in real life it might be plausible, we know it wasn’t the case because we’re watching a murder mystery and that would be a completely unsatisfying solution. As a result, it makes Rupp look a little dumb, or at the very least not clever, since we know he has to be wrong.
There’s a small interlude where Grady is reluctant to go up to meet Donna’s parents because, he reveals to Jessica, several years ago he worked for Donna’s father for a few days then was fired. Then Mimi calls and asks for a breakfast date with Jessica, and Grady accepts on Jessica’s behalf. Jessica doesn’t like this but since it would be convenient to pump Mimi for information, she goes.
Mimi gossips about the restaurant they’re at and in so doing reveals that it’s the restaurant at which Alice had worked before opening up her farm restaurant. Moreover, Alice took Harry and Chaz with her when she left. Valentino, the owner of the restaurant, was absolutely furious. I suppose Chaz could have been the maitre d’ here, though his style would certainly seem to clash. But what did Harry do? This doesn’t seem like the kind of restaurant to have a bar, and certainly when we pan over the restaurant, none is visible. So what did Harry—a lifelong bartender—do there?
Mimi then gets a message on her beeper, asks the waiter for a phone, and calls whoever paged her. She discovers that her fingernail designer has been arrested and—since she has a major party to go to that evening—she has to go and bail him out. She asks Jessica to messenger her a bio for the article Mimi is writing, then leaves after handing Jessica money for her portion of the breakfast since she always pays her own way because of journalistic ethics.
There’s an interesting gag which happens as they leave. Someone tells Valentino to turn off the ambiance tape as no one is listening anymore, which he does, and and the restaurant goes silent. As Jessica comes up to the register, we see that she and Mimi were the only customers.
Jessica goes to pay the bill and Valentino tells her the meal is on the house. Besides, he adds, it’s easier than starting a new register tape. This gives Jessica an idea, which she presents to Lt. Rupp over at police headquarters.
Jessica explains that perhaps Chaz closed the register out early and pocketed the money from later meals. Donna explains that it’s consistent with the white-out entries, which always had smaller amounts written in—after Donna paid the larger amount. Rupp asks why Chaz would rip himself off and Donna explains that Chaz was ripping off the investors in the restaurant.
Rupp asks for a list of the investors and who had access to the books, since anyone who found this out could have a motive to kill Chaz. When Jessica objects, he threatens to arrest them for suspicion of murder. While the charges wouldn’t stick, it would take all weekend to process them, so it would be faster for them to just get him the information he wants.
In response to an accusation from Jessica that he’s having them do all of his work, he tells her that he found out that the blade which caused the wound was “a sickle-shaped, jagged-edged knife.”
At lunch the next day, Jessica is enjoying the fish, which was also previously-frozen yellowtail. it was left out over night to defrost, Alice thought by Doug but he disclaimed this. Jessica says “Oh my.”
“I think I just found our sickle-shaped murder weapon, and we just ate it,” Jessica says. (This makes the title of the episode a bit on-the-nose.)
“Yellowtail” can actually refer to several different species, but apparently the yellowtail amberjack is the most common. Here’s what it looks like before eating:
I can see the sick-shape of the dorsal and anal fins, but I’m having trouble believing that the fins could be strong enough to cut deeply enough into a human being’s chest to cause fatal wounds. There’s a lot to get through, and the vital stuff is protected by ribs. A fin, when frozen, might be sharp, but I doubt it’s got the structural integrity to cut through bone.
Actually, I guess the writer’s thought the same thing because in the next scene—Alice and Jessica are in Rupp’s office—it comes up that the wounds were not the cause of death. (The police did find traces of the victim’s blood on the fins, btw.) Rupp wonders who would use a fish as a weapon to attempt to murder someone in a kitchen full of much better weapons.
Jessica suggests that the person caught Chaz steeling, then Chaz attacked them and they defended themselves with the fish because it was close at hand. It fits the position of the body, Jessica says, and he might have bumped his head as he stumbled back. Rupp replies that he needs to read one of Jessica’s books. (Also, it comes up that Alice was home with her brother when Chaz was murdered. They live together because no one can afford to live alone in Manhattan.)
The only problem with this theory is that it doesn’t account for how the fish got out of the freezer and into the kitchen. If the frozen fish was the closest thing to hand in the freezer, where Chaz was killed, the killer would have had to carry it out to the kitchen and leave it on the counter in order for Alice to have found it there, defrosted, the next day. It’s hard to see how anyone could have a motive to do that, but that is especially the case for someone who struck out in self defense.
In the next scene, Jessica visits Grady and Donna, who are working on the information that Rupp wants. Grady can’t make the investors’ investments add up to the total capitalization of the restaurant and Jessica suggests that there are silent partners. There is also a list of initials nearby, one of which matches Mimi Harcourt’s initials, and Jessica takes a cab ride over to see if she can find out from Mimi that this is correct.
It is. Chaz talked her into investing, promising her secrecy, then blabbed all over town about Mimi’s involvement. Jessica all but accuses Mimi of murdering Chaz, so Mimi produces an alibi—she was in her apartment all night with Doug (Alice’s brother).
Jessica confronts Alice about this, who admits that she lied, but now swears that she didn’t leave her apartment all night. She lied, not for herself, but to give Doug an alibi. (I don’t know that a sister swearing her brother was home would count as an alibi… for precisely this reason. A sister might be 1% better than a mother as an alibi, but that’s not saying much.) Doug takes offense that she thought he needed an alibi, and they squabble for a bit. Then Jessica asks if there would be many people interested in cases of stolen lobster.
This leads Jessica to talk to Valentino, who, after all, is not an unreasonable guess for the purchaser. Chaz had a relationship with him, and he had no great love for Alice’s Farm Restaurant. Jessica’s pretext is that she is thinking of setting a novel in a restaurant and wants to do research. Of course, Jessica discovers the boxes of lobster left out on the counter.
She accuses him of it and he more-or-less admits to buying them from Chaz. How else can I get lobster and caviar at reasonable prices, he asks? Then Grady calls calls her at the restaurant because Donna broke off the engagement.
They talk, then Lt. Rupp comes and finds Jessica. He thanks her for putting him onto Valentino, as his alibi “won’t hold minestrone.” Jessica points out that this doesn’t make any sense—Valentino had no motive. Perhaps there’s someone they hadn’t thought of, though. Chaz wouldn’t have done his own deliveries. Harry then goes to show somebody his Hemmingway cork, but can’t find his pocketknife to open the drawer. Rupp notices this and accuses him of being the owner of the pocketknife found at the scene of the crime.
He denies it, but Jessica points out that it wouldn’t be hard to get fingerprints from the pocketknife, or to get Valentino to identify the guy who dropped off the stolen supplies. Harry admits that he worked with Chaz to scam the restaurant, but last night was weird because the supplies were out but Chaz was nowhere to be found. He went into the freezer to get one more box of lobster tail to complete the order—how he knew what the order was, he didn’t say—and then he saw Chaz just lying there. (He guesses that the pocket knife fell out of his pocket as he was backing up. Pocketknives jumping out of pockets is a common problem when walking backwards, and why one should always stick to walking forward if carrying a pocket knife in one’s pocket.)
Jessica goes back to Grady, who is trying to figure out what’s wrong and says that he snapped a little bit when Donna said that she was calculating the value of the lobster and caviar that was stolen—Jessica interrupts him in surprise that caviar was stolen, too. When she confirms that Donna said lobster and caviar, she realizes who did it.
Jessica then excuses herself.
We next see Donna packing when there’s a knock on her door.
Jessica points out that the only way she (Jessica) knew about the stolen caviar was because Valentino told her. The only way Donna could have known about it was if she had seen it the night Chaz was killed.
Donna tearfully admits that this is true. She thought she made a mistake when she heard at dinner that they were out of caviar, since she had just paid for a shipment of it the day before. She asked Chaz and he told her to come back later. When she arrived, he let her in and wasn’t even trying to hide what he was doing. He tried to bribe her to join him and got angry when he refused. He hit her and she ran away, accidentally going into the freezer. He followed her and was about to hit her again when she grabbed the frozen yellowtail.
He was going to hit her again, so she struck out with it.
The scene shifts from this recollection to Lt. Rupp’s office, where Jessica asks if he agrees that it was self defense. He says that it looks like it, but they should talk to the DA first thing on Monday morning.
Grady comes to the police station and he and Donna are reunited. There’s a cute bit where Grady finally confesses that he’s already met her father, and he fired him. Donna replies, “Oh, that’s fine. He fires everyone. He probably won’t remember it. He fired me, once…”
And we go to credits.
There’s something always a bit disappointing about a mystery whose solution is that the killing was done in self defense but the person who committed the justified homicide just didn’t admit it. It robs the mystery of the element of the detective restoring the right order of things, since things were not actually disordered. The detective still provides a service, but it’s not much of a service to explain that everything’s actually the way it should be. Instead of the brilliance of the detective, all that would have been required was a little bit of courage on the part of the innocent killer.
This episode was pleasantly low on plot holes, though to some degree that was because very little actually happened. No one had a motive to kill Chaz and no mysteries were untangled before coming to the solution; we kind of killed time until Jessica figured out that Donna did it.
The one plot hole I can think of is that it makes very little sense for Valentino to spend $3000 on lobster and caviar when he doesn’t have any customers. Where is he getting the money from, and who is he planning to feed them to? The problem is that if his business was only a little hurt, it wouldn’t be possible to set him up as a suspect (which I think the episode was trying to do). If his business was badly hurt, he shouldn’t have the money. It would have made more sense if his business was doing fine but he was unreasonably angry at Alice and was buying the stolen goods just to hurt her. That would have been a very minor alteration to the story.
Speaking of Valentino, it’s a historical curiosity that Sonny Bono played the character. It was later in 1988 that Bono became mayor of Palm Springs and thus began his political career. At the time this episode was cast, he was just a former rock star doing bit parts on TV.
Oddly, I can’t find much to talk about in this episode. The only real human drama in it was Grady and Donna. I’m more sympathetic to Grady than most people I know are, but instead of Donna being written to temper Grady, the writers took everything that people dislike in Grady (his cluelessness, social awkwardness, and timidity) and turned it up to 11. I think that this was done to make it believable that Grady could find a woman who would tolerate him, but this was the wrong way to go about that. It would have been much better to have a more normal woman—only a little mousy—who could see past his flaws. As it was, one is just left hoping that the scenes with Donna in them would be over sooner than they were.
(I want to be clear that I don’t think that this is a question of the actress, but of the part she was given.)
Lt. Rupp wasn’t a sympathetic police detective, given how much he bullied Grady and Donna to do accounting work for him, but he then was shifted into that role towards the end, especially in his collaborations with Jessica. This made him hard to like. You need enough consistency to feel like he’s a person in order to like him. A bully who suddenly turns nice just feels like a manipulative bully.
Alice and Doug were barely characters in the story, and the plot twist where Mimi spent the night of the murder with Doug was, perhaps, the least believable part of the episode. I think that they just cast about to find some man who was actually a character and since Harry was unavailable because he had to be at the scene of the crime to drop his pocket knife, the only other option was Lt. Rupp, and that would have been even less believable. I suppose that there was also Valentino, except they needed his alibi to be unable to hold minestrone. Anyway, I don’t think that Mimi was ever a very plausible suspect. There wasn’t much of a reason for her to avoid publicity about investing in the restaurant—she wrote a gossip column, not a restaurant review column—so even by the standards of Murder, She Wrote she didn’t have much of a motive.
Ultimately, I suspect that the episode was more of a comedy episode than a mystery episode. Grady is always played for laughs, and much of the beginning of the episode was making fun of expensive gimmick restaurants. As such, it’s bound to be a bit disappointing as a mystery. There can be jokes in mysteries—there certainly were plenty of funny parts in the Father Brown mysteries—but I don’t think that a comedy can really be a mystery. Actually, that’s not quite right. It can. But it is very difficult and must be a certain sort of comedy—the sort where the comedy is over at the end. Since the essence of a mystery story is that something wrong is put right, the problem the detective is trying to solve can generate comedy, but when the detective solves it, there should be nothing left to generate the comedy. If there is, the detective has not really put things right; at most he put a small thing right.
A good example of this is the movie Clue. It has some plot holes which are excusable for the sake of the comedy but make it hold together poorly as a mystery. Even if they had been resolved, though—for example, had Mr. Body’s butler been given a plausible motive for why he showed up and acted as he did—it would still not have been a satisfying mystery because the characters were all too shallow for the sake of the comedy. The third ending is my favorite because it comes closest to a satisfying mystery ending, but even so it’s a thing that needs to be enjoyed for the jokes, not the mystery.
That said, while I’m sure it can be done, it would need a very deft touch indeed. Clue didn’t try—part of why it was excusable that they didn’t succeed—but it feels like Just Another Fish Story tried a little bit. It also tried just a little bit at being a comedy, though. I suppose the lesson we can take away from it is: if you’re going to do something, commit.
Next week’s episode is Showdown in Saskatchewan. Jessica is going to go to the Great White North (in summer, when it’s green) to track down a wayward niece who’s at a rodeo. If nothing else, it should be picturesque.
I recently re-read the first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. Some day I will write a full, detailed analysis of it, but right now I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts. It’s a very interesting book, both in itself and because of its historical significance.
One of the things that is very striking—especially for a person whose first introduction to Poirot was through the David Suchet adaptations—is how much of an idiot Captain Hastings is. One of the Fr. Ronald Knox’s ten commandments of detective fiction was “The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.” Christie seemed to take the idea of the “stupid friend” to rather extraordinary lengths. Hastings is constantly making unwarranted assumptions, thinking Poirot is senile, saying that inexplicable things don’t matter, taking offense, telling Poirot that he did the wrong thing, etc.
Despite all of this, there is a kernel of a character inside the depiction which is quite intriguing, and which I think that Hugh Frasier and the writer who did the David Suchet adaptation of Poirot really got hold of. This kernel is the “beautiful soul” which Hastings had; it explains why Poirot is so fond of him and why he keeps him around. Hastings is not clever, but he is simple and earnest. He is innocent and means well.
I can’t help but think that Agatha Christie did not see this in Hastings; it seems to be as much an excuse to have Hastings around as it is anything else. He was there because Watson was there before him; he was stupid because Watson being mystified by Holmes made Holmes more impressive. I think these two issues go some of the way to explaining why she got rid of Hastings and immediately brought him back.
Moving on: Agatha Christie is rightly known as a master of mystery plots, but I can’t help think that the final proof in this case was not her best work. That Alfred should write to Evelyn when the plan didn’t go off at the right time is defensible, if it stretches the imagination a little bit. That Mrs. Inglethorpe found the letter is not a problem, and given that she found it, that Alfred had to get it back after her death makes perfect sense. The problem comes in with the way he hid it in the spills.
He had a very small number of minutes in which to recover the letter and had to reveal that someone had broken into the despatch case, so in consequence he had to hide it in a hurry, fine. Putting it into the spills rather than sliding it under his own door was… iffy, but I think defensible because if he was caught and it was revealed that he must have stolen something, his room might be searched. It is something of a difficulty that he was not caught; if he could get away so easily, it takes away considerably from his fear of being caught. Still, this is defensible.
I think it much more difficult to justify why he never recovered the letter from the spills. Poirot explained this as a result of his taking the household into his confidence that a document had been stolen from the despatch case, and in consequence Alfred could not enter the room without being observed. I find this a bit thin—there were only four of five servants inside the house, and they had duties which would in all probability make for moments when Alfred could move unobserved. What I really can’t see, though, is what would have prevented Alfred from entering his wife’s room during the night. The servants would all be asleep, and the only person in his wing of the house would be Cynthia. Even when not drugged, she was not described to be an especially light sleeper. And he had more than one night to try. He did not move out of the house and into the hotel until the day after the funeral, and was not really forced to even then. His being in the house during this time, however, was not necessary for anything within the plot. I think this could have been solved by having Alfred be forced to leave the house the day of the murder. It would not have been difficult to come up with something which would force John to tell Alfred that Mrs. Inglethorp only had a life interest in the house and now it’s his and under the circumstances it would be better if Alfred removed himself, etc. etc.
Benedict Arnold Slipped Here first aired on March 13, 1988, which puts it in the later part of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. “Slipped here”, in the title, is, of course, a play on “slept here.” For those not familiar: there was a trend—or at least a supposed trend—of making places such as bed & breakfasts in the United States more interesting by claiming that a famous person once slept there. George Washington was a popular figure for this.
Also for those who aren’t familiar: Benedict Arnold was an American general in the American revolutionary war who switched sides and fought for the British. In consequence, he is regarded as a traitor in America and his name became, here, synonymous with betrayal and treason. Curiously, I don’t know how much that is still the case. American history largely isn’t taught, anymore, and the current fashion against patriotism heavily mitigates against being angry at someone for switching sides. Some of the punch of the episode will thus be lost to modern audiences.
The scene opens with Jessica and Seth entering an old and very cluttered house, with Seth holding a paper bag and asking Jessica, “Now what did you get for her?”
The “her” is an old woman named Tillie who doesn’t leave her house much owing to her age and health. They talk a little bit about what poor repair the house is in and what little evidence there is that the cleaning woman does anything, then they go up to see Tillie.
Tillie, however, is dead. Jessica and Seth are somber, but not shocked.
The scene shifts to a pawn shop:
The young fellow is Kevin Tibbles, son of Benny Tibbles (in the center), and on the right is the cleaning lady who doesn’t clean, Emily Goshen. She tries to buy something back from him at the price he paid for it six months ago, $30, but the price has gone up to $50 now. ($70 and $118 in 2022 dollars.) She accuses him of trying to cheat her and he accuses her of stealing it from Tillie’s house. Emily leaves and Kevin gives the news that Tillie is dead. Benny declares he had nothing to do with it and Kevin tells him that she died of natural causes. Benny begins to calculate what money he can make off of Tillie’s estate if he can get his hands on it.
The funeral is not very big.
Nothing happens at the funeral, other than Benny loudly sobbing and everyone rolling their eyes at him. I’m not sure who he was trying to impress; no one there had any power over the disposition of Tillie’s stuff. The scene then shifts to Jessica’s house after the funeral, where Amos Tupper visits.
Amos missed the funeral because he had to be in court, but while there he ran into Tillie’s lawyer, who told him about the contents of Tillie’s will. Tillie left her house to her grand niece, and the contents of the house to Benny Tibbles. Jessica was named executor of the will. Jessica is honored, but Seth points out that this leaves a lot of work for Jessica, since she’ll need to catalog what all it is so that death taxes can be paid.
The next scene is in a fancy antique shop, where Benny’s younger brother, Wilton, receives a call from Benny.
Benny asks him to come down to help him with Tillie’s stuff. Initially reluctant, he decides to go when he finds out a customer just purchased a settee for twelve thousand dollars which he bought from Benny for seventy (the $12k would be about $28k in 2022 dollars). He decides to go to Cabot Cove since there might be more where that came from.
In the next scene Eve Simpson, the town real estate agent, comes in and talks to Jessica and tells her that the house is in truly awful condition.
Jessica asks if there isn’t some redeeming feature? She recalls there being a legend about some American revolutionary war figure who slept there. Eve breaks the news that it was Benedict Arnold, which is hardly likely to make the house go up in value.
After Eve leaves, Jessica talks with Emily Goshen, who tells her that Tillie (who was a relative of Benedict Arnold on the wrong side of the sheets) told her that there was treasure in the house, though no one knows where it is hidden.
That night, Liza Adams, Tillie’s grand niece, shows up.
She is a gruff, unpleasant person. She says that she heard that Tillie is dead and has come for her inheritance—in cash. Jessica raises her eyebrows and the scene moves to early the next morning.
Jessica answers the phone and it’s Eve Simpson, who has a gentleman from out of town who is very interested in buying Tillie’s house. Jessica says that this may be premature, as legal ownership hasn’t been established yet, but she will certainly introduce Eve to Tillie’s grand niece.
Seth comes over while Jessica is on the phone. After she hangs up, he notices that Jessica has a squatter in her back yard.
Jessica told Eve, in Seth’s hearing, that she had advised Liza to stay close. When Jessica identifies the squatter as Liza Adams, Seth remarks, “Appears she took your advice. Couldn’t be much closer unless she moved in.”
The scene then shifts to Tillie’s house, where Jessica is taking inventory and Seth is sitting around complaining about how Tillie never threw anything out. Jessica then pauses to reflect on the sampler on the wall, saying that she’s gone past it many times but never really noticed it.
Samplers normally have an alphabet and a homely motto that shows off the worker’s skill. Whoever made this one was short on either skill or patience. (That’s Jessica’s appraisal.)
Shortly after, Benny, his Brother Wilton, Wilton’s lovely assistant, Liza Adams, and Emily Goshen show up (at slightly separate times) and, though bickering, insults, and general unpleasantness, all establish that they all have motives for whichever of them is going to be murdered.
Later that evening, Mr. Andrews—the gentleman from out of town who’s interested in buying Tillie’s house—shows up at Jessica’s house.
He’s hoping to get a look at the house. Jessica asks why he’s so eager and he explains he has a fascination with Benedict Arnold. He had worked in cryptographer during the war (World War 2) and in doing so worked with Americans, one of whom was a new Englander who made a joking reference to General Arnold’s mistress. He’s been writing a book on Benedict Arnold from a whole new perspective, and he requests to see the house.
Jessica says that she can’t let him in on his own and is so far behind in her writing that she can’t spare the time to accompany him. She offers to arrange with Eve Simpson to show him the house the next morning. He thanks her and leaves.
The scene shifts to somewhere—I think Benny’s pawn shop—where Wilton is adding numbers on an antique adding machine.
After each number he enters, he pulls the handle back to add it to the total. I can’t imagine why the thing is there. Perhaps to show how utterly cheap Benny is that he hasn’t bought an electronic calculator in the decades that they’ve been out?
Anyway, Wilton makes Benny an offer which is ridiculously low and Benny ridicules it, then tells Wilton to leave. Wilton tells Benny, “Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Benny says that he’s heard it all his life and still doesn’t know what it means. “Be careful,” replies Wilton. “You might find out.” This raises the odds of the victim being Benny, but there were no witnesses to the threat, which is unusual for Murder, She Wrote.
The next day Jessica and Seth come to Tillie’s house but find the door unlocked. When they go in the door to the den is open, too. Jessica suggests perhaps Emily came back, and tells Seth to remind her to ask Emily for her key.
Then they find the corpse.
Seth goes to it and turns the corpse over, recognizes it as Benny, then takes a pulse and pronounces him dead.
Then we go to commercial break.
When we come back, Amos Tupper is at the house, investigating. He identifies the poker by the floor as the murder weapon and goes to pick it up until Jessica stops him and points out it should be checked for finger prints. Seth puts the time of death at around midnight, give or take an hour.
Eve shows up with Mr. Andrews, who asks about the presence of the ambulance and police car, but Eve tells him to nevermind all that and begins showing him the house. Then they wheel the body through. Eve tries to keep showing him the house but Amos puts the kabosh on that. Mr. Andrews agrees, saying that he’ll have to see the original part of the house some other time.
Some conversation ensues in which it comes out that Mr. Andrews intends to buy the house, have it dismantled and shipped to England, where it will be reassembled as a shrine to Benedict Arnold. Amos is none to pleased at this, taking a more traditional American view of Benedict Arnold, and is sent by Jessica out to get his police tape while he mutters, “next thing you know we’ll be celebrating Mussolini’s birthday.”
Mr. Andrews takes his leave and Eve stays behind to tell Jessica that she is in dire financial straights and desperately needs the sale of this house. She asks Jessica to give her some support in getting it sold, and upbraids the doctor for doing nothing. After she leaves Jessica remarks to Seth that Eve’s behavior is strange; she never even asked who had been murdered. This is an interesting detail; I don’t know that it makes Eve a suspect, though. Her interest is in selling the house and murdering Benny couldn’t help with that. If anything, it would get in the way since he was going to clean out all of the junk which a buyer wouldn’t want to have to haul away.
Seth and Jessica begin their inventory work, and Jessica notices that the sampler is missing. Seth says that there was a picture of it in the gazette last year; Tillie stood in front of it for a picture for her ninetieth birthday. He’ll see if he can get her a copy.
He wonders if everything will go to Kevin and Jessica suspects it will, then wonders how many people will attend Benny’s funeral. In the next scene we get the answer:
It’s the same number as attended Tillie’s funeral. Like at Tillie’s funeral, the scene lasted a few seconds and no one spoke a word.
The next scene involves Wilton, his assistant, and Kevin, and further cements that they are unpleasant characters. The one practical upshot is that Wilton and Kevin agree to go in together to buy Tillie’s house so that they can take possession of the antiques inside of it without Liza Adam’s interference. (That said, while Liza spoke some nasty words about Benny’s taking the stuff he inherited, she’s not actually causing any trouble for the disbursing of the goods. The holdup, if there even is one, is that Jessica and Seth are taking a long time to inventory the place.)
After that, Jessica talks to Liza Adams, who heard about Benny’s murder on Jessica’s radio and who was not in her tent last night because she went out for a walk. Also, she has no form of identification, having burned her birth certificate in 1970 and her driver’s license in 1972, which Jessica points out will make it difficult for her to establish a legal claim to the house. Liza is offended by this, rather than taken aback that her actions rendered it difficult for people who don’t know her to recognize her claim, proving that she’s stupid and unimaginative.
Hippy Moonbeam leaves and Eve Simpson calls Jessica and asks for help. She’s got a second bidder on Tillie’s house, but Mr. Andrews insists on seeing the rest of the house today. Can Jessica show him around? Jessica reluctantly agrees.
That evening, she shows Mr. Andrews around in the house. Just as they’re getting to the original room the doorbell rings and Jessica excuses herself. It turns out to be Amos who saw the light on and wanted to check that everything was OK. When they get back to the room, the light is on and Andrews is standing by the fireplace, soaking in the presence of Benedict Arnold. He talks about how magnificent it is, then excuses himself as he has to go home and write down the feeling before he loses it. Amos offers to give Jessica a ride home, which she accepts.
On the way out of the room Amos goes to turn off the light but there’s no switch by the door. Instead it’s on another wall by a bookshelf.
Amos remarks on how this is a strange place for a light switch, and Jessica explains that when they wired up these old houses they sometimes had to put things in rather strange places. What she doesn’t explain is why anyone bothered with a light switch in such a strange place. If a switch is that far out of the way, it’s easier to just use the knob or pull chain on the lamp itself.
They talk about the case as they leave and Amos says that his deputies looked all over the house and couldn’t find any sign of forced entry. If Benny got there after the killer, then the killer had to break in unless he had a key. The only people with keys, though, were Jessica, Eve Simpson, and Emily Goshen. The sheriff suspects Emily, but Jessica can’t bring herself to think that Emily is a thief, to say nothing of a murderer.
In the next scene Emily Goshen breaks into the pawn shop and tries to steal the brooche she was trying to buy back earlier in the episode, but she’s caught by Kevin and Wilton’s assistant who heard the sound of the breaking glass while they were discussing antiques in the next room.
Amos gets Jessica out of bed to come get Emily Goshen, as apparently they only have a single cell and he wouldn’t want to put a drunk in with Emily should one be arrested before morning. This clearly isn’t Jessica posting bail (Jessica later says that the Sheriff is releasing Emily into Jessica’s custody), so I guess Jessica is supposed to lock Emily up in a closet in her house?
Anyway, they get Emily out of the cell and upon seeing Jessica Emily asks if Jessica has been arrested too. Jessica asks Emily if she understands why she’s been arrested and Emily replies, “I can’t say that I do.” I guess she’s supposed to be mentally retarded? She didn’t seem like it before, but from this point on Jessica talks to her as if she’s a child and she replies much as if she is. Jessica asks if Emily took the sampler on the wall and she says that she wouldn’t want it. The words on it didn’t make any sense.
The next day Seth is over at Jessica’s house with a blow-up of the section of the photo that had the sampler in it. Jessica points out that Emily is right, the words don’t make sense. It should be “Pause and Relfect” not “Reflect and Pause”. Then Jessica suddenly realizes what this means: it’s a key to the treasure. Jessica looks at the picture of the sampler in the mirror. Most letters stay the same in the reflection, but capital ‘E’ becomes a 3 and the small ‘r’ becomes a 7. Seth points out the B, so it’s 3B7. Jessica figures that this might mean the third brick in the seventh row on the fireplace.
Jessica decides to set a trap by calling Eve Simpson, who was concluding a deal where Liza Adams was selling the house to Wilton for a handsome price, to tell her that the building inspector said that the fireplace was about to collapse and that the house would be closed until the fireplace was completely rebuilt. This is a little ironic because fireplaces are generally the most structurally sound part of a building—they’re masonry resting directly on the foundation. They often survive the building burning down or rotting away. That said, it’s not like anyone Jessica was trying to bait was likely to know that. Seth, who was standing next to Jessica, remarks, “Now that’s what I call throwing the fat into the fire.”
(For those not familiar, fat, once in a fire, will burn very intensely, producing a large flame.)
We next see the murderer letting himself into the trap:
The figure remains in shadows, his face framed out of the shot as he walks along with a flashlight, giving us time to talk over who it is with the people we’re watching with.
The murderer removes the brick in question and Amos switches on the lights, remarking, “Looks like you were right, Mrs. Fletcher.”
Then we see who the murderer is.
Jessica presents the theory that he let himself into the house and found the sampler while he was looking for the den. Being a cryptographer, he recognized the simple code and knew at once what it meant. Benny surprised him and was an excitable person. Mr. Andrews figured he could kill Benny to keep him quiet and return later, so he killed Benny, then stole the sampler on his way out in order to prevent anyone else from figuring out the secret.
Mr. Andrews points out that this is pure conjecture and he will swear that he knew the location through other sources. Jessica then points out earlier when he revealed he knew the location of the light switch despite it being in a stupid location since he found it in a few seconds, in the dark.
He crumbles at this and admits his guilt. He asks if he can take a look at the contents of the hiding place, and Amos says that it can’t hurt and he is curious, himself. Andrews looks inside and find a box which contains a very old letter. Andrews says that if his theory is correct, the document will prove that Benedict Arnold was under the direct orders of George Washington when he surrendered West Point to the British.
It turns out to be an angry letter from Benedict Arnold’s mistress saying that he betrayed not only his country, but his mistress with one of her maids.
Andrews remarks, “It’s ironic. It seems that I, too, was betrayed by Benedict Arnold.”
The episode ends in Jessica’s house, where she makes a present of the chess set from Tillie’s house that Seth fell in love with because it was an 18th century British chess set with intricate workmanship—he saw one like it in a museum once. After Seth thanks Jessica in a very unpracticed way, they sit down to a game of chess and we go to credits.
This was better than the last two episodes, but it was not one of the greats. It’s also much better in the way I related it, with most of the scenes of anyone with the last name Tibble in them left out. Both generations of Tibbles were terrible, the older generation focused on greed and the younger generation on greed and lust (I’m counting Wilton’s assistant as an dishonorary Tibble for these purposes). Emily Goshen was unpleasant in every scene she was in and Liza Adams really should have been shot. Eve Simpson, who is, as always, a comedic figure, was practically having a panic attack in every scene instead of being funny. That’s the majority of the characters in the episode.
Standing against this, Seth was a lot of fun. He’s often a curmudgeon, but in this episode his sense of humor wasn’t nearly as biting as it often is and his detachment was, most of the time, detached amusement. He was one of the bright points of the episode.
Amos Tupper was also fun in this episode. He wasn’t at his best, but he was in good form. (As a side note, this is the last episode he appears in.)
Cabot Cove outside of Jessica’s house didn’t show up too much, but Jessica’s house did show up a lot, which is always pleasant because it’s familiar and homely. Jessica is at her best in Cabot Cove, and especially in her home.
Alistair Andrews, the Benedict-Arnold loving Brit, was mostly enjoyable. He was constantly impatient, which wasn’t great thought it was necessary to the plot, and at least he was impatient in a very polite way. It also helped to give him character flaws which make him turning to murder more plausible. It was not wildly plausible, but by Murder, She Wrote standards it was in character. It at least wasn’t directly contrary to both his immediate and long-term interests, though, unfortunately, it wasn’t directly in line with them, either. It would probably have made more sense to just offer to pay Benny for the letter, or at least a copy of it—it would not have been hugely valuable to anyone else—but he was shown to be impatient and to not have the greatest self discipline. Also, fun fact: the author who played Alistair Andrews played Robin Hood in the 1973 Disney movie of the same name where Robin Hood was a fox and Little John was a bear.
There were a few plot holes in the story, though not really major ones. It doesn’t make any sense how Liza Adams heard of her great aunt’s death and got to Cabot Cove so quickly. The last anyone had heard of her was around the time of Woodstock (the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was in 1969, which was 19 years before this episode). No one even knew if she was dead or alive. Since she showed up on the night of Tillie’s funeral, this gives us a rough idea of how much time she had to show up—about a week, at most. How on earth did the news of Tillie’s death reach wherever Liza was in that time? We can expect that there was an obituary for Tillie in the Cabot Cove Gazette, but I doubt that’s a daily paper and its circulation is going to be limited to Cabot Cove. It’s hardly likely that Jessica would have put a notice in more major newspapers, though to be fair that was the thing to do if you have no idea where the relatives are. That said, even if she did, I can’t imagine that Liza would regularly read the obituary section of major newspapers. And she didn’t seem like the sort to have friends, let alone friends who would read the newspaper and tell her about it. (I’m not counting this has a major plot hole, by the way, because the episode would have been improved had Liza been written out of it, and that would certainly have solved this problem.)
It’s also never explained how Alistair Andrews managed to make a duplicate key to the house for himself. How would he have stolen the key to have a duplicate made? I suppose he could have stolen it from Eve Simpson; this is not as hard to work around as Liza Adams hearing of her great Aunt’s death. It would have been nice to have it addressed, though.
Another minor plot hole is that it’s not explained why Benny showed up to the house at night (the night he was murdered) despite not having a key and thus not being able to expect to get in. What possible motive could he have had to go to the house and peer in the windows so late at night?
There’s also the question of why anyone hid this letter from Benedict Arnold’s mistress in the house and kept it secret. I can’t really see a possible motive for this. Still less can I see a motive for it that would extend as far as creating a sampler with secret instructions as a sort of homely treasure map. Who could have thought it valuable but also in need of such secrecy? And since the house belonged to Benedict Arnold’s mistress, why would she write the letter and then not send it but keep it in her own house in a secret hiding spot and then make a low quality sampler as a coded treasure map to it? Who could she want to hide it from? And who could she have wanted to find it?
(On the plus side, Benedict Arnold did actually go through Maine, though I doubt by where present day Cabot Cove would theoretically be, so having a mistress in Maine has some slight historical plausibility.) Still, though there is no obvious solution to this problem, it can be waved away through the quirks of people long dead. Human beings do occasionally do strange things, and when we know so little about them because they’ve been dead for two hundred years, who are we to say that it didn’t make sense to them at the time?
A related problem is why Alistair Andrews removed the sampler. As a cryptographer he could recognize the code, but it wasn’t likely anyone else would have—most of them had seen it for years and took no notice of it. This wasn’t something just discovered in a box, it was hanging on the wall in front of the noses of everyone but Andrews. And, in fact, removing the sampler had the predictable effect of drawing attention to it. This could have been fixed by simply having taken the sampler down to examine it and put it back up slightly wrong because of some mishap, or having disturbed the dust that Emily Goshen never disturbed, or something like that.
Not really a plot hole but just a kind of loose thread, Eve Simpson’s odd behavior of not even asking who was murdered was never explained. It was only ever meant to confuse suspicion, of course, but it’s always nicer when those red herrings get explained in the story.
The main problems with this episode were related to the characters, not the plot.
This episode is marred by a lot of scenes that are both hard to watch because of the characters in them and are also irrelevant to the mystery. Mostly these involve any of the Tibbles and/or Wilton’s assistant, though Emily Goshen is such an unpleasant character that I can’t think of any scene with her in it that’s a good scene. I also don’t understand whether she was meant to be mentally retarded or not. She seemed to understand what was going on some times, but not others. Not understanding why she was arrested for breaking and entering in order to steal something suggests she should be in somebody’s custody who has power of attorney over her. On the other hand, living independently and being hired to do cleaning for an old woman suggests that she was trusted on her own.
One real lesson of this episode is the difference between making a character unpleasant and making him a suspect. Most of the characters were unpleasant, I suspect to try to cast suspicion in their direction. But none of them were given motives. Well, that’s not quite true—Kevin could have murdered his father to inherit the family pawn shop—he asked his father for money to go start his own business in Boston and was refused—and Wilton could have murdered his brother because Benny dismissed him and he thought Kevin might have been easier to manipulate. Neither of these seems a serious possibility, though. Wilton is too delicate to commit murder, and his assistant was only really interested in getting her leg over Kevin (to use a British expression). Kevin was, perhaps, a bit more plausible, except that as a jock type that likes restoring old cars it’s hard to see him coveting a pawn shop—and it would be a hard thing to convert into ready cash.
This brings up a problem with Murder, She Wrote as a game where you’re supposed to guess who did it that applies to the concept of fair play in general but is especially significant in Murder, She Wrote—it’s very hard to account for plot holes when trying to make deductions. There was no way for Kevin or Wilton to get into the house before Benny, but it was kind of a plot hole that Alistair Andrews had a key, too. None of the Tibbles had a plausible motive, but Alistair Andrews’ motive was… not very convincing. If a Tibble had wanted to put an end to Benny, they could have done it anywhere—but there was equally no reason for Benny to go the house at night. This makes guessing the murderer as much an exercise in mind reading as it is in deduction. Even if a particular episode doesn’t have plot holes, since so many other episodes do it still requires telepathy to know that this one is the exception. That said, I suspect that the best we can do is to guess at who the murderer is if there are no plotholes, and merely give ourselves credit anyway if the episode’s murderer required a plot hole to do it.
In the later half of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote was the episode A Very Good Year for Murder. The episode is set in a vineyard, so the title is a reference to a thing commonly said of wines. Fine wines don’t really enter into the murder, though, so the pun, such as it is, is not great. Pretty scenery, though.
The title card is an overview of the Gambini vineyard. We know because of a voiceover provided by Marco Gambini. The Gambinis grow the finest grapes in the world, using love. The voiceover turns out to be a conversation between Marco and Jessica, as they walk their horses on a trail:
Can you believe that a penniless immigrant (his father) created all of this from nothing, he asks? Speaking for myself, I can’t. And I don’t even mean that only God can create ex nihilo. I strongly suspect he had to have some seed money to at least buy the land and some starting grape vines (grapes are grafted, not grown from seed). Still, it does help to establish characters; there is an intense sense of ownership and pride in the vineyard because it was built by the family. There’s also a weird exchange where Marco says “Papa did all of this” and asks Jessica what she thinks and she replies, “I’d say that you are very proud of him, Marco.” Answering a request for an opinion with not giving one is normally an insult, since it implies that anything you could say would be too painful and you’re trying to spare the other person. Marco takes it well, though, saying, “Proud? You bet.”
Jessica is in town for Papa Gambini’s seventy fifth birthday party, because apparently she’s an old friend of the family. How a school teacher in Maine became a family friend of rich vineyard owner in California, I doubt we’ll get an explanation for because I don’t think an explanation is possible. One advantage of Jessica being in her sixties is that she’s had a long time to make friends. Still, this is stretching things, given her small-town backstory.
Here, by the way, is the family mansion:
We then meet one of Marco’s children, Paul, and also (to my surprise) find out how Jessica is a family friend:
It turns out that she used to tutor Paul in English, and in fact Jessica is the reason he was able to stay on the football team in… they don’t say. College is the most likely answer, but how on earth would a kid from California require summer tutoring in English from a high school English teacher in Maine? Are we to suppose he somehow ended up playing football for a university right next to Cabot Cove that had a major football program that fed to the NFL? Jessica’s backstory was that for most of her life she lived in a small town (Cabot Cove), teaching English in the local high school until she retired. She only became a literary titan when her nephew Grady stole a manuscript for a murder mystery that she wrote—to keep busy during her retirement—and showed it to a publisher. (This happened in the pilot episode, The Murder of Sherlock Holmes.)
All that said, stranger things have happened. But how did she go from tutoring Paul in English to being a family friend? Even if Paul was somehow in Cabot Cove during the summers he was at college, that doesn’t explain how any other members of his family met her.
Anyway, another of Marco’s children arrives. His name is Tony:
He introduces himself to Jessica as Paul’s younger brother, and she says that she remembers him. No details on where or how, of course. It’s clear that she hasn’t seen him in years, though.
Paul asks Tony if their sister is coming. He says that she is, presumably with her latest boyfriend. Tony and Paul explain to Jessica that their sister has a constant stream of new boyfriends which she uses to make her father think that she’s going to settle down, but it’s just for show as she’s having too much fun being free. We then meet their aunt, Marco’s sister, Stella:
She tells Tony in a disappointed voice that she got a message from a “John” in Tahoe. John apparently knows horses like Tony knows nuclear physics, which is said in a way that suggests John knows a lot about horses and Tony knows a lot about nuclear physics. He goes off to see about the phone call. After Tony leaves, Paul remarks to Jessica that Tony has a gambling problem, which is a pity because he’s got more brains than the rest of the family put together.
We then meet two more characters:
The woman is Fiona, Marco’s wife. The old man is Salvatore Gambini, the patriarch of the family and the immigrant that Marco spoke about building the vineyard up from nothing. She’s trying to get him to take his medication, but he out-stubborns her and she gives up and hands the pill bottle to Jessica as she leaves. Salvatore asks Paul to leave her and Jessica alone.
Paul overhears Tony on the phone with some gambling associate; there’s not much to the conversation but Tony tells his associate to not threaten him, and moreover he’s definitely good for the money he owes.
We next see Salvatore showing some special wine to Jessica that they’ll have at the evening meal; it’s made from special grapes from northern Italy that he imported 18 years ago and he only drinks it with special people. He then talks to Jessica about how, when he’s dead, all of this will belong to Marco, and he hopes that Marco and his children will value it as much as he (Salvatore) does. He clearly doesn’t believe that they do.
Jessica goes to the kitchen and talks with Stella. She says that Salvatore doesn’t look as good as he should. Stella explains that there’s a company from out east who wants to buy the vineyard. Salvatore is fighting it, but how much fight does he have left? Jessica reasonably points out that if Salvatore doesn’t want to sell, that’s the end of it, but Stella refutes this by saying that the men who want to buy the vineyard wear suits. (I’m not kidding. Her exact words are, “Do you know what kind of people we’re talking about here? Men in fancy suits who make screwdrivers and shaving cream.”)
The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Michelle with her boyfriend-of-the-week, Ben Skyler. (Michelle is the wayward sister Paul and Tony talked about before.)
Paul and Tony come out to meet their sister and are introduced to Ben. He makes some small talk which makes Ben seem as dumb as a box of rocks, then they go in.
The camera pulls back to Marco’s room, where he was watching this happen through a window. Fiona is sitting on a chair in front of a mirror in a dressing gown, brushing her hair. He mutters frustration at how Michelle can’t keep a boyfriend, but Fiona changes the subject to how oppressive living on a vineyard is and how she and Marco are just part of the farm equipment. Fiona is not at all a sympathetic character, and I suspect that she’s being set up as a suspect for Salvatore’s murder. Time will tell, though.
The scene shifts to dinner, which is quite awkward. Paul talks about his recent football games which Stella finds offensive because of the violence. Tony accuses Paul of accepting bribes to throw games, or at least that the team is even if Paul isn’t. There’s a lot of complaining and not much in the way of manners. Marco interrupts the bickering with a toast to his father. Salvatore then makes a speech about how happy he is to have his family (plus Jessica, who is like family) gathered together, and how it warms his heart that they will all toil for the rest of their lives on his precious vineyard, long after he’s gone. (That’s not quite how he puts, but it’s not too far off.)
The next morning Tony wakes Salvatore to tell him that he’s got to run off to Tahoe for business but will be back in time for the party—he’s chartered a plane. Salvatore is very understanding. He intends to sleep in, though, so he asks Tony to go fetch some wine from the basement so it can be decanted. He then tells Tony not to do anything dumb, and that if he gets in trouble he should come to his grandfather.
As Tony goes into the cellar one of the steps gives way and he falls. The rest of the family wakes up and finds Tony on the floor at the bottom of the steps.
Then we go to commercial break.
When we come back, Tony is sitting on a stool in the kitchen having his wound cleansed by Stella.
Jessica goes to the cellar, where Paul is installing a makeshift new step. Jessica examines the old step. Paul remarks that it’s just an old step that gave way. Jessica says that in spite of the splintered wood, it’s obvious that the step had been sawed through:
Maybe this is a Californian wood I’m unfamiliar with, but that’s not how normal wood breaks when you support it on two ends and put pressure in the middle. For one thing, the fibers are bent in both directions (up and down). Really, the fibers look like they were raised by being banged with a hammer edge-on, or perhaps with a chisel. When wood fails from weight being applied to the middle, it’s one of two ways: either you get tensile failure (the fibers are pulled apart from each other) or you get delamination (layers of wood grain that correspond to growth rings separate from each other). This is neither of those.
Perhaps worse, the part of the board that was clearly sawed through is about 5% of the total cross-sectional area of the board. On a step as big and thick as the one shown, that wouldn’t even make it creak. There’s no way it would not result in catastrophic failure.
Now, based on what Jessica said, it is established that, plot-wise, the board failed from being tampered with, so that’s what we need to base our understanding of the plot on. So, we’ll do that. I just don’t understand the purpose of a close-up of the evidence that’s completely wrong.
Paul and Jessica don’t do anything with this information, though. The scene shifts to Tony leaving to go to Tahoe and having an argument with his father while doing it, but it’s just yelling and a rehash of what we already know. Then we move on to the party that night.
Jessica strikes up a conversation with Ben Skyler. He’s not dancing with Michelle, and Jessica asks if it’s not his kind of music. He says that when it comes to dancing, he’s all thumbs. He then tells her that he grew up on a little farm outside of Moline, Illinois, and wrote stories. He asks for advice on novel writing. Jessica’s advice is to read, read, and read some more.
This isn’t the worst advice in the world, to be sure, but at the same time writing is actually pretty important, too. Writing is a skill that takes practice, and some advice about going for it and not waiting around until you think you can do it perfectly would probably be better advice than just doing copious amounts of reading.
Be that as it may, Jessica says that she’s in the middle of a gripping novel by P.D. James. Ben says that he loves “his” (James’) work. Jessica corrects him that P.D. James is a she, not a he—the P is for Phyllis—and Ben laughs and says that he knew that. This establishes pretty clearly that Ben is lying, though not why. Whatever the reason, though, he clearly isn’t the sharpest light bulb in the picnic basket
Later on at the party the local police chief, Thaddeus Kyle, introduces himself to Jessica and asks her about the accident that morning. He’s got men stationed around the place, and asks if she has any ideas who might have done it—he’s heard of her reputation as an amateur solver of crimes. Jessica demurely says that her reputation is exaggerated, then gets down to business but doesn’t have any ideas.
The next morning everyone gathers in the kitchen and Salvatore invites Jessica to pick the wine for lunch. They go down to the wine cellar and discover Ben Skyler, dead on the floor.
This was definitely an unexpected turn of events. It’s hard to imagine who could want the poor dope dead. No one even knew him.
Anyway, as soon as Jessica stoops over the body and announces who it is, we go to commercial break.
When we come back Thaddeus Kyle is overseeing the body being put into an ambulance to be taken to the morgue. Then Jessica questions Michelle and asks if Ben could have had a heart condition she didn’t know about. Michelle says that she didn’t really know him well. She met him eight weeks ago when he came to the agency she works for and asked her boss for a copywriting job.
Jessica confers with Thaddeus and he tells her that the doctor puts the time of death at around 2am, give or take an hour. The cause of death is uncertain, but could be poison. Another thing that concerns Thaddeus is that the door to the wine cellar was locked, and there’s only one key—Salvatore’s. He keeps it in the nightstand by his bed. Jessica asks if Thaddeus is accusing Salvatore, and Thaddeus says no, someone could have copied the key or even borrowed it while the old man was sleeping—he’s reputed to be a sound sleeper. What he’s getting at is that it points at someone inside the house.
Jessica asks to see Ben’s luggage, and Thaddeus agrees. They go to do it and it’s revealed that Marco was listening in from behind a nearby door.
Jessica and Thaddeus go through Ben’s luggage. Jessica finds a receipt from a gas station in Long Island City, NY. It’s dated nine weeks ago, which is one week before Michelle met him. However, he had told her (in their brief conversation) that he had spent the last four months in California researching lost gold mines. Jessica wants to know why he lied about that. Thaddeus points out, reasonably, that he didn’t exactly lie; a short trip to New York City over two months ago would hardly be worth mentioning in small talk at a party. Jessica admits the possibility in a way that makes it clear she doesn’t believe it for a second.
This is a weakness that Murder, She Wrote has because of time constraints. It doesn’t really have the time to put many clues out and very little time for red herrings. As a result, when it tries to make it seem possible that clues are red herrings, it tends to overdo it because it doesn’t have time to provide the counter-evidence that the clue is a real clue. In this case, it isn’t even a little bit strange that the guy didn’t mention being in New York nine weeks ago while making small talk—he wasn’t very conversationally skilled, but irrelevant details are precisely the sort of thing one should leave out at a party when you get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk with a famous author.
Also, he never actually said he was in California for the last four months. His exact words were, “For the last four months, I’ve been writing every day on a piece about lost California gold mines.”
In the next scene Jessica is snooping around the outside of the house when Salvatore walks up and asks what she’s doing. She says that she’s almost embarrassed to tell him, and he surmises that she’s “playing detective.” She explains that Thaddeus thinks that someone inside the house killed Ben, so she was hoping to find some indication that someone broke into the house. Salvatore angrily says that Thaddeus is crazy for thinking it was someone inside the house. This indignation is odd, since how could an outsider sneak Ben into Salvatore’s private wine cellar? Jessica changes the subject to asking about Ben, though of course Salvatore knows nothing. Michelle has a new boyfriend each month; they’re all the same so why should he take notice? Jessica says that there’s something different about this one. She relates the P.D. James story to no effect, then says that he drove a luxury car and wore expensive clothes, despite claiming to be an unsuccessful writer who grew up on a farm in Illinois.
They’re interrupted by the news that Tony is back. Apparently he didn’t show up for the party as he’d promised; no one mentioned it at the party so this is the first we’d found out about it. There’s some pointless bickering, then a call comes in from Thaddeus for Jessica, so she excuses herself. The Coroner’s report is in and the cause of death was, indeed, poison. (No poison is named. Just… generic poison.) That’s not the only news he has, however. On a hunch, he sent Ben’s fingerprints “to the central file in Washington” (I assume this means with the FBI). Ben Skyler’s real name is Benito Soriano. He is, or was, a hitman for the mob.
(“Benito Soriano” seems to me to be quite a stretch. The guy had no accent; certainly not a NY Italian accent, and I suspect that the actor, Grant Goodeve, is about as Italian as Angela Lansbury. I mention this not to nitpick, but to say that the casting/acting was misleading. I suppose, though, he could have been actually quite intelligent and merely faking his accent as well as pretending to be dumb in order to make people not suspect him.)
In the next scene Michelle is sitting in Thaddeus’ office, telling him about Ben.
The only thing is that she doesn’t have anything to tell. They met when he came in looking for a copywriting job, one thing led to another, and they went on a date the following evening. Jessica asks who initiated the date and it was Ben. I’m not sure what the point of that is, though, since it would be unusual for the woman to ask the man out, just given social norms. Jessica also asks if he ever tried to pump her for information about anyone in the family, but he didn’t.
Thaddeus lets Michelle go and Marco takes her home. Jessica stays behind to speculate with the chief. He asks who Ben would have been there to kill, and Jessica says that if Tony’s accident was Ben’s handiwork, the target must have been Salvatore. Thaddeus asks who might have done it; he wonders about Tony’s shady Tahoe contacts.
Jessica dismisses this because Tony was injured; Thaddeus says that he just got a bump on the head and for all anyone knows didn’t even fall. The problem with this counterpoint, that otherwise could have raised suspicion, is that we, the viewer, saw Tony fall when he was alone. Be that as it may, both of these arguments seem to miss the fact that there’s no reason to suppose that—if Tony had hired the mob hitman—that he’d know who the hitman was, and still less that he’d know how the hitman planned to perform the hit. Since (I assume) Tony isn’t the culprit, though, I suppose it’s OK that they miss this.
In the next scene, a weird, open-mouthed fellow whose name turns out to be Steve Ridgely shows up at the Gambini mansion in a blue car.
I don’t know why he keeps his mouth open so much of the time; it’s a very strange acting choice. It doesn’t seem to be part of the character, though, as it’s never remarked on. He’s come to talk to Paul, explaining that he took the first flight he could could get when he heard about the murder on TV in LA. Paul suggests that they go for a drive.
As they drive off the scene shifts to Salvatore’s office, where Salvatore wants to know who it is and Marco says that he will ask the deputy later. Right now he wants to grill Tony about the fifty thousand dollar check he wrote when he doesn’t have fifty dollars in his bank account. Tony whines that “they were threatening me!” Marco is furious, and Salvatore tells him to leave. Salvatore then gives Tony a check and a lecture about how he needs Tony to take over the vineyard when he and Marco are gone, since he’s the smart one.
There’s an interesting part to the conversation where he says, “I’m an old man. I don’t have much time left. I don’t want to die with things like they are now.” Tony replies that Salvatore won’t die, and Salvatore corrects him, “Everybody dies. It’s what you do before you die that’s important.”
I like this scene both for the content and the characterization. The episode hasn’t been subtle about Salvatore being concerned with the vineyard, but it does establish that he has a sense of urgency about fixing the problems with his wayward grandchildren, but doesn’t know how to do it.
After this Jessica runs into Steve and Paul. Paul introduces Steve, and Jessica asks if he’s on Paul’s football team. Steve laughs, and Paul hesitates, then says that Steve is an investment advisor. Whatever he is, he’s clearly not an investment advisor.
Salvatore then asks Jessica to come into his office. He’s upset because Thaddeus had called him and asked questions about the company that wanted to buy his winery, because Jessica told him about it. He then yells at her that his business dealings have nothing to do with the death of the hired killer.
Ordinarily, I’d take that to be a slip—that he shouldn’t have known Ben was a hired killer—but since he was recently talking to Thaddeus, it’s possible that Thad told him.
Jessica suggests that it might be related—that the so-called accident was clearly aimed at him, not at Tony. Salvatore angrily replies, “I don’t know what that New York bum was up to. The guy is dead. Who cares?”
Again, this is information that Salvatore shouldn’t know, unless Thaddeus told him, which he very well might have done. It’s also suspiciously bizarre. How could what the “New York bum” was up to not be relevant to his murder investigation?
Salvatore insists that Ben’s death has nothing to do with anything, and the people who want to buy the winery have nothing to do with anything, and in fact nothing has anything to do with anything, and Jessica should just go home.
Jessica leaves to pack her things and we go to commercial break.
When we come back from commercial break, Jessica finds Steve Ridgley sneaking around some room he’s not supposed to be in. She rushes away but Paul catches her before she makes it many steps and tells her that it’s not what she thinks, but he can’t tell the rest of the family. In a private conference Steve shows his credentials—it turns out that he’s a special investigator working for the football commission investigating gambling. There had been rumors that some of Paul’s teammates had thrown some games and Paul was working with Steve to find out if they were true, and if so, who was involved.
Jessica says that she now understands; when Steve heard that a mob killer turned up on the Gambini house, he thought that the mob might have hired a killer to put an end to the investigation. Paul then says that it doesn’t make sense that anyone would go to that much trouble to kill him. They could have killed him anytime, anywhere—he’s a proverbial sitting duck. (Which is a slightly odd metaphor because it is his frequent traveling that makes him accessible, but the point is that one hardly needs to lay months of groundwork to get at him to kill him.)
Jessica agrees, and then in a moment of inspiration says that the same is true of Tony. She doesn’t say it, but she knows of whom that isn’t true.
She excuses herself and goes off to confront Stella.
The odd thing, here, is that Jessica has maintained throughout the entire episode—at least since Ben Skyler turned out to be a hitman—that the real target had to be Salvatore. How she had a revelation of what she already knew, I can’t figure.
Jessica confronts Salvatore and he admits it. He researched all of Michelle’s boyfriends through contacts of his, and when he research “Ben Skyler” he found out who he was. He let Ben come because he figured that him being murdered might finally bring his family together. His health is bad and he only had a few months to live, anyway. He willed the winery to the entire family in equal portions, where none could sell unless they all agreed on it, and wrote up a letter explaining what happened in an envelope marked “To be opened in the event of my death”
Salvatore soured on this plan when Tony was almost killed, so he brought Ben down and gave him a very special wine—the first wine that Salvatore ever bottled. Ben’s palate was so dull he didn’t taste anything; neither the wine nor the poison. Salvatore remarks in disgust that he shouldn’t have wasted the good wine on Ben; he should have given him junk. (How a fifty year old wine wasn’t junk, he didn’t say. Most wines go bad after a few years.) He then asks Jessica to make sure that his family gets that letter and collapses. Salvatore was drinking wine while talking with Jessica and it’s implied, but not stated, that he laced his wine with poison as he was confessing to Jessica. Or possibly that he just kept the bottle of poisoned wine from when he murdered Ben and that’s what he drank.
The scene shifts to a hospital waiting room, where the family plus Jessica and Thaddeus are gathered.
After a bit, Fiona gets up and walks to Jessica (who is sitting next to Paul) and tells her that they all want her to know that, whatever happens, the family is going to fight to keep the winery. Jessica is very relieved by this, and Fiona continues that she’s been very selfish and never realized how much Marco was like his father—how much he loved the place.
Then the doctor walks in and says that Salvatore is going to make it. He’s asked for Marco. Marco and Fiona go off to his room.
Jessica and Thaddeus then talk, privately. Thaddeus remarks that there are parts of his job that he hates (that he’s going to have to arrest his friend for murder). Jessica points out that the only real evidence against Salvatore is his confession, and it’s fading fast in her memory. By the time the county prosecutor got around to questioning her, she wouldn’t be surprised if she’d forgotten it entirely. Thaddeus thinks on this and remarks that if Salvatore got himself a good lawyer, it would be six months, at least, by the time they got him to trial. By that time, it hardly seems worth the bother of the paperwork. Jessica says, “That was my thought,” and we go to credits.
Overall, I’d say that this was in the bottom half of Murder, She Wrote episodes. In many ways it suffered from the limitations of TV of its era. For example, Jessica is a close family friend of the Gambinis but we’ve never heard of these people before and never will again. Worse, from the perspective of consistent characterization, she is a dear family friend despite the fact that she spent her life teaching high school English in Cabot Cove, Maine, while Salvatore and Marco, if not necessarily their children, spent their lives growing grapes in California. Also, despite being a close family friend, she hasn’t seen them in a long time and this is the first time she’s seen the vineyard. There’s just no way to take this and the characters seriously. But television writers, in the 1980s, largely didn’t take their characters seriously. They were so focused on the individual episode that they generally were willing to sacrifice the characters for the needs of the moment. (I’ve read about this in books about TV screenwriting.)
Another thing typical of 1980s screenwriting was the focus on the drama of the moment. This was driven in large part by the existence of TV remotes and the (comparative) plethora of channels which had become recently available; it was important to always hold people’s attention so they wouldn’t flip the channel. Thus we get the nonsensical drama of Ben Skyler being killed right where Tony was almost killed the night before. It made for a great moment to go to commercial break on. It would really hook the viewer to not flip the channel, or at least to come back after a minute. But it made absolutely no sense.
Ben’s murder was premeditated and carried out at Salvatore’s convenience. Why would he do it in his private wine cellar and lock the door? He couldn’t really expect that the police wouldn’t investigate, and killing Ben in a place where only a member of the family could have done it was just asking for trouble.
The whole thing about Ben having been killed by “poison” was also badly done. That’s just not how cause-of-death works. Poisons kill people by some actual means, such as cardiac arrest, asphyxiation, etc. Cyanide, for example, (in high doses) generally kills by cardiac arrest. If you look at a corpse killed with a high dose of cyanide, you’ll find, basically, that they died of heart failure (I’m oversimplifying). To find out that it was cyanide, you have to run tests to detect cyanide in their body. And so it goes with other poisons; they kill by making some part of the body fail, so to the degree that you can tell how they died, you’ll find that they died of something-failure. It’s chemical tests for particular poisons that let you find out that the poison was in sufficient quantities in the body to determine that it was the poison that caused the whatever-failure.
This is why there are undetectable poisons—because there are no specific tests for the poison. It’s also why there are many detectable poisons that often go undetected—because no one thinks to test for that poison. This is why recognizing the symptoms of rare poisons was a somewhat popular subject in golden age mysteries—without knowing what to test for, the odds of finding it were essentially nil. Without knowing that the person was poisoned, it was very hard to prove that someone murdered his uncle to inherit the title and fortune since as far as anyone could tell, the uncle died of natural causes.
Here, all we have is that Ben Skyler died of “poison.” And this isn’t a detail. The kind of poison really matters; did it kill almost instantly or hours later? That’s going to dramatically effect questions like where was he killed and who did it?
That said, it won’t affect questions like, “how did he get into Salvatore’s locked wine cellar?”
Which is a question which Salvatore really should have asked himself before killing Ben there. It’s a question which should have been central to the investigation and was only dropped in favor of investigating Ben’s background as a mob killer because, I suspect, it would have led directly to Salvatore too quickly.
Also, why did a New York organized crime syndicate want to buy the Gambini winery so badly that they’d first offer a lot of money then send a hitman on a multi-month assignment to kill Salvatore in order to get it? If they just really want to make good wines, there are plenty of wineries in the finger lakes region of upstate New York that they could try to acquire. If they want to make money, making wine isn’t exactly a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s even less of a get-rich-quick scheme if you pay a high price for the winery, which is usually what happens if you make a very handsome offer and the offer gets accepted. So what was the idea?
And why would this crime syndicate pick a dumb hitman to go off to pretend to be Michelle’s boyfriend for months in order to get into the house? Jessica tried to explain it as Salvatore rarely leaving the house anymore, but it’s a big house with few people in it, not a fortress. I assume Marco and Fiona live there too, but Marco works in the vineyard, most days, and I’d tend to assume that Fiona likes to drive elsewhere. It wouldn’t be that hard to wait for Stella to go to the grocery store, or the beauty parlor, or somewhere, and then go into the house and push Salvatore down the stairs. Heck, it would be pretty easy to pretend to be a burglar and kill Salvatore when the old man caught the “burglar”. If he had a flair for the dramatic, he could have just shot Salvatore through a window then left a note saying, “In the old country you shot my father through a window before you fled. Finally, justice has caught up with you.” They might have thought a lot of things, but probably not, “let’s not sell to that eastern company because the crime syndicate that they’re a front for probably had Papa killed this way so they could buy it.”
Becoming someone’s boyfriend for two months is such an uncertain way to gain access to their grandfather, too. She could get tired of him and move on at any moment.
The character of the football investigator was an interesting plot thread, though it was only there for about seven minutes (by timestamps). That’s something of another issue with this episode—instead of front-loading possibilities then working through them, the episode tended to deal with one thing at a time. There was Ben’s mysterious identity, which was answered almost immediately. There was the question of what Michelle could tell us about Ben—which was absolutely nothing. Then there was the mysterious investment advisor, who turned out to be a football investigator two scenes later. Had these things been re-ordered—and had Michelle even had so much as a red herring to tell about Ben—it would have given us a lot more to chew on during the episode.
There’s also an issue that comes up in a lot of Murder, She Wrote episodes, which is that the murderer didn’t have much of a motive for the murder. Usually, though, it’s more that the murderer turning to murder is an over-reaction. This is excusable because we need a murder each week and human beings do occasionally overreact. In this case, it’s contrary to the murderer’s immediate and long term motives. Salvatore permitted the hitman to come because he thought that being murdered might help to solidify the family. OK. But when the hitman proved to be dangerous to others, why kill the hitman? Why not simply tell him to leave? Either he leaves, which makes him not a danger to the grandkids, or he kills Salvatore then and there since his cover was blown, which is what Salvatore wanted.
Then we come to the issue of what Salvatore wants, which is a major driver of the plot of this episode: that all of his descendants will spend their lives working on his vineyard. This is always portrayed as a noble thing, but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with growing excellent wine on a vineyard and making a lot of money by selling it to people. There is just nothing especially wonderful about it, either. It’s simply a way to earn one’s living, and perhaps an art form. There are many ways to earn a living and many forms of art. The vineyard is his dream. To be fair, it’s also Marco’s dream. But if it’s not his grandchildren’s dream, that’s either the way things go or his fault, depending on whether God didn’t make his grandchildren to be wine makers or whether they had the potential to love making wines as he did and were never shown what’s good about it.
I suspect that the grandchildren taking an interest in the winery is related to Murder, She Wrote‘s theme that old things are still good. There was a generational disconnect which existed, and which older people partially blamed younger people for. The younger generation didn’t value the things the older generation did, and they should. Etc. etc. So I suspect it was enough that this had that structure; it was referencing a problem that most of the audience would recognize, so it didn’t need to be plausible in itself.
In thinking about what went wrong in this episode, it seems to me that a big part of it is that there were a lot of characters, but they were all wasted. The grand children had potential, but none of them were taken anywhere with it. Paul is somewhat dutiful but mostly uninvolved. Further, being a professional football player would have made him financially independent of the winery, but this never comes up. He neither seems to show interest in the winery nor disinclination for it; the closest we come is a moment when Thaddeus offers Paul a job as a deputy and Salvatore says no, he’s going to work in the winery when he retires from football. Paul says nothing, positive or negative.
Tony’s gambling problem drives a lot of yelling in the episode, and some lecturing and some sighing, but very little else. Tony isn’t emotionally connected to anyone else, except his father who is angry with him, so his gambling problem just kind of takes up space. I think it was supposed to provide an alternative target for the hitman, but Tony will drive up to Tahoe so that his gambling associates can beat him up, so it’s not a very realistic possibility.
Michelle is barely even a character. She’s in the story to bring Ben to the house. Apart from that and being the occasion of a bit of complaining, she ads nothing to the episode.
When we come to their parents, it’s no better. Fiona resents Salvatore and the winery, even though she married into it, then repents of wanting luxury for no reason we can see.
Marco is angry at his sons for bickering, angry at Tony for gambling, secretly angry at Michelle for not settlng down, and annoyed with Thaddeus for questioning Michelle when her boyfriend turns out to be a mob hitman, as if Thaddeus should just ignore the presence of a mob hitman. Other than a few lines here and there about being proud of his father, all he brings is negativity. Even the part where he’s praising his father, he does negatively: “When I die, I hope the only thing they say about me is, ‘he was the son of Salvatore Gambini’.” Granted, he adds “and that, ‘he was a credit to his father’.” Still, that’s not much in the way of positivity.
Also, when my children come to die, I hope that people will be able to say more about them than that they were my children.
Anyway, with all of these wasted characters, there wasn’t much time to do anything good. Though that’s only a partial excuse; what they had could have been better had they re-ordered it to produce some mystery.
So, I’ve pointed out a lot of problems with this episode; is there anything good to say about it?
Salvatore Gambini’s accent was a lot of fun and the actor who played him (Eli Wallach) played him quite well. The police chief, Thaddeus Kyle, was a fun character. He didn’t get a ton of screen time, but he was intelligent and humble. Murder, She Wrote could use more police chiefs like him.
I’m having trouble, here. Most of the things that weren’t problems were merely… serviceable. You’d think a California winery would at least provide beautiful scenery, but all we get is an overview at the title card and a narrow path with greenery on the side during the horse walking. There are some overview shots of the house, too, but they’re nothing spectacular. So even the setting is merely serviceable.
In the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote towards the later middle of the season was the episode Murder Through the Looking Glass.
The car we see in the opening title pulls up at the peer and two men get out. The older, grey-haired one pulls out a gun and tells the other to face him.
The man who is about to be shot asks who it was who ordered the hit, but the hitman says that it would do him no good and then shoots him twice. The shots are off-screen while the camera pulls in on a headlight. In theory, this is supposed to be to shield the viewer from witnessing even simulated violence. In practice, I suspect that it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to just film a headlight and put the sound of two bullets and a splash over it in post-production than it would be to use special effects and do a stunt.
The hitman gets back in the car and drives off.
The scene then changes to a sign saying that the guest speaker of tonight’s meeting of the New England Booksellers’ Association is J.B. Fletcher. She leaves amid thunderous applause, and accepts the organizer’s invitation to get some coffee up the street. As they’re going to the coffee place, the hitman suffers a heart attack and crashes his car next to her. He asks for a priest, and Jessica calls out for one. A priest actually pulls up in a car, across the street, and she calls him over. The hitman, in his delirium, he seems to mistake Jessica for the priest and gives her his dying confession. “I killed a man tonight: Karl Kosgrove from Farmington. H&H.”
He then slumps over dead, and the priest gets there. He asks what the man said, and Jessica merely says that he asked for a priest. The priest checks the hitman’s pulse and pronounces him dead. Jessica widens her eyes in shock, and we move onto police headquarters the next day. There we meet the police detective for our episode.
His name is Sergeant Cooper. He’s telling a woman named Edie the story of how he insulted her sister the previous night. From context, Edie’s sister is Cooper’s wife, and she’s left their house and he doesn’t know where she is and is trying to find her. Jessica walks in and talks to him about the man who had the accident last night whose death she reported to him half an hour ago. Yeah, that doesn’t make sense to me either, but it’s going by very quickly and I think that they’re just trying to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Anyway, Jessica is surprised to hear that he didn’t have any identification on him. He was driving a car so he should have, at least, a driver’s license. Unless, she adds, he wanted to conceal his identity because he was a professional killer. Sergeant Cooper is amused by the idea that he was a professional killer and wonders where Jessica got that idea. She said from his dying confession—he said H&H, which according to her research means “head and heart”; a bullet in both places is the mark of a professional killing.
She doesn’t explain why the assassin’s union—or would it be a guild?—would have this standard. I suppose the idea of two bullets is to ensure that the victim can’t possibly survive, but why not two bullets in the head and two in the heart? If the idea is that they only need two in order to show off their skill, why not one?
Be that as it may, why would a professional killer benefit from not having identification on him? If he’s arrested for the murder he just committed, not having ID will not help him at trial. If he were pulled over for a traffic violation, it could get him in extra trouble for not having his driver’s license. I can see why he might have a fake ID, but not why he would have no ID.
Be that as it may, Sergeant Cooper finds Jessica’s very amusing. Jessica makes clear her expectation that the police will investigate, starting with Carl Cosgrove in Farmington. Cooper is in the mood to humor her, so he dials directory assistance to get Cooper’s phone number and calls it.
At the residence that the phone number reaches, a woman dressed in black comes down the stairs and answers the phone.
She says that she’s Mrs. Cosgrove and that Mr. Cosgrove is alive and well. Cooper asks to speak to Carl but Mrs. Cosgrove says that he can’t—he was working in the rose garden and had an asthma attack, but she can have him call Sergeant Cooper when he recovers. Sergeant Cooper says that that won’t be necessary.
Jessica is satisfied, and the episode ends only 8 minutes in.
Since Sergeant Cooper will not help, Jessica takes a taxi over to the Cosgrove house to investigate for herself. The house has a gated driveway with a security guard at the gate. As he talks with her and asks if she has an appointment, several people inside watch the security camera footage of this in some sort of command center.
What has Jessica stumbled into? On the other hand, when you hear the dying confession of a professional killer, it’s probably not something ordinary. Still, this is one heck of a control room. They’ve got a super-computer in the corner (look at all the blinkenlights) and also some very serious grey drapes to keep the tone somber.
The security guard is reluctant but calls the command center to ask what to do. The youngest one says that perhaps they should ask “Adams,” but the middle one (the one with the mustache) who seems to be the most authoritative says that Adams isn’t here. The one in the tan sport coat says that a woman this persistent could be trouble, and the authoritative one with the mustache says, “Let’s get this over as quickly as possible.” After being told she can go in, Jessica thanks the security guard and for some reason gets back into her cab, which then pulls up to the house.
I find the houses in Murder, She Wrote very interesting. There was a lot that they were trying to convey with an establishing shot. At least, normally. In this case, I’m really not sure. This sort of estate is a strange place in which to run a… well, whatever this is. And whatever it is, who is supposed to live here? As a cover story, I mean? A gated property with a security guard manning the gate is no trivial matter, but it’s hardly enough to keep out an attacking force. On the other hand, if the purpose of the security guard is not to defend against direct attacks, what purpose does he serve? If people don’t know what’s here to attack it, the security guard would, if anything, draw attention.
Jessica comes to the front door and Mrs. Cosgrove lets her in. Jessica apologizes for Sergeant Cooper’s phone call, as if somehow the problem was Sergeant Cooper’s manner and not the call itself or Jessica’s refusal to believe Mrs. Cosgrove. There’s some chitchat and Jessica says, suggestively, that the police have reason to believe that something happened to Carl Cosgrove. Mrs. Cosgrove replies that it’s time to introduce Mrs. Fletcher to her husband, and leads the way upstairs.
When she introduces Jessica, he weakly waves his hand. Jessica expresses her condolences on his asthma attack. While she’s doing this, the shot changes to the other side of a one-way mirror in the room, where the same people who were in the control room are watching:
The mustached fellow in the grey suit asks if Jessica buys it, and the man in the tan sports jacket expresses the opinion that Jessica isn’t even slightly fooled. Mrs. Cosgrove then leads Jessica out to show her the rest of the house (for some reason). Once the door is closed the man pretending to be Carl Cosgrove—his name turns out to be Señor Delgado—gets up and talks to the mirror, saying that he does not like role-playing. Mustache Man acknowledges this, but says that it’s sometimes necessary for security. Another man walks in—he appears to be some sort of aide and refers to Señor Delgado as “Comandante”. They speak in Spanish and he translates, despite Delgado seeming to speak English perfectly well.
Delgado feels uneasy in the house and wants to return to Washington. Mustache Man says that this cannot be arranged, but they will bring him back to Washington the next day. Delgado demands to speak with Adams but is told that Adams is in Washington arranging the security for his appearance before “the committee”. Delgado says that he doesn’t believe them, and on that bombshell the scene fades out.
We’ve gotten some definite clues about what Jessica as stumbled into, though I’m not sure that they make sense. Delgado is some sort of South-American dictator, or at least military figure. It doesn’t make sense why a South American dictator would be hiding out in a safe house, so presumably he’s a military commander who has run away from his country to testify in front of congress that… who knows?
This is apparently a safe house run by some government agency. Why they let Jessica in and why they picked Delgado to pretend to be Carl Cosgrove, I can’t make out. Perhaps it will eventually be explained.
The next scene is of Jessica in her hotel room. A desk clerk recognizes her as she walks past and tells her that Father Francis was looking for her. He left a message for her to meet him at his church, Saint Jerome’s, which is only two blocks away.
Jessica goes there directly.
Fr. Francis calls out to her by name as she’s walking along the nave of the church, which startles her. She asks how he knew her name. He says that he described her to the desk clerk who identified her. He asked her to come because he wanted to know what the dying man said in his confession, as the confession was meant for a priest. Jessica acknowledges this and, knowing nothing about how the sacrament of reconciliation (“confession”) works, tells him.
He responds that a parishioner who is a police officer told him that the man who died was identified as a professional killer from another city. He asks if the confession included who hired him to kill Mr. Cosgrove.
Frankly, this isn’t a great impression of a priest. (It’s pretty obvious by now that “Fr. Francis” is not a real priest.)
Jessica says that no, the killer didn’t say, and she just met Mr. Cosgrove and he seemed very much alive.
“Fr. Francis” then asks if she’s sure that it was the Mr. Cosgrove. Jessica starts to ask him what it is he wants to know, but they’re interrupted by the actual pastor of the church who calls out, “Anything I can do for you, Father?”
“Fr. Francis” replies, awkwardly, “No. Thank you very much, Father.”
He then turns back to Jessica and explains why he wasn’t recognized, “Father Sweeney. His eyes aren’t what they used to be.”
Jessica replies, “Well, in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, we are much as we see. Faith is sight and knowledge.”
“Father Francis” grins, thinks for a moment, then replies, “and the old boy certainly knew what he was talking about.”
You’d think he’d be better at imitating a priest than this if he took the time to actually get black clothes and a roman collar. They’re laying it on pretty thick, but I suppose it’s for an audience who knows nothing about priests. Or Saint Thomas Aquinas. I mean, you don’t even need to have read any Saint Thomas to know that this isn’t a quote from him. That said, Saint Thomas isn’t a great choice to catch someone up on—if you’re not making the quote obviously impossible—since he wrote so much you have to be a Saint Thomas scholar to recognize every possible quote from him. That said, it’s not even a great test since it’s rude to correct somebody on a misquotation, and a person may let it slide out of politeness rather than ignorance.
The actual pastor of the church then gets a message from a boy in a cassock and surplice who apparently wears them to do office work:
The message turns out to be that there is a phone call for a Mrs. Fletcher. The priest asks if Jessica is Mrs. Fletcher, and tells her that she can take the call in her office. When she takes the call in her office, she notices the nameplate that the camera zoomed in on which says, “Reverend Paul Kelly.” This is for the slow witted, I assume, though given that they think that churches employ 10 year old alter servers in full vestments as office secretaries, perhaps they thought that they were actually being subtle and the nameplate was necessary.
The phone call turns out to be from Sergeant Cooper, who knew where to find her from the desk clerk at her hotel. He would take it as a personal favor if she came down to police headquarters immediately because they just pulled a body out of the Connecticut river with two bullets in him, one in his head and one in his heart, and his ID says that he’s Carl Cosgrove of Farmington.
Jessica arrives at the police station and there is some banter between her and the sergeant, but she explains what she found in Farmington and Sergeant Cooper says that it’s time for a house call.
When they’re let in, the fellow in the tan sportscoat says that Mrs. Cosgrove is not at home, but he’s her brother and asks if there’s anything he can do. Sergeant Cooper starts to go up the stairs to look around, but his way is blocked by the Spanish assistant, then Tan Sportscoat pulls a gun on Cooper. Mrs Cosgrove comes out and checks Cooper’s badge, then Mustache Man comes out and asks everyone to join him in the living room.
In the living room Mustache Man says that their insistence on coming might have compromised the security of a DSS safe house. Jessica is unfamiliar with the acronym DSS, and Sergeant Cooper explains that it stands for “Department of Special Security”—which is a made up department, explaining why Jessica never heard of it. Mustache Man is angry with Sergeant Cooper for coming to the house as DSS authority supercedes local authority, but since he has no idea why Sergeant Cooper is there and Sergeant Cooper couldn’t have known that it was a DSS safe house, this makes no sense.
There’s some banter where Jessica deduces that the “Carl Cosgrove” she saw was their house guest and Mustache Man says that he expected no less deductive ability from a mystery writer who outwitted a KGB agent to help a pair of Russian ballet dancers defect (a reference to a first season episode). Jessica surmises that they have a file on her and he rattles off a bunch of harmless facts about her like her maiden name and marital status. Jessica is deeply upset by this recital of information that might as well have come from the jacket cover of one of her books, for some reason. Anyway, they finally get to who “Carl Cosgrove” is—a house identity that they all use when they go out on house business. Sergeant Cooper then shows a picture of the stiff, and it turns out that it is Adams. “Mrs. Cosgrove” then cries at Mustache Man that he lied—he had said that Adams was on assignment in Washington. Tan Sportscoat then says, “Meeting with somebody he didn’t know in a deserted parking lot was stupid. You should have stopped him.” Mustache Man replies, “I didn’t know anything about it.” He then reminds them that they’re secret agents in front of non-agents. Tan Sportscoat takes Mrs. Cosgrove out for some fresh air.
Why they’re blaming Mustache Man is very non-obvious. He was clearly Adams’ subordinate. Also, how did Tan Sportscoat know that Adams met with somebody he didn’t know in a deserted parking lot when Mustache Man didn’t? This seems like a pretty typical Murder, She Wrote slip up, though you never can be 100% certain. There’s some more banter between Mustache Man, Jessica, and Sergeant Cooper. The only really interesting part is when Cooper asks if Mustache Man and Adams were friends, and Mustache Man replies, “I found his company bearable… most of the time.”
We still have no explanation for why on earth they used the person they’re guarding as a pretend Mr. Cosgrove to try to fake Jessica out. For that matter, if Mr. Cosgrove was a name that they all used when going out, why did Mrs. Cosgrove pretend that “Mr. Cosgrove” wasn’t home? Why didn’t she just fetch one of the men who had a driver’s license that said “Mr. Cosgrove” on it to the phone?
Come to think of it, why did every agent in the house use the same fake ID? It would get very awkward if they had to come into contact with the same person twice—by all pretending to be the same person, they would need to coordinate who they met so the rest could avoid them. If everyone had his own ID, it would simplify their safe house business and also provide an explanation for why they would pretend that Mr. Cosgrove was just fine without actually getting him because Adams was out.
Be that as it may, the scenes at the safe house are done and Jessica goes back to her hotel. Incidentally, I really love the hotel rooms in Murder, She Wrote:
Jessica had to walk down the hallway inside her hotel room to get this this enormous living room, btw. To be clear, I don’t mean the hotel hallway. Inside of her hotel room was a hallway past other rooms to get to this one.
The New England Bookseller’s Association sure put her up in style.
She notices the beer on the table and “Father Francis” walks out of the shadows and says that they need to talk. Jessica suggests that he talk to the police and explain why he broke into her room, but he merely says that she nailed him on the quotation in the church. He had to look it up—it wasn’t Saint Thomas Aquinas, it was Henry David Thoreau.
I’m actually quite surprised that this was a real quote—I mean apart from it being very stupid. “We are much as we see. Faith is sight and knowledge” doesn’t mean anything. Actually, it’s a slight mis-quotation. The real quotation is “We are as much as we see…” That doesn’t make sense either, though. And it’s not just that it’s taken out of context. Take a look at the quotation in context (it’s from the seventh volume of Henry David Thoreau’s collected writings):
How much virtue there is in simply seeing! We may almost say that the hero has striven in vain for his pre-eminency, if the student oversees him. The woman who sits in the house and sees is a match for a stirring captain. Those still, piercing eyes, as faithfully exercised on their talent, will keep her even with Alexander or Shakespeare. They may go to Asia with parade, or to fairyland, but not beyond her ray. We are as much as we see. Faith is sight and knowledge. The hands only serve the eyes. The farthest blue streak in the horizon I can see, I may reach before many sunsets. What I saw alters not; in my night, when I wander, it is still steadfast as the star which the sailor steers by.
To be fair, the passage as a whole is merely wrong, not meaningless. But the part about “faith is sight and knowledge” is meaningless, especially when you realize in context that he’s talking about literal eyesight since the whole is a panegyric to eyesight.
Anyway, the real reason I assumed that it was not a real quote was not that it’s meaningless prattle, but that if you use a real quote you might accidentally get something that two people said. I’m quite certain that Jessica never read so much as a word of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and frankly it would be a bit shocking if she even knew who he was. Even having heard of his name is a bit of a stretch. Since she could have no idea what he’d actually said, for all she knew Thoreau got it from Aquinas. No, if you want to catch someone out on a quotation, you should make it up yourself so you can be sure it’s not real.
Anyway, Father Patrick reveals that he works for the DSS in internal affairs—investigating all the other DSS agents to keep them honest. Jessica asks if he can show her identification, and he laughs—he can, but it all says, “Father Patrick Francis”. He asks if they can go outside to talk and Jessica agrees but only somewhere with people around. He very readily agrees to that suggestion and asks her to name the place. She picks a public park.
I like this turn of events. Finally having a good guy in the story is pleasant. Also, I like that he recognizes the difficulty of proving who he is and takes steps that demonstrate trust and make Jessica feel safer, such as going someplace public and letting her pick the place. It doesn’t prove he’s telling the truth, but it’s consistent with him telling the truth and also with being able to see things from her perspective. That’s a good trait for a character to have.
They go the park and he gives Jessica some backstory.
Last week Adams called internal affairs and said that he suspected that there was a traitor in the DSS safe house. We get a bit of backstory on the people there; Mustache Man was passed over for promotion for a younger man. Tan Sportscoat was a hotshot recruited off of an Ivy league campus, but hasn’t gone anywhere because of his lack of leadership material. The young timid guy is young and timid. Delgado, not that I can see how it matters, is actually the leader of a revolution in his country here to ask Washington for more money for his revolution. Sanchez is his bodyguard, factotum, personal servant, etc.
He then tells what he knows about Adams death: Adams telephoned “Fr. Francis” last night and told him that he heard from an informant who would reveal the traitor. They arranged to meet at the Trinity College parking lot, and Adams told no one about this. It didn’t smell right to “Fr. Francis” so he persuaded Adams to wear a tracking device. Adams spoke to the so-called informant briefly then got in his car and they drove off. “Fr. Francis” followed at a safe distance but well within range of the tracking device. As he was going over the Connecticut river, the signal suddenly stopped. He retraced his steps but couldn’t pick it up again. He waited a bit but then saw the “informant’s” car, so he tailed him back to the city, only to see him crash in front of Jessica’s hotel.
Jessica then asks what he wants, and he wants her to do the investigation for him, since the people in the safe house will just close ranks if he shows up and identifies himself as being with internal affairs. Jessica absolutely refuses to be a spy for him—despite that being exactly the same thing as investigating the murder that she wants to investigate.
In the next scene Jessica is in her hotel room and runs in a bath robe to catch the phone which is ringing.
It turns out to be “Mr. Secretary.” She does remember meeting at at the cocktail party at the state department, and—short story even shorter—in the next scene she’s being prepped for going into the safe house to dig up what she can. This includes a lipstick that is actually an emergency beacon.
Interestingly, the cover Jessica is using is that she wants to gather information about the safe house for an upcoming book and has pulled strings with friends in Washington to get her access. I do like this twist on what really happened—that Washington used their connection with her to get her to do it. It’s got a nice plausibility to it, though, given that within the world of Murder, She Wrote Jessica is a literary titan who routinely attends everything, everywhere, and knows everyone. She certainly could pull strings to get access, if she wanted to.
Mustache Man is reluctant, then Tan Sportscoat (now wearing a sweater, and his name was revealed to be Van Buren, but for consistency I’m going to keep calling him Tan Sportscoat) comes in and he and Mustache Man bicker until a call comes in from the gate that Sergeant Cooper is there and wants in to discuss a development in Adams’ murder. (Incidentally, Mustache Man’s actual name—or at least code name—is Jackson, but again I’m going to keep using the name I first had for him since we learned his name pretty late in the episode.)
The new development is that Sergeant Cooper ran Adams’ prints and he had a rap sheet a mile long. This isn’t a development, though, since this is just leftover from a previous cover identity. However, while Cooper and Mustache Man are bickering, a real development happens:
Sanchez can’t wake up Delgado, and not in the “he’s sleeping very deeply” sense. As opposed to Timid Guy, who is sleeping pretty deeply but quite alive. We’ve got a second murder on our hands. I guess it’s convenient that Sergeant Cooper is on the premises.
Timid Guy wakes up and hears from Sanches that Delgado is dead and runs off to bring the news to Mustache Man. Everyone runs out of the room except for Jessica, who goes and activates her lipstick beacon for some reason. “Father Francis” picks up a walkie talkie and tells everyone to surround the house. Then we go to commercial break.
When we come back, Sergeant Cooper is yelling into the phone that he needs the homicide team. The camera then pans over to the next room where Timid Guy is being interrogated. He admits he fell asleep, which had been a problem before, but those times were late at night. That’s why he thought switching to taking a morning shift would be a good idea. But it didn’t work, even with an entire thermos of black coffee.
Cooper then interrupts and starts his own line of questioning, which leads to how Timid Guy saw saw Sanchez shaking Delgado, but couldn’t actually see what he was doing, so Cooper leaps to the conclusion that Sanchez strangled Delgado while he pretended to try to wake him.
Jessica decides to confront Sanchez, says that he was more loyal to his Comandante than to the revolution, and asks if he would be so even if Delgado was stealing money meant for food for the people and to fund the revolution. Sanchez angrily says this was a lie, that Delgado was a good man, and that he never would have stolen from his people. I’ve no idea what the point of this is, since Sanchez is literally the least likely suspect in the building (after Jessica).
Francis and Cooper come and arrest Delgado for the murder, but Jessica isn’t buying it. Sanchez could have had no way of knowing that Timid Guy was asleep, and it seems more than a bit foolish to kill Delgado right in front of someone watching him. Francis says that Sanchez was the only one who could have done it, but I don’t see how this was the case since they have no idea what happened while Timid Guy was asleep.
Jessica is more bothered that this wouldn’t link the murder to the murder of Adams, and she’s convinced that there must be a link.
A little later Mrs. Cosgrove talks to Jessica and plaintively says that Adams would never have let this happen. He was omniscient, I suppose, except when it came to obvious traps. Jessica suggests that the impossibility of killing Delgado with Adams around might be why he was killed. Mrs. Cosgrove wonders why he went off on his own without telling anyone where he was going and Jessica replies, “I don’t think he meant to hurt you. I think he wanted to prevent any possibility of a leak by not confiding in anyone.”
Then she realizes what she just said and we get clue-face:
So, the good money is on Tan Sportscoat’s remark about Adams meeting someone he didn’t know in an abandoned parking lot being a real slip.
Jessica anounces that she knows who killed Adams and Delgado.
We next see her in the murder room.
Yup, the murderer is Tan Sportscoat (now wearing a sweater). To seal the deal, he says, “You wanted to see me?” (I can’t recall a time that Jessica wanted to see someone with less than 5 minutes to go in the episode who wasn’t the murderer.)
Jessica asks Tan Sportscoat if he’ll give her his opinion on a theory she has: the killer was assigned to the safe house and felt his career had reached a dead end. He was restless, and Delgado’s country contacted the killer and offered a large sum of money for the assassination of Delgado.
Oddly, Tan Sportscoat doesn’t stop her here and ask how on earth the head of some South American country would be aware of the personnel in a safe house in Connecticut, to say nothing of how they would know that Delgado would be assigned to this safe house ass presumably the DSS has more than one. Both of those seem effectively impossible, ruling out this theory, but we hear not a word about this.
In fact, he says nothing and Jessica continues. First, the killer had to get rid of Adams, who kept a very watchful eye on the safe house. Which meant the killer had to contact a hit man.
Also oddly, Tan Sportscoat doesn’t object that Adams wasn’t omniscient and could hardly personally watch the safe house 24/7, so there was no need to kill him. Instead he observes that Mustache Man had access to the department’s list of hit men. Jessica pounces, saying, “Oh, you know about the list?” He replies that he’d heard of it.
He asks how Mustache suckered Adams, and Jessica says it was with a scenario. First, creating suspicion about a traitor in the ranks, then having the hitman contact Adams with an offer of information of who it was. Tan Sportscoat says that he didn’t think Mustache had it in him, and Jessica says that he didn’t—she’s talking about Tan Sportscoat. He then walks over to the mirror and asks who’s behind it—the cop or the internal affairs man. Jessica replies, “both.”
This is a very strange setup. I can’t see how it accomplishes anything for Jessica to accuse Tan Sportscoat with people watching from behind a mirror instead of being in the room with them. For that matter, why does the safe house have a room behind a one-way mirror at all? If they want to be able to observe the person that they’re guarding, closed circuit TV would work perfectly well and be less cumbersome. Plus if they had closed circuit TV throughout the house they could then watch the person that they’re guarding at times other than when they’re sleeping. And they do have closed circuit TV watching the gatehouse. (Presumably the answer is that the plot wouldn’t work with closed circuit TV since that would almost certainly be recorded on 24 hour loop, making the murder impossible.)
Be that as it may, there’s an interesting twist that comes up: Tan Sportscoat says that he can account for his whereabouts during every minute of Timid Guy’s shift. Jessica replies that he didn’t kill Delgado during Timid Guy’s shift, he killed him during his own shift, then made it look like Delgado was still sleeping so that Timid Guy would assume Delgado was still alive and everyone would think that Delgado was killed during Timid Guy’s shift (Tan Sportscoat had been drugging Timid Guy’s coffee and increased the dose today).
He replies, “Well, your theory… turned out to be better than I thought.”
“Father Francis” asks him why he did it, and he replies that Jessica got it right—for the money. Jessica gives him a disapproving look, and he asks her, “Or would you prefer if I did it because I believed in a cause?” Jessica says, in her dour way, “Either way, it was murder.”
Oddly, this is not the end of the episode. There’s a final scene at police headquarters where Sergeant Cooper tells Jessica that Mr. Francis called and Tan Sportscoat is singing like a bird about the people who paid him to murder Delgado. This is interrupted, briefly, by a call from his wife, to which he habitually replies, “I can’t talk now, Norma” then goes back to talking to Jessica. She interrupts him to point out that he’s been trying to get in touch with his wife for days, and he realizes what he did and asks somebody to trace the call. Then we go to credits:
This is a really weird episode. On the face of it a spy-thriller should mix well with a murder mystery, but I’ve never heard of that being done in a way that isn’t just a spy thriller. This episode is, of course, not really a spy thriller. It only pretends to be one as a red herring for the murder mystery. Still, that takes enough time away from the episode that it doesn’t feel like a murder mystery.
For one thing, there isn’t really much of an investigation in this episode. Much of Jessica’s time is spent uselessly trying to figure out who the hitman killed, only to have that eventually revealed by forces outside of her control. Another large chunk is figuring out the identity of the pretend priest, but he turns out to be another investigator, and investigators are (in legitimate mysteries) outside of the mystery.
Of course, ultimately, it turns out that the spy thriller is a red herring and this is a murder mystery, but we only get the murder to investigate 10 minutes from the end of the episode. Better late than never, but it robs a lot of the fun, especially since Jessica knows who did it 5 minutes from the end of the episode. The problem with using the appearance of being the wrong genre as a red herring is that, “it only looks like it’s in the wrong genre,” is still not in the right genre for most of the episode.
The story also had a lot of problems with its plot, too. The way everyone at the safe house stonewalls about Adams’ death makes no sense. They’re running a safe house on US soil, not a fake business in foreign territory. There’s no one they need to convince that nothing has happened. Moreover, there’s no real reason for the agents to be under cover at all, but still less is there a reason to have them rotate through the same cover identity. However, given that they rotate through the same cover identity, there was absolutely no reason to pretend that “Carl Cosgrove” was having an asthma attack. Since any man there could be Carl Cosgrove, one of them should have been. And if not, there was no reason to say he was having an asthma attack rather than just saying that he’s on a business trip. And given that they said that he was having an asthma attack, why on earth did they pick Delgado to play Carl Cosgrove? In the entire house, only two men did not have ID which said Carl Cosgrove, and they picked one of them. In the house, only two people did not speak English natively, and of the two they picked the one who spoke English worse. Also, in the house, everyone there is guarding one person, who is being kept in the house anonymously, and that’s the guy they picked to introduce to a stranger??? In what way did picking Delgado to pretend to be Carl Cosgrove make even a shred of sense?
Next, and though it’s a comparatively small thing, why did they have Tan Sportscoat say that Jessica didn’t buy Delgado-as-Cosgrove for a minute? She seems to have dropped the matter when we see her next and in fact she protested to “Father Francis” that Carl Cosgrove seemed very much alive when she saw him. As far as we can tell, she did buy it.
The parts with Father Francis were laid on thick, but were fine, if more spy thriller than murder mystery.
We run into problems, again, when we get to the background on the people at the safe house. First, only two of the five people assigned there have anything like a motive to murder Adams (since Adams didn’t order the hit on himself). Of the two, Mustache Man’s motive is a bit weird. Supposedly he’s jealous that a younger man was chosen for promotion ahead of him. The thing is, Adams doesn’t look like the younger man:
To be fair, Robert Reed, who played Mustache Man, was 56 at the time of filming while Kirk Scott, who played Adams, was 52. That’s not much of an age gap, though. Also, we’re told that Jackson was shunted aside when Adams was put in charge of the safe house, but how long are agents assigned to the safe house for? And how much can being in charge of a safe house be worth killing for? It’s basically a high (ish) security secret one-room hotel. Apart from when the head of it gets assassinated, the routine must be very dull.
Speaking of which, I can’t help asking again: why on earth do these people have cover identities? They’re just running an extremely small hotel that, presumably, they all live in. They don’t need to go to work, or really to go to anywhere. Is it really critical that they have a fake ID when they go to the grocery store or the hardware store, or run out to the drug store to pick up some extra toothpaste when they’re running low? Can’t they just pay in cash and not need an ID at all?
If this safe house was the home of a couple who was stationed at it, I can see why they’d have fake ID, just so that the people aren’t really traceable when they get reassigned because somebody’s name needs to be on the deed to the house. But in this case everyone had a unique code name despite most of them would not be listed on any official documents, plus they had the “Carl Cosgrove” fake identity to use when going outside of the house. No matter which way you look at it, it seems to serve no conceivable purpose. It’s intrigue just for the sake of having something more complicated.
Speaking of things just for the sake of having something more complicated, Sanchez being suspected of Delgado’s murder makes no sense. Granted, motive isn’t everything. Still, it’s a lot, especially when it would have been utterly idiotic to kill Delgado in the way he would have had to do it then when he could have killed Delgado at any time. It’s not even slightly plausible, and just makes Francis and Cooper look like idiots. That’s especially unfortunate for Francis since he started off seeming intelligent.
But that brings me to Cooper: why was he part of the episode? Does Murder, She Wrote simply have to have a policeman in every episode because of some sort of clause in the contract with the studio? He served no purpose that I can see. He didn’t even help Jessica find Carl Cosgrove of Farmington—he used directory assistance to find the number. He did tell Jessica about Carl Cosgrove being pulled out of the Connecticut river and give Jessica a ride into the safe house the second time she went there, but she just as easily could have taken a taxi after reading, in a newspaper, about the body being found.
So, was there anything good about this episode?
I really liked how they snuck Jessica into the safe house. Pretending that she pulled strings in Washington to get in when Washington pulled strings with her to get her to go was a very nice twist. It was also a clever cover story because it was both plausible and gave her a reason to snoop and ask questions. It also played nicely into the character of Musctache Man who is inclined to defer to his superiors on everything and to do what he is told without question. This is somewhat marred by the fact that she didn’t actually do any investigating under her cover story, though.
I also liked the twist where Tan Sportscoat had given himself an alibi for the entire time that Timid Guy was on duty. This was diminished by the statement of the alibi and Jessica’s solution taking only 46 seconds from start to finish. It’s the sort of difficulty which should have taken most of an episode to unravel, or at least should have posed some sort of challenge that Jessica would need to think about. They could easily have cut Cooper’s part to make more time for this. It would have been a much better use of time.
I also like the beginning of Tan Sportscoat’s confession at the end. After she broke his alibi, he said, “Your theory… turned out to be better than I thought.” A moment later, after Francis asked him why he did it, he replied, “She got it right.” The calmness in being caught aligns with the way both murders were cold and calculating. They also contain a certain amount of respect at being bested by a superior intellect.
There were also a few comedic moments that were enjoyable. For example, when Jessica activated her lipstick beacon, she first tried the motion on her actual lipstick, but all that happened was lipstick came out. Not high comedy, but it was fun in the moment, and I think helped to distract from there not really being a reason to turn on the emergency beacon. Cooper’s arguing with his various female relatives and in-laws, followed by habitually hanging up on his wife when she finally called him, was mildly amusing.
Overall, I’m not sad to see this episode over. I don’t watch Murder, She Wrote for spy thrillers, and certainly not for nonsensical spy thrillers. I think that main lesson of this episode is that it’s good to stay within one’s genre, and very good to at least stay within a genre one can write competently.
Next week’s episode is A Very Good Year for Murder, which takes place in a vineyard, which is certainly more promising than a spy thriller.
I recently finished the first book of Dr. Thorndyke short stories, by R. Austin Freeman. It included stories such as The Man With the Nailed Boots, The Moabite Cipher, and The Message From the Deep Sea. Not included in this edition were the pictures which were included with the original (famously, the stories would include pictures of what Dr. Thorndyke would have seen through his microscope, etc).
They were… interesting. Much less so for themselves, frankly, and much more so as history. As I mentioned in Dr. Thorndyke’s Scientific Wizardry, the stories as mysteries are often very noticeably contrived to make the wizardry possible. The writing is perfectly workmanlike, though it is not inspired nor does it try to be. Freeman’s main interest was the scientific aspect of the stories.
In the novels, where more is required between scientific deductions because the case must take longer, there was often a victorian, flowery melodramatic romance added, at least in the novels I read, which were the first three. I suspect that Freeman (who was born in 1862) enjoyed flowery Victorian romances as a young man and so wrote them when he had the chance.
I would definitely recommend the short stories to anyone interested in the history of detective fiction. Dr. Thorndyke was, apparently, enormously popular at the time and thus had a significant influence, though I think that the modern stories which are most similar—police procedural TV shows involving extensive crime scene analysis—have no direct influence from him. I think it was more a case of convergent evolution; the police procedurals trace their influence most directly from Dragnet, which (so far as I know) was not influenced by the Dr. Thorndyke stories. If anything Dragnet (which started as a radio drama in the 1950s) was influenced by American hard-boiled detective stories, and in any event focused on the details of police procedure rather than on evidence and logical deduction.
So far as I’m aware, Dr. Thorndyke has, other than as a historical curiosity, largely disappeared beneath the sands of time, and I would venture to say deservedly so. I can’t imagine myself ever re-reading one of these stories for pleasure and I wouldn’t even have known about it except for an off-hand reference to Dr. Thorndyke in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter novel, Have His Carcass. (Which, incidentally, goes to prove the value of pop-culture references in stories; they can help the study of history immensely.)
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