Murder She Wrote: The Way To Dusty Death

In the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode The Way To Dusty Death. It is one of the greatest of the Big Business episodes, in the sense of being most about Big Business without knowing anything about business, especially big business. You can see this even in the opening card:

The episode is not set anywhere in New York City, or at least not in any of the buildings pictured here, yet what symbolizes big business better than lower Manhattan with its dominating skyline?

The title of the episode is, of course, a reference to MacBeth’s most famous solliloquy, said immediately after learning that Lady MacBeth had just died:

She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

MacBeth did murder for a kingdom. In this episode, murder is done for a corporation, setting it up as an ersatz kingdom. In many ways this will be the theme of the episode, which is what makes this episode the epitome of Murder She Wrote Big Business episodes.

Murder, She Wrote had an attitude towards big business which was typical of its time in Hollywood. It’s equal parts disgust, envy, distrust, and scapegoat. Businessmen were all, in the eyes of Hollywood writers, unscrupulous and greedy. In many ways they were written as jocks with big wallets instead of big muscles.

This episode will pay tribute to the play MacBeth in a variety of ways. For example, right after the opening credits, the first scene is a psychic rubbing a watch.

He foretells wealth and power for those bold enough to take quick and decisive action for it that most men would shrink from. I suppose having one witch instead of three can be attributed to budget cuts, and it being a man instead of a woman makes it an homage rather than mere copying. He’s telling this fortune to a woman and a man.

This is our Lady MacBeth for the episode (sort of). The episode’s MacBeth is played by a familiar face:

The actor is Richard Beymer. We last saw him as Sydney in The Days Dwindle Down. Here he’s Morgan MacCormack, an ambitious businessman.

The psychic goes on to say that Mr. McCormack must beware of a very determined woman whose will is even more powerful than his.

After the psychic leaves, the wife (whose name is Virginia, by the way) decides that the fortune means that Morgan will be appointed chairman (we’re not told of what, yet). As they debate this, the phone rings. It’s the chairman of the board of directors of Company Corp. He invites the couple to come to his house for the weekend. The chairman intends to make a big announcement. Virginia is certain this means that he’s going to resign and make Morgan the new chairman (because that’s how companies work in Hollywood—though, to be fair, in reality if a former chairman of a board of directors who is leaving under good circumstances and makes a strong recommendation, it is likely to be heeded by the board). The one thing she wonders is who is the determined woman with a strong will? Then we cut to this scene:

The episode strongly implies that the determined woman of strong will is Jessica, though I’m not certain that’s right, in the end. I’ll get to that in the episode analysis later. The woman to the left of Jessica is Lydia Barnett, wife of Duncan Barnett, the chairman of the board of directors of Barnett Industries. (You’ll recall that the king who MacBeth killed to take over the throne was named Duncan.) They are admiring Lydia’s garden when Duncan comes up:

When Jessica turns down the (joking) offer of being gardener on their estate because after all of the effort it took to tame her garden she doesn’t have the heard to begin again, Duncan remarks that Jessica is afraid of nothing, which is why he asked her to join their board of directors. This is slightly odd as it’s normally publicly traded corporations that have a board of directors and the board members of a publicly traded corporation are elected by the shareholders. (Granted, often at the recommendation of the top management of the company.)

Jessica has, apparently, been on the board for some time as she makes reference to the most recent board meeting. Also, apparently the company owns a paper mill near Jessica’s home town which Barnett wants to close and Jessica wants to keep open because its closure will put many of her neighbors out of work (the size and composition of Cabot Cove varies considerably with each episode).

We’re then introduced to two more suspects characters:

The guy on the left is Spruce Osborn, a competitor to Barnett, and the woman is Serena. These two are the first characters who don’t have any obvious analog in MacBeth. Lydia receives them ungraciously for some reason. She directs a manservant (“James”) to show Spruce to a suite that adjoins Duncan’s suite—it was her husband’s specific wish.

It comes up in conversation, once Spruce leaves, that he’s been trying to take over the company—he made Jessica “a very generous offer” for her shares. This really makes me wonder about the ownership of the company. If the majority of shares are owned by Duncan, then Spruce has zero chance of acquiring the company without Duncan selling to him. If Duncan owns a minority of the shares, it’s not his company. I don’t think that we’re ever going to find out because I don’t think that the writers ever thought it through.

The action moves to the tennis courts on Duncan’s estates. We meet another couple who have been summoned to this weekend:

The wife is Kate Dutton, and the husband is Tom Dutton. We also meet another “vice president” who is also a board member—the writers really don’t keep the corporate structure straight—Anne Hathaway:

The name is curious, as it’s another Shakespeare reference, though not to The Tragedy of MacBeth. Anne Hathaway was the name of Shakespeare’s wife. We know approximately nothing about her beyond her name, so in this case it really is the case that any similarity to real people, living or dead, are purely coincidental.

The scene moves to Jessica and Kate Dutton, who are sitting at a table drinking iced tea. Kate remarks to Jessica that she has trouble keeping up with modern women, and Jessica replies that she doesn’t think that modern women are really all that different. I suppose Jessica should know, since she is one.

I know I keep beating on this drum, but Jessica is always written as a big city character. She holds to no traditions and the only thing she disapproves of is getting in the way of other people’s fun. For all that Jessica is supposed to be from Cabot Cove, the only way to tell is that she frequently says it. Though not in this episode, as I recall. If this episode was the only episode anyone saw, they’d quite possibly come away with the impression that Jessica lives in New York City.

That aside, it was a strange remark for Kate Dutton to have made. You can find all sorts of modern women—in the sense Kate means—back in the 1920s. In the late 1980s she really should have been used to them since they were common enough when she was still a babe in arms. Kate doesn’t really defend her remark, though, she just shifts slightly and says that she could never keep up with Anne Hathaway. There’s a bit more discussion where Kate admits that the wives of senior executes go through all sorts of scrutiny and put on performances to help their husbands ascent the corporate ladder.

Another facet of big business, as written by hollywood writers, is that they really want to be writing stories about kings and dukes and court intrigues, and seem to figure that a CEO and vice presidents are basically the same thing, or at least are close enough. I don’t know that this is harmless; I’ve met people whose stupid politics seem to have been based on this sort of nonsense in TV shows. Of course, they also usually thought that kings didn’t have responsibilities, either, so possibly the bigger problem was that all they knew of anything came from TV shows, and I doubt that well written TV shows would have helped all that much for a person in such dire intellectual straits.

That evening, there is a party in formal dress outside of the Barnett mansion:

Duncan comes in talking with Anne Hathaway and his wife reminds him of his medication. He orders a selters with no salt and Spruce Osborn objects, telling the bartender to give Duncan a brandy. Duncan demurs, saying that his doctor only allows him one brandy—before bed—and that’s it. Then he finally makes his announcement. He plans to continue continue being the whatever-the-hell-he-is of Barnett Industries for a very long time. (The writers actually side-step what on earth he is by having him say “the rumors of my imminent resignation have been greatly exaggerated.”)

He then bids his guests a good evening, and retires for the night.

Virginia and Kate follow him and assure him that they’re delighted to hear that he’s going to remain king. He laughs in their faces, and continues on his way to bed.

The next scene shows Morgan and Virginia talking in their room about their disappointment. Morgan reassures his wife that time is on their side, and she suggests that they speed things up. Morgan is reluctant, but she resolves to do it.

We then see a spoon drop white powder into a brandy snifter while Virginia’s voice says that the only reason he can’t do it is that he doesn’t have the guts:

This is a bit of a departure from MacBeth, as in the play lady MacBeth only urges MacBeth to kill his king, she doesn’t actually do it herself. She only takes over after, in performing the coverup.

Though it is a small departure from MacBeth, it is a large departure from Murder, She Wrote. It does not, normally, show us who the murderer is before the investigation has started. This leaves us with only two options:

  1. It is not Virginia or Morgan who is poisoning the brandy.
  2. It is not the brandy that kills Duncan.

In a few seconds, we find out that it’s option #2.

The camera pans over to show that the TV is plugged in, but that doesn’t matter much. Interestingly, when Jessica comes into Duncan’s bedroom to comfort his grieving widow, the glass of brandy is still sitting on the night table. Jessica notices it, too.

They didn’t make this subtle, so we find out that the brandy didn’t kill him within moments of seeing it be poisoned. (I do suspect that there was a commercial break inbetween, so the writers would have expected it to be several minutes, rather than seconds. Also, there’s a short scene of Jessica reading a book, the night before, and the lights dimming for a bit, causing her to look at her clock.)

I’m really not sure what to make of this, because what’s the point in pointing us in one direction only to conclusively change the direction moments later?

There’s an interesting clue presented in the next scene. It’s some time later and Jessica is comforting Lydia (Duncan’s wife) while Spruce Osborn gives her his condolences. He says, “I just wanted to extend my sympathies, Mrs. Barnett. Duncan and I were adversaries, but I wish it hadn’t had to be this way.” Jessica asks, “had to be this way?” and Osborn replies, “I didn’t mean that the way it sounds.” I think that this is meant to be a red herring, though it suffers a little bit from the typical Murder, She Wrote issue of anything that’s too obvious being certain to be a red herring. Plus, you wouldn’t expect the murderer to make so obvious of a slip before anything has had a chance to go wrong.

Spruce makes his goodbyes and leaves with Serena, then Dr. Chatsworth says that Duncan probably suffered very little.

With his weak heart, the electrical shock killed him almost instantly. The doctor figures that he had a heart attack and in struggling to get out of the tub, he pulled the TV in with him. Now, this is the only shot they give us of the TV stand and the tub before things might have been moved:

(the TV stand is the dark wooden stand in the foreground) and it’s not great because of the foreshortening, but in a later panning shot they establish that the stand is a good three or four feet away from the tub. The cord is at basically full extension and is at least 6′ long, with the outlet being right next to the stand. If he had knocked it off of the stand, it would have fallen on the floor. He’d have had to carry it backwards several steps to be able to drop it in the tub. Granted, this isn’t the sort of thing one has an entire course on in medical school, but it does make me question the good doctor’s judgment.

Jessica asks if it could have been the other way around, and the TV could have fallen in the water before the heart attack. The doctor says that he supposes that it was possible it happened that way. Lydia then starts unburdening herself to Jessica, saying that she used to warm him about watching TV in the tub, and even gave him a stand because he used to perch the TV on the edge (confirming that the TV really was quite far away from the tub).

As Lydia gets more emotional, Jessica offers her a drop of brandy. She gestures over at the brandy glass, but it’s missing!

“Strange, I thought I saw a glass of brandy there.”

It is helpful to point out that the glass of brandy is missing, but it is more than a bit strange to offer someone brandy from an already poured glass when you don’t know who the owner of the glass is. Even if she presumed it to be Duncan, “would you like to drink the brandy your freshly dead husband poured for himself but never got a chance to drink?” is not a question I would normally expect Jessica to ask.

I suspect that the problem is that this is not something that they can be subtle about, precisely because it’s a TV show, and a TV show from the late 1980s. That caused two problems which made subtlety difficult.

The first is specific to the 1980s: televisions didn’t show detail well, especially because so many people watched TV on broadcast television and so static was an issue in addition to the relatively low resolution of TVs at the time. As a result, if you wanted viewers to see things clearly, you had to be cropped in fairly closely on what you wanted them to see. As you can see above, to show us that the brandy glass is missing they have to zoom in. In these close-cropped shots, you can’t tell where you are within the room; if they merely showed an empty night-stand we might reasonably think we’re just being shown a different night-stand.

The second problem is more general to television: continuity problems abound in TV shows, so we might also reasonably conclude that a missing brandy glass which the script doesn’t mention was just a continuity error. If you compare the shot of the white powder being poured into the brandy glass with the shot of the missing brandy glass, you can see that they’re not in the same place relative to the lamp, they’re not next to the same lamp, and they’re not next to the same wall. (If you compare to wider shots of the room, they’re not even in the same room.)

Technically, the scene of the powder being poured into the brandy glass could have been meant to take place in an entirely different room, but that doesn’t make sense with either the plot or with the way the scene with the powder was shot. After the powder was poured, the spoon was used to stir the brandy very quietly, as if to avoid detection. Who would bother to quietly stir a glass of brandy in the privacy of their own room, before carrying it over to Duncan’s room? Who would switch brandy glasses and thus have to get the level very close to perfectly accurate, not to mention having to take the trouble of wearing gloves while carrying it or else wipe it afterwards? It was clearly meant to be lacing the glass that Duncan had already poured himself (and told the assembled crowd about at the party, earlier). Yet if you look at the subtleties, the details are all wrong, except for the glass itself. Heck, even the room wrong—in Duncan’s room the bottom 3′ of the wall are a dull green color with dark wood baseboard and a beige carpet, whereas in the scene with the powder we can see a white wall with white baseboard and a tiny amount of green carpet. (You can see the wall-to-wall carpet and baseboard in other shots of Duncan’s bedroom.) So we’re left with two possibilities: the person poisoning Duncan’s drink acted in an absurd manner, or there were continuity errors. My money is on the latter.

Regardless of which way you choose to interpret the different rooms, stands, and lamps, the fact that it’s an open question makes it difficult to rely on subtleties in TV shows. The writers have to work anything the audience is supposed to notice into the dialog, or at least into the plot—such as having a character pick something up and examine it. It could have been done more naturally than offering the widow her dead husband’s glass of brandy he didn’t get to drink, but I think it is more forgivable when one considers the necessities of TV shows, especially from this era.

Anyway, Morgon interrupts Jessica’s observation that there had been a brandy glass on the table by expressing his condolences, then asking to borrow Jessica for business. He informs her that he’s called an emergency meeting of the board of directors for that evening. Jessica is surprised that it’s tonight and asks if that isn’t a little hasty. I can’t imagine why she’d think it would be hasty—Duncan is very clearly dead. It would be one thing if he were lost at sea, or in the woods, or anyplace that he might still be alive and in consequence presuming him to be dead could be hasty. In this case, the doctor has given a death certificate. Also, the board of directors is less than a dozen people. It’s not like there are thousands of members of the board, many of whom will not be able to arrive for days. There’s nothing to wait for that could make this hasty.

Instead of pointing any of this out, Morgan merely says “perhaps” but that there are things that the board must decide before the market opens on the morrow, and that this tragedy is all that Spruce Osborn needs to stage a takeover. How this could help Spruce Osborn to stage a takeover is never mentioned, probably because there is no way for it to help that. Takeovers consist of buying shares from people who own them, not in riding up to castles with armies before the castle has had time to prepare and before they can be sure of who will support them during a siege. Duncan dying is not going to make a large number of people instantly willing to sell, especially if Duncan owned the majority of shares anyway. I think that this is probably just best understood as the need to elect a new king before the French seize on the moment of disarray to invade. There would actually be some truth to that necessity and possibility.

Morgan says that he understands that it’s short notice and that Jessica is very busy and he will understand if she can’t make it. She says that of course she’ll be there and he very clumsily tries to talk her out of it, saying that it will be very boring. Jessica points out that they’ll be choosing a new chairman of the board, and he guiltily admits that they will. If he was trying to lose her vote, he couldn’t have done a better job.

We then get an establishing shot of the king’s castle:

I mean, of the Barnett industries office building. Morgan and Tom Dutton are at each other’s throats, especially Tom Dutton. When Jessica arrives, Morgan welcomes her, and strangely Jessica says that she doesn’t expect to be able to help much, since she doesn’t know much about business. This is a complete change from her earlier stance of it being critical that she be there because they will be electing a new chairman of the board. I suppose that complete change makes Morgan’s complete change of reassuring her that her input will be valuable (“it’s people like you who keep us honest”) at least intelligible. Why any of this happened, I cannot tell.

Then the final board member shows up:

His name is Q.L. Frubson, the former assitant secretary of the treasury (of what, we’re not told; but he makes a point of saying that his boss was the one who was indicted, he resigned without a blemish on his record). He’s played by Ray Walston. Walston was in a ton of things (he has acting 155 credits on IMDB). I knew him best as the judge from Picket Fences, though he wouldn’t do that until 1992. Here, he plays a professional board member who is gruff and doesn’t want to be here. He arrives complaining about the travel to get here and how he as to take a 2am flight to get to his next board meeting the next day at the next company (whose name he can’t recall).

Jessica suggests that they begin with a moment of silence in Duncan’s memory, but Frubson objects saying that there is nothing in the rules of order about moments of silence, and besides Duncan would never have observed one himself. Given that he had to refresh his memory about what company he’s in, it’s curious that he seems to have known Barnett personally.

During an interlude where Jessica speaks confidentially with the secretary, it comes out that Duncan had been taking digitalis since his heart attack, and took two pills every day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Jessica calls the doctor and asks if it would be possible to find out if he had been given an overdose of the medication. The doctor says that it would, but the test needs to be done soon. He hangs up to order it.

It would be a bit odd if Duncan had been poisoned by brandy that we know he didn’t drink, so I’m not sure what’s on Jessica’s mind, here. It would not have been easy for anyone to have poisoned Duncan after dinner when he wouldn’t be likely to eat or drink anything before bed except that brandy.

I want to take a moment to look at the shot of the doctor when Jessica calls him:

Jessica opens her purse before calling, as if to pull out a paper and look up something. It strikes me as a bit odd that the doctor gave Jessica his home phone number, but perhaps she managed to wrangle that out of somebody else, and made a few calls and we’re only seeing the last, successful one. What I find more interesting is the setup. The whole thing just oozes eurdite authority. There’s the bookshelf filled with old books, many of them bound in leather. There’s the high backed chair, the table with tasteful nicknacks, and of course the jacket worn over his dress shirt which is only unbuttoned at the neck. Who, in 1987, gets home after a hard day of work, takes off only his tie, and puts on a jacket to relax? In 1887 Sherlock Holmes might do this because (1) no clothing was particularly comfortable at the time, knit cotton jersey not being common yet and (2) without central heating, indoor jackets were useful for comfort in the cool of British evenings. I really love how antique everything about this shot is except for the electric light and the telephone. It really fits Murder, She Wrote well.

The first order of business is to elect a new chairman of the board. Morgan and Tom each vote for themselves plus each gets one other vote. Anne Hathaway abstains, Frubson votes for Anne Hathaway, and Jessica doesn’t know what to do, so the vote is postponed. Tom and Morgan begin courting her for her vote, with Tom going first, over takeout dinner in the chairman’s office. We get the backstory that Tom has been with the company since he was seventeen, and has been everything from mail boy to factory foreman. Duncan as good as promised him that he would take over at some point.

After they’re done, they walk into Morgan telling Frubson that he knows why Frubson gave his support to Anne and he won’t let Frubson get away with it. Morgan then apologizes to Anne saying that she’s qualified but he’s only being realistic about the market’s perception of a chairwoman. Anne tells him that she understands. It makes no sense that Morgan waited this long to say this to Frubson, given that he wasn’t waiting for privacy to say it. The viewer needed to see it, though, so it’s one of those cases where we just pretend that no one is doing anything while the camera is away. Frubson excuses himself to go call the airline to change his flight.

Jessica forgot her sandwich in Duncan’s office, so she goes back to get it. She walks in on Frubson talking to Spruce Osborn on the phone. He doesn’t notice her as she walks in, but when he finally notices her he pretends he’s talking to the airport. This scene fades to an establishing shot of the next day, on what I’m pretty sure is a different building than the one we saw at night:

It’s hard to be absolutely sure that this is a different building, since the shot at night was not exactly a 4k HDR shot, but at a minimum the angle is very different. That said, I’m 99% sure it has a different number of windows per vertical column. This gets to what I was talking about before—that a problem television has is that you can’t trust visual details because they may simply be a lack of continuity. Frankly, it’s actually doubtful that the outside establishing shots were shot for this episode; if they weren’t straight-up stock footage, they may well have been shots gathered on an expedition (seasons before) to get some b-roll to be used for establishing shots on other episodes. At the time of shooting, they may never have been intended to represent the same thing at all.

(A curious example of this reuse of footage for a different purpose is in the movie Terminator 2, the closing shot of a car driving in the dark over which Sarah Connor gives her closing narration in voiceover was actually shot on approach to the hospital, earlier in the film. It lacked any detail to give away that it wasn’t Sarah and John driving away from where the T-1000 hunted them, though, so it was used in a way to suggest that. TV, with lower budgets than movies, tended to be even more economical about these sorts of things.)

In short, when writing a TV show you can’t expect the viewer to look closely at shots to find clues because the entire nature of television shows is that you don’t want the viewer looking too closely.

Inside the building, the board is still in the board room arguing over who should be the chairman of the board. Jessica gives one of her moral scoldings that might have had some weight if she ever disliked anything besides unpleasantness. (See the conclusion to Murder She Wrote: When Thieves Fall Out.) The upshot is that Tom moves to make Morgan temporary chairman for ninety days. Anne Hathaway, who is the only one really selling the idea that they’ve been up all night, moves that they make the motion unanimous, and everyone agrees, though Frubson is very reluctant to do so.

This is one of those issues with TV, btw, that all of the people who are, theoretically, completely exhausted are all being played by actors who got plenty of sleep the night before the scene was filmed. It’s not very important to the plot, here, but it sometimes is (as in the case of drunks played by sober people). It’s related to how Movies Are Intrinsically Misleading. It actually gets worse later that day, though, when the people who should be even more tired are now all completely wide awake.

Jessica comes into Morgan’s office and talks to him about his accusation to Mr. Frubson the night before. She did some digging and it turns out that Frubson served on four boards of companies that had been taken over by Spruce Osborn. Morgan assures her that he’s going to get Frubson off of the board as soon as possible. How, I’ve got no idea, since that’s not really how boards of directors work, but who cares? This episode isn’t really about corporations.

In the next scene Jessica walks into a room where Anne Hathaway and Tom Dutton are talking in a conspiratorial manner. Anne says that she agrees with Tom, but can be of most use to him if she keeps her nose clean. He insists that she can “get those proxies signed”. Why he thinks this, I’ve no idea. Proxy solicitation is the sort of thing that proxy solicitation companies do. It’s labor-intensive work to try to convince shareholders to have someone be their proxy in shareholder voting. A vice president/member of the board of directors isn’t going to have any special ability to “get proxies signed,” unless she happens to be personal friends with a major shareholder. Who, incidentally, is likely to be Duncan’s widow. At least if the suggestions that Duncan held a controlling fraction of the shares of his company are true, it would basically be up to Lydia to determine who is on the board of directors, so you’d expect the members of the board to be sucking up to her.

Jessica asks for directions to Spruce Osborn, and for some reason Anne knows his home address. Jessica goes and visits him. He tells her that if she’s come to sell her shares, he’s no longer buying, and has withdrawn his bid. Jessica asks him about Frubson, and he admits that Frubson is his man, and because Frubson was unable to complete his mission, he has withdrawn his bid. He sold his Barnett Industries stock this morning, before the news of Barnett’s death got out. He does plan to buy it back if the stock goes low enough. I don’t really follow the logic, here; nothing Frubson could have done would have resulted in Osborn wanting to not sell his stock prior to its value dropping because of the news of Duncan’s death. In fact, as far as I can tell, Frubson’s mission was to prevent a new chairman from being elected, which would, presumably, make the stock plummet even more. That would give him even more incentive to get out of the stock, not less. I really hope that the writers of this episode kept their money in bonds, or gold, or pork bellies, or something that they understood at least a little bit.

Jessica accuses Osborn of killing Duncan (not in those words) and Osborn said that if he had wanted to win, he would have. His advice to Jessica is to look at who did win.

The next scene is of Morgan talking to Virginia about how Jessica knows what they did. He realizes that she must have seen the brandy glass before he took it away. Again, this is strange because it’s just rehashing how they didn’t kill Duncan. Given how pressed for time Murder, She Wrote is, it seems like a waste of time. There is a callback to the fortune teller from the opening, when Morgan identifies Jessica as the woman with a will more powerful than his. Perhaps it was to keep that opening alive? But why? We’ve (pretty) clearly established that Morgan and Virginia didn’t kill Duncan. Maybe this is an attempt at a red herring?

Jessica talks with the doctor on the way into the Barnett house for the funeral. The digitalis test is taking a long time, so instead Jessica proposes counting the pills. The doctor only needs to call his office to find out how many Duncan should have had left. He goes off to do that and Jessica talks with Lydia. When Jessica tells her that she thinks it was murder, Lydia tells Jessica that she knew that Duncan was having an affair with some woman. The doctor comes back and tells Jessica that four pills are missing, and that would have been sufficient to induce a heart attack. Lydia exclaims, “then it was murder!”

Kate Dutton, who was just walking into the room, drops the vase of flowers she was carrying when she hears the word, “murder.” Jessica and the doctor go up to look at the hot tub, and Kate follows them. She tells Jessica that the night Duncan died she passed by his room and heard voices coming from the hot tub. Duncan was in there with Serena—the girl who came with Spruce Osborn.

Jessica and the doctor examine the hot tub area and Jessica finds a gold charm.

The next scene is at the close of the funeral. Some guy (who later turns out to be police Lieutenant Grayson) comes up and gives the results of the digitalis test—there was no overdose of digitalis in Duncan’s system. They ran the test twice just to be absolutely sure.

At the reception at the house, Jessica sees Serena go up to Duncan’s hot tub to look for her missing charm. Jessica follows Serena and confronts her with it. Serena admits to being in the hot tub but claims that she and Duncan never did anything, and Jessica concludes that Duncan had Serena insinuate herself with Spruce to gather information on him, which she admits.

Jessica then goes off to find Morgan to accuse him of attempting to murder Duncan. Morgan denies it but Jessica blackmails him and Virginia admits it. She talks with Jessica privately (and promises to deny everything she will say). She begins by telling Jessica about their psychic’s prediction to be ware of a woman with a powerful will. Jessica asks her about what happened because she’s more interested in figuring out who did kill Duncan than in proving that Morgan and Virginia only tried to. It turns out that Morgan was going to do it but was scared off by the sound of a woman’s voice coming from the bathroom. Jessica remarks, “Oh, yes, Serena.” Virginia doesn’t know, however, because it was impossible to identify the voice with the water gushing and the door closed.

The remark, “the door closed,” gives Jessica the critical insight. Cue clue face:

Jessica then sets the trap to catch the murderer:

The guy is Lieutenant Grayson. (I had to look him up on IMDB.) They mention him elsewhere in the episode, but he got exceedingly little screen time. They go to where Kate said she heard Serena, and Jessica asks if she’s sure that it was Serena. Kate is absolutely positive. Lt. Grayson then uses his radio to tell people in the hot tub to start talking, and we hear muffled voices. Kate says that the door was slightly open that night, and they slightly open the door, though the voices are still too muffled to identify.

Kate then says that she actually saw Serena. Unfortunately for her, Serena left by the connecting door, as Duncan had placed Spruce (and thus Serena) in the room right next to his. The only way she could have known that Serena was there was if she were hiding in Duncan’s room, waiting for Serena to leave.

Kate, confused and scared, said that she doesn’t know what Jessica is talking about, this is obviously Serena’s voice. The Lieutenant leads the way, and it turns out to be the doctor and Anne Hathaway.

Kate tries to blame Anne, though that makes no sense whatever and Lt. Grayson says that Anne has an airtight alibi.

Kate then breaks down, saying that she didn’t mean to kill Duncan. She only wanted to talk to him. It was so unfair the way she had been treating Tom. She begged him to give Tom a chance and his only response was to ask her to adjust the horizontal hold on the way out. (For those not familiar, analog TVs had timing signals that controlled what information was on which line; they could be manually adjusted with dials because the timing signals were not always picked up on properly by the television, especially if there was interference.) As she adjusted it for him, she got angry and threw the television in.

Curiously, in the flashback she walks several steps over to put the TV in the far side of the tub. This is actually consistent with where it was found, which is almost surprising. I wonder why they put it so far from where the stand was, though? The character had no real reason to do it, and I can’t even think of why the TV crew would want the prop there instead of closer.

Interestingly, Kate says that she’s not sorry that she did it. You only get one of those exclamations in about one out of ten Murder, She Wrotes, if that. “He was a horrible man and he just used people. He’d find good men, and just use them up.”

The final scene is at the Barnett industries corporate building. I think that the building in the establishing shot is a a different building yet again, making that three different buildings in three establishing shots of the same building:

As I said, you really can’t trust details in a TV show.

Curiously, we actually get a fair amount of closure on the non-murder plot in this episode. Anne Hathaway is voted chairman of the board, nominated by Tom Dutton. Jessica commends him because it had to be hard, and Tom replies that there was no other choice, with Morgan’s resignation. He would just be a liability, and he doesn’t think that he’s going to be around much longer. Anne tells Jessica that the paper mill is going to stay open. Jessica says that it’s very public-spirited of Anne, but Anne replies that it’s just a business decision. They’ve bought three magazines and her figures show that if they can make their own paper, they will save a lot of money.

Jessica says that the company seems to be in good hands, and Anne gives Jessica her word that it is. “I’m a very determined woman.” Jessica smiles—possibly connecting this with the psychic’s prediction she was told about—and we go to credits.

All things considered, this is a very strange episode. It derives a certain amount of inspiration from The Tragedy of MacBeth, but not really enough to be called an homage. It doesn’t take any of the real insight into human nature from MacBeth, which is what an homage should do. It doesn’t even much steal any of the plot from MacBeth, either. All in all, it’s about as related to MacBeth as Murder She Wrote: Night Of The Headless Horseman was to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I suppose it was a bit much to expect more, but there was a certain amount of promise in the beginning.

One thing that I will give this episode is that it was beautiful. The major locations were luxurious and opulent. Duncan’s home was delightful to look at, the board room had beautiful wood paneling and excellent furniture.

The plot, itself, is fairly basic; a rich man was killed in order to take what was his. The setup was a bit complicated but the mystery itself was relatively simple. Since we can rule out Morgan and Virginia, the only other suspects were Lydia (Duncan’s wife), Spruce Osborn, Serena, and the Duttons. We can rule out Spruce because he’s not the sort of man to do his own dirty work just to complete one more business deal that wasn’t that important to him. We can rule out Serena because her only motive would be… I don’t know. I can’t even think of a motive. Maybe doing Spruce’s dirty work, except that wouldn’t even make sense. So we can cross her off too. As far as I can tell, she was only in this episode in order to have someone in the hot tub with Duncan shortly before he was killed.

Other than the Duttons, that only leaves Lydia. She’s unlikely since she starts off seeming like an old friend of Jessica’s, but that’s not impossible. Old friends of Jessica do occasionally murder people in Murder, She Wrote. She’d have been a good choice in terms of being the least likely suspect, since the entire episode pointed to a business reason for the murder. If Lydia killed Duncan because she was enraged at his infidelity, that would be a reasonable motive and a great way to foil expectations. The real problem was that she just wasn’t enough of a character in the story. She’s a loyal wife in the beginning and seems to have affection for her husband. After that, she’s a grieving widow in about two scenes. Granted, Kate Dutton didn’t have that much more screen time, still, we did at least get some of her motivations. We really have no idea what motivated Lydia.

Actually, it’s a bit worse than that. We really have no idea what Lydia’s relationship to anyone was. She and Jessica speak to each other in affectionate ways about gardening, but there’s no indication that the two actually knew each other before that day. She barely talks to her husband, but does show some concern for him, at least enough to remind him to take his medication. She also cared enough to be jealous of Anne Hathaway. On the other hand, she slept in a separate bedroom and was sure that Duncan was having an affair with someone.

Those last two are a bit strange, actually. I’m pretty sure that she slept in a separate bedroom because it would have been near-impossible to have Duncan murdered in his hot tub if Lydia slept in the same bedroom as her husband. The justification for it we were offered was that Duncan’s idea of relaxing was to listen to stock quotes before going to sleep, which is fair enough. Wanting to go to sleep at different times is a legitimate reason to sleep in different rooms, though Duncan could easily have watched TV in a recliner somewhere before he walked off to bed, which makes one wonder if this was less about simple practicality and more about the state of their marriage.

The part where Lydia was sure that Duncan was having an affair with someone, though, really needed more explanation. Why was she sure of this? Why did she even suspect it? This was the last substantive thing that Lydia ever said in the episode, though. She was interrupted by the doctor coming in, and her only other line in the scene—which is the last scene she’s in—is her telling Kate not to worry about the dropped flowers. I suppose Lydia not getting any closure on her character doesn’t matter all that much with her character never having been developed.

I do want to consider the character of Serena a little bit more, as it doesn’t really make sense either. She was only substantively in one scene, where it’s revealed that her airhead demeanor earlier on was merely for show. She was actually a spy for Barnett, who had planted her as Spruce Osborn’s girlfriend in order to gain information. Completely unexplained was how she and Barnett knew each other. Since she invokes copulating with Spruce on the night of Duncan’s death as an alibi, this would make her a prostitute as well as a spy if she’s being paid for it, and if not, what terms could she possibly be on with Barnett to do this for free? If she was being paid for it, though, why would she undress to get into the hot tub with Barnett in order to convey the information she was being paid for? In 1987 she wouldn’t have had a cell phone to call him to relay this information but landline telephones were easy to come by. She would hardly have moved in with Spruce having only started dating him a few weeks before, so she’d have her own telephone, too. Even if she didn’t want calls to Barnett to show up on her telephone bill for fear of Spruce finding out (somehow), in the late 1980s pay phones were plentiful. There was absolutely no reason to meet Barnett clandestinely at night in order to relay the secrets she acquired, to say nothing of getting undressed to do it. On the other hand, she was very clear that she and Duncan never did anything physical, and had no reason to lie about this. No matter how you slice it, I can’t make out a motivation for her to go to the lengths she did to spy on Spruce Osborn or why she was in the hot tub with Duncan in order to tell him about it.

To some degree I suspect that she was in the hot tub with Duncan only in order to give Kate a way to give herself away. Which brings me to how Kate gave herself away.

It was very curious to have Kate drop the vase when the word “murder” was spoken. Murder, She Wrote doesn’t usually foreshadow the murderer in that way. This is the first way she gave herself away, and I don’t really know what to make of it. On its own, it doesn’t prove anything, but it does make one feel more like she was built up to as a murderer. I’m undecided on whether it’s a fair way of doing it, though. Ambiguous evidence should really be more about things said or done that are related to the murder, not merely to feeling guilty. I suppose that this could be meant as being related to MacBeth, where Kate, and not Virginia, is the Lady MacBeth being eaten by guilt. It’s a bit of a one-off, if it is, though.

The more substantive way that Kate gives herself away is by telling Jessica about hearing Serena in the hot tub with Duncan. There is some reason for it, though not a great reason. In theory she could want to try to frame Serena for Duncan’s murder. I don’t know that this would have seemed all that plausible, though. Serena had no motive and Kate’s testimony is the only evidence that Serena was there (so far as she knew). Even stranger is that she had no motive to actually succeed in framing Serena; all she could have cared about was diverting suspicion away from herself. This is important because, had she been more careful and merely said she thought it was Serena but couldn’t be sure, she wouldn’t have been caught. She could have said that it sounded like a young woman and Serena was the only young woman in the house. She could have said she heard a woman, but couldn’t tell what woman. Jessica even gave her an opportunity to say that she didn’t hear clearly, but Kate expressed certainty that it was Serena. Her conviction that it was Serena did her no good, and proved her undoing.

It’s also a bit curious that she broke down and admitted to the murder with extremely little evidence against her. She said that she was certain that the re-creation voice was Serena, but it turned out to be Anne Hathaway. Had she expressed surprise and then said that she isn’t certain at all, now, because clearly she’s not as good at identifying muffled voices as she thought, she would still have gotten away with it.

It’s always unfortunate when the thing which catches the killer is something that they did afterward, and not a piece of evidence about the murder, itself. This is no exception. Heck, until Kate confessed, not only could Jessica not prove that it was her, Jessica couldn’t even have proved that Duncan was murdered.

Duncan is also a curious character in this story, by the way. He is initially played as affable, but is quickly revealed to be cruel and eventually to be immoral. He invited a bunch of people up to his house at short notice just to get their hopes up in order to enjoy dashing them. He hired or otherwise influenced Serena to prostitute herself to Spruce Osborne in order to spy on him for corporate secrets. In the end, Kate’s description that he was a cruel man who took good men and used them up seems entirely plausible. Which takes this even further away from MacBeth.

Then there’s the subject of how much the writers of this episode misunderstood how corporations work. Heck, they couldn’t even keep CEOs and Vice Presidents straight with chairmen and members of the board of directors. Boards of directors are not the same thing as senior management. Also, public companies can only be purchased in a hostile takeover if a majority of their shares are available for purchase. If Duncan owned a majority of the stock in his company, Spruce Osborne couldn’t have dreamed of taking it over. If he didn’t, he couldn’t have told Spruce Osborne that the company wasn’t for sale.

Oh, and the chairman of the board of directors is not a position for life. Duncan couldn’t announce that he’ll never leave. Well, unless he was the majority shareholder, in which case the board of directors were people that he simply voted onto the board himself, and thus would be yes-men, not corporate climbers. They’d be people like Jessica and Q.L. Frubson—outsiders who did very little, selected mostly for prestige.

It is possible to take the line that this is a murder mystery, not a corporate documentary, so verisimilitude doesn’t matter. There is a sense in which this is correct, but it only goes so far. First, it is possible to get things far more correct than they did here while maintaining the plot. Many of the mistakes were just straight-up laziness. Worse, getting this stuff wrong makes it harder to follow the plot. If a man was killed by a computer programmer and it turns out that the janitor did it because his janitorial work isn’t mopping floors but is actually programming computers, this would be cheating. Bleating, “but it’s just a work of fiction, who cares if janitors don’t really program all the time!” would not excuse it, any more than it is excusable to make perfectly harmless substances poisonous or to have somebody travel two hundred miles an hour on a highway in order to get around their alibi. Since no one’s relationship to anyone else makes any sense in this episode, it’s more difficult to figure out who is and is not a suspect. Would Spruce Osborne murder Duncan in order to seize his company? Who knows? In real life that wouldn’t be possible, but maybe it’s easy in this episode. Would Anne Hathaway try to get Duncan to divorce his wife who gave him no children so she could give him a male heir so his company won’t fall into civil war after he dies? Maybe, given how little the writers understand business. Could she have killed him so that their illegitimate son could inherit the company? Why not? Given that reality is not a tether, here, the sky is the limit!

(There’s also the issue that some poor, unfortunate souls learn about business from TV like this, and so become astonishingly badly informed. I don’t think it’s fair to put too much about general education on the shoulders of television, but it is another reason to not make pointless mistakes.)

Ultimately, this was an ambitious episode that didn’t work. It was beautiful, and to that degree it was a lot of fun, but it was confusing and a bit infuriating in its sloppiness, and Jessica only caught the murderer because the murderer was stupid after the fact. The references to MacBeth were mostly dropped once the episode got going and neither served to make the episode better nor to give any insight into the play. Not that it really could have; a play in which the murderers mentally fall apart is approximately the opposite of a murder mystery.

I called it the greatest of the business episodes, and yet in many ways it’s one of the worst of the Murder, She Wrote episodes. To some degree, those are the same thing. Murder, She Wrote did worst when episodes had any form of business in them.

Murder, She Wrote & Stereotypes

Murder, She Wrote has been accused of being formulaic, sometimes in very funny ways, but that’s not really true unless you construe the formula so generally that a show with a genre must be formulaic. (On that subject, you might want to read Writing Formulas and Formulaic Writing and In-Genre Fiction is Dull Outside of It.)

What people are really referring to is that Murder, She Wrote generally used very clichéd characters. Writers, businessmen, police detectives, lawyers, real-estate agents—these were all variants on the standard cliché of them. Businessmen did business and they cared about numbers and money, especially if the numbers represented money. Real estate agents were always desperate to make sales, no matter what. TV actors were always full of themselves and demanding. (When I say “always” what I really mean is “almost always.) There was a reason for this, though.

Once you subtract out the commercials, an episode of Murder, She Wrote were approximately 45 minutes long (once you subtract the coming attractions, intro sequence, and closing credits). That’s not a long time to tell a complicated story, and if—as I’ve done recently writing episode reviews—you pay close attention to how many plot elements there are in a typical episode, you’ll discover that they’re actually quite densely packed. Once I started describing and analyzing all of the plot elements, it started taking me about a week to review one. This comes from the need to establish why Jessica is present, to give several people plausible motives, to do some basic investigation to uncover clues, and to throw in a red herring or two. Once you consider how much needs to be done, it becomes clear that there just wasn’t much time for characterization.

The characters in Murder, She Wrote were not, in the main, clichés because the writers had no creativity. I don’t want to oversell this; the writers were TV writers. They churned product out on a tight schedule and were not, for the most part, brilliant people. However, they did tend to flavor their characters in creative ways, if sparingly. What they were really doing was using clichéd characters in order to save time. We’ve all seen the characters they’re referring to a hundred times, generally more developed in those other places. Even if not more developed in those other places, a hundred variants on the same idea fleshes it out in our imagination. This is shorthand.

Had Murder, She Wrote used really original characters in each episode, the episodes would have had to be two hours long. That is, they would have been movies.

This shorthand is also part of what makes Murder, She Wrote a kind of comfort food. We’re familiar with all of these characters; we’ve spent a long time with them and now we’re seeing them again. Sometimes even played by the same actors we’re used to watching play them in the old days. This isn’t really a coincidence, it’s part of the show’s theme that old things are still good.

Murder She Wrote: Corned Beef and Carnage

Midway through the third season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Corned Beef and Carnage. It features two Murder, She Wrote staples: one of Jessica’s many nieces and high flying corporate business.

The episode opens in Kinkaid advertising, where Larry Kinkaid and Jessica’s niece, Victoria Griffin, are giving a presentation to Grover Barth, owner of a large corned beef sandwich fast food franchise. I’ve got to say that I think that this is a really brilliant send-up of fast food places. Various fast food places get known for a certain kind of sandwich, but they’re not (usually) named for it, as if it’s the only thing they serve. Further, corned beef is a niche food, which makes it a funny thing to base a country-wide fast food empire on. Here’s Grover, owner of Corned Beef Castle:

The presentation starts out with a wonderfully generic advertising pitch:

We’re goosing up the 18-24 demographics by 17 million impressions. If we can squeeze the franchise holders another 2% of gross for advertising, we’re going to have Grover Barth’s corned beef sandwich over the billion served this year.

When Grover asks how much this is going to cost, Larry replies, “we’ve haven’t fine-tuned it yet, but, rough cut: $11 million.” (According to an inflation calculator, that would be $26.5 million in 2021 dollars.)

It’s very business-y language that sounds legit. Squeezing the franchise-holders for 2% of gross (i.e. revenue before expenses) is actually huge on thin-margin businesses like fast food (i.e. businesses where their prices are only slightly higher than their expenses, including rent and payroll). On the other hand, Larry Kinkaid is supposed to be a slimy character so talking about extracting a huge amount of money from the franchise holders as if it’s trivial may just be him being dishonest.

We then come to one of the driving forces of the episode: Corn Beef Castle is coming up for renewal of its contract with Kinkaid Advertising. Larry tries to get him to sign the renewal, but Grover says that he will look it over and get his wife’s input. Larry suggests that they all have lunch together. Grover then introduces one of the other driving forces of this episode:

“That’s a beautiful blouse, Victoria. Just kinda sets off that peaches and cream complexion.”

Despite that, it’s not Grover who gets murdered. (Larry, by the way, is the guy you can see between Grover and Victoria.)

Grover leaves and Larry panics. Grover didn’t like the presentation and he’s stalling on the renewal contract. The one thing he did like was Victoria. Larry wants her to sit next to Grover at lunch and be nice to him. Victoria says that she can’t make lunch because she’s going to be having lunch with her husband and aunt, but Larry tells her to forget it because they’re talking survival.

There is some dissonance, here, with the setup of the episode. Here is an overview of the advertising suite that Kinkaid advertising has:

It’s also revealed, shortly afterwards, that this is the penthouse suite that comes with a private elevator.

As Victoria’s husband, Howard (the man pressing the button, opposite from Jessica), puts it, “part of the privilege of overpaying for the penthouse suite: you get your own elevator.”

All of this is going to be expensive. Yet the cost for the advertising campaign that Larry was pitching was only eleven million dollars. One has to assume that the majority of that would go to the actual advertising—that is, to paying for television spots, pages in magazines, etc. If we assume that Kinkaid takes ten percent of the advertising campaign for itself, that’s only a little over a million dollars. I doubt that would even cover the rent on the penthouse suite, to say nothing of payroll. This could be fixed by changing the amount Larry quoted, though. Even if so, it’s not obvious what all of the people in the penthouse suite are doing if Corn Beef Castles is their only real account, but perhaps it’s a small advertising agency which is trying to grow past their one good client and is overspending in order to impress future clients. That would certainly be realistic, and in keeping with the character of Larry Kinkaid.

Next we meet Aubrey Thornton, “another one of Larry’s galley slaves”. He ran up, asking them to hold the elevator for him, but they didn’t realize until they were too far away and the door closed by the time they tried to hold it. They apologize and Aubrey says to nevermind.

This is a little odd as the whole point of a private elevator is that it will not be summoned to another floor. It would just be right there waiting for someone to push the button. They needed an excuse to introduce Aubrey, I suppose, but since he knows Howard and says hello to him, merely passing would have been sufficient anyway.

Howard introduces Aubrey and Jessica and Aubrey says that Victoria is great and has everything needed to do well in this business—brains, youth, and a high tolerance for humiliation. When Jessica asks if he’s the resident cynic, he says that he would be but he doesn’t have tenure. He then excuses himself to go to lunch before all of the best bar stools are taken.

Victoria comes out and greets Jessica but says that an emergency with a client has come up and she can’t have lunch. This is another detail that’s a bit odd since Larry explicitly said that he would make the reservation with Grover for 4pm, which is more like an early dinner, and Jessica was here in time for actual lunch. I think this was done to make room for some character building for the couple as Howard complains about this but Jessica says that she’ll stay over and they’ll have dinner. Victoria asks if it can be 9pm and Jessica says that’s perfect.

We next see the lunch. Polly, Grover’s wife, explains that Grover wasn’t impressed by the advertising campaign laid out earlier that day.

With her hair always around for comparison, I can’t imagine Grover would be impressed by anything else.

Grover clarifies that it’s the same thing they did last year, only with bigger budgets. Larry takes this well, saying he’s glad that Grover said this because he thinks it’s time for a whole new approach. A totally new concept. Larry rattles off some more buzzwords like “fresh” and “exciting.” He wants them to come in tomorrow and he’s going to show them a whole new advertising campaign that will blow them away.

Polly says to her husband that perhaps they will be able to renew with Kinkaid advertising after all. Larry says that he will drink to that and Grover says to Victoria, in as suggestive a voice as he can muster, that this means that they’ll be working closely together. Polly looks at Victoria then her husband, but the look doesn’t seem to convey anything and nothing ever comes of it.

The camera then moves to another table where a man and a woman are talking:

The man’s name is Leland Biddle and the woman’s name is Christine. She remarks that $50M in advertising isn’t chopped liver and he replies that another $50M in corned beef would look very good on the balance sheet. (I wonder who is wrong about how much money Corned Beef Castles is spending on advertising.)

Anyway, she says, in a sultry voice, that the account can be had. He offers her a $100,000 bonus if she brings it in. (Adjusting for inflation that would be roughly a quarter of a million dollars in 2021.) She asks if he’ll throw in a vice presidency and he agrees—if she brings in the account. They drink to her success and we go back to the table with the main characters.

As an introduction of these two new characters it was pretty good. It sets up intrigue, we can see future complications, and it seems plausible that they can cause trouble for our heroes (Jessica and her relatives, since we don’t want Victoria to lose her job). It’s a bit odd for them to be having lunch at a nearby table—they had no way of knowing that Kinkaid was going to take Barth out for dinner as it was a last-minute thing, but this may just be a convenient-for-TV thing.

Back the Barth-Kinkaid table Polly excuses herself saying that talking business makes her nose shiny. She gets up to go to the bathroom. Victoria says that’s a good idea and she’ll join Polly. Once they’re gone Grover sidles up to Larry and confidentially tells him that Polly is going to be out of town tonight and he wants to have dinner with Victoria. Grover makes a horse analogy explaining that Victoria excites him and says he thinks Larry can explain to Victoria how important the dinner is to her future on the account. Larry grins and says that he will ensure that she understands.

At this point I’m starting to wonder if we might be rooting for Christine to get the account. It would at least take Victoria out of harm’s way.

The next scene is of Jessica and Howard sitting on a park bench eating some street cart food and talking. Howard says that Victoria’s career is going well and, considering that she’s got an unemployed actor for a husband, she’s doing great. He barely sees her, though, as most nights she works late. He then switches to mentioning that Larry Kinkaid uses people and then throws them away. For all he knows one of these days Larry’s going to ask Victoria to put her body on the line for a client. Jessica replies that Victoria is “too level-headed for that sort of thing.” Howard then tearfully says that he loves Victoria and feels like she’s slipping away.

It’s an interesting b-plot for the story, since it’s romantic but the couple is already married. It’s a little silly since it’s obvious that Victoria isn’t slipping away and it quickly comes out that Victoria is working the job to allow Howard to be an actor. It’s got overtones of The Gift of the Magi (the sappy Christmas story by O. Henry about a woman who sells her hair to buy a watch chain for her husband, who sells his watch to buy her fancy combs), but at the same time it’s a bit of danger that misunderstanding will lead to worse that can be resolved within the confines of a day or two, which is all the time the episode has.

The next scene is back in Kinkaid advertising, where we meet Larry’s brother and the controller of the company, Myron, is telling him that the company is in serious financial trouble.

They’re spending more money than they take in, receivables are in arrears, and the major account, Corned Beef Castles—they’re holding almost $4M in media bills that Barth hasn’t paid yet.

This is interrupted by Victoria who comes in with a folder containing some new ideas for the Corned Beef Castles advertising campaign, which Larry tells her to put on his desk. That’s interrupted by Aubrey Thornton coming in and asking why he wasn’t notified about the Corned Beef Castles presentation this morning. Larry says that it’s because he’s no longer on the account. Aubrey protests that it’s his account. He brought it to Kinkaid three years ago. Kinkaid replies that when Aubrey brought it, it was a Mom & Pop delicatessen in Buffalo. “You were over your head then, you’re over the hill now.”

I don’t know how to square Corned Beef Castles being a Mom & Pop delicatessen three years ago and now (supposedly) being within striking distance of the billion served mark. It took McDonalds 8 years to go from 1 million served (in 1955) to 1 billion served (in 1963). That 1 million in 1955 was after the McDonald brothers opened their first McDonalds restaurant in 1940 and began franchising it out in 1953 (they started selling franchises in 1952, the first franchise opened in 1953). Copying an existing plan can go faster, of course, but this is doing in 4 years what it took McDonalds somewhere between ten and twenty years to do. That’s not impossible, but it hardly seems likely. Especially given the popularity of corned beef, though that part is as much a joke as anything else. It makes it even weirder for this to be the account that the company depends on for survival, though.

Victoria protests that Aubrey has a lot of good ideas, and Larry replies that she’s a smart kid but not an advertising genius and the only reason she’s on the Corned Beef Castles account is because Grover Barth has the hots for her. He then informs her that she’s going to have dinner with Grover tonight. She refuses. He threatens to fire her and she tells him off.

During the telling-off, she picks up the award on his desk as a prop (she refers to him accepting the fancy awards).

In her conclusion when she announces her resignation, she slams the award down dramatically.

Larry stands up defiantly and replies, “I don’t need you. I don’t need any of you. I am still the best advertising man on this street. I’m going to work here tonight—all night, if I have to—and tomorrow morning when Mr. and Mrs. Corn Beef Castle come marching in here I’m going to show them a new campaign that’s gonna knock their socks off. Now get out of here, all of you!”

He then sits down and starts looking through the folder of ideas which Victoria had put on his desk. As he starts to do that, some sexy saxophone music plays and Christine opens the door to his office.

She says in a sultry voice that his secretary seems to have wandered off, but they had a 4pm appointment.

Christine is an interesting counterpoint to Victoria. They’re both intelligent and pretty, but while Victoria has principles—we assume—Christine is purely ambitious. I think this serves to highlight Victoria by contrast.

In the next scene Aubrey and Victoria talk. Aubrey gives Victoria the advice not to quit before lining something up, but Victoria is adamant that enough is enough. Aubrey says that he intends to go home early, as usual.

The scene goes back to Christine talking to Larry. She seductively asks him for a job and he says that he probably has something for her. He suggests that they get dinner next week and he can look at her portfolio. She’s all smiles. He walks her out of the office saying he has to go put out some fires, then when he’d walked off she recollects she forgot her purse in his office and goes into the empty office to get it… and some other things.

(That’s the folder containing Victoria’s ideas.)

In the next scene Victoria gets home and no one is there. She listens to some answering machine messages. The first is from Howard saying his audition went well, the next from Jessica saying she’s tied up at her publisher’s, and last from someone from the audition calling Howard to let him know he didn’t get the part. Victoria is distraught, and decides to go back to the office, presumably to ask for her job back, though we’re not told.

As she signs in at the desk, the security guard asks if she’s working late again and she replies that there’s something she has to settle with Mr. Kinkaid. This is odd wording for asking for her job back, and the tone she uses sounds more like she intends to have a fight. That doesn’t make sense, though, since she came here out of desperation because Howard didn’t get the part.

She walks off to Mr. Kinkaid’s office and a few seconds later she screams. If you guessed that the victim was Kinkaid, in his office, with the advertising award, congratulations, you win.

Given that Kinkaid fell to the right, I wonder if it’s going to be a left handed killer. It would be really hard to strike a right-handed blow and have everything also end up on the right-hand side. The security guard rushes in and sees this, then looks at Victoria suspiciously and asks her what happened.

I’m not sure what his theory of the crime is—I can’t see how Victoria had the time to commit the murder. I counted based on frames and she was out of the security guard’s sight for seven seconds when she screamed (it’s a continuous shot of him at his desk). We’re never shown the layout of the building but when the security guard was running to her, we see where he started from the door here to when he got next to Victoria, and that took 3 seconds:

That three seconds was running, too, albeit slowly. If it takes only a single second to get from the corner past the security guard to the outer door to Larry’s office, that only leaves her three seconds to murder Larry. That would be enough time if she walked in and immediately picked up the award and whacked him with it, but that would only work if he never looked up. There’s no way to deal a deadly blow across a table with a small award to someone who has any amount of forewarning. All they’d have to do is to lean back and the person swinging the small blunt object would have to reach too much to put any power into the blow. Especially a small woman like Victoria. I looked it up and Genie Francis, the actress playing Victoria, is only 5’5″ tall. Also, 1980s shoulder pads not withstanding, she doesn’t exactly look like she makes a habit of lifting weights. An adult woman, even a small adult woman, certainly has the power to kill, especially if using tools, but not typically when using a poor tool in an extremely mechanically disadvantaged position. I suppose she could have walked around the desk to get a better shot at him but there’s no way he wouldn’t have noticed her and a small piece of metal isn’t such a force multiplier that it would overpower him holding his arms up to ward off the blow.

Then we get to the fact that there wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, enough time for the two to argue, which would mean that this was premeditated. When it comes to plans to murder someone, signing in, walking into his office, killing him, then screaming to attract the security guard is just implausibly stupid.

Don’t worry, though, this won’t stop the police from jumping to conclusions because her finger prints will be found on the murder weapon—remember the scene above where she held it up to make her point about how Larry takes credit for the work of others, right before she quit?

The next scene is of the police investigating the crime scene, of course. Here’s Lt. Spoletti:

(If you’ve watched Murder, She Wrote his face should be familiar. The actor was in seven episodes, mostly as Dennis Stanton’s boss.)

He reads the inscription, aloud, which says “Outstanding achievement in the field of advertising. Larry Kinkaid.” He then remarks that, like they say, this one had his name on it.

He then interviews Victoria and asks her why she screamed. “What did he do to you?”

This is a possibility that hadn’t occurred to me—that she hadn’t killed Kinkaid until after she screamed—but there was no time for Kinkaid to have done anything to her by the time she screamed, so this possibility doesn’t work, either.

He asks what she was doing in his office, whether it was business-business or personal business. Before she can answer, Howard pushes his way past a uniformed officer and Lt. Spoletti says that it’s OK. Jessica comes in with Howard. He then gives the uniformed officer instructions to call the coroner and say that he wants the report on his desk first thing in the morning, and also to call his wife and tell her that he won’t be able to make it tonight. I would have thought that the uniformed officer’s job would be to stand guard over the crime scene and keep people out (like he just didn’t). It’s also slightly odd that the uniformed officer would know Spoletti’s home phone number. I suppose they don’t have the budget for a partner for him, though, so this will have to do.

Howard asks Victoria why she came back to the office. Before she can answer, Spoletti asks Howard if she worked late a lot. He indignantly asks what that question is supposed to mean and before Spoletti can answer he notices Jessica looking at the desk. He asks her who she is and Victoria indignantly tells him that Jessica is her aunt, J.B. Fletcher the mystery writer.

This is the point where the detective either is impressed and thinks that Jessica can help or is dismissive and thinks that she’s an interfering amateur. In this case it’s the latter.

Jessica ignores this and says that the corned beef sandwich on the desk is curious.

It looks like an ordinary corned beef sandwich on rye, but the astute observer will notice that it is entirely intact. Not even a bite has been taken out of it. This raises the question of why didn’t he eat the sandwich? Perhaps because he was killed before he got the chance?

Spoletti proves that he’s a master of deduction by dismissing the corned beef sandwich because the victim was bludgeoned to death, not poisoned.

Jessica points out that if the sandwich wasn’t eaten… no, wait, she doesn’t. She says that if a sandwich was delivered, perhaps it can help to establish the time of death. Spilotti retorts that the body was still warm, which means that Kinkaid had to have been killed around the time that Victoria claims to have found it. Jessica says that it must have occurred to him that someone else had to have been there and suggests that the night watchman might have kept a record of who came in and out.

Apparently this didn’t occur to Spoletti because the next scene is of Jessica and Spoletti interrogating the night watchman. He was at his desk the whole time. Everyone but Kinkaid cleared out by 6:30. Grover Barth visited Kinkaid from 7:00-7:10. A “Mary Jones” signed in and out around 8:30. She’s the interior decorator. The delivery guy for the sandwich was there at about 8:00pm. Victoria came at 9:15, and the watchman mentions what she said about needing to settle something with Kinkaid.

The next scene takes place the following morning. Victoria is cleaning out her office when Aubrey and Myron walk in. Myron looked at the ideas that Victoria gave Larry and they’re very good. Aubrey concurs. As the only living relative Myron inherits the business and they’re planning to save the Corned Beef Castles account and thus the agency. Victoria agrees to stay on and give it a go.

As a side note, the importance of the Corned Beef Castles account is hard to square with the rest of what we’re presented in the episode. Even if we prefer Leland Biddle’s $50M estimate to the $11M that Larry had quoted to Grover, or even if we increase it, it’s very unclear how the agency can be so dependent on the corned beef castles account if it was just a mom-and-pop delicatessen three years before. It’s not impossible to square this, of course; the great success of Corned Beef Castles two years before can have led them to rapid expansion last year and now their obligations are too big to carry without Corned Beef Castles. On the other hand, there’s important evidence throughout the episode that they’ve been in this office for years and didn’t just move here.

Another possible explanation would be that the business has been going downhill for a while except for the Corned Beef Castles account. All anyone has mentioned is foolish expenditures, not lost customers, though. I suspect that the writers never bothered to figure this out, which is a pity, because it would have been good world-building. The scene ends with Aubrey giving Victoria a ten thousand dollar raise. ($23,316.64 in 2021 dollars.) How he has the authority to do this is not explained.

The next scene is of Jessica and Victoria eating dinner together. Victoria unburdens herself about her relationship troubles with Howard. Basically she has the same problems; she only works this high pressure job because it takes the financial pressure off so Howard can devote himself to his acting. Jessica asks if the two ever talk to each other and before she can answer, Christine from Biddle Advertising interrupts them. After a bit of schmoozing, she offers Victoria a job for whatever she’s making now plus ten thousand more. Victoria gratefully declines, saying that she feels she has a commitment to the Kinkaid agency. Christine says that Leland might be willing to go higher, gives Victoria her card, and says, “call me.” As she walks off Jessica looks at Christine’s card and recognizes her name from Larry Kinkaid’s appointment calendar. Victoria asks why she’d have had an appointment with Larry and before Jessica can answer, Lt. Spoletti walks up and arrests Victoria.

The next scene is, of course, in police headquarters where Jessica and Victoria are discussing the evidence that Lt. Spoletti has with while he sits at his desk.

The scene begins with Jessica saying, “this is preposterous.” Why she didn’t say this at the restaurant isn’t explained.

Actually, this was probably the way the episode went out to a commercial break. I’m watching on DVD so I can’t really tell but it has all of the hallmarks—a dramatic moment followed by a break to a scene that you don’t have to have seen what happened right before to follow what’s going on, plus a dramatic moment right before the end of a scene to make sure you come back after the commercial break.

Spoletti lays (or, I should say, shouts) out his air-tight case: the advertising award was definitely the murder weapon and Victoria’s fingerprints were the only fingerprints on it (other than Kinkaid’s).

To be fair, that’s not terrible evidence and Spoletti doesn’t seem to have taken the trouble of finding out how long she was with Kinkaid before the guard got there.

Victoria explains that she had picked up the award earlier in the day to make a point and there are witnesses to that. Jessica adds that if the killer wore gloves, that suggests premeditation. Jessica further suggests that the security guard might have been mistaken about who had come or gone.

Spoletti replies, “The rent-a-cop? the agency fired him. Probably figured that they weren’t getting their money’s worth.” This is useful to know, but not really an answer to what Jessica said. Fired or not, his memory might be fallible, and he’s still available for questioning. It’s not like he was a robot that was smelted for scrap metal.

There’s a bunch more back-and-forth that involves a lot of yelling which recaps evidence already presented. I wonder if this is for the benefit of people who had just tuned in. We’re at slightly over the halfway mark (25 minutes in with 22 minutes to go), which means that people might have just changed the channel after a half-hour show they were watching. This back-and-forth that reviews evidence already presented will help to catch people up who didn’t see the first half of the show. The pig-headedness of Lt. Spoletti may simply be an excuse to re-tread this ground without it being, “now, let’s review what’s happened so far.” (In the more recent show Death in Paradise, they make this more explicit by having a moment when the detectives are stuck and so review the case from the beginning to “come at it with fresh eyes”.)

Finally Jessica points out that the sandwich was delivered at 8:00. If Kinkaid died at 9:15, some explanation must exist for why the sandwich remained uneaten all that time. Spoletti finally admits Jessica might have a point. He gives Jessica twenty four hours to prove her niece didn’t do it. That’s some interesting police-work, but it does give us an excuse for the next ten or so minutes of the episode.

The first place Jessica goes is to Larry’s office, which apparently is no longer a crime scene. Myron is sitting at Larry’s desk and Aubrey is giving him a situation report when she walks in and says that she hopes she’s not interrupting anything important.

I can’t help but notice, again, how cavernous this office is. I suspect it’s the same basic set that was used as both offices in The Bottom Line is Murder, though decorated differently. That also had the strange ante-chamber to the office. It’s possible that it’s so large in order to suggest high-flying luxury, though possibly it’s really just to make it easy to fit all of the camera equipment in the room (it looks like it possible does in fact have four walls). The ante-chamber is especially curious. It served no purpose whatever in The Bottom Line Is Murder, but here is the location of the secretary’s desk. The only time I can remember her being there is when Christine went back to get her purse; every other time anyone went by they tended to mention that the secretary was away from her desk.

Jessica gives her condolences on Larry’s death and mentions that the place is so charming and she wonders why they would want to redecorate it. Myron angrily says that he never heard of Miss Jones, the interior decorator, and Larry just had the place redone last year. “We don’t throw money around for nothing!”

Jessica asks if it was Myron who fired the guard—to save money—and Aubrey replies that it was him. Letting the owner of the company get killed practically under your nose doesn’t speak highly of your qualifications as a security guard.

The next scene is really spectacular. It’s a grand eventually-opening ceremony for a new Corned Beef Castle.

It’s being held on an empty lot to commemorate how there will be a new Corned Beef Castle on this site a year from now. They unfurl a banner proclaiming this (with less specificity) while the band plays slightly medieval music.

Grover introduces the man who will be manager and co-owner of this Corned Beef Castle, and who “in the grand tradition of American free enterprise, will be investing $100,000 in this community.”

Polly then directs the band to play in further celebration. And what a band it is.

The ceremony concludes with a special treat: corned beef, on the house, for everybody!

The images above only hint at the true absurdity of this scene. There have been ceremonies for the intention to start doing something, but they are rare. I can’t imagine anyone spending time and money to announce that someone intends to open a fast food restaurant on a corner parking lot next to a dilapidated radio store. Even harder to imagine would be around two dozen people showing up to watch the ceremony.

There’s some foreshadowing, btw, when the ceremony is over and Polly discreetly asks Grover if the check is certified. He doesn’t get a chance to answer—people are interrupted a lot in this episode—because Jessica approaches them. Apparently they recognize her, though they’ve never met her before. Perhaps an earlier scene where they met was cut. I can’t imagine where it would have gone, but otherwise it’s a very strange oversight.

Jessica asks about Grover’s visit to Larry Kinkaid the night he died. Polly is surprised—Grover told her that he was going to the movies. She explains to Jessica that she was visiting her sister and Grover can’t stand her sister. Grover says that he did go to the movies, but he stopped by Larry’s office because he thought he left his extra pair of glasses there. It turns out, though, that they were in another suit. Polly then drags Grover off because she wants to get to the bank before it closes.

Next, Jessica goes to interview the security guard at his new job.

The scene begins with the guard telling Jessica that he always knew when Mr. Kinkaid was going to work late because he would order a sandwich at around 8pm. On the fateful night, the sandwich delivery guy came up, he phoned Mr. Kinkaid, then sent the sandwich guy in to deliver it—a security guard never leaves his post.

Jessica asks if he was sure it was Mr. Kinkaid’s voice on the line and the security guard thinks it was. He’d only talked with Mr. Kinkaid “two or three times,” but he does think it was his voice. Jessica asked if he could be sure, and he replied, “He only said, ‘OK’.” I’m not sure how to square the security guard always knowing when Mr. Kinkaid was going to work late with only having talked with him two or three times.

Jessica then asks about “Mary Jones.” After the security guard describes her, Jessica shows him Christine’s business card and he identifies her as Mary Jones.

As a side note, I don’t know if they actually used the actress’s head shot for the card or took their own picture, but it really looks like they just used one of her head shots. One convenient thing about actors is that they all have head shots that can be used whenever a photo of them is required. The security guard is surprised that the card says Christine Clifford, and supposes that Mary Jones is her professional name. A towering intellect, that one. Jessica condescendingly agrees, saying, “like a stage name.”

When Jessica gets back to Howard and Victoria’s apartment, Howard is rushing out the door because he’s got a tryout for a TV commercial. It’s with Biddle Advertising and he’s “supposed to see a Christine Clifford.” Jessica asks if she can tag along.

The tryout they give is an ad for Slumberland, which is a cemetary.

“Remember, when final repose arrives for your loved one, Mr. Slumberland is waiting.”

“One phone call makes all the arrangements. Slumber ceremonies are available that fit all budgets. Major credit cards accepted.”

Howard thinks he could have done it better but Jessica assures him that he was fine. Christine and Leland think that he’s terrific, but, to no one’s surprise but Howard’s, there’s a catch. He’s got to bring Victoria with him, and she has to bring the Corned Beef Castles account with her.

After Leland leaves, Jessica asks Christine whether she went back to see Larry Kinkaid. When she denies it, Jessica tells her that the security guard will identify her, and basically accuses her of the murder. Christine explains about stealing the folder with Victoria’s ideas in it. Actually, she just says she borrowed “something,” Jessica supplies what it was. I don’t recall Jessica ever having heard of the folder or what was in it; perhaps she saw it when she was leafing through Kinkaid’s desk, though. Or maybe it was in a scene that got cut, just like the first time that Jessica met the Barths.

The big reveal is that Larry Kinkaid was already dead when Christine got there.

The next scene is Christine in police headquarters telling Lt. Spoletti about it. Apparently Jessica talked her into this. It should be noted that Jessica gives absolutely terrible legal advice. PSA: If anyone suggests you voluntarily go to the police and tell them things they can use to try to convict you of a crime you didn’t commit, don’t. You should be especially suspicious of their advice if their niece has been arrested for the murder the police might try to pin on you. Anyway, back to the episode.

Some banter later, Spoletti dismisses Christine by telling a uniformed officer take her statement. Once she’s gone, Jessica pushes him and he admits that if Christine is telling the truth, they got the time of death wrong. (Even if she’s lying that she didn’t kill him, it’s very unlikely that the time of death of 9:15 was correct, since that would entail the death being at about 8:30, which isn’t 9:15.)

Leland Biddle walks into the office saying that he got a confused and hysterical call from Christine asking for his help, so he came to sort things out. When it is brought up that she stole something, he fires her on the spot (even though she’s not there). Then he says that they’re no longer interested in the Corned Beef Castles account. He did some digging and the Barths have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Jessica points out that he didn’t know that at the time, though. He counters that he has an alibi. He was having dinner with Aubrey Thornton from 7pm untill well after 9pm. The police arrived just as they were leaving. Thornton will verify that he never left the table except for a few minutes to make a phone call, which the barman will verify.

The next scene is at Victoria and Howard’s apartment. Jessica breaks the news that Corned Beef Castles is bankrupt, which means that both of them are out of jobs. Howard says that he can go back to his old job at the insurance company, Victoria asks him what about this career, and he says that all he ever cared about was her. They start kissing and don’t stop for the rest of the scene. Jessica, after paying a very rude delivery boy for pizza that was completely wrong, looks at the couple who doesn’t notice her and says that she’s heading out for a while.

The only answer they give her is Howard picks Victoria up and carries her over to the bedroom. It’s kind of refreshing for the passionate implied coupling on a TV show to be between a husband and wife, for once.

This is the last we see of the couple and it’s a satisfying conclusion to the sub-plot of their marital problems. In fact, one of the great things about murder mysteries is that the murder creates a liminal space in which people can have conversations that they wouldn’t normally have. People can be pushed to extremes where we see their true colors. This is especially true of virtues like courage and self-sacrifice, which can only be legitimately displayed when the circumstances force them on a person. This is part of what makes murder mysteries so interesting.

In the next scene we see what Jessica is up to; she’s doing the police legwork of chasing down where the sandwich came from. I’ve been accused of having the police not do obvious stuff in my first murder mystery (The Dean Died Over Winter Break) but that made sense as it was a college town police department that’s used to dealing with theft and drunk and disorderly conduct. This episode is set in New York City during the 1980s—homicide was a daily affair. Be that as it may, Jessica finally finds the delicatessen the sandwich came from on her seventh try.

The gentleman behind the counter seems to think that Jessica is there about some sort of complaint, but he helpfully finds the ticket. No one delivered the sandwich, however, since the guy called and canceled the order.

The next scene is a bit odd. Jessica and Lt. Spoletti are talking to the night watchman in what I presume is an interrogation room. It’s kind of weird to arrest someone on suspicion of… a sandwich not being delivered.

Jessica asks him what the delivery man looked like. He couldn’t remember as all delivery men look alike to him. Jessica asks if the delivery man was wearing gloves. The guard thinks about it for a moment and yes, the guy was. Also a woolen hat, a mustache, and shades (sunglasses).

Jessica has an idea, and asks if Lt. Spoletti would be willing to try it. They bring Aubrey Thornton down to the police station and have him wait with the security guard. The security guard doesn’t recognize Aubrey, though. Jessica then asks if they can talk with Aubrey, as long as they brought him down to the police station.

They discuss the case with him. Jessica accuses him of the murder and talks about how he did it. He had Kinkaid’s habits down very well, knew where he ordered his food from, etc. So on the night he waited for one of Leland Biddle’s frequent phone calls then grabbed the cooler he had hidden somewhere on the ground floor with his disguise and the sandwich in it, and went up the private elevator. He put on the disguise as he was going up. The security guard was fairly new and Aubrey was careful to always leave early so that the guard would never have seen him before. He even took the precaution of having the guard fired the next day.

When she said that, Aubrey exclaims, “So that’s your little game, is it? You kept me cooling my heels out there in the hallway hoping that that security guard would recognize me. Well, it didn’t work, Lieutenant. That guard wouldn’t know me from Adam. He’s never seen me before in his life. You’ve got nothing.”

Jessica asks, “Guard? How did you know that that man sitting out there was the security guard, Mr. Thornton?”

It takes Spoletti a second or two to figure this out, but I love the grin on his face when he does:

Hey! That’s right! He wasn’t in uniform!

Thornton is crestfallen. He tries to bluff for a second, but then gives up. He describes how he did it. Kinkaid didn’t even look up, he just threw the money on the desk. Thornton really wanted Kinkaid to know it was him, though, so he held up the advertising award and took off his glasses. I really love the re-enactment.

There’s a very strange part of the reenactment, though. Kinkaid sees Thornton and the murder in his eyes and slowly starts to get up:

He gets up pretty far, then Aubrey begins the blow. To say that it was telegraphed is an understatement:

That’s a decently powerful position if he was striking right in front of him, but he’s striking at an object a yard or more away. He’s going to have to reach out to hit it. That’s weak position. Especially because Kinkaid was all but standing when Thorton started his strike, which would put his target at shoulder-height or higher. Also, with Kinkaid facing him, a downard blow from in front like this would hit the forehead, which is the thickest, toughest part of the human skull. To be fair, I wouldn’t want to let someone strike me in that position… but then that’s kind of the point. Kinkaid had to let Thornton hit him for Thornton to have any hope of actually hitting him. Further, the same thing I mentioned when Victoria was the suspect applies here: if Kinkaid held up his arms to ward off the blow, there’s no way that it would have been a lethal strike. Worse, Kinkaid was standing. All he had to do was to take a step back and Thornton couldn’t have reached him at all.

Oh well. Kinkaid merely froze, the blow landed, and Kinkaid died without saying anything, which was convenient. It would have been awkward had the guard walked into the office because he heard Kinkaid cry out.

Back at the police station, Aubrey adds that using the award wasn’t improvisation. That was part of the plan. He then, in an almost childlike way, asks, “Nice touch, don’t you think?”

Rather than give him his due that it was a nice touch from the artistic perspective, Jessica’s face falls a little because she will show sympathy to anyone but a murderer, and we go to credits.

Overall, this was a very fun episode whose plot is a bit all over the place. The setting—a high flying Manhattan ad agency with a private elevator—was a lot of fun but I don’t think it’s possible to resolve how big Corned Beef Castles was or how the Kinkaid agency came to be dependent on them. On the one hand Corned Beef Castles had to be huge, on the other hand it had to recently be small enough for Aubrey to have brought it but to no longer be in charge of it.

Lt. Spoletti is played with terrific energy but makes Amos Tupper look like the height of competence. Part of this can be chalked up to TV rhythms. Jessica didn’t point out the corned beef sandwich wasn’t eaten so that it could be pointed out later, so that Spoletti could arrest Victoria right before a commercial break only to let her go right afterwards. And so on.

There are also a lot of loose ends which are left by the end of the episode. Why did Victoria go back to the office and say that she had something to settle with Mr. Kinkaid in that aggressive way? We never do find out why she went back to the office. If it was to ask for her job back, as seems likely, why did she then pack up her stuff the next day rather than talking to Myron?

Why did Christine steal the Corned Beef Castles idea folder? There’s no obvious reason these things would be helpful in getting the Corned Beef Castles account. On the other hand, there’s no indication that she ever talked to Grover Barth, which would be the most obvious route to take. He certainly was… susceptible to a pretty face.

Speaking of Grover Barth, why did he come to the office to visit Larry for ten minutes? If it was to find out about dinner with Victoria, surely a phone call would have been much more natural. Even if it was to ask about dinner with Victoria, that would have taken about two minutes, three at most, since he’d have found out that she quit. Or perhaps Larry would have lied and told Barth that she wasn’t feeling well because he wasn’t exactly the man to give anyone bad news. Either way, that explains at the outside five out of the ten minutes that Barth was there. What was he actually doing?

Also, poor Myron. He wasn’t much of a character but he’s left with a worthless advertising agency and no one to run it. I guess he’ll close it down and move on, but it would have been nice to have some sort of closure on that character.

And then we come to the actual murder. Aubrey was given nothing to do for years but plot the murder of Larry Kinkaid, so I suppose it does make sense that it was elaborate. Given that it was planned so meticulously, though, it was oddly coincidental. His plan depended on:

  1. Larry working late while
  2. Aubrey was having a multi-hour dinner with someone who
  3. would reliably take a several minute long phone call out of view of the table during
  4. the few minute window between when Larry Kinkaid called in his order for a corn beef sandwich and when it would have been made and sent off to be delivered and
  5. the maitre d’ was helping someone to a table both when Aubrey left the restaurant and when he came back so he wouldn’t have destroyed Aubrey’s alibi

I don’t know about you but if I spent months planning to murder someone, I would come up with a plan that didn’t need so many things to go right all at the same time.

Another issue that comes up is that there just aren’t many suspects. If we exclude Victoria on the grounds that Jessica’s niece never does it, and Howard on the grounds that no nephew-in-law of Jessica’s commits murder, then we’re left with the following list of named characters in the episode:

  1. Aubrey Thornton
  2. Myron Kinkaid
  3. Mary, Larry’s secretary
  4. Grover Barth
  5. Polly Barth
  6. Christine Clifford
  7. Leland Biddle
  8. The security guard

We can cross Mary off because she has zero lines of dialog and the murderer always has at least a line or two. We can cross off Polly Barth for having no opportunity. We can cross off Grover Barth for having absolutely zero motive. We can cross Leland off the list because he had no real motive and more importantly he was not the sort of man to do his own dirty work. We can cross the security guard off the list because he’s got absolutely zero motive and was so dim that he probably would have called the cops on himself if he did it.

We can cross off Christine Clifford for having no motive—the Corned Beef Castles account was no more achievable with Kinkaid dead since Victoria was the real brains in the operation and Christine knew it. That’s not quite 100% true, actually. Kinkaid could have caught Christine trying to return the folder and she killed him in order to avoid prosecution, but the body would have had to have been moved after death because she wouldn’t have just walked into his office with him at the desk, and there was no indication that the body had been moved.

So this only leaves us with Aubrey and Myron. Myron had no motive to kill Larry the night he was trying to save the agency, though. That’s not to say that Myron couldn’t have had a motive if the plot had been changed a little. If the agency had other business that Larry was neglecting in favor of Corned Beef Castles, who wasn’t worth it, he could have had a motive to kill his brother to save the business they built. That’s not this episode, though.

That only leaves us with Aubrey Thornton. He had motive and until moments before it’s revealed that he is the murderer, so far as we knew he didn’t have an alibi. The only thing that really mitigated against him was his forgetability. That, plus even apart from how he achieved his leaky alibi, intercepting a corned beef sandwich order would require somewhat implausible timing given that he had no way of knowing when the order was placed. The murder being implausible is not the best way to shield the murderer from suspicion.

There remains the question of why this episode was so much fun, then. I am inclined to attribute this to the combined effect of several things:

  1. A fun setting — anything that few people have access to is fun to play with in one’s imagination
  2. Intrigue — Biddle Advertising trying to steal the Corned Beef Castles account from Kinkaid Advertising is fun, since subterfuge always involves cleverness; plus it created red herrings
  3. Howard and Victoria are a fun couple — their problems are contrived and sappy, but you root for them anyway

The first one is something I’m trying to work on in my own novels; I think I tend to underestimate how much a pleasant escape from ordinary life is a nice spice to add to a novel. I suspect one difficulty I have here is the hang-up of wanting the setting to be realistic but I don’t have experience of such places. The solution, I suspect, is to sufficiently make up such a place that there is nothing real to be unrealistic about. To make up an example to illustrate the point, perhaps I could do something like a Caribbean cruise on steroids: a connected set of barges that form a floating city. Such a thing would be sufficiently different from a real cruise ship that I don’t need to know how real cruise ships work, while at the same time it would be evocative of something real.

The second is only one legitimate style of murder mystery—having an active plot ongoing, especially during the investigation, can be a lot of fun and certainly is a good way of making red herrings for the detective. It’s possible to make red herrings from other things which aren’t so exciting, though, and this can be better if one wants to relax with a book rather than be excited by it. Since becoming a parent, I’ve often preferred calm books to pulse-pounding ones.

I think that there is a lot to be said for having romantic sub-plots going on during mysteries. One thing, especially, is that the promise of new life intrinsic to romance is a good counterpoint to the end of a life in the murder. It’s not necessary, but it can be used to very good effect.

On the other hand, I do wish that Jessica would show some sympathy toward the murderers she catches. This was something that Colombo did much better. I especially like the episode where the murderer tells Columbo that he couldn’t have caught him without using his subliminal techniques and Columbo agrees. “If there was a reward, I’d put you up for it.”

Winston Churchill once said, on the subject of formal declarations of war, “When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.” In like way, when you catch a murderer, it costs nothing to be magnanimous.

Reviewing Murder, She Wrote

I’m working on another review of a Murder, She Wrote episode, and I wanted to pause to reflect on what it’s been like.

Each review that I write takes me on average about a week to write. I only review episodes that I’ve already seen (typically more than once) but I go through them again as I write in order to ensure that I’m not missing anything, as well as to provide screenshots that capture crucial detail to understanding the episode and the commentary I’m going to give on it. The first few didn’t take me so long, but as I settled into how I want to analyze the episodes, that’s what it ended up coming out to. It’s a lot of time, but I do enjoy the process of paying such close attention.

One thing that’s really jumped out at me as I’ve been re-watching Murder, She Wrote is the degree to which Jessica is not really a small-town retired school teacher. She is, to the last degree, a big-city celebrity who has a private home somewhere that the people don’t really bother her. About the only exception to this is her distaste for people selling recreational drugs, which I would expect a big-city celebrity to be more cool about. Other than that, all of her morays are ones that make sense in a big city—not asking about people’s background or character, not being bothered by things like adultery, fornication, divorce, theft, trespassing, or really anything that doesn’t affect her personally. Most of what she is indignant about is the implication that Cabot Cove lacks anything you can find in a big city. That’s precisely the sort of thing that someone from a big city who is hiding out in a small town would be indignant about. People who are actually from small towns are quite candid that they’re different from big cities—for worse and very much for better. Especially back in the 1980s, people from small towns were proud of the fact that they don’t have to lock their doors at night. Jessica never is.

Another thing that’s really stood out to me is the degree to which the plotting of the episodes was often sloppy. It’s not that, when I watched them as a kid, I thought that every episode was a masterpiece. Further, I understood then and understand now that with over two hundred episodes, they can’t all be winners. As the saying goes, fifty percent have to be in the bottom fifty percent. Still, they’re often unnecessarily sloppy. A flashback will include things that Jessica couldn’t possibly have seen. People will behave in odd ways that could be explained but no explanation is given. Murderers will reveal secrets they shouldn’t have known for no reason, saying things that no one would ever say as if it was normal, like explaining why the person they framed won’t like jail. Jessica will lure the murderer back to the crime scene at night by pretending that an earring is there, when the murderer could first check her jewelry box to see if she’s actually missing an earring.

Having realized this, my examinations of the episodes of Murder, She Wrote have ended up being a little different than the original intention. At first I wanted to look how they were constructed to learn from them. I should say that this is still possible in some cases. If the Frame Fits comes to mind as one of the very well constructed episodes. One White Rose for Death is another. Most of the time, though, the analysis is more about why the episode is interesting despite its plot holes and flaws. In some ways this may be more instructive yet.

When a plot is really excellent, it can be easy to miss all of the other things that go into making the episode good, such as characters, setting, dialog, etc. When the plot is not the strong part but the episode is enjoyable anyway, it forces one to notice the other parts more. The best stories will be well done in every aspect of the story, not merely the plot, so it is well to notice these other things, too.

Murder She Wrote: Witness For the Defense

Early in the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Witness For the Defense. It’s a courtroom drama, which is rare for the series. The action takes place mostly outside of the courtroom, it’s true, but that also tends to be true of courtroom dramas. Interestingly, it takes place in Canada where the court system is pleasingly British.

Jessica, by the way, is the eponymous witness for the defense. She’s been called up to Canada to be a witness in the murder trial of a friend of hers. The scene opens with Jessica being shown into the law office of Oliver Quayle. She meets, however, not Mr. Quayle but his assistant, Barnaby Friar.

Barnaby is an affable, likeable fellow who, it turns out, is much of the reason that people will deal with Oliver Quayle at all. That plus his amazing record at winning murder trials. Which brings us to the subject of why Jessica is there: she was asked to come as a witness in the trial of the Crown vs. James Harlan. Barnaby suggests letting the great man do the explanation. This, by the way, is the great man:

If you can imagine it, his speech is even more pompous than he looks. He’s also very busy; his tailor is fitting him for a new suit while he’s on the telephone. (The call was about a friend who wanted to borrow his jet for a few weeks.)

Instead of telling Jessica what the trial is all about, he has her narrate the events of the fateful night that Jim’s wife died. Jessica, for once, complies instead of demanding answers. I suppose exposition is more important than Jessica’s principles.

It was about six months ago, and Jim was about to publish his second novel, and he had invited her up to look at the galleys…

As a side note, it’s curious how many writers ask Jessica to read their book, regardless of what genre they’re writing in. I suppose her having been a high school English teacher comes in handy, here. Why they all invite Jessica over rather than sending her the manuscript I don’t know; it seems like an inefficient use of time. The writers do need to get Jessica out of Cabot Cove somehow, though, and (I suppose) this is as good an excuse as any. Even so, I can’t help but wonder how Jessica is on such close terms with people all over the world as to read their manuscripts and give them advice on their life’s work. Her myriad of nieces is more plausible.

Jessica explains by saying that she had shown him encouragement on his first book and they had become close. This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s comments on saying that life started on earth because aliens planted it here: it’s just kicking the can down the road. If memory serves, his analogy was that it’s no answer to where did the ghost in the cemetery come from to say that it came from a neighboring cemetery. She was asked to give him advice on his second book because she had given him advice on his first book doesn’t really answer anything.

Still, I can be sympathetic to the problem of how you call your amateur detective in. It’s not easy, and the writers of Murder, She Wrote had to do it two hundred and sixty four times. With that many times of calling Jessica in, they can’t all be winners.

Here’s Jim worriedly asking what she thought of the book:

(If you recognize him, that’s because Christopher Allport, the actor playing Jim, had previously played Donald Granger in If The Frame Fits.)

After Jessica talks about how wonderful his book is, a car pulls up outside. Jim goes to the window and announces that Patricia is back. Patricia is his wife, and in the picture below is the one in blue. As she and a friend named Monica Blane walk out of her expensive sports car…

They look over at the gardener, who winks at Patricia.

She nods her head in acknowledgement, then goes into the house. How Jessica knew either about the winking or the nodding I have no idea, because Jessica was toward the back of the room with a curtain on the window and couldn’t possibly have seen either. (She’s in the same place in the room you can see in the picture of Jim asking her how she liked the book.)

There’s some schmoozing and Jim and Patricia seem genuinely affectionate. There are a few important points, though:

  1. Monica has to leave on a 7:40pm flight
  2. Patricia has a lovely brooch that is a gift from her husband on their first anniversary and
  3. a family heirloom that belonged to his grandmother.
  4. Patricia booked an appointment to have her hair done at 6pm so she asks Jim to run Monica to the airport for her.
  5. Jim agrees and talks about stopping for some drinks with Monica on the way to the airport in a highly suggestive manner.

When this clue session is over, Jessica then skips the narration to that evening, when they gathered for dinner at precisely 8:30pm in the Harlan town house in the city. Jim’s mother, Judith, will let nothing interfere with her routine.

After a bit of chatter in which Judith seems to imply that Jim’s book isn’t any good, a servant comes in and tells her that there was a fire at the country house.

Jessica then returns to the present and tells Mr. Quayle that Jim was devastated when he learned that Patricia died in that fire. Mr. Quayle then goes on about what a great witness Jessica will make, with her national standing and Cabot Cove Maine down-home background. He asks if she has a straw hat with violets in it and says that Barnaby will get her one to complete the look. Jessica indignantly protests that she will not play a country bumpkin for him or for anyone else when he’s interrupted by a phone call from his ex-wife.

I find it difficult to take Jessica’s indignation seriously. She is not so scrupulously honest that she never lies during her investigations. In Night of the Headless Horseman she pretended to be Dorian Beecher’s mother. Mr. Quayle isn’t even asking her to lie—he’s just asking her to dress in a way that will be particularly sympathetic to the jury. This isn’t the sort of thing that anyone should be indignant about, let alone a woman who will lie and wear costumes during an investigation and who is never bothered adultery to say nothing of fornication.

As Quayle’s phone call with his ex-wife—which, oddly, contained an amount of affection which might have been excessive had it been his wife—concludes, Barnaby reminds him of his next appointment and he leaves a flustered Jessica without answers. The next scene goes to the Harlans’ town house at night where Jessica asks Jim why he’s been charged for murder. He explains that the authorities believe that the fire was arson. His mother then comes down and he goes up to bed. During the conversation with Judith, it comes out that Judith thought that Patricia was a bad woman. “Jim was such a serious, studious boy, that he really had no experience with that sort of person.”

In the next scene we go to the courtroom where the prosecutor for the crown (Miss Pirage, pronounced “peer-ahj”) asks a witness what he concluded after his laboratory investigations. I can’t tell what her accent is supposed to be; she pronounces laboratory “lah-bohr-a-tory” as the posh English do, but this is in Canada. Quebec, even, which makes it strange that the trial is conducted in English, and even more strange that the judge, learned counsel, etc all have quasi-English accents rather than French accents. C’est la vie, I suppose.

In his laboratory investigations, he discovered that a gas line in the hot water heater in the basement was disconnected, allowing gas to escape. A gas jet in the stove had been left on upstairs, causing a gas explosion. I’d have thought that all this would have been easier to determine in a crime-scene investigation than a laboratory investigation, but perhaps in Canada they have better lighting in their laboratories and no flashlights. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Canada. I don’t remember what it’s like up there.

Mr. Quayle cross-examines in a pompous style that’s pretty funny. He begins by clarifying whether it’s Miss Pirage or Mrs. Pirage, and explains that he prefers to be precise and would hate to begin by giving her a husband she does not have. She quips back that if she decides she wants a husband, she’ll remember his generous offer. The actors pull it off, and it does come across as funny.

Mr Quayle then begins his cross-examination; he very theatrically elicits from the witness that all he found was an open valve on the stove which is the limits of his knowledge, and is merely surmising that it was left on and was the cause of the fire.

The next witness is the gardener, who testifies that on the day she died he heard Patricia and Jim yelling at each other. She wanted a divorce. Jim’s answer to this request was, “before I give you a divorce I’ll see you dead.”

Mr. Quayle’s cross-examination is basic character assassination; he brings up that the gardener passed a course in auto-repair from a penitentiary institution, and was fired for theft. He concludes, from the way that the gardener shouts that it was a lie, that he was going to ask if the (the gardener) bears the Harlan family ill-will, but the question is no longer necessary.

The next witness is a doctor who testifies that autopsy was very difficult because the fire had almost entirely destroyed the remains. They could only identify the body from the jewelry on it—a engagement ring and engraved wedding band. She does elicit from him—he’s prone to tangents—that what was left of the victim’s skull had a large fracture in the frontal lobe, and there’s no question about it, the victim died from the blow to the head.

We do not see Quayle’s cross-examination. Instead we go back to Mr. Quayle’s office where Jessica, Judith and Jim are sitting on a couch while Barnaby is pouring them tea and Mr. Quayle is asking Barnaby for a list of doctors they’ve used in the past. What they’re all doing here, I’ve no idea; I can’t see why Jessica and the Harlans would go back to their barrister’s office. Anyway, Jessica goes into Mr Quayle’s office as he’s doing research and informs him that it seems to her that Patricia was dead before the fire started. Mr. Quayle asks if she has some medical expertise and she replies that it’s just a matter of common sense—it must have taken some time for the gas to have gotten up to the top floor and if she were alive she would have smelled it.

Quayle replies that it’s up to the crown to prove that she didn’t die in the fire. Jessica answers that it’s not a matter of proof, it’s a matter of logic. I think this is supposed to come off as dishonest Quayle vs. honest Jessica, but she just seems a bit thick-headed to not realize that in a murder defense, ambiguity is on the side of justice if the defendant is innocent.

Quayle is interrupted by his secretary, who tells him that his ex is on the line. This turns out to be another ex-wife, who he addresses in terms equally affectionate as he addressed his previous ex-wife.

Jessica walks back into the waiting room and talks to Jim. She tells him that if Patricia did die prior to the fire, he may need to establish his whereabouts. He reminds her that he took Monica to the airport. How that’s supposed to help, I’m not sure. Her flight was at 7:40pm and even back then you didn’t drop someone off at 7:39 for a 7:40 flight. Unless these things are far apart he would have had plenty of time to get back, murder Patricia, and arrive on time for dinner. Jessica decides that it’s very important to track Monica Blane down. She goes and asks Mr. Quayle if he’s tried to track her down and he tells her that he has decided that her (Jessica’s) testimony will not be necessary, Barnaby will reimburse her for expenses, and he wishes her a pleasant trip back to Maine. (Judith slipped into Quayle’s office before this; it seems possible that she might have had something to do with it.)

Jessica and Jim then go for a walk past a Mounty to talk over the case.

Jessica then asks Jim about the gardener’s testimony. He says that Patricia had been going through a lot of money and refused to account for it. They both got upset and said things that they didn’t mean, but he didn’t threaten Patricia and never would have hurt her. Jessica says that the question is, then, why the gardener was lying.

Jessica then takes a cab to the gardener’s shack where he’s working on a vintage car.

Jessica pretends to be a country bumpkin who is hoping to get a story into the Cabot Cove Gazette. I suppose she won’t pretend to be a country bumpkin for Mr. Quayle or anyone else; she’ll only pretend to be a country bumpkin for herself. I believe that in modern parlance that sort of selfishness is supposed to be independence, or integrity, or something. Be that as it may, it’s things like this that make it very hard to take Jessica’s indignation seriously. And be that as it may, she does manage to pump the gardener for a little information. It turns out that he saw Patricia lying on the floor (presumably dead) through a window before the fire. He didn’t say anything about it because he doesn’t get involved with the police and he would deny what he told her if anyone else asked about it.

For some reason we now get back to the cross-examination of the crown’s medical witness by Mr. Quayle. He asks whether the skull could have been crushed by a falling beam during the fire, or if in fact it is not most probable that the skull was crushed in that fashion. The medical examiner admits that it is possible.

The crown next calls Nathan Klebber, whoever he is.

He turns out to be the owner and operator of the Blue Sky Motel on Aviation Boulevard near “the airport”. I find that last little imprecision amusing because it makes sense for television but is out of character. If the learned counsel is going to the trouble of specifying the Blue Sky Motel and the street it’s on, it would be natural to specify its distance from the airport and also which airport. I haven’t checked but it seems likely that there is more than one airport in Canada. That’s the sort of detail that screenwriters often leave out, in part because it’s (almost) certain you won’t get sued by a real person or business if you don’t actually name them. It’s a little odd not to make up a fake name for it, though.

The learned counsel for the crown asks if on May 14 “of last year” whether he rented a room to an attractive blond woman in her early thirties. He replies that he did; he punched “the card” at 6:53pm. He then leans forward and in his sleasiest voice says that with everyone travelling he sometimes rents by the hour. She gave the name “Monica Blane” on the registration card. She came into the office alone but there was a man with him, and he saw the man. He then identifies Jim Harlan.

This is a strange turn of events for several reasons. The one that stands out most in my mind is that the sleazy motel owner makes a remarkably confident identification for a man he saw out his office window and in a car, somewhere around a year ago.

Actually, this time frame is itself a problem because when Jessica gives her narration to Mr. Quayle in the beginning of the episode she says that the events she narrated took place “about six months ago”. Six months from May 14th would be in November of the same year. Even if one stretched eight months to be “about six months” that would only place the episode in early January. As I’ve previously noted, I’m not an expert on Canada. That said, it is my distinct impression that Canada, in January, tends to be cold. It’s not really the sort of place that a person would work on a car outdoors with rolled up sleeves. Moreover, the exterior scenes we’ve seen so far all showed the lush greens of late spring or summer. Jessica’s flashbacks, likewise, showed lush greens—the gardener was outside trimming bushes—so I don’t see any way for this trial to be less than about a year ago, despite Jessica’s putting it only six months ago.

So how valuable is the identification provided by one of the sleaziest witnesses ever to sit in the witness box of a man he saw a year ago, through his office window, sitting inside a car? Moreover, when there was absolutely no reason for the motel owner to have attached any significance to the event?

To be fair on that last point, it’s likely that the police, during their investigation, would have questioned him days or weeks after the event. Presumably he would have identified Jim from a photograph then and his testimony in court a year later is merely referencing his earlier identification. They don’t show that, but it’s more reasonable and plausible with what they’ve said. Even so, though, that identification would have been under the really terrible circumstances I described above. I also have to question why a motel owner who rents by the hour would even look at his guests enough to notice them. When you deal with the general public they tend to become a blur. Perhaps Jim stood out because Monica was so pretty and he was curious who was with her? That’s not absurd, but it would have been nice to establish.

However that goes, Mr. Quayle does not tear the motel owner to shreds but instead asks to cross-examine at a later time, which the judge grants. The crown then calls Jessica Fletcher to the stand!

Some very dramatic music plays. Mr. Quayle looks surprised then looks at Jessica as if she’s betrayed Jim. She looks around as if he might have been looking at someone else.

Or perhaps she was just looking away in shame.

The sum total of what she’s asked is all she would have testified had Mr. Quayle called her—that Jim and Monica left the country house just before six o’clock and dropped her off at the Harlan town house just after 6:30. He then left with Monica and the next she saw Jim was at 8:30 for dinner. The learned counsel for the crown dramatically asks if Jessica has no knowledge of Jim’s whereabouts between 6:30 and 8:30 and Jessica confusedly says that’s correct.

The learned counsel for the crown then states that these two hours were plenty of time for the defendant to go back to the country house, murder his wife, then get back to the city for dinner.

Perhaps so, but if it takes over half an hour to get from the country house to the city house, as the learned counsel for the crown just established, what on earth is her theory of the crime given that she was the one who called the witness to testify Jim was checking into a by-the-hour motel with Monica Blane at 6:53pm? I suppose that the airport could be right next to the country house, but unless that’s the case and we’re further to suppose that Jim and Monica didn’t actually do anything in the hotel room they rented, the learned counsel for the crown just established Jim’s alibi.

Instead of thanking the Queen’s Counsel for proving the innocence of his client, Mr. Quayle immediately cross-examines Jessica and engages in one of the most entertaining courtroom character-assassinations I’ve ever seen.

He begins by asking if she has ever used the alias “J.B. Fletcher,” and when she says that it’s the name she uses on her books, he asks, “So, you admit that you are a writer?” When she admits this, he asks, “And it was in the guise of a writer that you wheedled your way into the confidence of the Harlan family?” A moment later he asks, “Do you deny that the plot for your next book was stolen from an unpublished manuscript by James Harlan?” Quayle replies to her denial that it’s a matter that they will leave to the civil courts to decide. He then asks if she remembers being committed to the State of Maine Institute for the Criminally Insane in 1985.

The learned counsel for the crown objects and the judge sustains the objection, but Jessica answers anyway—she wasn’t committed, she entered the institution voluntarily. Mr Quayle asks if it was under the care of Dr. Sidney Buckman, a specialist in the field of criminal psychosis (whatever that is). Jessica says yes, she was researching a book. Mr. Quayle then commends it as a perfect subterfuge. Jessica replies that the book was called Sanitarium of Death and was dedicated to Dr. Buckman. Mr. Quayle surmises out of gratitude for the care which she received.

He proceeds to ask whether Jessica’s neice, Victoria Griffin, was arrested for murder last year. Jessica says yes. (This is referring to the third season episode Corn Beef & Carnage.) He also asks whether another neice, Tracy Magill, was also arrested for murder. (This is referring to the second season episode Dead Heat.) And that her nephew, Grady Fletcher, was arrested for murder not once but twice? (I forget which episodes this would be and there are too many with Grady to spend the time refreshing my memory of the plots of them all, unfortunately.) He concludes that “it seems that one of New England’s most respected families is a breeding ground for homicidal lunatics!”

Part of what I love about this character assassination is how completely pointless it is. Quayle had no interest in discrediting Jessica’s testimony—she gave Jim an alibi up to 6:30pm and placed him at the townhouse at 8:30pm, which was better than he was doing without her. Moreover, this testimony was in no way different than what he had previously said was a small but vital role for her to play in getting Jim off of the charge. In any event, it’s not like the jury is going to not believe Jessica about being dropped off at the townhouse at 6:30pm because she comes from a family that’s frequently arrested for murder. About the only possible reason that Mr. Quayle had for performing this pointless character assassination was to keep in practice.

It was a lot of fun to see an episode of Murder, She Wrote that actually acknowledges previous episodes, though. Further, the actor playing Mr. Quayle (Patrick McGoohan), plays him very over-the-top. It’s just delightful.

Quayle says that he has no further questions and Jessica, bewildered and appalled, gets up. The learned counsel for the crown buries her head in her hand as if something bad just happened for her case.

As I noted, I think that something bad did just happen for her case, but it was what the last two witnesses which she called testified to. Quayle did her a favor in discrediting Jessica, if indeed we are to assume that he succeeded in that. No one seems to notice this, however, so we move to the next scene in some sort of cafeteria, where Jessica, sits down with the Queen’s Counsel at her invitation.

The QC condoles with her, saying that it feels like being mugged. Jessica asks whether she really believes that Jim Harlan murdered his wife, and Miss Pirage (the QC) says that she intends to prove that Jim Harlan conspired with Monica Blane to kill Patricia.

Next we see Jessica and Jim driving in a car. Jessica asks Jim for the truth, and he agrees to tell her. He and Patricia tried to keep up appearances but their marriage was sinking fast. Patricia went through money like Jessica wouldn’t believe. Even on the day she died she took out twenty thousand dollars in cash. (It was never found.)

Jessica asks about Monica Blane and the motel. Jim admits that it’s true. He left at 8pm. Monica took a taxi to get to her flight. Given that her flight was at 7:40pm, that taxi must have driven awful fast for her to make it on time. Jim went straight back to the town house to it make it there for dinner. Jim says that he’s embarrassed by it, but Jessica points out that at least Monica Blane could give Jim an alibi. If she could be found.

That evening while Jessica is getting ready for bed, Judith knocks on her hotel room door and asks if she can come in. She apologizes for the vicious way that Mr. Quayle attacked her. After some conversation, it comes up that Judith found out that Patricia had spent a year in jail for embezzling funds from a previous employer and that she had been nothing more than a common Las Vegas showgirl when Jim had met her. Jessica surmises that Monica Blane was not an old schoolmate of Patricia’s but in fact had met her in prison, and was blackmailing Patricia. Judith had paid Monica a great deal of money to disappear through an intermediary—a private investigator.

The next day Jessica goes to Mr. Quayle’s office and talks to Barnaby where she gets him to show her a copy of the police report. It’s got a picture of the jewelry that Patricia’s body was identified with. Jessica asks where the diamond brooch is that Monica was wearing, and Barnaby tells her that there was no mention of a brooch.

Just then a private investigator walks in and announces that he’s there to see Mr. Quayle with information about the location of Monica Blane in exchange for “five large”.

Since Mr. Quayle isn’t around, Jessica goes to meet the private investigator instead. Then Mr. Quayle shows up. It doesn’t matter much because either way they get the location of Monica Blane.

The next day in court, before Mr. Quayle can call Monica Blane the Queen’s Counsel does instead. Monica testifies that she did spend time with Jim at the motel, but then she took a taxi to the airport because she had a 7:40 flight. When asked if it’s true that Jim did not drive her, she said that no, he said that he had to go to the country house to straighten some things out with his wife. Jim stands up and shouts that this is a lie and Mr. Quayle tells him to sit down.

At this point I don’t think that the timing works out no matter who you believe. The motel owner testifies that they booked the room at 6:53pm. Even back in 1987, arriving 47 minutes before an international flight was cutting it close. But she didn’t teleport to the airport, she spent time with Jim and then called a cab. Given the time it would take to call a cab, for a cab to arrive, then to drive Monica to the airport, it’s not very plausible that she spent any time with Jim and still made her flight.

More relevantly to the case, if we assume that the couple only spent ten minutes together… coupling, then Jim has an alibi until 7:03pm. Since it takes well over half an hour to get from the country house to the town house, where Jessica put him at 8:30, this gives him less than an hour to go from the motel by the airport to the country house to kill his wife and arrange the gas. I suppose that this depends on where the airport is, but my impression was that the town house was on the way to the airport, which would make the timing extremely close and pretty implausible. Outright impossible if the couple was together for twenty minutes and the airport was at least ten minutes further away from the country house than the town house was.

No one bothers to think about this, though. The next scene is at Mr. Quayle’s office, where Jessica and the Harlans are seated, talking. Jessica offers the suggestion that if Monica was blackmailing Patricia, perhaps she was trying to incriminate Jim in order to distract from her own crimes. This possibility really should have occurred to Jessica when she was spending so much effort to try to locate Monica to help Jim.

Mr Quayle arrives, yells at Jessica, then demands the Harlans come with him into his office. Mr. Quayle’s secretary comes in looking for an earing, which Jessica finds for her. She remarks that it’s not worth much but has a lot of sentimental value to her. Jessica then realizes who murdered Patricia.

The problem is how to prove it. Jessica talks to Barnaby and explains her idea. The gardener had told her that he went back to the house long after everyone had left. Perhaps he killed Patricia and stole the brooch. It would be stupid to sell the brooch so soon after the death, so if he took it he probably still has it hidden somewhere. Barnaby interrupts Mr. Quayle’s conference with the Harlans to propose this idea (Jessica thought Mr. Quayle would be more receptive if it came from Barnaby), and Mr. Quayle thinks he may be on to something. He instructs Barnaby to telephone a judge to get a search warrant. I guess in Canada private citizens can get search warrants? What a strange country.

Anyway, the next thing we see is a shadowy figure in a fancy car driving up to the gardener’s shack (where Jessica had interviewed him).

Oddly, for Murder, She Wrote, they didn’t disguise the figure very well, and in fact in the very next scene they show us that it’s Judith, wearing sunglasses and gloves but also distinctive jewelry and with her unusual hair on full display.

This strikes me as being about a 3% disguise. I suppose that there was no real point in trying to hold out the suspense of who the murderer was since the options were:

  1. Jim
  2. Judith
  3. Monica Blane
  4. The Gardener

Option 1 isn’t impossible, but it’s highly unlikely since Jim is a friend of Jessica’s and also a writer. I don’t think that they’re ever the murderer. Also, I can’t remember Murder, She Wrote ever pulling a bluff by having Jessica working to clear the murderer the whole episode while the dumb police officer turned out to be right.

Option 3 would be very difficult to believe, even given the sloppy way that this episode plays with time. Jim alibis Monica until some time after 7pm and at a motel near the airport. Wherever exactly the airport is, it’s clearly not in walking distance of the country house, so Monica would have had to take a cab or rent a car to get there, both of which would have been idiotic. Plus, Patricia was Monica’s cash cow. The blackmailer doesn’t kill the victim for the same reason that children are told the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs.

Option 4 is unlikely, too, since the gardener had no motive to kill Patricia and also didn’t use the time-delay given by the gas leak to try to establish an alibi for himself. It’s not outright impossible. If Jessica was wrong about the blackmail, the gardener could have seen the twenty thousand dollars in cash and tried to steal it, killing Patricia in the process. The only problem, there, is that he would have had no way to know that anyone was searching for the brooch so he couldn’t be caught moving it to a better hiding place and we could hardly expect him to sneak into his own shack to plant the brooch on himself to throw suspicion onto himself.

That just leaves Judith. Since we don’t have any options, I guess that there was no point in pretending that we did.

As a small point, I wonder how Judith knew or expected that the gardener would be away from his shack. It would be very awkward for him to have found her there. She does call to him several times to make sure he’s not there, but I can’t imagine what she would have done had he been there.

Be that as it may, Judith is caught planting the brooch…

…by Jessica and the Queen’s Counsel, Miss Pirage. Normally, I’d say that this was a strange choice for an authority figure since prosecutors never go on searches for evidence because if anything happens during the search, they will be unable to prosecute the case because they are now a witness in the case. Who else could do it, though? There is no police detective in the case and it’s too late to bring one in. Jim wouldn’t be a great choice and Mr. Quayle or Barnaby would be worse choices. The gardener would technically be a possibility, but I know I wouldn’t want to rely on his testimony. It’s kind of curious that he’s not there, though, since without his permission Jessica and Miss Pirage are trespassing. Perhaps that’s not illegal in Canada?

Judith asks Jessica how she knew, and Jessica says that she had to ask herself who would take an antique brooch and leave a five karat diamond. The answer is someone to whom it was a family heirloom. Judith says that her mother was very fond of it, and it was a gift from her father.

Judith decides to confess to everything. Patricia’s appointment was not with her hairdresser (what a shock!) but with Judith. She was going to confront Patricia with everything that the private investigator had found out about her background. She offered Patricia a lot of money to quietly divorce Jim, without scandal. Patricia was not only greedy but abusive; she hit Judith. Judith grabbed whatever was nearby—the poker in the fireplace—and struck her down. She’s the one who disconnected the gas. She calculated that she had enough time to get to the town house before the fire consumed Patricia’s body. She couldn’t bear to see her mother’s brooch destroyed so she removed it from the body.

I find it curious that the brooch was the only thing of sentimental value in the entire country house. It was fortunate, I guess, that all of Judith’s sentimental attachments were stored in the town house.

Miss Pirage leads Judith away as if she has some sort of authority to arrest her, and before leaving the shack Judith turns to Jessica and says, “I hope you realize that I never would have let Jim be convicted for something I had done.” Jessica nods.

The closing scene is of Jessica and Barnaby talking. Barnaby says that their ploy worked, so I guess he was in on it. Jessica replies that she hopes Mr. Quayle appreciates what Barnaby did for him, and Barnaby shows off his new title.

Jessica comments that it has a “good, solid sound.” Mr Quayle walks in and Jessica says goodbye to him. He corrects her that it’s not goodbye, but au revoir. He’ll see her again a few months for the trial. He’s going to defend Judith. “Even the guilty deserve their day in court. I’m going to get her off. I always get them off.” Jessica says that it’s a trial she would rather skip, and Mr. Quayle says that she can’t. He’s going to call her as a witness.

The episode ends on Jessica’s look of horror.

There are a few things which are not small points that this episode leaves unanswered. Why did the gardener testify that Patricia asked for a divorce and that Jim replied that he’d kill her first? I suppose we’re meant to assume that he lied about it to try to hurt the Harlans in revenge for having been fired, but this would have been nice to establish. It’s also a somewhat strange motive. Again, we have to assume that this is based on testimony he gave the police in the days or weeks after the crime; without knowing that the fire was started intentionally, it would be a somewhat odd lie to tell. On the other hand, if he was telling the truth about having seen Patricia’s body before the fire, perhaps he thought that Jim really did do it and was trying to help the police get him. Which would be out of character, since he doesn’t like to talk to the police. Come to think of it, why did he cooperate with the police enough to lie about the fight but not enough to tell the truth about having seen the body on the floor prior to the fire? I don’t see any way that this makes sense.

Another question that is left unanswered is what actually happened with Jim Harlan and Monica Blane? I don’t see any way that she actually made her 7:40pm flight, but if she didn’t, what happened to her? Why did she try to incriminate Jim in the death of Patricia if she wasn’t involved? It doesn’t help her to make an enemy of Mr. Quayle (even if she doesn’t know him by reputation). Having just testified that they spent time together then she took a cab to the airport would have been her safest bet.

Another weird point is how on earth the two ended up getting a room together. They were, so far as we can tell, barely in each other’s company prior to driving Jessica to the town house and in Jessica’s company from then until about twenty minutes before they got a motel room next to the airport. I realize that some people move quickly but this rivals how fast Pepe le Pew falls in love. Perhaps Monica Blane, with her criminal background, might be this impulsive. Jim Harlan, the studious and sensitive soul, would hardly be likely to jump into bed with Monica twenty minutes into what seems to be his first private conversation with her. Especially since he wanted his marriage to work out.

Another question that’s completely unanswered is what existed between Patricia and the gardener? If Monica Blane was blackmailing Patricia and Patricia was paying, that would mean that Patricia wanted to stay in her marriage. Why would she cheat with the gardener if she wanted to remain married to Jim? Was she even cheating with the gardener? The only real evidence we have is the gardener winking at her and her nodding back—all of which happened in Jessica’s retelling and which Jessica couldn’t have known.

Also, on the assumption that Patricia was paying Monica blackmail money, why was she? The things that Judith’s private investigator found out about were that Patricia had spent a year in prison for embezzling money and that she was a las vegas showgirl when Jim met her. Presumably Jim already knew she was a showgirl when he met her, so what harm was there in her past coming out. It would be embarrassing to have served prison time for a crime, but why would she wreck her marriage over keeping this secret?

These questions aside, I was really shocked when the completely unidentifiable corpse turned out to be who it was assumed to be on the basis of jewelry and not the person who has been missing ever since then. I had assumed that the corpse was actually that of Monica Blane until she was located. That the mystery was not so complicated was a kind of twist, but not the good kind. Nothing was made of it; none of the characters were misled by it. Nothing was covered up by it. It almost seems like it was just an accident that this was possible until it wasn’t anymore.

The unwritten rule of mysteries is that it only counts as a twist if the story turns out to be more clever than it seems.

Overall, this is a very curious episode. As a mystery, it isn’t very good. It’s overly simple. Absent Jessica’s interference, the learned counsel for the crown had probably proved Jim’s innocence herself. Failing that, the murderer would have revealed herself had the person Jessica was trying to save been convicted. Most of the ends were loose ends; very little was made to fit. On the other hand, as an episode of a TV show, it was extremely entertaining. The courtroom scenes were enjoyable, especially Oliver Quayle’s over-the-top pomposity. It was especially fun to see a nod toward the ridiculousness of all of the episodes when put together. The supporting characters were also fun, except for Judith who was kind of grating but she turned out to be the murderer so that was OK.

All things considered, Witness For the Defense is a good lesson in how strong characters can carry a weak story. It’s better to have strong characters in a strong story, of course, but strong characters are, clearly, worth an awful lot.

Some Old Posts

Several years ago, I did some research into the origins of the phrase The Butler Did It. This led to a series of posts on the subject, and I even tracked down and read some of the original source material. You can see the posts on the butler did it tag. One annoying thing about tags is that they have the newest post first, but this makes more sense to scroll to the bottom and start reading from there. It’s worth checking out as I came across some interesting and mostly forgotten history in mystery fiction. Nothing earth shattering, but interesting.

Murder, She Spoke

The final episode of the third season of Murder, She Wrote is titled Murder, She Spoke and for some odd reason is one of the episodes that stands out in my memory most from when I saw it as a kid (explaining why will involve spoilers, so I’m leaving that to later in this discussion of the episode).

The episode opens with a band recording a country song.

They sing for a bit about a fellow named Lucky who has a silver dollar in his pocket but doesn’t have a woman to his name. As a side note, having a silver dollar in his pocket is pretty unusual for any recent historical time. The last silver dollar coins that were in general circulation were minted in 1935.

The singer’s name is Stony Carmichael, and he’s played by Charlie Daniels, perhaps most famous for his song The Devil Went Down to Georgia. If you’ve never heard it, here’s Charlie and his band playing it in a concert:

I’ve no idea how they got Charlie Daniels to do this but he’s great in the part and it explains why Stony’s band sounds so good. Anyway, we then discover why we’re here. In another booth in the studio, Jessica is recording an audio book version of one of her books.

The body was discovered by Edie Babbage on November 2nd, at 3:30 in the afternoon. She knew it was 3:30 because she was late returning from her marketing. She checked her watch in the elevator, bothered the dinner wouldn’t be ready. Nothing fancy, just her husband’s favorite stuffed cabbage. But it took at least four hours. She was equally certain about the location of the body—the man’s throat had been slit and he was making a dreadful mess all over her freshly scrubbed kitchen floor. It had not been Edie’s day…

The sound engineer interrupts and asks her to take two steps back because her voice is too authoritative. She does, but then can’t read the manuscript. The woman who seems to be directing her from within the recording studio, where her breathing and every moment would be caught on the microphone, moves the stand for her and calls that “emergency procedure number 483.” The sound engineer says that they’re ready to roll, but she says that she wants to give someone another minute, he should have been here by now. I’ve no idea why it was OK to roll before, but not now, or why they didn’t figure out where Jessica was supposed to stand before recording.

The scene moves back to Stony, who just finishes up. The sound engineer says that it’s pure gold, but Stony says that Al would say that the partridge family was platinum if it would get them out of the recording studio. This, by the way, is Al:

Stony wants him to play the recording back. Al is reluctant, but Stony insists and Al acquiesces. We then go back to the studio with Jessica, where the woman has finally given up on the man coming and tells the sound engineer to start recording, then instructs Jessica to forget that there’s a microphone in front of her. Just then the man she was waiting for walks in. He introduces himself as Greg Dalton. He’s the producer of the audio book.

He doesn’t wear sunglasses indoors because he’s cool, though. It turns out he’s blind. We find this out by him bumping into the music stand that Jessica’s manuscript is on. Somebody, he concludes, must have moved the stand. The camera pans over to show his cane. He doesn’t need it in places that he’s familiar with, except when people move things on him. They kind of got this wrong because he went to where Jessica was now, rather than where she would have been had the music stand not been moved. And it would have been a bit weird for him to try to walk between where the music stand had been and Jessica, standing (what he thought was) several feet behind it. It would have made more sense to walk around it.

The woman turns out to be Greg’s wife, by the way. There’s then a weird joke where he reaches out to take his wife’s hand and she takes his, then he kisses the music stand as if he didn’t have her hand in his. He then makes a joke about it. I’m not sure why, but they’re really doing a bad job with setting up the blind jokes. (These are actually a setup for character development later, they’re not here to make fun of him for being blind. It would probably be more accurate to call them blindness-related mistakes.)

We then get a few more characters introduced.

The guy in the white jacket walked in from an outside door and just ran into the woman in denim. Her name is Cheryl and she seems to be the executive assistant to the head of the studio, which seems to be him. She relays several messages he missed while he was at dinner.

We then get a bit of character development on the young woman with the band. She turns out to be Stony’s niece. She tells him to stop treating her like a kid, but replies, “Honey, you are a kid.” He then tells her that the first rule of being a musician is to take care of your band and orders her to go get them some sodas.

Stony walks into the sound engineering room where the head of the studio stopped in to listen. He shows them a bootleg cassette tape which he found at a “swap meet” for $20. They’re even using the official cover.

Granted, covers aren’t always complicated, but this cover is just some words on white over a picture of Stony (from what I can only assume is a long time ago). That’s actually about the quality I would expect of a bootleg-original cassette cover. The only thing even slightly difficult about it in 1987 would be the lettering. I’m so used to doing that sort of thing on a computer that I’m not even sure how one would have done it back then. Other than that, it could easily be made on the photocopy machine at the library by having two strips of paper with the words on them over the photo of Stony.

The studio head says that he told Stony that there was a risk in pushing back the release date, and that he’s equally mad about them since it’s money out of his pocket, too. Stony replies that he talked to a fancy uptown lawyer who said that if he can prove that the bootleg cassettes are coming out of the studio, it will nullify his contract with them. The studio head says that he’s Stony’s friend and if Stony wants out of the contract, all he has to do is say so. Stony points out that according to the contract he signed if he does that he’ll be liable for all expenses the studio incurred, plus fifty percent of any future contract he comes up with. The studio head replies that no one held a gun to Stony’s head to sign the contract when he found him “in that dive in Waco”. Stony replies maybe not, but somebody got him mighty drunk. “I guess I’ll even be billed for the liquor, too, huh?”

It’s pretty well established that these two are not on good terms. Odds are pretty good that one of them will be a corpse before the episode is over.

The studio head then asks Al what he knows about it and Al replies that the place used to be very loose before security was beefed up—anybody could have come in and dubbed the masters. Something not said is how all of this happened while the album is still being recorded. Even lax security won’t let people dub master tapes that weren’t recorded yet.

The studio head then notices a monitor of a different room in which Jessica is recording and remarks that no one would mistake her for a rhythm and blues girl. “That’s the last book for the bleeding blind you’re gonna catch outa here.”

In the next scene the studio head is in the recording studio telling Jessica, “Thanks for being here, Mrs. Fletcher. This is such an important series.” He then ignores Jessica’s reply as he talks to the sound engineer.

Greg then gives them the news that this is the last of the Mystery Books For the Blind series that will be recorded in this studio. That was why the studio head had taken him out to dinner—to tell him.

Both his wife and Jessica are aghast. Jessica says, “but can’t you take the series to another company?” He replies, “That’ll be tough. This isn’t exactly a money-making proposition. I can’t say I blame him.”

At this point we can be pretty confident that it’s the studio head who’s going to end up dead, given how many people have been established to have motives to hate him. This one is a bit weird, though. By 1987, audio books were being regularly made. The Sony Walkman—which helped in no small part to create demand for audiobooks because of the many places they could now be played such as when going for walks, commuting to and from work, etc.—had been released in 1979. Eight years later, there was a real and growing market for audio books. Moreover, mysteries are popular and Jessica’s mysteries, which were best sellers, would almost certainly have been financially worthwhile to any company to do. This feels like someone had taken a plot for a different show, written about ten years before, and just recycled it to Murder, She Wrote. It’s the plot we’ve got, though, so we’re going to have to run with it.

As they discuss what to do, Jessica notices the studio head having an argument with the sound engineer. (“Perhaps this isn’t the best time to approach Mr. Witworth.”) The studio head, whose name turns out to be Randy Witworth, then goes back to his office. It turns out his wife is waiting for him there:

Her name is Margaret Witworth, and if you’re wondering about the apparent age disparity, she’s rich. That said, the actors are only six years apart. Constance Towers, who played Margret, was born in 1933 while Patrick Wayne (second son of the legendary John Wayne) was born in 1939. This would have made them fifty-four and forty-eight, respectively. It’s atypical, but not a huge gap at their ages. They were recently married, by the way.

She expresses some jealousy over how late his secretary works and he assures her that she has nothing to worry about. She drops her purse while they kiss and he picks it up for her (odds are good that something will have fallen out of her purse that will be a clue, later). He tells her to go home and start one of her special bubble baths and he’ll join her at 10 O’Clock. He’s got a business appointment with a “Carl” in a few minutes.

We next go to Jessica continuing her reading.

But what really bothered Mrs. Babage was, the body was dressed in her only fromal gown…

They then laugh over the typo and Greg excuses himself to go get a drink. I really don’t get why both and he his wife are in the recording studio with Jessica. The only things they can add are unwanted noises. That’s why there’s a room that can see in and talk over microphones to the sound room, but normally is isolated from it, where the sound engineer sits.

We move over to the other recording studio, with Stony, and Al places a call to Randy. Then we cut to outside where the businessman that Randy is waiting for arrives.

If audio books not being profitable was an anachronism, that car is a straight-up antique. Lord Peter Wimsey might have owned it at one point.

The lights on the recording studio go off just as he’s walking up to the door. The scene cuts to complete blackness and we hear Al complaining to Randy that this is the third time this month and that he and “Carl” have to get some people in who know what they’re doing. Randy replies that the electricians were just in. Curiously, during this conversation, Al doesn’t let Randy interrupt him and just keeps on talking.

Various people talk to each other. Greg’s wife tells Jessica that this has happened before and she knows her way around so she’s going to go look for the circuit breaker. The businessman who came up walks in and asks what happened to the lights. Then the lights come back up.

Al, on the phone, asks Randy if he’s OK, and Randy replies that he’s hurt. Somebody…

Sally Ann starts screaming, and the camera moves over to her. It pans out as the Texan businessman comes in and holds her to comfort her and Al is just getting to the room.

Randy, it turns out, has been stabbed to death. Actually, that’s not quite right, since he isn’t dead yet. He’s able to say “help me,” “stabbed me,” and “somebody stabbed me. in the dark.” He’s rushed off in an ambulance. He doesn’t make it, though, so it’s close enough.

The police arrive, including Lieutenant Farady, played by G.W. Bailey. He had, only three short years before, played Lieutenant Harris in the slapstick comedy, Police Academy.

Bailey played a straight man in Police Academy, and seems to play a different sort of straight-man here. In Police Academy he was a rigid disciplinarian. Here is is a rigid misogynist. That’s not quite the right word; he doesn’t hate women, he merely regards them as children. He has a Kinder, Küche, Kirche attitude, except without any respect for these things. Why he was written this way, I have no idea. I imagine that it’s supposed to be funny, except it isn’t.

In the old vaudeville days they said if you have a funny man you have a bit, if you have a straight man, you have an act. There is some truth to this because the funny man does much better when he has a straight man to play off of. Humor is related to contrasts and the straight man sets up a stream of contrasts for the funny man to play off of. What somebody seemed to have missed in this episode is that the act does, in fact, also require the funny man. If all you have is the straight man, you don’t even have a bit.

This strange shtick comes up in every scene that the Lieutenant is in but it serves no identifiable purpose. It’s not funny, it doesn’t advance the plot, it doesn’t hinder Jessica—it doesn’t do anything but annoy the viewer. It continues throughout the rest of the episode, but I’m going to ignore it from here on out.

Jessica points out to the Lieutenant that if someone had been in the office with Randy when he was stabbed that person could easily have left and no one would have seen since it was dark. While true, this is of dubious relevance because Randy probably would have mentioned the person with him if there had been anyone. It’s also just unlikely that someone would be with Randy, with a knife at the ready, and just luck out that a blackout happened right then.

The Lieutenant is in Randy’s office speculating with his deputy when Jessica brings Greg in. He was taking a pill at the water fountain—he has a circulation problem in his leg—when he heard someone run past him and something drop. The Lt. asks if this was when the lights were out and Greg says that he doesn’t know, since he’s blind.

Jessica sees something on the floor.

The Lt. says that the cleaning lady will get that in the morning, and he noticed it too. It’s a splash of paint. How there was supposed to be a splash of wet paint on the carpet in the middle of an office in which no painting is going on, he doesn’t explain. Apparently he didn’t notice the bottle of nail polish that’s pretty obvious. Jessica asks to borrow his pocket handkerchief and use it to pick the bottle up, then screw the lid on, though I can’t imagine that any fingerprints survived the vigorous wiping she gave the bottle while she screwed the lid on. Before moving on, I really would like to know how on earth the nail polish was supposed to splash like that then bounce 8″ over without leaving any nail polish, then lay on its side not dripping at all.

The Lieutenant suggests that Jessica take the bottle of nail polish home with her as a souvenir. At this point I’m going to refer to him as Lt. Idiot, and also reference my previous statements about how a straight man without a funny man isn’t even a bit.

Jessica identifies the nail polish as “Moné Mauve,” an extremely expensive brand of nail polish. It’s still wet, which means that it must have been dropped very recently. So recently that I really doubt that it would be still damp, given the time it took for the police to come and begin their investigation. It really should have stank to high heaven, though, given how man VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) nail polish gives off while it dries. Oddly, no one comments on that.

Jessica recommends that Lt. Idiot find out who it belongs too but he seems reluctant to follow up on clues. A phone call comes in on the phone in Randy’s office, which Lt. Idiot picks up. Randy Witworth was dead on arrival at the hospital, making this a murder investigation. How on earth the hospital had Randy’s office phone number or why on earth they called it is not explained.

Shortly afterwards, they find the murder weapon behind a soda machine.

Jessica says that it must be what Greg heard drop. Jessica notices that Greg’s wife recognizes it.

It was the sharp intake of breath that Alerted Jessica.

The scene moves to the next day, where Greg and Jessica are taking a morning run. Jessica tells Greg, as they run, that she admires how he doesn’t let anything stop him. They get home and Greg’s wife is making breakfast. Greg does basically everything himself, barely letting her do anything. Then he gets a call from Carl, who I believe was the Texan businessman, who cancels Mystery Books for the Blind. “Does he have the power to do that?” Jessica asks. “Guess he must have,” Greg replies. I’m not so sure, Jessica says. So they visit Carl at his house.

In the conversation, it comes up that the Stony Carmichael tape that Jessica saw on Randy’s desk was a bootleg. Jessica pursues the subject of ownership of the company, because the previous night she saw a sizable cashier’s check attached to a contract transferring Carl’s ownership to Randy. Carl replies that a lot has changed since last night.

When they get back from this meeting, Lt. Idiot is waiting at Greg’s house. Lt. Idiot has a warrant to search the house. It turns out that they had a barbeque at their house a few days ago and most everyone from the studio attended. Jessica goes to help Greg’s wife with the coffee, and finds her reaching into the dryer.

Jessica chides her that Lt. Idiot isn’t stupid and will look in the dryer, too. Given that he told Jessica to take a bottle of nail polish from the crime scene home as a souvenir, I find this highly doubtful. Anyway, Nancy (Greg’s wife) had hid their knives in the dryer because one is missing—the murder weapon. Jessica tells Nancy that she can’t withhold evidence, and the knife may clear Greg.

In the next scene they’re standing in the living room and Jessica is exasperatedly telling Lt. Idiot that anyone could have stolen the knife at the barbecue, as the prints were wiped off the murder weapon. Lt. Idiot replies that Greg was standing next to the master switch when the lights went off. Apparently they put the master switch to the electricity in the building not in a locked service closet on an exterior wall where the electrical service comes in, like it normally is in commercial buildings, but on the wall next to a drinking fountain in the hallway.

Lt. Idiot’s main case is that the person most capable of operating in a blackout is a blind man, hence Greg must be guilty. He does have a motive, though. Randy said that he was cancelling books for the blind and Greg got angry. He said that Randy owed him.

Greg then elaborates. “A man owes something to somebody he blinds in a car accident. But not his life. A job, maybe. But not his life.”

This eloquence falls on deaf ears, as the next scene is in the police station with Greg under arrest. For some reason Jessica is interrogating Greg and no police are present.

She asks Greg if he can identify anything about the person who ran past him. Greg replies that sometimes he can tell the difference between a man or a woman, but not when they’re wearing soft-soled shoes. Jessica asks if he can say anything about it, such as “but did they sound heavy or light, did they move fast, were they young?” Given that they were running, I’d say he already answered the question of whether they were moving fast.

Nancy tartly tells Jessica that he’s not an eyewitness, he’s blind. When Greg objects, Nancy yells at him that he’s not superman and can’t do everything by himself, and it will never be the same as it was before the accident. Greg objects that he’s happy, with a good life, and she asks why he has to be so damn happy.

Basically, she complains that he’s dealing with his problems like a man, by dealing with them directly, and not like a woman, by talking about them with other women (note: generalization with exceptions). She also complains that he doesn’t confide in her anymore. This is the character development I said that the earlier issues with him stumbling into things were leading towards. I didn’t like this sub-plot, but it was intentional and worked for its intention.

After Jessica finished interrogating Greg, she and Nancy left and Jessica asked her about the previous power outages. Nancy asks if she thinks that they were related and Jessica says that if she were going to pull a murder in total darkness and frame a blind man, she’d want a few dress rehearsals under her belt.

Jessica then goes back in to talk to Lt. Idiot.

He’s checking out a “night scope” on his hunting rifle. “This night scope is great! The deer don’t even see you coming.”

Aside from this being obviously related to the plot, night vision scopes, before the advent of digital ones, did not work during the day. In fact for many of them it would damage them to be used during the day with bright light going into them.

Lt. Idiot then gets a call from someone or other and he has the last piece of evidence he needs—the blood on the knife matches the victims. As if a knife covered in fresh blood could have been dropped behind the vending machine from some other stabbing and be unrelated to this case! Anyway, now that the blood type matches (they weren’t doing DNA ID in 1987), the case against Greg is complete, so Lt. Idiot orders the studio unsealed. Jessica goes to the studio just as the police are removing the tape from it.

Jessica walks in and we get a shot of the main power switch:

Actually, this is the second shot of it. We got another shot of it ealier, for a moment, when people were running past Greg:

You can see the sign saying “DO NOT TOUCH! THIS MEANS YOU!” on it better in the shot with Greg in it.

It’s really convenient that they have a master switch for the electricity for the entire building here, where if you’re doing electrical work you’ll be plunged into complete darkness and then have to grope your way over to wherever they have the switch breaker panel, since installing new electrical lines or changing out switch breakers is the only reason to shut off the power to the entire building, rather than to shut off just one circuit. I wonder why they didn’t go whole hog and have it be an old time two-pole knife switch.

As Jessica examines this weird plot device attached to the wall, Stony and his neice arrive, as does Al on his motorcycle, not wearing a helmet.

As he goes into his office Jessica walks up to him. He asks if there’s anything she can do for him and she says says. As he comes in and puts his leather jacket next to his motorcycle helmet on the coat rack…

…Al says that Greg used to invite them over for barbecues, so he can’t believe Greg did it. He then excuses himself because he has a ton of work to do.

Jessica mosies on over to the other sound engineer’s recording booth, where she asks him some questions. The most important of which is whether it’s possible to tell the difference between a power outage due to electrical failure and one due to the master switch being thrown. The recording engineer says that they look the same, but he knows that it wasn’t the master switch because during other blackouts he checked the master switch and it was in the on position. The lights just come back on when they want to. The electricians can’t figure it out and it always happens during a recording session. Jessica asks if it’s during a recording session of mystery books for the blind, and he says, “come to think of it, during Stony Carmichael’s sessions too, as I recall”.

Jessica then asks the engineer about his fight with Randy. Randy accused him of selling the bootleg Stony tapes and he took exception to that. But he never saw anyone mad like Stony was about them. If Stony wasn’t in the recording studio at the time Randy was stabbed…

Jessica then goes out and runs into Sally Ann trying to work a vending machine. Under cover of helping her with the vending machine, she asks Sally Ann where she was in the blackout and is surprised that Sally Ann said she waited until the lights went on to leave because Sally Ann was the first to discover Randy. Sally Ann takes offense at this clumsy attempt to pump her for information because it looked like she was being accused of murdering Randy. Why Jessica sometimes does these clumsy interviews when she’s capable of tact, I don’t know. Perhaps Sally Ann’s angry reaction is meant to make us suspect her?

Jessica goes into Randy’s office and looks around. Margret Witworth (the widow) walks into the office with Carl. He leaves to get Jessica’s tape from the sound engineer. Jessica notices Margaret’s nail polish. When Margaret claims she last saw her husband in the morning, Jessica calls her on it. That goes nowhere, she just does and the scene ends. The end is coming so we need some suspicion to be sprinkled around, I guess.

After Carl escorts Jessica out to a Taxi, Stony accosts him and tells him to stay away from his neice.

Apparently she came to him to help her with her singing career. “Yeah, she came onto Randy too and I straightened him out just I’m going to straighten you out right now. What you got in mind for my neice sure ain’t no singing career. She’s got a tin ear and a voice like a screech owl which means that she’s only good for one thing.”

As a side note, Charlie Daniels turns in a good performance here. I’m surprised he didn’t do more acting than this (at least, I didn’t see on IMDB that he did any other fiction work).

This scene ends with Carl looking embarrassed as Jessica stops peeping and gives the taxi driver directions.

The next scene is that night at Greg and Nancy’s house. Jessica says that something has been bothering her, which is that how did the person who ran past Greg run in the dark? Greg replies, “maybe he had a flashlight?” Nancy says that she didn’t see one, but I don’t know that she would have.

Greg then plays the tape of Jessica, which he is eager to do because all he can think of is trying to salvage the mystery-books-for-the-blind program with some other company. That he needs this tape that has Jessica reading a few paragraphs—when it is made clear by earlier dialog that they have already produced completed audio books—makes no sense. It’s a ploy to have the tape playing, but it would have been just as natural to play the tape for fun. This is the part of the book Jessica was reading on the tape. It seems to have come right after what he had heard before:

…only ten minutes before Lt. Garfield arrived. Garfield took in the scene quickly. It wasn’t a pretty picture but he’d seen worse. He noted the swarthy man with the hideous bloody grin cut into his throat, noted the gown he was wearing, and dryly observed that he appeared to be wearing a size 12. It seemed bizarre that he was wearing a dress belonging to the lady of the house, but as Garfield said, we’re lucky at least the corpse wasn’t wearing makeup. Even more bizarre was the fact that there were no bloodstains on the dress.

During this reading Lt. Idiot calls on the phone to talk to Jessica. He hears the tape playing and asks what all this is about the corpse wearing makeup. Jessica replies that it wasn’t her, well, it was, but not her on the phone…

Jessica then realizes who did it and how it was done. As I’ve mentioned before, Jessica having to be given an idea by someone accidentally, which allows her to solve the mystery, is primarily there not because it makes for a good story but because it gives the audience time to process the clues and make a guess as to who did it. This isn’t necessary in a book, though you sometimes see it there just to distance the final clue from the realization that it’s the final clue and thus not draw excessive attention to it. In broadcast television, though, one cannot set the episode down for a minute to think about the story so far so the writers have to consciously give the audience time.

Lt. Idiot doesn’t see this look on Jessica’s face, though, so he proceeds to tell her what he called to tell her: he really wishes that she hadn’t accused Margret Witworth, because Mrs. Witworth has been talking his head off for the last hour about it. All rich people have the privilege of talking the heads of police detectives off, it seems, even though there’s no indication that this is a small town or that Mrs. Witworth is rich enough to get everyone on the city council elected and thus be owed favors. American rich people are basically just the English aristocracy from the early 1900s, I guess.

Jessica tells the chief to never mind Margret Witworth, she didn’t do it. Jessica knows who did it, and how, but she doesn’t know how to prove it. (This means that an elaborate stunt is going to be required to make the killer confess.) Greg shouts, “Who did it? Who?” and Jessica wheels around. I suspect that this was the out to a commercial break. The next scene is at the recording studio as the members of a rock band pack up their van. (Their band name appears to be Larry & The Lashers.)

We then cut to inside the recording studio where Al and the other sound engineer are talking. Al thanks him for the help and suggests that he go home for the night. The other sound engineer thinks that’s a good idea and leaves. Al then takes a screwdriver out of his pocket, turns toward his sound board, and the lights go out.

The door to the recording room—in desperate need of oiling—loudly creeks. Al asks who’s there. It’s Greg. He asks Al why he wanted to frame him (that is, to frame Greg). “You knew I could move around in the dark, Al. And I can. I’m getting closer.” Al then shouts at him that he’s crazy and to stay away, then hits a switch on the bottom of his sound board, which turns the lights back on.

Apparently Al has a switch on the bottom of his sound board which can turn on the lights to the building even if it wasn’t the switch used to turn them off. I’ll get to this more in a bit, but I guess when he installed the switch it was a 3-way switch with whatever switch Jessica & friends used to turn the lights off. That was very forward thinking of Al, assuming that he wanted to get caught.

Al then looks up and sees an unwelcome sight.

Somehow all four of these people, none of whom were familiar with the room and only one of whom was blind, managed to walk in and surround Al without bumping into anything. At this point they proved that anyone could have pulled off Randy’s murder, but no one remarks on this.

Al says, “What do you know, the lights came back on.” Jessica replies, “No, Al, you switched them on. Just as you switched them on the night you killed Randy Witworth.” When Al says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Lt. Idiot reaches down to a different place on the sound board than Al had used and flicks the lights off, then flicks them back on again.

You can very clearly see that Randy used his right hand, to the right of his leg, to hit the switch. Lt. Idiot is equally clearly reaching to the left of Randy’s left leg. I really should check the credits to see if there was a continuity person… I just checked. No, there was no continuity person in the credits. That might explain a lot.

Anyway, Jessica tells Al that she realized he had to have rigged a way to turn the studio power on and off and he wouldn’t have had time to dismantle it with the studio being sealed and then recording sessions all day from the backlog. Al replies, “Just because I have a master switch here doesn’t prove anything. How could I see in the dark?”

Not exactly the greatest comeback of all time.

Lt. Idiot replies, “With this! We figure.” and picks up Al’s motorcycle helmet. Jessica points out that he didn’t wear it into work that morning but when she went into his office it was already there, which means that it had to have been left in the studio since the night of the murder. That seems odd. Was it because he figured he would be searched and in being searched the police would discover that the motorcycle helmet has an infrared visor?

They go over some other details, then we get a shot of infrared motorcyle helmet vision:

Curiously, this is why this episode stuck with me all those years. Here’s another shot of infrared motorcycle helmet vision:

I’m going to include one more shot of infrafred motorcycle helmet vision because it shows a few major problems with the plot, taken together with the previous one:

That door on the left is the door to recording studio A, which is Al’s studio and where he returns in a moment. You can’t see her clearly in this picture because of motion blur, but standing perhaps 8 feet away from the door to Studio A is Nancy, Greg’s wife. In other words, in order for Al’s brilliant plan to work, he had to somehow open the door to the studio, slip in, and close the door, all with neither Greg nor Nancy hearing the door move. The plausibility of this is… low.

And then we come to infrared motorcycle helmet vision.

While it is true that there is such a thing as night vision which can use illumination from an infrared light source to see in the dark, it’s a system of optics that tends to give a narrow field of view, it’s not a thin sheet of plastic with a wide field of view. It also requires an infrared flashlight to do that illumination. They’re also horribly blinded by daylight, so Al would have had to have brought a regular visor for his motorcycle helmet if he was going to wear the thing into work while driving anyway. In the 1980s infrared scopes were analog and those processes tended to make the night vision tinted green, not red. What they’ve actually done—and this is related to why it stuck in my head, so bear with me—is to just put a red filter on top of the camera and shoot in regular light. Probably the easiest way to tell is that things do not reflect infrared light the same way they reflect visible light. They do to a surprising degree; white things tend to reflect infrared well and black not nearly so well, so black letters on a white background is often readable. Where you really see the difference is in colors. Some blues and greens reflect infrared well and look white under infrared. The greens of plants, in particular reflect fairly well. Under a red filter, greens and blues tend to look black—like in the images above—rather than white, as in real infrared vision.

All of this went together to make me think that Al just had a red-tinted visor. I must have misheard “infrared visor” as “red visor”, which was then confirmed by the shots of what Al saw which were, clearly, just using an ordinary red filter. I puzzled over this at the time because it doesn’t make sense that removing light helps you to see in the dark, but I recall that I chalked it up to not quite understanding it. I may have even tried turning off the lights and looking through red cellophane, and been disappointed. I vaguely recall that I did.

All this while, it turns out that the episode just got it wrong. A motorcyle helmet could be tinted red, but it can’t give you infrared night vision. Infrared night vision doesn’t look like daylight filtered through red plastic. Oh, and you’re not going to have a simple toggle switch to the master power for the building hidden in a sound board.

The more direct way of doing this would be to run the main power lines to the building through Al’s sound board, but they’re probably about 2″ thick and he’d have no way of running them over or of hiding them in a sound board. Only slightly more plausible, then, would be for the switch in Al’s sound board to run over thin wires that remotely control a battery-powered switch that interrupts the electrical feed to the building. He’d still have to run these wires from the bottom of his sound board over to the ceiling and through the ceiling over to someplace he has access to the electric feed to the building. Oh, and he’d have to shut off the power to the building while he was installing this switch. All without anyone noticing what he was doing.

I suppose he could have stayed late, past when everyone else went home, then waited out the cleaning staff, then in the wee hours of the morning shut off the building’s power and installed a remote-operated cutoff switch. A cutoff switch that the electricians who had been called in to diagnose the blackouts missed.

So it turns out that several decades of me wondering how it’s possible to use a thin piece of red plastic to see in the dark is just the writer of this episode having no idea how technology works and the film crew being lazy.

Back to the episode, Al says that Jessica is crazy, that anyone could have rigged up the board, and that his lawyer will make sushi out of them. Lt. Idiot tells Jessica not to feel bad, he’ll find a way to make Al confess. Jessica points out that since they searched Al the night of the murder, and didn’t find a cassette tape on him—why would anyone have taken note if they did find a cassette tape on him?—it must still be there, in the recording studio. Unless Al wasn’t an idiot and erased the tape or recorded over it while he was there all day, of course. Probably not a big worry in this episode.

The next day Jessica is packing her bags into a taxi at Greg and Nancy’s house when Lt. Idiot drives up. He got Al to confess—he was the bootlegger. Jessica asks if he found the tape, then, and Lt. Idiot replies, “after 10 hours”. I guess Al was an idiot, after all. Lt. Idiot sees her into her taxi, and thanks her for her help in wrapping up the case. His final words are, “as long as I live, I will never again underestimate the power of women’s intuition. Jessica laughs and we go to credits.

It’s interesting how often Murder, She Wrote ends on Jessica laughing. This is something I forgot to comment on in my analysis of Mourning Among the Wisterias. Probably three out of four episodes end with Jessica laughing, about one out of four on a more somber note. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why some end on a somber note—it may just be timing as much as anything else. Part of the ending-on-laughing is probably just that it’s a good note to end on. As it says in the old song, always leave them laughing when you say goodbye.

I think it does have a greater artistic significance than this, though. As I’ve described in my post Detectives as Christ Figures in Mystery Stories, the detective story is a suspension of normal. With the crime the world has been broken by the misuse of reason and the detective, through the right use of reason, steps in and fixes it. During the investigation the detective takes on many attitudes and passes as many different characters. When the investigation is over, laughter serves to indicate that things are back to normal. It’s not the only way for a mystery to end, of course, that serves this purpose. It’s merely a very succinct way to achieve the purpose.

So, watching this episode again, thirty four years later, I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed that one of the most (to me) memorable episodes was not one of the best. It had its charms, of course. Charlie Daniels was great as Stony Carmichael, though it’s a pity that he and Jessica never got to interact. The title was great. Really, that’s about it, though.

The plot was a mess. It depended entirely on technology which was completely misunderstood at every level. This isn’t like the murder weapon in Unnatural Death being an empty syringe whereas in reality it would have to be an extremely large empty syringe. At no point was the size of the syringe of any great consequence to the plot. How the killer would have gotten a syringe of sufficient size might pose some difficulties, but not insuperable difficulties. In the worst case they had bicycle pumps and needles hooked up to tubing in the 1920s. Dorothy L. Sayers got the details wrong, but not in a way that mattered much to the plot.

By contrast, night vision equipment and how it could be concealed and detected was central to the plot of Murder, She Spoke. Had Al been given a realistic night vision scope, if he didn’t hide it like a moron Jessica would have had no reason to suspect he had it at all, and that’s what led her to him. There was no realistic way for Al to have switched off the electricity to the building from his sound board. Without that, he could not have carried his plan out. There was no way for him to get into and out of his office without making any sound and his plan required a blind man—someone they go out of their way to point out has extra keen hearing—only a half dozen paces from the door. Moreover, his plan involved running past that blind man and into his own office and following a trail of sound is easier than locating an isolated noise.

The other major problem I have with the plotting of this episode is that the solution to the central problem is just the obvious technology for it. How could anyone see in the dark? It can be an intriguing question, but not if the answer is, “by using the technology specifically designed to do that.” It would be like having the reveal to, “how did the killer manage to reach such a high place?” be, “he used a ladder to climb up to it.” Or “how did the killer manage to separate the paper into two pieces so cleanly?” be “he used scissors.” It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that the killer did the thing in the obvious way when there was no misdirection away from the obvious way. Al’s plan only came close to working because Lt. Idiot didn’t bother searching the recording studio for clues.

I’m not saying anything about the weird sub-plot of Mystery Books for the Blind being unprofitable making no sense in 1987 because, though they spend a bunch of time on it, it really has no effect on the plot. It sort-of gives Greg a motive for killing Randy, but since Randy was established to be responsible for Greg’s blindness and bum leg, it’s superfluous. (Frankly, it’s actually slightly a problem because it’s pretty ridiculous to suppose that Greg had brought a steak knife from his house to dinner just in case Randy should cancel the mystery books for the blind program that night.)

Oh, and the motive for the murder doesn’t make any sense, either. Al made bootleg tapes of Stony Carmichael’s comeback album, which Randy didn’t know, so he murdered Randy and framed Greg. He had been rehearsing the murder for weeks prior to Stony discovering the bootleg tapes in a “swap meet”. Worse, Randy had no evidence that Al was behind the bootlegging and didn’t even suspect him. In fact, he suspected the other sound engineer, not Al. Moreover, killing Randy didn’t solve any problem for Al. Stony still knew about the bootleg tapes and was still boiling mad about them. Whoever inherited the studio would still try to investigate to find out who was responsible for the bootleg tapes.

Killing Randy didn’t even get rid of any evidence. The way to track the bootlegger down would be by asking the person selling the tape at the swap-meet where he got it from and tracing this back. As far as I can see, killing Randy would have achieved exactly nothing for Al. He might as well have killed the other recording engineer or even the janitor. At least, then, he could have planted evidence on their corpses that they were the bootlegger. As it was, Al had precisely no motive.

I’ve got nothing more to say about the episode as a mystery, but I want to take a moment to put together all of the text of Jessica’s book as we heard it:

The body was discovered by Edie Babbage on November 2nd, at 3:30 in the afternoon. She knew it was 3:30 because she was late returning from her marketing. She checked her watch in the elevator, bothered the dinner wouldn’t be ready. Nothing fancy, just her husband’s favorite stuffed cabbage, but it took at least four hours. She was equally certain about the location of the body—the man’s throat had been slit and he was making a dreadful mess all over her freshly scrubbed kitchen floor. It had not been Edie’s day… But what really bothered Mrs. Babage was, the body was dressed in her only fromal gown… only ten minutes before Lt. Garfield arrived. Garfield took in the scene quickly. It wasn’t a pretty picture but he’d seen worse. He noted the swarthy man with the hideous bloody grin cut into his throat, noted the gown he was wearing, and dryly observed that he appeared to be wearing a size 12. It seemed bizarre that he was wearing a dress belonging to the lady of the house, but as Garfield said, we’re lucky at least the corpse wasn’t wearing makeup. Even more bizarre was the fact that there were no bloodstains on the dress.

I suspect that snippets like these are as much jokes as anything, but it is curious to see what J.B. Fletcher’s best sellers are supposed to be like. I do find it curious that they don’t give Jessica a detective that appears in more than one of her novels. Ariadne Oliver had Sven Hjerson and Harriet Vane had Robert Templeton. I suppose that the less continuity they had the easier it was to farm scripts out to non-staff writers. It’s a pity, though. It would have been fun for people to ask her what her fictional detective would do in various circumstances.

Murder She Wrote: Mourning Among the Wisterias

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

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

PENTAX Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re next introduced to several characters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If your money was on Crystal, congratulations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Peter Wimsey and the Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker

The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker, first published as Beyond the Reach of the Law in Volume 61 of Pearson’s magazine, in February of 1926 (according to this discussion of the bridge talk in it), is a curious Lord Peter Wimsey story in which there isn’t any mystery.

The story begins with a Mrs. Ruyslaender, who happens to see Lord Peter’s name in the hotel book of a hotel she is spending the night at. She knocks on his door and asks for help. It turns out that her husband had given her a diamond necklace and it was stolen by a distant relative of her husband, a Mr. Paul Melville. He also stole a portrait with names and a very indiscreet inscription. The portrait plus incriminating inscription was of a man she had had cheated on her husband with a few years ago. He’s now married to someone else. If the police were to get involved, both the necklace and the portrait would be found, her husband would find out about the affair, he would divorce her, and what’s worse from her perspective is that her ex-lover would be ruined. Though she hates him and would like him to be ruined, she couldn’t bear to be the means of his ruination.

For some reason Lord Peter agrees to help her get the diamond necklace and the portrait back discreetly, so as to avoid scandal. This is such an unsympathetic case that I wonder whether the Victorian (and post-victorian) horror of blackmail isn’t partially an invention of detective stories in order to justify plots. In this case a woman who cheated on her husband holds on to a terribly incriminating piece of evidence after coming to hate the man with whom she adulterated her marriage. She then actually put it into the clutches of a man she didn’t trust because she kept the piece of evidence in a hidden drawer in her jewelry box. A jewelry box which was actually her husband’s and so the knowledge of the secret compartment was in her husband’s family. I rather wonder that Lord Peter didn’t tell her to make up whatever story she could and deal with the consequences.

I suppose what makes no sense to me in the Victorian and post-Victorian stories of blackmail is that the people in them are horrified at the blackmail but think nothing whatever of the adultery (or perhaps more often, fornication). Blackmail is bad, but it only works in a society which disapproves of the action the person is being blackmailed for. If that’s the case, we should see some of that disapproval. Things are unbalanced without it.

Anyway, Lord Peter then cultivates the acquaintance of Melville and frames him, in front of witnesses, for cheating at cards. In particular, Lord Peter uses his card sharping skills we didn’t know he had in order to give Melville a run of extraordinary luck, then uses his sleight-of-hand skills we didn’t know he had in order to plant an ace up Melville’s sleeve and make it fall out in front of those witnesses.

He then blackmails Melville into returning the diamond and the portrait, then leaving the club. He then goes to the witnesses (who are friends of his) and asks them what they think of blackmail, and they both remark in one fashion or another that it’s the worst crime in the world because the law can’t touch it. Sir Impey Biggs, in particular, mentions that he has always refused to represent a blackmailer and has never consented to prosecute someone who murdered a blackmailer. Lord Peter then demonstrates his card sharping ability as well as his sleight-of-hand ability to his friends, and asks them not to mention anything about the events of the evening because there are some crimes the law cannot reach.

I don’t know what to make of this story. It’s neither a mystery nor an adventure; to some degree it’s just giving Lord Peter a super-power in a one-off fashion. (At least, I cannot recall another time when Lord Peter was a card sharp.) Indeed, the number of skills Lord Peter keeps in practice in is rather astounding, if one takes all of these stories as meant to be simultaneously true.

I’m not sure how much they are meant this way, actually. When Dorothy L. Sayers was dealing with trying to turn Lord Peter into a fleshed out character in the aftermath of Harriet Vane refusing to marry a charicature, Ms. Sayers mentioned having as raw materials the “random attributes as I had bestowed upon him over a series of years in accordance with the requirements of various detective plots” (Gaudy Night, Titles to Fame).

I don’t want to accuse Ms. Sayers of careless workmanship, at least any more than she accuses herself of it, but at the same time I think it fair to say that this was an early Lord Peter story, coming only three years after the introduction of Lord Peter in Whose Body? It seems that, during this early period, she didn’t take the detective story as seriously, or at least she didn’t take the short stories as seriously. To be fair she set out to write Whose Body? as more of a novel and less of a conventional detective story, but even she said that in retrospect it was “conventional to the last degree”. She attributes this to a person not being able to write a novel unless they have something to say about life, and she had nothing to say because at that point in her life she knew nothing. I actually suspect, having written two detective novels and working on a third, that it may be as much that the technical aspect of writing a detective story can become very consuming. Though fundamentally unrealistic in that crimes are rarely cleverly committed or afterwards disguised by complicated circumstances, detective stories are, after that conceit, highly realistic stories. It’s not easy to make the whole thing work out naturally and with internal consistency. Worse, from the author’s perspective, is that the detectives have some very determined ideas of how to proceed (characters can only ever be partially controlled by their author) and this has a tendency to put the plot on rails. The author can bend these rails, but it takes a great deal of effort to do it in such a way that the train doesn’t derail. This is the origin of a great many stupid lies told by people who are not guilty but complicate matters; if the author needs the detective to go talk to someone, some poor character has to be the one to point him in that direction.

This, incidentally, is where we can see part of the genius of Gaudy Night. By having the campus poltergeist only striking occasionally, Harriet is given opportunities to go do things in the quiet interludes. The initial absence of evidence together with its occasional dripping out gives space for the author to push Harriet into meeting people without some poor sap having to lie about whose handkerchief they saw at the crime scene.

How Ms. Sayers would have regarded short stories during this early period of Lord Peter I do not know. This was the time period in which short stories were where the real money was in fiction, for most authors at least, and so she would have had ample motivation to just make the stories work in order to meet deadlines. It was only after her failure to marry Lord Peter to Harriet that she started working on fleshing him out as a character, so I suspect that she didn’t much regard him in this way yet. Putting this together, I suspect that this story was meant to be an interesting moment that would pass and then be forgotten about, as most of the material of a monthly magazine would be. Granted, detective short stories had a habit of being published as a collection in book form once enough of them had been written, still, I suspect that at least part of the reason it’s hard to know what to make of this story is that the authoress never intended us to make anything of it. It contains the interesting idea, “what if one blackmailed a blackmailer?” and featured Lord Peter as much because name recognition of a character is probably better for sales than name recognition of an author is.

Captain Hastings in Dumb Witness

Dumb Witness (originally titled Poirot Loses a Client), published in 1937, is the seventh and penultimate appearance of Captain Hastings in a Poirot novel. (The last would be the final Poirot novel, Curtain, which was written in the early 1940s and put in a bank vault until 1975, when Agatha Christie knew she would write no more novels.) The portrayal of Captain Hastings, in Dumb Witness, represents something of a strange development of the character.

The Wikipedia article on Dumb Witness has a quote from an E.R. Punshon, in a review of the novel, who said that Poirot, “shows all of his usual acumen; Captain Hastings – happily once more at Poirot’s side – more than all his usual stupidity…” This seems an adequate description. His stupidity is only slightly more pronounced than it was in the previous novel with him, The A.B.C. Murders. In fact, I wrote about this aspect of the portrayal of Hastings in it. In both, Hastings seems to have had a turn for the worse, compared to his earlier portrayals. I find myself wondering all the more why he did.

One thing I will say for Hastings in Dumb Witness over The A.B.C. Murders is that he does not, at least, lose his head over pretty women. This may be that Christie only put one beautiful woman in Dumb Witness and she was engaged, but happily Captain Hastings at least behaved like a married man. he seems to have become even dumber, though.

Hastings’ stupidity in Dumb Witness seems to be channeled primarily into one action—complete certainty that Emily Arundel died of natural causes. Why he is so certain is given no explanation whatever. He at first bases this certainty on the casual word of a real estate agent—and one who only got his news from local gossip, at that. Each person who had no better knowledge of Miss Arundel’s death thinking it was natural causes would have strengthened this conviction if it didn’t start out as complete certainty, but it certainly didn’t weaken it. This feels like it is here to serve some practical purpose, but I can’t imagine what that practical purpose is.

Hastings started off as a Watson, that is, as a character of ordinary intelligence who narrated the stories, was impressed by the detective, and asked questions which gave the detective an opportunity to explain clues to the reader. As a mild variation, the Watson can have an intelligence very slightly below the average reader, as commanded in the decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

Hastings seems, here, to be a complete idiot. He is, until about three quarters of the way through the book, unable to consider the possibility that Emily Arundel might have been murdered. He holds as absolutely certain, for no reason whatever, that a rich old woman, upon whose life one attempt had been made, must have died of completely natural causes. This might have served some literary function if it prompted Poirot to explain why there is doubt, but it long-since lost that purpose after the first such explanation. Especially since Hastings’ doubts were often in the narrator’s commentary, it took on the character of a simple monomania.

I suppose that this might have been meant to produce a contrast when Poirot turned out to be right, except that we already knew that. There is not going to be a Poirot novel in which Poirot turned out to be wasting his time and there was nothing whatever to discover. This is as implausible as a Poirot novel in which Poirot doesn’t appear, or shave his mustache, or dies on the first page. So why spend so much time and effort suggesting such a thing?

Even stranger, this seems to be at odds with the character’s function as a Watson. Watson admires Holmes. He all but worships Holmes. He doesn’t bemusedly play chauffeur all the while thinking his friend is senile and wasting his time. This is all the more the case given that this is a late case of Poirot’s and Hastings should, by now, have an ample store of experience to draw on that Poirot’s instincts are usually right. What’s the point of bringing a character back if he isn’t the same character from the previous stories—or acts like he wasn’t in them. What’s the purpose of a close friend of Poirot’s who grows to trust Poirot less and less as time wears on?

I think that there must be an answer because Agatha Christie was an intelligent, thoughtful woman. I don’t think that writing Hastings this way was a good choice but it seems very likely that it was at least an intelligible idea. Of course, given that this was his last appearance before the final Poirot novel, I suspect that Mrs. Christie also came to think that it wasn’t a good choice. But what on earth was the goal with him that didn’t work out? She did, after all, pack him off to Argentina in Murder on the Links. Bringing him back was a choice.

I’m in some danger of repeating myself, but I find the whole thing very perplexing. Approximately every character but Hastings has a reasonably consistent psychology to them. Hastings, alone, seems more a collection of a pointless literary devices than a character. Even Poirot seems to tire of him. Since Hastings refuses to think, Poirot doesn’t explain anything to him. His function even as a literary device seems to be lost.

Perhaps Hastings was merely meant as comic relief? There is some possibility here, except that for the most part he isn’t funny.

Perhaps I’m merely biased because Hugh Frasier’s portrayal of him in the David Suchet Poirot is so compelling. It just seems like such a pity. Captain Hastings had the potential to be so interesting but he simply wasn’t used. Perhaps Mrs. Christie thought that he was beloved by the fans and so brought him back for their sake, but reluctantly, and that’s why she didn’t make any use of him. If so, it’s a great pity. It is an explanation which explains, at least.

I hope it’s not true, though.

I’ve Made a Map!

Working on my third Brother Thomas mystery, I learned how to use the vector graphics program inkscape and have made a map of the resort camp where the novel takes place! I’m not sure it’s finished, but it’s close:

I think I’m going to add a legend to it. Some of the detail work is hard to see, so I might have to include a zoomed in section to spare people having to use a magnifying glass. Still, I think it’s come out pretty well.

(I might also add some trees to indicate where there is forest, but that’s most places, so it might make it too crowded.)

Murderers Call In Poirot a Lot…

As I’ve been reading the Poirot short stories and novels, it’s struck me that it’s not just once or twice that it was the murderer who called Poirot into the case. I don’t want to go into a list, since merely to name them would consist of spoilers, but off the top of my head I can think of at least four novels and a short story in which the murderer called Poirot into the case and two more short stories about robbery rather than murder in which the thief called Poirot in. I’m confident that this is not an exhaustive list. I’m really not sure what to make of this.

If it happened merely once, it would be an interesting twist. Happening so often, it feels like something else. What, I’m not entirely sure. A few possibilities recommend themselves.

One possibility is that by frequently having the person who called Poirot in be the criminal it keeps the reader more on his toes. I’m not sure this really works, though; there’s a certain foolishness in calling in the world’s greatest detective to investigate your crime. It becomes more foolish still after reading about his cases in the newspaper (or in Captain Hastings’ records of them) and seeing how often he’s willing to accuse the person who hired him. If I murdered someone in the 1930s and I was determined to call a detective in to investigate the case, I would far rather call in Giraud than Poirot.

Another possibility is that this was merely a solution to the problem that all mystery writers face of how on earth you get your detective in on the case. It is, of course, possible to go the Jessica Fletcher route and simply have the astonishing coincidence that the detective just happens to be around murders ten to twenty times per year. Those who want a little more realism need to be more creative. The problem with calling a detective in before the crime is committed is that, in general, there is only one person who knows that the crime will be committed—the criminal. The major alternative I can think of is a person who suspects that attempts have been made before against his life calling in the detective. This works, but requires either a remarkably incompetent murderer or slow poisoning. The murderer calling in Poirot does open the field a bit.

The tradeoff is that it is mostly not in the murderer’s interest to call the world’s greatest detective in, which makes it very hard to make this plausible. Of all the times that it happened with Poirot, I’m inclined to say that the A.B.C. Murders was probably the most plausible. The murderer had a legitimate (from his perspective) reason for it to be Poirot and not someone less well known. The murderer also produced a very clever series of murders, complete with a scapegoat who believed that he did it, so it was plausible that Poirot might have been fooled, or else that he would have been overruled by the police.

As for the other times, the criminal calling in Poirot seems far less excusable. It was mostly pretty gratuitous. Granted, Poirot tries to be underestimated by criminals, but it seems odd for so many criminals to take such an unnecessary risk. Especially because it’s usually with very little gained by bringing him in.

Which leads me to suspect that it really is done merely as a way of bringing Poirot into the story. I’m hesitant to believe that’s the case, though, since Agatha Christie is such a master of plotting. Overall, I’m not sure what to make of it. All I’m sure of is that it’s strange.

Captain Hastings In the ABC Murders

Having recently finished reading The A.B.C. Murders (and I must remark, in passing, that the David Suchet adaptation was remarkably faithful to the book, in this case) I find myself confused by the character of Captain Hastings. As I mentioned before, he started out as a near-clone of Dr. Watson. In only the second Poirot novel, Agatha Christie gave him a wife and sent him off to Argentina. She then used him in more than twenty short stories and another dozen short stories that would become the novel The Big Four. He then periodically showed up in the novels a few more times, the second-to-last of which was The A.B.C. Murders. He’s an odd character, there.

Captain Hastings is an odd character in The A.B.C. Murders for two reasons:

  1. He’s changed in ways that don’t quite make sense.
  2. He’s stayed the same in ways that make no sense at all.

To give an example of the second one first, Captain Hastings still hankers after beautiful women. It’s natural enough that he would notice them, or even to be a bit weak-minded about them. What isn’t natural is the way he does so exactly as if he was still twenty years old and unmarried. He never mentions his wife. He openly wants to escort the young and pretty Miss Thora Grey when he should, in fact, be actively avoiding her. Now, it’s no good to say that Hastings was always weak for a pretty face, because he was so in the context of being a completely decent and honorable man. That’s what made it charming. Moreover, that’s what drew Poirot to Hastings. Hastings had a beautiful nature which Poirot admired. He really should have been on the point of refusing to accompany Miss Grey.

Further, he really should have mentioned his wife when Poirot was teasing him about being weak-headed to Miss Grey’s pretty face. “I’m off the market, old chap” or some such line really should have come to his lips. So, for that matter, should some talk about how wonderful his wife is and how happy they are together. That’s just the sort of man that Hastings was.

Similarly, Hastings has learned next to nothing in all of his years with Poirot. That’s not quite 100% true, as he does mention on some of Poirot’s more strange actions that he’d learned that when Poirot was least explicable was when Poirot was hunting down an especially important clue. Still, you’d think that after so many years following the great detective around, he would have learned a little bit. He might have occasionally made a prosaic guess just because Poirot had so frequently told him that he went wrong by being too romantic in his imagination. It’s hard to take the age of their relationship entirely seriously when it seems to have had no effect whatever on Hastings.

The changes that don’t quite make sense are, perhaps, stranger. In some sense they are related to Hastings not changing with his changing circumstances, but he no longer has that beautiful nature which Poirot so admired in Hastings’ youth. His instincts are no longer pure, if for that reason frequently misleading. To some degree I suppose Hastings is merely out of his element. The murderer being presumed to be a madman, the inordinately sane Hastings has nothing really to say. But that brings me to my main question: why on earth did Agatha Christie bring Captain Hastings back for this story? He doesn’t really seem to have a place in it.

The thing that Captain Hastings has to contribute to a story that he’s in is common humanity. He’s a thoroughly decent man. He’s honest, honorable, and generous. He is also romantic. To Poirot, he gives two things. The first is that, never being cynical, he counterbalanced Poirot’s own cynicism. Poirot sees through everything; Hastings sees through nothing. Hastings, therefore, reminds Poirot of the value of the surface. This is related to the second thing he offers Poirot: the perspective of an ordinary person. It is something that Poirot, in his brilliance, is apt to miss on the rare occasions when he forgets to take it into account.

We do get a little bit of that in The A.B.C. Murders. It is Hastings who wonders whether the third note might have had the wrong address written on it intentionally. It’s not much, though, and the story seems to barely notice it.

Overall, I don’t know what to make of it. There was no need to bring Hastings back from Argentina for this story, but little use seems to have been made of him. The problem seems to me that anything which explains the second part will run aground of the first. If there was some reason not to make use of Hastings, why not just leave in him Argentina? He was made much better use of in Peril at End House, and that was written before The A.B.C. Muders. Perhaps Mrs. Christie was so preoccupied with the clever plot that she forgot the good captain. In favor of this hypothesis, she didn’t seem to pay that much attention to the other characters, either.

Suicide in Gold Age Detective Stories

A feature I’ve commented on in Golden Age detective stories is how often the detectives condone or even approve of suicide. To some degree I find this strange because of how un-Christian it is, in spite of the fact that England in the early 1900s was not really a Christian country anymore. Yet you even find this in Poirot, who is a bon catholique. To some degree, I suppose that it was simply part of the culture. That said, another idea has occurred to me.

It is often the case that in order to make the murder difficult to solve, the evidence which the detective uses to solve the is often… thin. At least in the legal sense. There is a tangle of evidence which the detective’s story explains very nicely so that it all makes beautiful sense. It is satisfying. What it often isn’t, though, is sufficient legal proof to obtain a conviction. One solution to this problem is to have the villain confess in front of witnesses. This can be hard to pull off convincingly, though. Why go to all the trouble of trying to frame someone else for the murder in order to get away with it, only to confess in the face of legally flimsy evidence? There is a second solution, though. If the villain kills himself it obviates the need for legal evidence of any kind, and killing himself is not the same action as confessing. To confess is to guarantee that one will be convicted and hanged with all of the social shame and anxiety that entails. To kill oneself can be portrayed as the murderer hedging his bets. It’s easier to pull off, I think, when the murderer’s social status would be destroyed by the detective spreading the word that he did it, even if no criminal conviction could be obtained, and the murder having been committed in order to gain social status. It can be done “offscreen,” too, which means that the reader will probably not examine it as closely.

I should note that there is a humorous Mitchell & Webb sketch which contains this idea. I had seen it many years ago and remembered it after I thought of this the other day:

Murder On The Links: Sniffing For Clues

Murder On The Links is the second novel featuring the detective Hercule Poirot. Published in March of 1923, it came very slighty after the first few Poirot short stories published in The Sketch magazine. However, publishing schedules being what they are, it was probably written before they were. It’s a very interesting story both in its own right and for its place within the history of detective stories. (If you haven’t read it yet and dislike spoilers, go read it now.)

One of the very curious elements of the story is the rivalry between Poirot and Giraud, the famous detective from the Sureté of Paris. Giraud focuses with single-minded determination on finding minute clues, like remnants of footprints and a match discarded in the grass. He painstakingly combs every inch of every crime scene on his hands and knees, looking closely at every surface. This is in strong distinction to Poirot, who lets others find the small clues while he remains standing and contents himself with figuring out what the clues mean. There is a wonderful section of dialog with Hastings in which Poirot defends his method (Hastings, who narrates the story, begins):

“But surely the study of finger-prints and footprints, cigarette ash, different kinds of mud, and other clues that comprise the minute observation of details—all these are of vital importance?”

“But certainly. I have never said otherwise. The trained observer, the expert, without doubt he is useful! But the others, the Hercules Poirots, they are above the experts! To them the experts bring the facts, their business is the method of the crime, its logical deduction, the proper sequence and order of the facts; above all, the true psychology of the case. You have hunted the fox, yes?”

“I have hunted a bit, now and again,” I said, rather bewildered by this abrupt change of subject. “Why?”

“Eh bien, this hunting of the fox, you need the dogs, no?”

“Hounds,” I corrected gently. “Yes, of course.”

“But yet,” Poirot wagged his finger at me. “You did not descend from your horse and run along the ground smelling with your nose and uttering loud Ow Ows?”

There is another section, in which Giraud discounted a two foot section of lead pipe because it did not fit into his theory of the case, but scoured the ground for other clues such as an unburnt match. Poirot remarks:

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!

You also see this in the much later Five Little Pigs, where the client uses this very fact that Poirot does not crawl on his knees in the dirt for clues to persuade him to take a seventeen year old case. He objected that after so much time there would be no clues to find, and she pointed out that he doesn’t use those clues anyway. (He had just boasted of that when she was taken aback by how old Poirot was.)

The context of all of this disparagement of physical clues is interesting to consider. Sherlock Holmes started the detective crazy in 1891 and was known for his magnifying glass, chemical analyses, and sharp eye for detail. He was, perhaps, more known for it than was entirely fair; he certainly did consider psychology, at least on occasion. That said, he was famous for his monograph on cigar ash, for being able to distinguish the tread of every make of bicycle tire, etc. And in 1923 the Holmes stories were by no means complete. Holmes Short stories were published in the 1920s until the last one was published in 1927.

There is also the at-the-time popular detective Dr. Thorndyke, whose entire stock-and-trade was careful observation, extensive medical knowledge, and for-the-time high tech experiments. (The for-the-time high tech may in part explain why he was enormously popular in his day and has had very little staying power after it.) He was relatively early on in his career at this point, having started in 1909 and appearing in five novels by the end of 1922.

I should also mention that from things I’ve read in the time period, there was something of a flood of works that have not generally been remembered but which imitated Sherlock Holmes to greater or lesser extents (often greater). These often, I get the impression, focused on physical evidence to seem clever. Imitation frequently involves exaggeration, especially when it is imitation by writers who are not extraordinary.

Standing against this context, however, is G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Father Brown did not crawl about with a magnifying glass any more than Poirot did, and he started solving cases in 1910. Father Brown was immensely popular in his day (and is still beloved at least by fans of Chesterton). I am not certain of the history but I believe that Father Brown formed the other end of the spectrum from Sherlock Holmes, being primarily a psychological sleuth.

What, then, should we make of Poirot’s looking down on the gathering of minute physical evidence? I think it is probably best classed as a preference among the existing spectrum of detective stories, rather than as anything new, even though it is presented as something of a novelty to the people in the story. Detective stories have something of a tradition of commenting on detective stories as a genre. Especially during the golden age, it is common for detectives to do this by discussing their “theory of detection”. Another common approach was what we see here—for some character to have a rival theory of detection. I think it was most often the Watson character, but police detectives also commonly would clash with the brilliant detective over the right way to go about solving a case.

This commentary had two main purposes, but I think that the second was far more important than the first. The less important purpose was as a commentary on the genre. The more important purpose was to make the brilliant detective seem brilliant. He could not, after all, be all that brilliant if he went about things in the same manner as everyone around him but was merely luckier. Or to put it another way: in order to achieve magical results, one must have some magic. The detective’s commentary on the theory of detection provides this magic; it is his unique theory of detection which is the key to his success.

I think, therefore, the rivalry between Poirot in Giraud should be taken primarily in this light. Instead of as commentary on other fictional detectives, it is meant primarily to be a humorous way to make the brilliance of Hercule Poirot shine. It just happens to be funny, too.

Murder She Wrote: The Days Dwindle Down

Towards the end of the third season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode, The Days Dwindle Down. It’s one of my favorite kinds of mystery stories—a historical mystery. Jessica is asked to investigate a killing which took place thirty years ago.

Very unusually for a Murder, She Wrote title screen, it features Jessica in it. She’s talking with a publicist, who wants to use the real-life murders she’s solved in order to sell books. I’m not clear on what his actual plan is, but it doesn’t matter because he’s not really a character in this story. He’s only here to introduce the information that Jessica solves real-life crimes to one of the real characters:

This is Georgia Wilson. She’s the one who asks Jessica to solve the thirty year old mystery. It happens not long after the breakfast meeting. She shows up at Jessica’s room and asks if she can come in because she could be fired if anyone sees her bothering Jessica. It turns out that her husband just got out of prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and she wants Jessica to… actually, she never really says. He’s a broken man and she wants him to be repaired so they can enjoy whatever years they have left, but she doesn’t say what Jessica can do to bring this about. She does ask Jessica to come and listen to his story, though, which is at least actionable.

When Jessica arrives, Sam is sitting in his chair, staring out of the window.

After a minute or so in which Sam is grumpy, he agrees to tell the story of what happened. And here we come to something fascinating about this episode: it is actually based on a movie. The movie is called Strange Bargain and was released in 1949. Since this episode first aired in 1987, the events depicted really took place thirty eight years before. Everyone in Hollywood always plays younger, even the movies themselves, it turns out. It works, though, and the flashbacks are done using footage from the movie.

Sam’s story starts out with Gloria talking Sam into asking his boss, Mr. Jarvis, for a raise. He makes an appointment and manages to get past Mr. Jarvis’s personal secretary, who was an intimidating character in her own right.

He did get past her, though, and saw Mr. Jarvis. Unfortunately, after he asked for the raise, Mr. Jarvis told him that he was fired because the company is in financial trouble and they have to cut costs.

He, himself, had sunk all of his money into the firm except for about $10,000 dollars. (That would have been worth in the neighborhood of $50,000 in 1987 dollars and $109,000 in 2020 dollars.) Later that day, Mr. Jarvis took Sam out for a drink and offered a, well, a strange bargain. He had recently increased his life insurance policy to $250,000 (about $2.7M in 2020), and was planning to kill himself so that his wife and child would get the money. He would give Sam the $10,000 he had left if Sam would clean up the crime scene to make it look like murder instead of suicide so that his family would get the insurance money.

Sam at first refused, but Jarvis called him at home and told him that he was going through with it earlier than he originally planned and begged Sam to help him. Sam drove there to talk him out of it but by the time he got there Mr. Jarvis was already dead. The envelope with the money was there, and Jarvis had already done it, so Sam took the money and did as Jarvis had asked him to do. He forgot to fire the shots when he was in the library, though, so he fired them through the library window. Before going home he drove to the Santa Monica peer and threw the gun away underneath the pier.

Unfortunately, after he washed the blood off of his hands he forgot to wash the blood off of the steering wheel in his car. Also, the next day, when they went to pay their respects to the widow, Lieutenant Webb was there and told them that though the gun hasn’t been found the three bullets matched—the one in the body and two that were fired into the wall. When Webb said this, Sam looked at where he fired the shots into the wall. Webb was looking for it.

“Ah, yes, Mr. Wilson. Right there.” From this point on, Webb was convinced that Sam did it and was out to get him, at least according to Gloria. She also had a complaint that Sam had done everything he could to help Mr. Jarvis but Mrs. Jarvis and Sidney (Jarvis’s son) didn’t lift a finger to help him.

Sam telling Gloria that the Jarvis’s couldn’t have known about Jarvis’ plan is interrupted by Sam and Gloria’s son Rod and his very pregnant wife Terry coming in.

Jessica said she would like to meet Lieutenant Webb, but Rod wishes her luck. He tried, himself, but was told that Webb was retired and “unavailable”.

Rod gives Jessica a lift back to her hotel, where he fills her in on a few more details. He became a police officer in order to try to clear his father. The police file on the Jarvis case was missing, so he assembled his own file on the case full of newspaper clippings, court depositions—every scrap of evidence and information he could get his hands on. He lends this to Jessica. Jessica speculates that the reason why it wasn’t possible to prove suicide is that perhaps there’s a possibility that no one had yet considered: what if someone else had murdered Jarvis and only made it look like suicide when Sam found the body?

While this is an intriguing possibility, I’m not sure that it’s really justified. It would be different if there should have been evidence of the suicide which wasn’t there, but in fact the evidence was there, where you would have expected it. Furthermore, its disappearance is adequately accounted for. The reason that there is no evidence to prove suicide is that Sam destroyed it all. Speculating that someone actually murdered Mr. Jarvis doesn’t account for anything. Jessica seems to really like this idea, though, and takes it as a working hypothesis.

The next day they go to the house where Mr. Jarvis died.

This is one of those cases where it’s unfortunate that Murder, She Wrote wasn’t filmed in widescreen, because the house was so big that a 4:3 image can’t capture it all (at this distance away). It’s a big house. So big, in fact, that I wonder how on earth the family paid for it. If we use 2020 money throughout, $2.7M over thirty years is only $90k/year. Granted, it probably would have been smarter to invest the money and live off of interest or dividends or what-have-you, but if you assume that they were able to get 5% above inflation, that would still only amount for $135k/year. Comfortable, yes, but hardly wealthy. It wouldn’t surprise me if the property taxes on this palace consumed half of that. The gardening and maintenance bills would eat into a decent chunk of it, too. This isn’t a big problem; had it been about four to eight times bigger the results would have been far more in keeping with what we’re shown here. (An alternative would have been for Mrs. Jarvis or Sidney to have invested the money in some business which succeeded, but that clearly didn’t happen.)

On the way there, Jessica speculates that the killer might have forced Mr. Jarvis to call Sam. That would explain why Jarvis said that the plan was going ahead sooner than expected. Rod raises the excellent question of, why? Why kill someone you knew was intending to commit suicide? Jessica gives the only possible answer: perhaps the killer thought that Jarvis wouldn’t go through with it.

They go up to the doors of the house and Sidney opens them before anyone can ring the doorbell.

They explain that Jessica is here looking into the case, and Sidney dislikes the whole thing. In the discussion, it comes up that Jarvis’s business partner, Mr. Hearst, had lied about not visiting the home shortly before Jarvis was killed. Eventually Jessica persuades Sidney by pointing out that now that his prison sentence is over, Sam has nothing to gain by stirring up the past. Sidney relents. Jessica asks to talk to his mother, but unfortunately his mother is dead. Sidney then shows them to the library.

On the way, Jessica notices a clue. On the sideboard, there’s a letter written to Mrs. Jarvis in the mail.

They do not want us to miss this clue. Fair enough. Obviously this means that Sidney is lying about his mother being dead, though in reality it’s not uncommon to get mail addressed to someone who is dead for years afterwards. Anyway, why is Sidney lying about his mother being dead? We’ll find out.

Not right now, though. We don’t see the examination of the library, possibly because it would be too much work to come up with a set that closely matches the set from the movie. Instead, we cut to Jessica having an appointment with a “Mrs Davis”.

Mrs. Davis is the granddaughter of Mr. Jervis’ business partner, Mr. Herne. (He’s the one who wanted Jervis out of the business and lied to the police about not visiting Jervis at his house the day of the murder.) Susan Strasberg, the actress who plays Mrs. Davis, looks tiny compared to Jessica. I looked it up and she’s just a hair over 5′ tall. This made me wonder how tall Angela Lansbury is, since she towers over Ms. Strasberg, but normally looks small herself. It turns out that she’s 5’8″, which makes me think that they make a point of surrounding her with taller actors. That is, at least, one explanation for me never having noticed this before.

Be that as it may, Jessica pumps Mrs. Davis for information in a surprisingly clumsy way. She offends Mrs. Davis, who had been misled into thinking that Jessica was there to look for investment advice. In the course of the heated conversation which follows, Mrs. Davis said that Jervis had been in the process of completing a deal for her grandfather to take over the firm. This contradicts what Mrs. Jarvis said, that Herne took over the firm after Jarvis’s death. She accuses Mrs. Jarvis of lying, and says that Mrs. Jarvis lied doesn’t surprise her, though not why it doesn’t.

The sub-plot with the granddaughter is hard for me to figure out. The actress who played her was 49 at the time of this episode, so if we go with the Hollywood standard that actors play characters 10 years younger than they are, the character would be 39. That would make her about 9 years old at the time of the murder, which generally fits. She wouldn’t have known anything about it and what she did know would have all been second or third hand, learned much later. She can’t have inherited the firm more than about ten years ago, so her knowledge of the state of it twenty years before that would be minimal at best.

The attempt to set Herne up as a suspect in Jarvis’ murder seems to me a bit clumsy. There’s extremely little evidence given. Herne wanted the firm without Jarvis, and since Herne had money and Jarvis didn’t, and since the firm was going under, it seems quite superfluous to murder Jarvis to get the firm. This could be worked in such a way as to give him a motive—Jarvis was going to run the firm into the ground before giving it up—but Jessica never tries to establish this or anything like it.

I also don’t understand why Jessica is so aggressive with Mrs. Davis. I am inclined to suspect that the hostility created was meant to take the place of evidence that makes Herne a suspect. Be that as it may, on her way out Jessica talks to an older woman in a nearby office and finds out the address of Thelma Vante, Mr. Jarvis’s personal secretary. She then goes to visit her.

Thelma is delighted to meet Jessica. “Wait till I tell the girls. Me, in a book by J.B. Fletcher.” She shows Jessica an old photo book, and also relates a little personal history. Her ex-husband was beautiful but never worked a day in his life. Also, they had a beautiful home. Jessica doesn’t come out and say it but you can see that she’s wondering where the money came from for that beautiful home. Jessica also brings up the idea of Mrs. Jarvis having killed her husband—she didn’t get to the beach house until well after Mr. Jarvis was dead. Thelma poo-poos the idea because Mrs. Jarvis didn’t have the guts to murder anyone.

As soon as Jessica drives off in a cab, Thelma goes inside and places a phone call. She says that “there seems to be some new interest in our problem.” I suppose this isn’t giving away too much because she was awfully suspicious when Jessica interviewed her, especially with the evidence of her nice house, workless husband, and complaints that she didn’t get anything when Jarvis died.

Over a family dinner at the Wilson house, Jessica discusses the case with them. Sam Wilson thinks that Mrs. Davis is lying about when her grandfather took over the firm. His recollection is that even after Mr. Jarvis’ death, Mr. Herne (Mrs. Davis’ grandfather) didn’t know if he’d be able to take over the firm. Jessica thinks that Mrs. Davis was lying to protect her grandfather’s reputation, or the reputation of the firm. Rod comes in and delivers the news that Mrs. Jarvis is not dead, she’s living at a rest home. Jessica and Georgia Wilson decide to pay her a visit in the morning.

Before they can do that, someone comes to Jessica’s hotel room, points a gun in her direction while she’s sleeping, and fires.

If you ask me, this is playing a little unfair with the audience. We know that Jessica is not going to be killed in an episode, but here the gun is actually pointing at her. The camera does move to showing only the gun, from the side, when it fires, though. The next scene (which I suspect is after a commercial break, in the original airing) has Rod coming over to check on Jessica.

The guy in blue who is kneeling is extracting the bullet from the cushion of that chair. Now, granted, the gun is not in focus in the earlier frame, but it really looks like it’s pointing directly at Jessica and nowhere near the chair. The bullet is from a .38 pistol and hasn’t been made in twenty years, btw. Jessica asks the police detective (the guy in the blue suit who pulled the bullet from the cushion) to humor her and compare the ballistics of the bullet to the one from the Jarvis case.

The next morning, Jessica and Georgia follow through on their plan to visit Mrs. Jarvis.

Unfortunately, it turns out that she has dementia and doesn’t even know that her husband is dead. Sydney walks in on them after Mrs. Jarvis tells them about the roses that her husband grows and they question him a bit more. He claims that Mrs. Davis is lying about when her grandfather took over the firm and it happened in a “proxy fight”, which was a matter of public record. This implies that the company was publicly traded, because proxy voting of shareholders is only a thing in publicly traded companies. That’s not of great significance, except that if it is a publicly traded company, stock purchases that give somebody more than 5% ownership of the company are public record, which Jessica should know. That said, proxy fights are about getting the shareholders to vote for somebody (or some bodies) for the board of directors of the corporation, they’re not about ownership. I think we need to chalk this one up to Hollywood writers having no idea how corporations actually work.

After saying goodbye to Sydney, Jessica and Georgia take a minute to discuss the shot fired into her hotel room chair. Whoever it was, Jessica points out, it certainly wasn’t Mrs. Jarvis. Further, it clearly wasn’t an attempt on her life. The shooter had all the time in the world to aim carefully, or even to fire a second or third shot, if he really wanted Jessica dead. Jessica then asks for a lift to back to Herne and Jarvis (the firm).

At first Mrs. Davis is reluctant to see her but, through an intercomm trick, Jessica gains entry. They talk for a bit, but nothing really comes of it. After Mrs. Davis angrily tells Jessica to leave, Jessica replies, “If you’ll forgive me, Mrs. Davis, it appears to me that you suspect your grandfather more than anyone.” As far as I can tell, that includes the audience. This is the last we see of Mrs. Davis, and we’ve still got fifteen minutes to go.

I still don’t understand why she was here. I suppose it’s supposed to be a red herring but at best it’s a pink herring. Mrs. Davis is angry and defensive but we’re never given any reason why she’s angry and defensive. Or if Jessica is right that Mrs. Davis suspects her grandfather, there’s no reason why she suspects him—at least none that we’re given—so her defensiveness doesn’t feel like it comes from anywhere.

Later on, in her hotel lobby, Jessica tells Sam and Georgia that unfortunately the ballistics report on the Jarvis case went missing with the rest of the case file. After they leave she gets a telephone call from someone claiming to have information on the Jarvis case but she has to come alone. He won’t give his name but Jessica goes anyway. She takes a taxi.

It turns out that it’s Colonel Potter in a wheelchair. Recognizing the actor by his most famous role aside, it’s actually Lieutenant Webb, who had been in charge of the case thirty years ago. He apologizes for all of the intrigue but it had to be strictly unofficial. How waiting until Jessica got to his house to admit to his name makes it any less official than telling her his name over the telephone, he doesn’t explain. He also couldn’t face the Wilsons, because he always had the feeling that Sam Wilson was innocent. He couldn’t do anything, though, because the DA told him to wrap up the case quickly and that his job was to collect evidence, not to judge the case. This bit of backstory out of the way, he gets to the reason he asked her to come—he’s got the old case files, including the ballistics report from the Jarvis case.

The bullets match.

They discuss the case for a while, which is fun because Harry Morgan is a wonderfully charismatic actor. They don’t really add anything to the case, though. Jessica suggests that perhaps the killer thought that he would benefit, but was wrong. Webb said that he entertained that theory, in particular that Thelma Vantay, the secretary, might have been having an affair with Jarvis and thought she would benefit, but they checked it out and Jarvis seemed to be faithful to his wife. He wishes Jessica well on her investigation of the case, and she leaves to go see Thelma again.

Thelma is initially reluctant to talk but Jessica points out that the statute of limitations for blackmail has passed. Once she understands the significance of this, Thelma opens up, though curiously she mostly just confirms what Jessica guesses. She knew about the life insurance policy increase and she had heard Jarvis talk about suicide a few times, so when he ended up dead, she figured out what happened and blackmailed the Jarvises. In particular, she blackmailed Sydney. What, exactly, she blackmailed him with is not entirely obvious, though. She didn’t know anything that the police didn’t know—certainly they knew about the life insurance policy. I suppose she could have told them that Jarvis had talked about suicide before, which might corroborate Sam’s story, but it’s thin material to blackmail someone with.

Jessica and Rod get to talking about it. He thinks that they can now prove suicide but Jessica is bothered by the gun being used to shoot near her. Why? It doesn’t really make any sense to attract this sort of attention to the case so unnecessarily.

Jessica then has an epiphany.

They go to the Jarvis house and press Sydney until he makes a slip and says that the gun was thrown under the Santa Monica pier. This wasn’t public knowledge; all that the public was told was that the gun was disposed of. Sydney admits to following Sam to the pier and retrieving the gun, because, he says, he killed his father. Jessica asks if he isn’t covering for his mother, instead. The Wilsons point out that Mrs. Jarvis couldn’t have fired the gun near Jessica the other night and she agrees—it was a mistake to think that the same person who killed Jarvis fired the gun near Jessica. Sydney did it to direct attention away from his mother, who had the perfect alibi for the second crime.

Sydney admits to it all. His mother didn’t mean to kill his father. She came back to the library to retrieve a book and came across him when he was in the process of trying to commit suicide. She grappled with him, but in the struggle the gun went off and he was killed. It was an accident but with the insurance money no one would believe that. So Sydney tried to cover it up. He even tried to protect Sam by putting pressure on the DA to close the case quickly, except that backfired when Thelma figured out what was going on and blackmailed him. He had to choose between Sam and his mother, and chose his mother.

The Wilsons and Jessica leave. On the way out Rod says that he will call the DA but Sam tells him not to. He has the closure he wanted—it would be absurd to prosecute Mrs. Jarvis, who didn’t really commit a crime, and Sydney was only trying to protect his mother. They know what happened, which is enough for him. Rod appeals to Jessica, who says that justice is imperfect and that sometimes there’s a difference between serving the ideal of justice and doing what’s best. Sam and Georgia kiss and the episode ends with Jessica smiling on them.

Before I get into further analysis of the story and it’s ending, I have to say that it’s frustrating how utterly incompetent Hollywood writers are at moral philosophy. Justice is not always imperfect. Human attempts to achieve justice are always imperfect. Worse still is the consequentialist conclusion that when a principle doesn’t produce the consequences you want, to hell with the principle. What they really want to get at is the perfectly legitimate conclusion that they do not have it within their power to achieve justice and invoking the criminal justice system, which is a blunt instrument wielded by flawed human beings, is not permissible because it will not achieve the end for which it will be invoked.

That said, it seems likely that the statue of limitations on withholding exculpatory evidence for a charge for a crime that was not committed has probably run out quite a while ago, so the whole thing is almost certainly moot. If the DA could not bring any charges calling him doesn’t matter, one way or the other.

That out of the way, it is curious that this episode has a different ending than the movie it used as a source did. In Strange Bargain, it turned out that Mrs. Jarvis actually did kill her husband and set the murder scene to look like suicide. The movie ends with her admitting this to Sam before she kills him; Lieutenant Webb arrives just in time to save Sam.

Obviously, they did have to change the ending to the movie in order to justify the episode and I think that on the whole they did change it in a way that at least made sense. They could have done a better job than an accidental death that basically was a suicide, just with someone else trying to claw the gun away when the suicide was committed. It really having been the business partner, for example, would have been a more interesting reveal, though they couldn’t have the weird sub-plot where the same gun was used to shoot at Jessica had they done that. The other odd thing about this ending is that it doesn’t really change anything for the characters in the story. Jarvis did really kill himself and the only people who have learned that are people who already believed it. Why Sam was brooding when the episode started and now is willing to forgo public exoneration is not really explained. Such character development is possible, of course, it just didn’t happen in this episode.

On the other hand, TV shows are, structurally, short stories. Short stories are about sketching out stories, not about painting them in full. We could certainly imagine a story in which a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder at first broods but then in the course of helping a sleuth investigate what really happened comes out of his shell and, though he can’t prove the truth, has spent enough time focusing on something that is not himself that he no longer needs to prove it to anyone.

Though it is not a conventional detective story, it is possible to tell a detective story in which the detective uncovers the truth but it doesn’t do anyone any good. To some degree the Poirot story Five Little Pigs is that. Poirot uncovers the truth but the only person he helps by doing so believed it, or at least part of it, already. (She believed that the person convicted was innocent; she did not know who was guilty.) A few other people who didn’t know it now do, but that’s it. Yet, it is profoundly satisfying because the mystery was such a tangle and everything about it makes so much more sense when it is untangled. It is not merely satisfying to see a puzzle unraveled; it also gives insight into how possible it is to misunderstand fragmentary facts. It’s an extremely good story and I think that The Days Dwindle Down is an enjoyable episode in part because there are fuller versions of it like Five Little Pigs.

Overall, I think that The Days Dwindle Down could have been, realistically, better than it was. Probably the better outcome would be to have revealed someone else as the murderer. Failing that, it would still have been better to come up with some sort of exculpatory evidence which did actually prove suicide. It’s hard to think what that could have been since the premise was that Sam had destroyed it all; some sort of witness is about all that could be done. To be fair, that’s actually what they did, except that the witness still refused to talk publicly. I think that the best way out, here, would have been the route of Five Little Pigs—a witness who misunderstood what he saw all these years. This would have been easier if there had been something else in Strange Bargain such as a bump on the head that could have been caused in a previous struggle. Unfortunately, that movie had a different purpose in mind, so it didn’t provide these things. With what we’re given, I’d say that it would have made more sense for Herne to have brought his granddaughter in the car, somehow, perhaps after the death but before Sam arrived, and she got bored and came out and saw her grandfather in the room with the corpse, and thought that he did it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t have a flashback for any of this, since it wasn’t in Strange Bargain, but a flashback isn’t a strict requirement here. The flashback that they had was very incomplete, as it was.

If a flashback was an absolute requirement then I think it would have been better to go through with how Strange Bargain actually ended, with Mrs. Jarvis having murdered her husband because he wouldn’t go through with it. Sydney could have protected his mother. That would make him an accessory after the fact, though, so he still wouldn’t be able to come forward (depending on the jurisdiction). If they had gotten rid of the shooting at Jessica, he could have been merely a witness who didn’t come forward, though, which wouldn’t have been so bad. They could have changed the ending around so he would have been willing to publicly exonerate Sam, now that his mother has dementia (or she could have recently died). That would have been better, and still allowed the use of flashbacks from the movie in the denouement. Not as good as the other options, but still an improvement over an accidental death.

All told, yes, it could certainly have been a better episode, but The Days Dwindle Down was a good episode and the idea of using flashbacks from a 38 year old movie was a lot of fun.