Murder She Wrote: J.B. As In Jailbird

On the twenty third day of October in the year of our Lord 1988, the fifth season of Murder, She Wrote opened with the episode J.B. As In Jailbird. (Last season ended with The Body Politic.)

The episode begins with Michael Hagarty (an MI6 agent) walking through the shadows in a dingy apartment building. He cocks his revolver, then knocks on a door and claims to be the maintenance man, here to fix a bad pipe. A sweaty man (“the Bulgarian”) sitting on the bed tells him to come back later.

There’s a bit of arguing and he tries a passphrase on Michael.

It may snow in the Sierras before the weekend.

This is proper spy stuff. Unfortunately, Michael doesn’t know the countersign, so he just keeps up with the maintenance man act. The sweaty man exits out the window as Michael kicks the door open. The man fires some bullets at the door, then goes down the fire escape. Just outside the fire escape is Jessica getting out of a car.

He man demands the keys from Jessica, but she doesn’t have the keys. When he threatens to kill her if she doesn’t give him the keys, Michael shoots him dead.

Moments later, as James Bond-inspired music plays, a police car drives up. Michael, hearing the sirens, runs away. The cops see Jessica standing over the corpse and arrest her.

The camera moves over to a front business where a British man named Lancaster berates Michael.

It turns out, though, that it wasn’t Michael who shot the sweaty man, it was “The Cobra”. No one knows who he is, and even this time Michael never saw him. His theory is that The Cobra doesn’t like loose ends, and the sweaty man was a loose end, so The Cobra tied him up when he panicked.

The subject then turns to Jessica. Michael ran into her at the airport and thought that she would be good cover for him leaving the airport, so he offered her a ride to his hotel. When Lancaster called him on his car-phone and told him about the meeting, he had no choice but to leave her in the car while he went in to try to fix the Bulgarian’s plumbing. Lancaster is worried that Jessica will talk to the press but Michael says that he’s taken care of that, temporarily.

The scene then goes to the police station where Jessica is waiting to be processed. Jessica talks to a Sergeant, who asks her who she really is. The real Jessica Fletcher reported her purse and luggage stolen at the airport. They book Jessica as “Jane Doe”. Jessica says that her nephew, Grady, will vouch for her.

The scene then goes back to the place with Lancaster and Michael. They are reviewing the case “from a damage control perspective.” In two days, Leonard Matoso will give a speech at Berkeley.

He’s an opponent of his African nation’s government, but he’s too popular for them to assassinate him at home. For some reason that isn’t specified, they can do it in America, however, “with clean hands”. I guess in America any number of people might want to kill him, whereas at home only the government would? Seems a bit backwards, but I’m not a spy. Anyway, this is why there are Bulgarians in this episode—to provide the hitman. Michael suggests that Matoso’s own people might be the ones who have hired the Bulgarians, in order to be the match which sets off the powder keg back home.

Be that as it may, the word from the Bulgarian embassy is that Cobra has accepted the contract. The Americans doubt the British information, and their official position is that their security is adequate for Matoso to come give his speech ad Berkley.

There’s another British agent in the room who’s somehow involved, though it’s not at all clear how. His name is Roger Travis.

He and Michael don’t get along. He implies that Michael killed the Bulgarian contact, while Michael says something about how he (the other agent) was supposed to be guarding someone that The Cobra killed, vaguely implying (I think) that maybe this agent is actually the Cobra. Michael ends up grabbing Roger by the lapels, and Lancaster threatens them both with disciplinary action to calm things down.

The scene shifts to the police station where Grady comes in to identify Jessica, but says that he’s never seen her before in his life. We fade to black and go to commercial break.

We come back to Jessica begging Grady to identify her, and he overdoes it on the denials. After he leaves, he talks with the Sergeant, who explains that she “iced a commie agent” and they have her figured for being an enemy agent.

The Sergeant, whose name is Nash, goes back to his office, where he meets another Sergeant, Joe Santiago, from the Miami PD. He’s here to extradite someone. While he was waiting in the office, he was looking over the file about the Bulgarian. It reminded him of another case that was like this, with a Greek national iced in an alleyway and a woman who looked a bit like their Jane Doe spotted at the scene. He asks to speak to her and Nash says that’s fine.

The scene shifts to Michael and Grady walking along a street and Michael asks how it went. Grady is upset and Michael explains that it’s for Jessica’s protection. He tells Grady a bit about how there’s an assassination attempt in the works and tells Grady to go home and call him if anyone comes nosing around about Jessica.

The scene shifts back to police headquarters where the two Sergeants are interrogating Jessica. Eventually she demands to call her lawyer. They inform her that her lawyer is here now and she can talk to him. Her lawyer is, of course, Michael Hagarty, under cover as a southern lawyer Derek Dawson. I wonder if he showed up and said, “Hi, I’m Jane Doe’s lawyer. We put tracking devices on all of our clients, which is why I’m here without having been called” and instead of blinking an eye they put him in a conference room and asked him if he wouldn’t mind waiting for a few minutes while they interrogate his client without him present.

Anyway, they’re talking, and after a bit Michael drops the act and fills Jessica in on the Cobra.

When Grady goes back to his apartment a strange looking woman is knocking on his door.

Her name is Glenda Morrison, she’s a reporter from “The Chronicle”. She had an appointment to do an interview with Jessica. When Grady indicates some recognition, she says that he might have heard of her from a series she did on the Afghanistan war, or the assassination of a Nicaraguan general. Glenda leaves her number asking for Jessica to call her immediately.

Back at the British spy warehouse, Lancaster and Michael are talking about Cobra. Michael says that the Cobra is too good, like he’s working with inside information. Lancaster mentions that The Cobra made a fool of him before in Kenya. The Cobra managed to blow up a bus full of police. Lancaster wonders whether that was the reason he was exiled to California. He intends to retire in three months, though, and the Cobra will be somebody else’s problem.

They’re doing a good job of spreading around suspicion of who The Cobra is, I’ll give them that. So far it could be any of Joe Santiago, Glenda Morrison, Lancaster, or Roger Travis.

Lancaster then gives Michael a message that Roger took from Grady. Michael goes off to get lunch.

Roger Travis then walks in and talks to Lancaster, saying that his source at the Bulgarian embassy said that the sweaty man definitely took the payment with him. Yet no money was found on the body. Travis says that this is a troubling contradiction if one believes Michael’s version of events. Lancaster warns Travis not to make accusations without hard evidence. They then discuss Jessica, but don’t really say anything of substance.

Michael meets Grady. Grady tells him about Glenda Morrison. Michael is dismissive at first, but then Grady says that he phoned the chronicle and they’ve never even heard of a Glenda Morrison. Michael asks to see the phone number she gave him. While Grady is fishing it out of his pocket, a car pulls up, a tinted window lowers, and a gun with a silencer sticks out of the slit at the top.

Michael notices the gun, grabs Grady, and dives to the ground. The gun fires but doesn’t hit anything and the car speeds away. We see that Grady and Michael are fine, then fade to black and we’re off to commercial.

So far, they’ve done a pretty good job with the spy thriller elements. Suspicion is everywhere and the tension is high.

When we get back we’re at the police station. Kevin Styles, special attorney with the State Department shows up and introduces himself to Lt. Nash. He’s there unofficially, and is asking about the situation. He says that they’ve told the Bulgarians that it was a non-political robbery gone bad. He’s also certain that he’s seen Joe Santiago before. He wonders if it was in Paris last year. Joe says that he was in Paris last year on some liaison work with Interpol, but he didn’t attend any parties, and he says that if they’d met, he’d have remembered. Styles asks Lt. Nash to get him a copy of the file, and not to tell anything to the press without running it by him, first.

Back in the jail cell, Jessica is examining the book she had been holding when she was arrested—she asked if she could have it back and Sergeant Nash was indulgent. She finds a postcard in it.

She’s interrupted in her investigations by Roger Travis, who’s dressed as a uniformed policeman. He talks to Jessica, identifies himself as British counter-intelligence, and asks her to testify against Michael, but she protests that she wasn’t working with him and didn’t see him do anything. Travis tells her that she’ll never see a penny of the half million dollars, but she has no idea what half million dollars he’s talking about. She threatens to call Sgt. Nash to talk this over with him and Travis sneaks away.

The next scene is back at the hotel where Jessica is supposed to be. Glenda Morrison comes to the door, knocks, calls out Mrs. Fletcher’s name, and enters. Michael then tackles her and pins her to the couch. She admits that she exaggerated her resume and she’s just a freelance reporter who was hoping to score an interview with Jessica Fletcher which she hoped to sell to Rolling Stone, but people usually aren’t interested in talking to freelance reporters writing on spec.

Back at the station, Jessica meets with Michael (posing as her lawyer) again, where she tells him about Roger Travis’ visit. There’s some speculation, but the big piece of info is that the money would not have been passed as cash, that would be too bulky. It would have been something like a claim ticket or a swiss bank account number.

Back in her cell, Jessica looks at the post card again, this time taking a close look at the stamp.

At Jessica’s hotel, Glenda Morrison is hanging out in the lobby and Grady is watching her. Lt. Joe Santiago comes in and asks the desk clerk for Jessica’s room. Glenda casually walks up to hear the conversation. He flips his badge and tells the clerk that Mrs. Fletcher reported a robbery at the airport.

Glenda follows him. Grady follows her. Music that’s as close to James Bond music without legally infringing on its copyright plays.

Joe looks around in the room like he’s trying to find something hidden, then notices Glenda and Grady. He pulls out his gun and demands to know who they are. We fade to black and go to commercial.

When we get back there’s a bunch of prevarication but not much that’s interesting, then Joe leaves. Glenda stays and there is some comedic bickering, as well as a scene where Donna (Grady’s wife) calls and hears the voice of another woman in Grady’s room, but of course there’s no chance to explain because Glenda tries to steal the phone to talk (she thinks to Mrs. Fletcher) and accidentally unplugs it. I suppose now that she’s comic relief, we can scratch her off the suspect list.

The next scene is back in Jessica’s jail cell. For some reason Kevin Styles is talking with Jessica.

She explains that she knows a lot of influential people in Washington and needs his help to get out of jail. She points out that if he goes to any bookstore he’ll see her face on the dust cover jacket. He says that he’ll do just that. He asks if there’s anything he can do for her in the meantime, if she wants fruit or anything to read, then notices that she has a book. He proclaims that he, too, is a Zane Grey fan, though he hasn’t read this one.

He examines it very closely with his back to Jessica for some reason, then hands it back to her when Sgt. Nash and a police woman come to the cell door. Styles says that he’ll be in touch and leaves.

The woman in the cell next to Jessica is about to go for her court appearance, so Jessica asks her to make a phone call to Grady. “You might even say it’s a matter of life and death.”

The next scene is back at the spy office, where Lancaster is feeding fish.

The music is about as sinister as the lighting.

Travis explains to Lancaster that he saw Jessica in the police station and it confirms his theory that Michael Hagarty is dirty. Lancaster points out that the interview, based on Travis’ description, provides exactly no support for this theory, but sighs and says that they should get this out in the open. He asks Travis to summon Hagarty, but he’s nowhere to be found.

We then go back to Jessica’s cell, where Kevin Styles returns. His manner is entirely changed. He says that he’s really rather pressed for time and wants the stamp. He pulls a knife out and tells her to give it to him. He adds that “we have your nephew” and if he doesn’t walk out of the cell now, and with the stamp, Grady will die. Jessica says that he’s very persuasive and that it’s in the toe of her shoe. She kicks it off and it lands across the cell.

He picks it up and as he stands up, Michael Hagarty disguised as the woman who used to be in the cell next to Jessica’s reaches through the bars and grabs Styles around the neck, points a gun at his head, and tells him to relax or the next sound he’ll hear is a .38 soft nose crashing through his brain pan.

In the next scene Jessica is being released, and Nash apologizes for the mixup. Jessica is very understanding and tells him that it wasn’t all his fault. Nash asks how she knew that the stamp was the payoff to the hitman. Jessica explains that she didn’t notice it at first but then it struck her that the cancellation marks didn’t run across the stamp, but rather the stamp was on top of the marks. (For those who have never sent a letter, the post office marks stamps that are used to prevent their re-use. The mark not appearing on top of the stamp showed that the stamp was never used to pay for the post-card being used.) So she took off the stamp and replaced it with another one. When Styles came to see Jessica, he was very interested in the book, and after he left, the postcard was missing.

Michael comes up and tells Jessica that all’s well that ends well, to which Jessica enthusiastically agrees. Michael then says that she’ll be at the airport in plenty of time for her flight, and Jessica says that she hates to put Michael to all this trouble. He replies that it’s no trouble at all, but he did promise his chief that he’d pick up some microfilm from an agent in Chinatown, it will only take a minute, and it’s on their way. Jessica then tells Grady to call a cab, and we go to credits.

Well. That was a weird episode to begin the season with. It was, at least, better done than the last episode that tried to be a spy-thriller (Murder Through the Looking Glass). Like a lot of spy thrillers, though, it made a lot of interesting promises and fell apart when it came time for there to be a payoff.

The person who turned out to be the Cobra barely had any screen time and only showed up after the second commercial break. None of the characters doing suspicious things had any payoff, not even a threadbare explanation for the suspicious things that they were doing. I suppose Lancaster is an exception in that (by default) he turned out to just have been embarrassed by The Cobra before and it’s a coincidence that the Cobra showed up here. I suppose that Roger Travis is another exception; we can conclude that he just groundlessly suspected Michael Hagarty because he’s overly suspicious and not concerned with evidence. But what’s the deal with Lt. Joe Santiago?

Did he really just leaf through a report that was on Lt. Nash’s desk to pass the time? Did he really think that a Greek killed in an alleyway in Miami and a Bulgarian killed in an alley in California were actually similar enough to warrant suspicion? Was there really a woman whose description by a cab driver was similar to Jessica’s? Why did he go looking for something in Jessica’s hotel room? So far as he knew it wasn’t Jessica Fletcher who was found with the body. What could he possibly have hoped to find in her hotel room? Why did Glenda Morrison wait in the lobby for Lt. Santiago when she’d never seen him before and had no idea who he was? Why did she listen in to his conversation? How on earth did a freelance reporter working on a spec article on Mrs. Fletcher for Rolling Stone Magazine get a key to Mrs. Fletcher’s room?

None of this is answered, and given the ending, it can’t be answered. It’s all fake mystery.

Not as mysterious, but still something that needs explanation: why did someone (The Cobra?) take a shot at Grady or Michael Hagarty? Which actually was it? If this was The Cobra who shot at one of them, how did he find them? If he followed Grady, how did he know how to do it? This was before Kevin Styles got a copy of the file on the case so he had no way of knowing that the woman in the alley was Jane Doe claiming to be Jessica Fletcher or where she was staying in the city. So how did he follow Grady? Or, if he followed Michael instead, how did he follow Michael? Why did he follow Michael? Why did he take a shot at either of them? How could the death of either benefit the Cobra in any way?

The setup of the episode also bears very little scrutiny. Why did the African nation hire an extremely expensive assassin to take out Leonard Matoso? Why did this involve payment being handled by Bulgarians? Why did the handling of payment by Bulgarians involve sending it through the Bulgarian embassy in America? Why was the Bulgarian embassy in America reporting its handling of funds for assassins to the British intelligence service? Bulgaria was never part of the USSR, but in 1998 it was still within the USSR’s sphere of influence and not exactly on friendly terms with Britain. Or was there supposed to be a British spy within the Bulgarian embassy in America?

For that matter, why did The Cobra shoot the Bulgarian who was supposed to pay him? The Bulgarian had no idea who he was, all he knew was a sign and countersign to recognize the guy he was supposed to deliver payment to. From his perspective, if the Bulgarian got away, he might still get payment when a new location for the handoff was decided on. If he shot the Bulgarian in the alley, it was extremely unlikely he’d ever receive payment because dead men don’t make handoffs. And how did he even know that the guy who just ran out of the fire escape was the guy who was supposed to give him the payment? They were using a recognition code to meeting at a hotel room. Was he walking up and just assumed that a guy running out of a fire escape was the guy who was supposed to give him payment, and so needed to be shot for some reason? Had he memorized the hotel layout ahead of time so he knew which fire escape window belonged to the hotel room he was meeting his payment at? And why was The Cobra there but didn’t pick up the payment? This may come down to the prop and special effects departments more than the writers, but we can see approximately where The Cobra needed to be:

He flinches as if he was shot in the back.
Not sure how, if the bullet made it out the front, it didn’t hit Jessica.

Based on the angles, The Cobra actually should have been in view directly behind the Bulgarian. We can see that there was no entrance wound on the man’s upper back in this shot before he falls over:

So that rules out a shot from above. It almost rules out a shot from behind, too. But if you look at how close he was to Jessica when he was shot, it would have been very hard to shoot from behind her (behind her would be in front of the Bulgarian). Above and behind her might work, but then he’d be in full view of Michael Hagarty.

And, frankly, whether The Cobra was above and behind Jessica or even higher above Michael and the special effects department just got this wrong, neither place makes any sense for him to be when his purpose is to pick up a payment. Taking a sniper position in case a British agent shows up at the hotel door and the courier flees out of the window seems counter-productive to the goal of getting paid.

My point, in all of this, is not to nitpick. My point is that the air of mystery and intrigue which this episode relied on was formed by the hints that all of these details gave. If you got rid of these details, or changed them into other details that didn’t need an explanation, you wouldn’t have much of an episode.

The ending was also extremely strange. Jessica spent the entire episode angry at Michael for getting her into jail and keeping her there. Then, after catching The Cobra, all is immediately forgiven. So much so that Jessica says that she doesn’t want to put Michael to the trouble of driving her to the airport. Huh? Forgiving this quickly isn’t like Jessica at all. Especially since Michael never expressed contrition or even apologized.

And speaking of Michael, what the heck was the ending where Michael was dressed up as the woman in the cell next to Jessica? How did he get there? Jessica indicated surprised to Kevin Styles that he was back so soon. Given that he was just walking to a bookstore to look at the dust cover of a book by J.B. Fletcher, she could not have reasonably expected him to take long. And Jessica’s message went by way of someone going to a court hearing, to Grady, who got in touch with Michael, who came to the police station and… what? If people can just waltz into the cells, it’s not much of a protection for Jessica. Did Michael confide in Lt. Nash and get his cooperation? Would a California police station really let a British spy into their jail with a gun on his say-so?

Overall, this was not one of the better episodes, but it did have good qualities. They did a good job of pacing the hints in the first half of the episode to create a lot of intrigue. They didn’t have to have the thing completely fall apart; whichever writer pitched “instead of paying off anything we suggested in the first half of the episode, how about we introduce a new character and he’s the bad guy, and once he’s caught we pretend that nothing ever happened?” didn’t need to be listened to. Either of Roger Travis or Lancaster would have been a much better Cobra. So, for that matter, would Joe Santiago. Glenda Morrison as someone working for the Cobra would have been a big improvement, and would also explain her garish makeup as a disguise to make her hard to recognize, like a lone ranger mask. (Lone Ranger masks work shockingly well, since we have a tendency to focus on details that visually distinguish someone from everyone we could confuse them with, and an obvious detail like a lone ranger mask or garish makeup would do that, resulting in not paying attention to any other features that the person has.)

What probably would have been even better would be for several people to be “the Cobra.” It would have explained how “the Cobra” was too good. Roger Travis and Joe Santiago working together as “the cobra”, plus Glenda Morrison as a helper, would have been a vastly more satisfying ending and far more interesting. It might have even allowed Lancaster to have done something useful—say, catching Roger Travis—which would have been a cool arc for that character. Lancaster was an interesting character.

Next week we meet Dennis Stanton, one of the better characters of Murder, She Wrote, in the episode, A Little Night Work.

Murder She Wrote: The Body Politic

On the eighth day of May in the Year of our Lord 1988 the last episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote aired. Called The Body Politic, it’s about an old friend of Jessica’s whose is running for the US senate in some unspecified state in the middle of America. (Last week’s episode was Deadpan.)

It begins with a black-and-white slideshow of the main not-Jessica character (Kathleen) for this episode as she is campaigning. Over this slideshow the sounds of a convention play as people are enthusiastically nominating someone. Then it fades to color and Kathleen is on a talk show debating with her opponent.

Kathleen’s opponent is Arthur Drelinger. He’s seated on the far right. The man in the middle, Edmund Hall, is the reporter who is moderating the show Face the Issues. We’ve come in at the end, and Edmund asks Kathleen about rumors in a newspaper that she’s sleeping with her campaign manager. She denies it. He then says that five years ago when she was governor that there were persistent rumors that she had an affair with a married man. Before she can substantively answer, he says that’s all the time they have. Drelinger interrupts Edmund’s goodbye with, “Thank you, Edmund. And I, for one, am certainly willing to overlook and forget any of Mrs. Lane’s past indiscretions.”

During the banter, we get a picture of a bunch of the characters for this episode.

On the left is Bud Johnson, Kathleen’s campaign manager, and the man she’s accused of sleeping with currently. Next to him is Nan Wynn, who also works for Kathleen’s campaign. To the right of Nan (our right, her left) is C.W. Butterfield, who runs Drelinger’s campaign. On the far right is Jackson Lane, Kathleen’s husband. Interestingly, James Sloyan, who plays C.W. Butterfield, previously played Lt. Spoletti in the episode Corned Beef and Carnage.

Bud excuses himself to go make some phone calls. The only one we see is to Cass Malone, who is at campaign headquarters.

She gives him the bad news that the speechwriter that they had been wining and dining has quit. Bud is disappointed, but takes it in stride. He then tells her that his wife is taking their children up to the farm for a few weeks, and invites Cass out to dinner. She tells him not to start. (Apparently, they have some kind of romantic history, but it’s long-dead and she wants it to remain that way.)

This does pretty effectively show that the rumors about Kathleen and Bud are false, though it doesn’t put Bud in a good light.

After the show, Jackson (Kathleen’s husband), Kathleen and Edmund talk. They complain about his attacking Kathleen, and Edmund tells Jackson to be glad that he’s digging up dirt on Kathleen and not him. Apparently there are various issues with back-taxes he owes, which he claims to have paid off.

In the next scene Butterfield and Nan talk to each other. There’s a bit of back-and-forth, but the gist is that he offers her a job in Drelinger’s campaign for the main race once he beats Kathleen. (Apparently, this is only the primary race.)

The next scene is Bufferfield talking with Edmund. Edmund says that The Post was fed the story on Kathleen and her campaign manager, but he’d really appreciate it if the next bit of dirty attack material was fed to him. Butterfield tells him that the Drelinger campaign would never smear an opponent, but if anything does get sent to Edmund—no promises—it would come from an anonymous source. Edmund says that he understands perfectly.

Next we get an establishing shot of a large and luxurious-looking hotel:

Jessica is talking to a desk clerk, who says that there is no reservation for her. She didn’t make it herself, so she doesn’t have a confirmation number. Kathleen shows up, warmly embraces Jessica (they’re old friends), and tries to deal with the problem, though she is embarrassed by assuming that the desk clerk would know who she is and he has no idea.

She and Jessica talk about the problems of running for the senate. Then she asks Jessica to write her speech for an upcoming event because her head speech writer just quit. Jessica declines, but Kathleen talks her into it.

Part of this talking Jessica into taking the job is that shortly before she tried to ad-lib a speech and nearly promised maternity leave to a group of veterans of foreign wars. I believe that this is supposed to make her endearing, but it has me questioning her qualifications as senator on several levels.

The scene cuts to a TV station and Edmund Hall gets a call from an anonymous source with dirt. He says that he’s interested, and we cut to a bus station where Edmund hall is waiting dressed in what I can only describe as a spy getup.

A phone call comes in on a pay phone and a muffled voice tells him to check the phone book. He does and in it there is a key. He asks who the guy is and he hangs up. The key turns out to be to a locker, in which there is a manila envelope. Hall opens it and looks at what’s inside (which is out of frame) and his jaw drops open.

In the next scene, Jessica is writing at Kathleen’s headquarters. She asks Bud how the speech is going (she shows him a copy) and they discuss it. Then Nan comes in and says that she left Kathleen at an elderly center, and she’ll be back late because she’s going to see the party chairman who asked her to come over for a meeting.

The scene then fades to Jessica in bed. Before the camera pans over, though, we get an establishing shot of a travel clock:

The time is going to be significant, of course, but it’s interesting how much these sorts of closeups were necessary because of the quality of broadcast TV at the time. If things were going well, on an expensive TV, it might look a lot like the picture above. On the other hand, if one had a cheaper TV, and if one wasn’t in a great place, if the weather wasn’t cooperating, if one’s antenna wasn’t well aligned, or if there was just electromagnetic interference, it might have looked more like this:

The camera pans over to Jessica, who’s reading a book. She then checks the time, sets it aside, and turns on the TV. There is a special broadcast by Edmund Hall. He has obtained photographs of Kathleen and Bud:

There’s a second picture, as well, which looks more incriminating:

“According to campaign sources, her husband was out of the country at the time.”

Jessica tries to call someone but gets no answer, so she leaves her room. She runs into Nan, who also saw the broadcast. She asks if Jessica has seen Bud, who is not in his room. Jessica answers that she hasn’t seen him and that Kathleen is not in her room, either.

The scene shifts to the front of the hotel, where Kathleen is getting out of a sedan as a police car pulls up. A large number of people are milling about an area with police tape around it. Kathleen sees Cass, and asks what’s happened. Cass replies, “Oh Kathleen, he must have fallen from the balcony.” Kathleen looks down and sees Bud on the ground in a bathrobe, he head in a pool of blood. We fade to black and go to commercial.

When we come back, Kathleen, Jessica, and Nan are sitting in a hotel room and Lt. Gowans is interrogating Kathleen. His opening question is whether she had any idea why he might have killed himself. His theory is that he saw the news, knew he had finished her chances of winning the nomination, and ended himself so he wouldn’t have to face that.

Kathleen protests that they were not lovers, but Lt. Gowans asks why he jumped from her balcony. When she can’t answer, he asks her if he recognizes a bracelet. It’s hers, and was found in his bathrobe. She last saw it when she took it off to shower. While she’s answer this question, Nan looks a bit surprised and concerned, like perhaps it concerned her somehow. Lt. Gowans doesn’t notice this, though, and goes on to say that every guest of the hotel is issues a bathrobe, all identical, but hers is missing.

Jackson calls and Gowan says that she can take the call in the bedroom. He’s then called over to look at some evidence in Bud’s room, so Jessica has a minute to inspect the door to the balcony, which a forensics man is busy with.

Jessica finds Lt. Gowans and points out that it’s strange that there were no fingerprints on the handle of the balcony door. Who goes out on a balcony to end it all but wipes his prints off of the door handle first?

Lt. Gowans does some more interrogation of Kathleen. She had gone out to meet the party chairman, but apparently the message got fowled up because no one was there. She waited for a bit, then drove back to town. Gowans points out that since the valet saw her arrive right after Bud’s body was discovered, and he was the only witness she had, she could easily have arrived earlier, threw him off the balcony, left, and came back. Kathleen angrily storms off to her new room.

On the way out of the room Lt. Gowans finds a piece of paper which says “A.D. 53|K.L. 46”. Jessica suggests that it’s poll information. Nan confirms this, saying that they’re preliminary figures from a poll taken this afternoon. Gowans asks if she gave them to Kathleen or Bud, and she didn’t. They were phoned over at 10pm and she brought them to Kathleen but she wasn’t back yet. She knocked and no one answered, so she slipped the note under the door. Jessica finds that odd—how did the note get onto the table?

The scene moves to Jackson and Kathleen talking. She explains that the photos were innocent. She had just beaten Bud at ping pong and he began to pout, so she consoled him. Jackson asks what the score was and she says twenty one to three. He encourages her to continue with her campaign. They go to bed, then the scene shifts to the next day where Kathleen is at a press conference. She denies any impropriety, and will continue running. A reporter asks Jackson about whether he was really there and he says that he was on a business trip in the Bahamas, but has total faith in his wife. He then adds that when she started she was twenty points behind Drelinger but now is only seven points behind. He predicts that Kathleen will win on primary day.

There are some more questions, and Edmund Hall argues with Kathleen a bit. He then asks, if she wasn’t at the hotel, if Bud had his own key to her room. At this, Jackson storms toward Hall to attack him, and it requires four or five people to hold him back. Jessica shakes her head, the scene fades to black, and we go to commercial.

When we come back, we’re at police headquarters. You can tell because the building actually has the words “Police Headquarters” engraved in stone above its entrance:

There’s something fascinating about establishing shots. Somehow a few seconds of the outside of some building and you really believe that the next scene takes place in it. Here’s the Lieutenant’s office, or at least half of it because the camera just panned over from him pulling darts out of a dart board:

As he took the darts out, he told Jessica, “Yeah, it’s murder, and yeah, I think she did it. But proving it: I’m not so sure about that.” Jessica replies, “Meanwhile, she’s being convicted on the front page of every newspaper in this state.” Both intone it as if they agree, but they don’t agree at all. It’s a pretty weird exchange.

Jessica suggests that she’s being framed to destroy her candidacy, and Gowans admits that it’s possible. Jessica tries to bully him into looking elsewhere because Kathleen is incapable of deceit or subterfuge or murder, etc. etc.

On her way back to her hotel, Jessica runs into Edmund Hall. He asks her to come on his Sunday show, and she says that she will consider it if he tells her who gave him the photos. He admits that he doesn’t know, and could hardly admit to getting them from an anonymous source in a bus station locker. She asks if it never occurred to him that it was Drelinger’s campaign and he levels with her—C.W. Bufferfield suggested he had something, but he doesn’t know if it was the photos.

Jessica then talks to Kathleen. She talked to the party chairman, who never asked for a meeting with Kathleen. The message came in through Nan. Jessica then goes off to see the Arthur Drelinger campaign.

Lt. Gowans beats her to it, though. He interrogates Drelinger and Butterfield. They were at the Onyx lodge for Drelinger to receive the man of the year award from 8pm-11pm, but Gowans heard that they left at 10:30. Butterfield clarifies that they were in his car at 11pm, went to Drelinger’s hotel room, and stayed there until midnight. Drelinger confirms this with an air of bewildered surprise, and Gowans says that if he needs anything more he’ll be back.

Gowans runs into Jessica coming on his way out. He says that her speech got to him and he decided to work on those loose ends, but he’s turned up nothing. She goes in to see Drelinger and Butterfield.

She accuses them of the taking the photos and giving them to the press, but they deny it. Then Nan Wynn walks in. She doesn’t notice Jessica and says that new poll numbers are out and Kathleen Lane is officially dead. Then she sees Jessica, the scene fades to black, and we go to our final commercial break.

When we come back, Nan and Jessica are walking in a park and talking. Nan insists that she was not a spy for Drelinger, and Jessica asks about the phone message. The man on the phone said that he was an aide to the party chairman.

Jessica then turns the subject to why Nan has left Kathleen’s campaign. It’s because Kathleen’s polling numbers have taken a nosedive. Jessica objects to polls as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and Nan replies that self-fulfilling or not, they’re taken and thus meaningful. She shows Jessica Kathleen’s polling over time. She started at 20 points behind, then moved on to 12, then 10, then 5. Jessica asks about that, and it was the day Bud died. Jessica points out that the poll numbers on the piece of paper were 7 points apart, and Nan says that that was a mistake. She then says that she told Jessica and Lt. Gowans and no one else.

Classic clue-face

This makes Jessica realize who the murderer is.

This is curious because there don’t seem to be many options. There are Drelinger and Butterfield, of course, but neither is very likely. Drelinger wasn’t a real character and Butterfield is too obvious. Plus, it’s not obvious that Butterfield had exhausted all his dirty tricks, which he’d certainly do before resorting to murder for the sake of his job. There’s Cass and Nan. Of the two I’d say that Cass would have been the most likely if Bud had fallen off of his own balcony. As it is… I’m not really seeing either of them. It could turn out to be either, as we just need a new bit of evidence to show that Bud tried to force himself on one of them, but we haven’t got it so far. It is possible that it will turn out that Kathleen did it, but that’s unlikely in the extreme. Jessica declared her incapable of murder, and Jessica is never wrong about that. There’s Edmund Hall, but that would make absolutely no sense. The only other character is Jackson Lane, Kathleen’s husband. He’s got no motive and while he’s gotten a fair amount of screen time it’s never been as much of a character. That said, he did make reference to a seven point spread which was the spread on the piece of paper that was the one solid clue found near the scene of the crime, and no one else is connected to it.

Anyway, this is surprisingly early in the episode for Jessica to figure out who did it: there are about nine minutes left. Which makes me wonder how they’re going to pad the episode out.

It turns out that about a minute and a half of that padding is Jessica self-righteously haranguing Edmund Hall about how journalists shouldn’t report on the crimes and bad actions of politicians that Jessica likes. Or possibly that journalists should stick to “the issues,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Kathleen is in favor of spending enormous amounts of money, so perhaps that would mean pointing out that all of the things she’s in favor of would mean either unsustainable debt or huge tax increases? Jessica probably wouldn’t like that either.

I do remember in the late 1980s people expressed a great distaste for “mudslinging” in campaigning. I heard about how awful “mudslinging” was a lot during the Bush-Clinton campaigns. Admittedly, that was actually the early 1990s; 1987 was the Bush-Dukakis campaign, which I don’t remember as well. anyway, there was a great deal of complaining about this, as if big character flaws in elected representatives don’t matter when their actual policies were not that far apart, as they weren’t in the 1980s. This is especially the case in primaries where the candidates will mostly agree. In any event, this has aged very poorly.

It’s also weird that there’s so much complaining about mudslinging instead of focusing on “the issues” but literally the first words out of Kathleen’s mouth in this episode were, “If my opponent can’t find a way to pay back the $600,000 he owes from his last campaign, then how can the voters expect him to do anything about the federal budget?” That’s more of a personal attack than Dilinger’s response, “I certainly wish I had a millionaire spouse like Mrs. Lane, here. Perhaps the fairness doctrine would allow your husband to help repay my debts.” Kathleen’s opener was more of a personal attack and no more about “the issues” than Dilinger’s reply was. I suppose that this is one of those episodes in which if Jessica didn’t have double standards, she’d have no standards at all.

Jessica goes inside the house and finds Kathleen and Jackson. Kathleen says that she’s ending her campaign. She’s found out the hard way that the media has two stories; when she was twenty points behind they built her up as the underdog, when she closed the gap they started tearing her down. She just can’t take it anymore. Her attempt at public service cost her her dignity, her sanity, and nearly cost her her marriage.

She goes out to publicly announce the end of her campaign. Jessica asks Jackson if she can talk with him for a minute. She tells him that she knows who took the photos of Kathleen and Bud and leaked them to Channel 8. Partway through her explanation Gowans shows up, but doesn’t interrupt. Jessica explains that he is relieved that Kathleen withdrew, because his business dealings couldn’t stand the kind of media scrutiny involved in running for office. His slip was quoting Kathleen as having been seven points behind Drelinger when the only place that information ever existed was a mistaken memo slipped under Kathleen’s door.

This clinches it, and Jackson confesses. Bud had found out that he wasn’t really in the Bahamas. When the photos came out, Bud would start to put it together that Jackson was the one who took the photos and was trying to sink Kathleen’s campaign. Then it came to him that Bud’s suicide would finish off Kathleen’s campaign for good. So he got Kathleen out of the way, called Bud to his room, hit him on the head with a hammer, dressed Bud in Kathleen’s robe, and threw him off Kathleen’s balcony.

He summarizes his motive:

The people that I dealt with in those day— well, the people I deal with now… I didn’t get where I am by being a choir boy. And they were getting awfully nervous about those rumors. It wasn’t jail. I was looking at… much worse, and I couldn’t think of what else to do.

Gowans takes him away. Jessica steps out as Kathleen is finishing her announcement,

And now I’m going to step out of the goldfish bowl and once again become Mrs. Jackson Lane—the devoted wife of a wonderful, loving husband.

Jessica looks on and is sad, and we go to credits.

I really did not like this episode. It was an unpleasant subject that was mostly an excuse to complain about politics, and that complaining about politics took up so much time that there was approximately no characterization of any of the characters and very minimal plot.

To be fair, Jackson’s slip-up did at least appear on-screen, unlike the evidence in last week’s episode, but that’s about all that I can say for this. He doesn’t make any sense as the murderer. Even apart from it being absurd that he thought it would be all fun and games for his wife to try to get elected as a senator when he was involved in very illegal things. Just logistically, how did he have access to Kathleen’s hotel room? Her campaign is moving all over the place, it’s not like the hotel is a long-term headquarters that she’d have given him a key. Another weird issue is the casting. Eddie Albert, who played Jackson Lane, was 82 years old at the time the episode aired. Even if he was playing younger, Jackson Lane would be in his seventies, and he certainly didn’t look like he exercised as regularly as, say, Jack Lalanne. Are we really supposed to believe that he killed Bud with a hammer, changed his clothes (changing the close of someone who is not cooperating requires a surprising amount of strength, because it’s awkward) and threw his corpse over a balcony?

And then why on earth did he try to frame his wife when all he was doing was trying to make Bud’s death look like suicide? Sending her on a wild goose chase to keep her away, I get, since he needed her to not be on hand to interfere. But why dress Bud up in her bathrobe, and why throw him off of her balcony? Neither of those things were necessary to get Kathleen to lose the primary. Further, Jackson had a major interest in his beloved wife not being convicted of murder.

It is a relatively minor issue, but once again we also have no obvious way for Jessica and Kathleen to be good friends. We’re not told what state this is, but Jackson identifies it as “middle America.” Five years ago Kathleen was the mayor of her “home town” in this state. I get that Jessica and Kathleen being old friends is just a setup so that we can have this episode, but at the same time the writers could have spent a few seconds explaining how this unlikely friendship between a small-time politician in Middle America and a retired schoolteacher from Maine was formed in the early 1970s. Or between a housewife in middle America and a schoolteacher from Maine, given that Kathleen might not have been in politics at the time and Jessica probably hadn’t retired yet.

The whole episode was badly conceived. Even the opening makes no sense because it’s the sounds of someone being nominated for something, while the episode takes place before the primary has happened. People aren’t nominated to run in their primary. Worse, this episode is about politics. Politics is not merely the setting for a murder mystery, the murder mystery is an excuse for the setting. The complaining about mudslinging in politics gets undermined by the solution to the murder—it turns out that it wasn’t the Drelinger campaign playing dirty, it was Kathleen’s own husband trying to get her to quit. If he hadn’t been trying to sabotage her campaign, there wouldn’t have been all of the mudslinging.

I really wish I could say something good about this episode—that’s why I do these reviews—but I can’t think of anything. Eddie Albert gave a really good performance during his confession scene, but that’s just a credit to him as an actor. Oh well.

Thus ends the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. Season 5 will begin with J.B. As In Jailbird.

Murder She Wrote: Deadpan

On the first day of May in the year of our Lord 1988, the episode Deadpan aired. It was the second to last episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. (Last week’s episode was Showdown in Saskatchewan.)

We’re in New York for the opening of a play based on Jessica’s book. The play is called Mainely Murder, based on Jessica’s book Murder Comes to Maine.

We then meet our first character.

His name is Elliot Easterbrook and he’s a TV theater critic, and has an impressively negative tone. His first line is, “It has been said that the theater is a temple. If so, it is a temple which has often worshiped false gods. Only time and astute critical judgment will tell if Mainely Murder, which opens here tomorrow night, will honor the gods or, yet again, profane them.”

He goes on to interview some of the major cast members—the cast of the episode, not the cast of the play.

The first is Shayna, the producer of the play.

Elliot says that she has brought the theater such notable works as the musical biography of King Louis XVI titled Heads You Lose. He says it as if the play was terrible, but Shayna points out that it ran for 524 performances.

Jessica is also here. The Elliot remarks in his acid tones that Jessica looks just like one would picture a mystery writer from Maine to look.

Then we meet another character:

The young man is new to writing for the theater, but is the person who adapted Jessica’s book into a play. His name is Walter Knapf. Elliot asks how it was that Jessica, an experienced writer, allowed a neophyte to adapt her play. Jessica answers that Walter was a very talented student of hers. Being a protegé of Jessica’s makes it very likely that the police will suspect him for the murder that will happen this episode, if not outright arrest him for it, poor kid.

Elliot is confrontational, trying to pin Jessica down about predicting the play’s success. She says, “Isn’t it true that the only thing you can predict about the theater is that it is unpredictable?” Elliot replies, “Oh bravo, Mrs. Fletcher. You must have stayed up all night thinking that one up.” Jessica answers, “No, actually. Molière did it for me about 200 years ago.”

It’s a good zinger, but there are a few issues with it. Molière was, if you don’t know, a French playwrite and actor (I had to look it up to find out that he was also an actor). Googling, I can’t find that Molière ever said anything like this; quotes of this episode are the only things that turn up when you search for it. That’s not dispositive but what are the odds that no one has ever talked about this quote other than this episode of Murder, She Wrote? Especially since you can find pages of Molière quotes? Also, and this is a smaller thing, Molière lived from 1622 to 1673. At the time of this episode, the most recently Molière could have said this was 315 years ago. So Jessica’s zinger was made up and off by at least a century. Now the question is: was that intentional? Was Jessica meant to be better educated than Elliot and the writers used fake facts to portray that, or was she meant to be just to be a good actress who could pull off the authority to convince Elliot that he didn’t know a fake quote which he probably should have known? Both would work for their intended purpose, with the former just being a short-cut over real research to come up with a legitimate zinger. It would be interesting to know.

Anyway, the last part of this happens as we watch it on TV:

The camera pulls back to reveal two new characters. I’m going to get to them in a moment, but I find this very interesting. Why would the people who edit Elliot’s show leave this in? There’s no way that something as unimportant and likely to involve downtime that should be edited out as a pre-show interview would be broadcast live, so the presence of this exchange had to be a deliberate decision on the part of the editor. I don’t think that there’s really any way of defending it and it’s just a cute way of segwaying into introducing the new characters—a rival theater critic and his assistant. So, about them:

I find her tiny shoulder pads disappointing. I guess all the size went into her hair.

The theater critic—his name is Danny O’Mara—is the guy in the blue sweater vest. His assistant—Denise Quinlan—is the woman sitting in the chair. He writes a column in a newspaper (“The Chronicle”). Evidently he has a strong antipathy for Elliot. The scene began with him celebrating Jessica’s put-down (“Pow! Right in the kisser!”) and ended with him saying that everyone forgets what Elliot said by the time the woman is on to give the weather. The only reviews anyone remembers are Danny’s.

The scene shifts to a restaurant where Jessica, Walter, and someone we haven’t met before but whose name turns out to be Barney Mapost and whose job is publicist are having lunch. As they discuss how much Jessica doesn’t want to do more interviews Danny comes in and introduces himself. He professes himself to be an admirer of her work, by which he means her putting down of Elliot. When he hears that she will see a dress rehearsal of the play right after lunch, he suggests that—from what he’s heard—it would be advisable to make it a light lunch, his tone implying that the play is quite bad. He leaves, but his assistant reassures them that he’ll give them a fair shot. She then says she’ll see them tonight at the party. After she leaves, Jessica expresses surprise at inviting critics to the opening night party. Barny says that it’s Shayna’s idea, then says that they need to rush over to get to the dress rehearsal. I suppose it was a very light lunch indeed, since they never ordered.

Then we go to the dress rehearsal.

The scene of the play we come into has a farm set, and on it a witch casts a spell.

The still image doesn’t convey how much she was chewing the scenery.

Double
Trouble,
Spoil the bubble!
Make the haystack
Turn to
Rubble!

The lights flash, and a pyrotechnic special effect at the top of the haystack fails.

It seems that Danny O’Mara heard correctly.

There is some humorous dialog where various people ask Jessica what she thinks and she tries her best to be diplomatic.

Then we skip to opening night. Walter is nervous and Jessica tries to calm his nerves. Danny O’Mara finds his seat as an announcer says that the part of the woodsman, normally played by Tony Jasper, will be played by Craig Donner. I must confess that I’ve never actually been to a broadway play (once, in middle school, I attended a school trip to a dress rehearsal of a broadway play, but I don’t think that’s the same thing). That said, do they really announce cast substitutions?

Elliot arrives late and Shayna personally ushers him into the play. He remarks to her, “I hope you don’t think by inviting me to your postprandial party you’ll color my reaction to your little play.” Shayna graciously replies, “No, but missing the first scene might,” and opens the door into the theater for him.

I wonder if the misuse of “postprandial” is intentional. “Postprandial” means “after a meal,” and usually refers to something happening right after a meal since human beings eat several times per day and so everything a person does, except in a famine, is normally not many hours after some meal. The opening night party of a play is going to be right after the play, not right after a meal. If anything, it’s likely to have food served at it because it’s been a while since anyone has eaten. “Postprandial” is not the word to use to describe an after-play party.

This reminds me of a joke my oldest son told me recently: “I use big words I don’t understand in order to seem more photosynthesis.”

So, is Elliot Easterbrook the sort of man who would use ten dollar words he doesn’t know the meaning of in order to impress people, or did the writers of the episode just get it wrong? Or did they just not care? In television in the 1980s writers tended to rate accuracy below everything else—it would be easy to imagine them mis-using a word because they figured that 99% of the viewers wouldn’t know what the word meant and would assume it was used correctly. This is actually a bit frustrating as it would shed more light on the character to know the answer. On the other hand, he probably won’t be alive for much longer, so it may not matter much.

We skip to the intermission, where we follow Walter on his way to the bar and pass various people who are complaining about how bad their day was. Walter takes it as a bad sign that no one is talking about the play. Danny O’Mara then walks up to Elliot Easterbrook and tells him, “all you TV blowhards know about theater is makeup and hair.” They trade insults for a while until Elliot leaves. Walter tells Jessica that he needs many more drinks that he just had (he brought Jessica white wine and had ordered, for himself, a “double anything”). He leaves, telling her that he’ll see her at the party.

The scene then fades to the party.

There’s some small talk, then a broadcast of Elliot Easterbrook’s review of the play. I question how influential his reviews can be if they’re are broadcast close to midnight, but in any event I think it’s worth quoting the review in its entirety:

It is always difficult to review a mystery without giving away the plot. This unpalatable witch’s brew is such a muddle of clichés and troll dialogue that it is impossible to figure out the plot. Neophyte playwright Walter Knapf at least has the excuse of inexperience. As for the cast, Vivian Cassell brings her usual long-in-the-tooth charm to the lead. And Barbara Blair shines briefly as a witch. Tony Jasper as the woodsman is appropriately wooden. If you’re looking for a good thriller, walk right by the Woolcott Theater. The only mystery about this one, folks, is how it ever got to Broadway in the first place.

The scene fades to later on with Jessica putting her coat on to leave. Shayna asks her to stay until the early newspaper reviews are out but Jessica protests that it’s after 1am. They then notice that Elliot Easterbrook has accepted the invitation to join the party, which everyone finds surprising. Walter then staggers in, drunk, holding an early editing of the next day’s newspaper. He proclaims that the play will run forever: Danny O’Mara wrote them a glowing review.

Mainely Murder is mainly magnificent, the one must-see of the season. This is a real audience-pleaser, just the kind of show a certain low-caliber, high ego TV critic is sure to hate. You know who I’m talking about. That Live at Five guy who thinks he’s smarter than you. If he hates this show, maybe you should let his TV station know you’ve had enough of his condescending crap.

Jessica’s reaction while Walter reads this aloud is interesting:

This review is indeed quite surprising. It doesn’t square with what O’mara’s warning to Jessica, nor with common sense.

Anyway, Elliot Easterbrook expresses outrage at this review and declares that “someone has to silence this undereducated, ill-informed windbag… permanently.” He then storms off.

The police get a call reporting that shots were fired and dispatch units to the location of the call. Two uniformed officers break down a door, then see the corpse of Danny O’Mara lying on the floor with Elliot Easterbrook standing over the corpse holding a gun pointing at the corpse. They never show the whole thing in a single shot, but I think that the most interesting part is how the gun is being held:

Very poor trigger discipline. Never put your finger on the trigger of a gun unless you intend to shoot!

After the camera pans up to Elliot’s face, which registers minor confusion and surprise, we fade to black and go to commercial.

It turns out I was wrong about who was going to get murdered. It’s easy to imagine a lot of people wanting to kill Elliot. Who would want to kill Danny?

When we come back from commercial break, Danny’s assistant, accompanied by Jessica for some reason, show up at the scene of the crime. The detective for the case, Lieutenant Jarvis, is interviewing Elliot.

Elliot claims that he arrived only moments before the uniformed police officers and picked up the gun because he was worried that the assailant was still present. Jarvis isn’t buying it, so Jessica pulls him aside and points out that Mr. Easterbrook left the restaurant only moments before they did and they came straight here, so Elliot wouldn’t have had time to kill Danny. Further, if the shots were just fired, wouldn’t there be a smell of gunpowder and furthermore, why does Danny’s skin have a bluish tint?

Jarvis, who is at the end of a double-shift and exhausted, doesn’t have time to think about these things and directs that Elliot be arrested. As Elliot is being escorted to the police station, he rudely tells Mrs. Fletcher to mind her own business and to leave his defense to more capable hands.

The next scene is back at the theater, where Shayna and the director talk about how wonderful things are, largely thanks to Danny O’Mara’s positive review. There is also some discussion of a positive review by another critic. When Barny is asked if he’d read it, he replies that he wrote it. Writing columns for reviewers in their voice makes their lives so much easier they’re much more likely to give you positive coverage in exchange for saving them the time of doing the writing themselves. Not too much is made of this but it’s clearly foreshadowing of the only possible explanation for why Danny O’Mara wrote such a glowing review of such an awful play.

There’s also some discussion of Shayna wanting Walter to make more changes, and then he privately talks to Jessica to ask for help. She just wants to get back to Cabot Cove, but he reminds her of the theme in her book upon which this play is based—not walking away from injustice. So Jessica resolves to stay and figure out who killed Danny.

This scene is quite weird. I get that Jessica wants to get away from the play as soon as possible but this is the first time I can remember that she ever wanted to desert a place more than to solve a murder, even for a moment. Usually someone is trying to get her to leave and she’s refusing. It feels out of character.

The first stop in Jessica’s quest to satisfy justice is to go to the office at his newspaper. The scene at the newspaper opens with an interesting joke about the former theater critic that Danny replaced. He was a very gentlemanly reviewer and the best theater critic that the paper ever had, but after his stroke he couldn’t handle broadway anymore and so is reviewing television programs. Murder, She Wrote doesn’t often go in for self-referential humor, but this is certainly not the first time. In Steal Me A Story, a producer suggests to Jessica doing a show called The Jessica Fletcher Mystery Hour, about the real-life exploits of a famous mystery author solving crimes. Jessica replies that she doesn’t write fist fights, bedroom scenes, or car chases, so who would watch it?

Like in that case, I think that this joke relates to the Murder, She Wrote theme of old things still being valuable. It’s a bit tangentially; the theater being so much more important than television isn’t going to be deeply relatable. Not many people born in the 1910s or 1920s (and hence be in their 60s and 70s in the 1980s) will have gone to shows on broadway, or even off-broadway. They might, as youngsters, have attended local plays before movies largely replaced them, but I doubt that they’d have remembered those as high art since they probably weren’t high art. People born in the 1930s and after almost certainly would not have gone to any meaningful number of plays.

The gentlemanliness of the former critic is also interesting. Supposing that he was seventy at the time of his stroke, and that this was five years ago, he’d have been born in 1913. The 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s were not a time people were gentlemanly—being modern was the big craze then. So his formative years would not have valued gentlemanliness. People might have tried to be gentlemanly in the 1940s and 1950s, and perhaps into the 1960s, so maybe he adopted it, but that was not a big thing in the 1970s. On balance, I’d guess that this aspect of him having been gentlemanly was pure wistfulness, without any direct reference in reality. That is, it was mere, abstract, “things were better back then”. (Of course, it can be simply explained as individual quirkiness, and need not be taken symbolicly.)

Anyway, Jessica pretends to be doing research for a new book, and pumps the editor for information. It turns out, though, that Danny didn’t come into the newspaper to write his column. He wrote from home. There’s an interesting bit where Jessica asks if it was picked up by courier, and the editor laughs and says that they’re all using computers, these days. O’Mara wrote it on his home computer and send it in via modem. The computers time stamp everything, so he can say that the review came in at 11:15pm.

Jessica next goes to visit Denise at Danny’s apartment. It’s a little odd that she should be cleaning up his effects at his apartment rather than a family member doing that, but it saves on time and casting, and Murder, She Wrote generally fits a ton into a fairly short time, to say nothing of having a cast so large they rarely get to develop a character in more than a few lines.

Denise shows Jessica Danny’s program from the night before, on which he took notes. Jessica looks it over and remarks that it’s odd that the notes are nothing like Danny’s review. Denise says that she didn’t have a chance to look at it, does so now, and remarks, “Well, this is weird. Why would his review be so favorable?”

This is a very strange question for Denise to make, seeing as how she was Danny’s assistant. Barney Mapost introduced her as “Danny’s right hand, his left hand, and entire brain.” She said that this was inaccurate and she was more like the guy who walks behind the elephant in the parade. Either way, it’s weird that she had no idea what he thought of the play since she sat next to him at the opening performance.

At Jessica’s request, Denise then shows her the original review which was on a 5 1/4″ floppy disk.

Murder.rev is a weird filename for a review of “Mainely Murder”.

This is the same thing as what Walter read out loud the night before. Curiously, it contains no reference to Jessica, despite the director remarking in the banter I summarized above that Danny had given Mrs. Fletcher “quite a nice mention.” But there’s plenty of space on the screen below the text, and nothing there. Be that as it may, Jessica looks it over and remarks that it doesn’t square with Danny’s notes.

Denise replies, “I gather you don’t write on a computer, Mrs. Fletcher.” This makes no sense as a reply; writing on a computer doesn’t make people radically change their opinions of the quality of fiction. Instead of pointing that out, Jessica merely replies that she doesn’t, and far prefers her bucket-of-bolts typewriter. It’s noisy, but comfortable. Denise then says that she should consider switching, but Jessica refuses, saying that she’s heard too many stories of people pressing the wrong button and losing everything. Denise then demonstrates that it’s not quite that easy. She deletes the review from the disk, then undeletes it to show that things are recoverable.

I wonder where the people who used computers in the 1980s got their HollywoodOS that used such TV-friendly commands.

Jessica, eagle-eyed as always, remarks on there being two files that were undeleted. They then look at the file which had been deleted before they started:

Denise is perplexed at the existence of this review, so different from the one that published. Why did he change his mind so drastically, she asks in a way that suggests she doesn’t have two brain cells to rub toghter? Jessica theorizes that whoever killed Danny O’Mara also killed his review.

The scene shifts to Police headquarters where Jessica gives his information to Lt. Jarvis. Jarvis says that the substitution of the review doesn’t rule out Easterbrook, but Jessica says that he was on the air giving his review of Mainely Murder at 11:15pm and she checked—it was a live broadcast. I find that more than a bit odd—who would watch a theater review at 11:15pm at night? And why bother broadcasting it live? That first part is probably more germane to the episode as a whole—how influential can a TV theater critic be if his reviews are broadcast live at 11:15pm at night? Granted, New York City is the city that never sleeps, but even so.

Anyway, in the conversation some weird details come out. The police got an anonymous call saying that shots were fired, but O’Mara was killed with only one bullet and no other bullets were found in the apartment. None of the other tenants ever heard any bullets being fired. And the coroner’s report indicates that O’Mara might have died earlier than he was found.

Jessica suggests that the killer must have been someone from the play, but Jarvis says that it’s likely that everyone can alibi each other at the party, and asks her to try to recall who showed up late. (Answer: Walter, but Jessica only realizes what she’s done as she walks out.) Jessica calls Walter from a pay phone at the police station but only gets his answering machine, and leaves a message saying that it’s urgent that she talk to him.

She then goes to see Elliot, who has quite an office.

Are we really to believe that a TV theater critic whose reviews are broadcast at 11:15pm at night has a corner office? Anyway, Elliot has his unpleasantness dialed up to 11, as usual. Jessica asks him if it doesn’t get tiresome being so tiresome, but he just replies in a tiresome way. They hit something of a detente and discuss the case.

Jessica wonders who wrote the fake O’Mara review, and Elliot suggests the director, since O’Mara had panned his last five plays. Jessica goes to talk to him.

The directory, though, is only interested in blaming Jessica for finding the real review of Mainely Murder, saying that now the play is doomed. I have trouble believing that a glowing review could do much to save a play as bad as Mainely Murder is supposed to be, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. The only thing that really comes up is that everyone was at the party, the whole night, except for Walter.

Jessica tries to find Walter at his apartment, but he’s not there. Jessica runs into Barney, taking down the quote from the O’Mara review. She all but accuses him of having written the fake review, but he replies that he never tried to imitate O’Mara because O’Mara wasn’t the kind of critic who appreciated being sent plugs. Walter is in the back of the theater working on rewrites. (I wonder why this theater would have office space for writers, but again this probably just a time-saving thing.)

Walter is saying that he put a lot of the original stuff back in and Shayna actually likes it. With all of the changes that went on, she doesn’t remember what she cut anymore! He thinks this will save the play. Jessica tells him to nevermind the play and to tell her where he was during the cast party. Lt. Jarvis walks in and says that the way he figures it, Walter was busy murdering O’Mara. He arrests Walter, and we go to commercial.

When we come back, Jessica and Jarvis are interrogating Walter in Jarvis’ office. Before anyone can say anything of substance, though, Jarvis sends for Mrs. Rizzo, who after some complaining says that she saw Walter in the hallway. She lives on the first floor of the building where O’Mara lived on the third. It was 11pm—she knows because the news just came on—and Walter banged on her door saying that he needed to speak to Mr. O’Mara. She told him that O’Mara lived upstairs, and Walter went away.

As a side note, I’m really curious how Walter was supposed to know what building O’Mara lived in. For that matter, why on earth did Mrs. Rizzo know that Danny O’Mara lived in her building, two floors up? A lot of people live in her building, and NYC is not a place where people get to know their neighbors, especially not their neighbors who live on a different floor.

Anyway, she leaves and Walter gives his version. He was hoping to find O’Mara and beg for mercy. When he couldn’t find O’Mara’s apartment he realized he was so drunk he couldn’t think straight, so he gave up and went out to get even more drunk. There is some general bickering, and a reference to a different casting for a part gives Jessica an idea.

She visits Martha Blair, who played the witch who, in the play, cast a spell to reduce a haystack to rubble. It turns out that she was romantically involved with Elliot Easterbrook in a very minor way. She had dinner with him, which consisted of four hours of him talking about himself. This was at Shayna’s instigation, so Jessica goes to talk to Shayna.

The conversation with Shayna doesn’t reveal much, but when she is previewing a tape of Elliot Easterbrook’s review in order to pull a few words out of context to seem favorable, it repeats the part where he said that Tony, as the woodsman, was appropriately wooden. This gives Jessica the clue she needs.

Not your typical clue-face for Murder, She Wrote.

Jessica excuses herself to Shayna, saying that she needs to see a man about a play.

It’s interesting how Murder, She Wrote has a visual language all its own. The next scene has Jessica sitting (apparently) alone, on stage. We hear a door close, which means that Jessica has invited the murderer to her impromptu accusing parlor.

She calls out to him. It’s Elliot Easterbrook. She thanks him for coming, and he assures her that it is nothing more than curiosity.

Jessica explains how Elliot did it, though she frames it in a proposal for the plot of a new book. The setting is the theater, and the killer plans his crime meticulously. After the play he kills the victim, then two hours later puts in a fake call about gun shots in order to have the police arrive with him standing over the body and frame himself. Once the time of death is established to have been two hours earlier, he’ll be exonerated and it will be extremely unlikely anyone will look his way again. He created an alibi for himself by transmitting the fake review he’d planted to the newspaper from his own office, rather than from the victim’s apartment.

Elliot says that it sounds far fetched, but like a perfect crime. Jessica said that it would be, except that Molière was right—the theater is unpredictable. There was a last-minute cast change which Elliot didn’t know about because he came late. Thus he got it wrong in his TV review, but, critically, also in the fake review.

Elliot points out that even a fictional jury wouldn’t be likely to accept this as conclusive proof. Jessica agrees, but says that they would be willing to accept his TV station’s phone log. It shows a five minute call to the Chronicle at 11:15pm.

Elliot, crestfallen, says,”Even the finest works of art have their flaws. Congratulations, Mrs. Fletcher. The only thing missing is a motive.”

Jessica says that she’s wondered about that.

Elliot decides to tell her. It’s fascinating, so I’m going to quote it in full:

Imagine a young and impressionable writer who has his first play produced off-off-off Broadway. It’s not perfect, but he has talent, and it’s a start. And imagine a critic from a second-rate newspaper trying to make a name for himself. His review of the play is devastating. So devastating the young playwright never writes another play. No, instead, he becomes a critic himself and vows to best his destroyer at his own game. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough to eradicate the pain. Only one thing can do that.

At this point Lt. Jarvis walks in from the wings (Elliot had moved onto the stage, with Jessica) and announces his presence.

Elliot looks at Jessica in surprise.

The detective in the wings, Mrs. Fletcher? I suppose I should have expected a climax so cliché.

The uniformed officers escort Elliot away. Jarvis remains and talks to Mrs. Fletcher. He asks how she knew that the TV station logged its phone calls. Jessica replies, “Well, if they don’t, they ought to.”

And on that note we go to credits.

This was an ambitious episode, so I think its many plot holes can be at least partially forgiven. That said, it has a lot of them. I think, for me, the biggest is that the key evidence—the evidence by which Jessica knew who the murderer was and the only evidence she didn’t make up when she confronted him—never appeared in the episode. At no point when the fake review was read or put on screen did it mention the actor who played the woodsman. This is unusual for Murder, She Wrote. They’re normally better about showing us all of the evidence (that Jessica doesn’t lie about—they could hardly show us that). It’s not like there was any other evidence to lose track of and no excuse can be made on account of time. They put up the text of the review a second time, so they could have put up the relevant section of the review instead of just repeating the part that Walter read aloud at the party.

There’s also the issue that the fake review failing to mention the cast change hardly proves that Easterbrook was the culprit. Anyone who wrote the fake review earlier in the day would have used the name of the actor who had been cast in the role, as would anyone who just didn’t pay close attention to the announcement, was in the bathroom, etc. Since the purpose of the fake review was to be discovered and cast suspicion on someone who would benefit from the play getting a good review it didn’t deserve, it’s not like there was a motive to get the fake review right. Mistakes in the fake review would draw attention to its inauthenticity, and thus help it serve the murderer’s purpose. So, not only did they not show us this evidence, it doesn’t really point to Elliot as the murderer anyway.

The part about Elliot Easterbrook framing himself is hard to know what to make of. On the one hand, framing himself with a fake time of death that will be disproved has some merit as a way of leading suspicion away from himself, but it only really makes sense if suspicion was at all likely to go his way. There was no real connection between him and Danny O’Mara, so there’s no reason why it would have. If anything, O’Mara seemed to hate him far more than he seemed to hate O’Mara. All clumsily framing himself did was connect him to the murder more than he would have been otherwise. That said, he was a narcissist with an obsession. It’s not entirely unbelievable that he loomed much larger in his own imagination than he did in anyone else’s and so he might assume he would be suspected because he assumed that everyone thought about him all the time.

That said, his approach to framing himself was riskier than the episode made it out. Estimating the time of death is not an exact science and it was so close to when he framed himself for that there was no guarantee that he would be exonerated. Indeed, all the autopsy report showed was that the time of death could have been hours earlier. “Could have been earlier” is not a slam-dunk acquittal. The transmitting of the review at 11:15pm would be a stronger alibi, but only if the falsity of the review was discovered. That only happened by accident, and Elliot was in no position to do it himself if no one else did it for him, so this instance of framing himself is particularly weak.

To be fair, though, given that it would have taken the police several minutes, at minimum, to arrive at Danny O’Mara’s apartment after getting a report of “shots fired,” holding that Elliot had just shot Danny would entail him standing over the body, gun in hand, for several minutes. That would be quite strange, to say the least. I suspect that a defense attorney could make a lot of that.

Perhaps oddly, I actually find the motive in this episode to be on the more believable side. Superficially, of course, it’s ridiculous. Who could want to kill a person because they wrote a scathing review of his play twenty years before? And yet, Elliot Easterbrook comes off as a man consumed by hatred. Especially as Dean Stockwell plays him, he is an Ahab character. He cares for nobody and nothing because he’s obsessed with his white whale. Indeed, the part about him dating the young woman who played the witch didn’t add anything to the plot but it did add some very interesting characterization of Elliot—he spent four hours talking about himself. A man who can spend four hours with a beautiful woman talking about himself is the sort of man who can resent a scathing review of his play to the point of murder, and hang onto this resentment for decades. Also, the time frame works well. A man like Elliot wouldn’t go for murder immediately. He would brood for a long time before going there. Having spent decades wrapped up in his hatred, trying and failing to destroy Danny O’Mara through lesser means—that might might work him up to the point of murder. Especially considering how, in his early fifties, he might be starting to reflect on how his quest for revenge deprived him of a wife and children. He would blame O’Mara for that, too. Most people would not react this way, but this sort of hatred is the kind of mistake a human being can make. There’s no such thing as a good reason to make a bad decision, so motives for murder cannot be evaluated on the basis of whether there was a good reason to commit the murder. They can only be evaluated on the basis of there being a human reason to commit the murder. Offended pride, nursed for a long time—that is a human reason.

There’s an interesting question about how this episode falsifies all sorts of details in order to fit things in. For example, there’s no way that a TV theater critic is going to do a live broadcast of his review of a new play at 11:15pm at night. Similarly, there is such a thing as the morning edition of a newspaper, but it doesn’t come out on the streets for purchase before 2:00 am. Mrs. Rizzo knowing where Danny O’Mara lived when she lived on the first floor of her building and Danny on the third is beyond improbably. In NYC people are extremely outgoing if they know who lives in the apartments right next to them. They have no idea who lives on other floors of their building. If Elliot brought the fake review on his own floppy disk, he would have either had to write the “real” review which accorded with Danny’s notes on his program or else he would have had to copy his fake review onto the floppy disk that Danny saved his review on. This would have involved copying it to the hard drive, then removing his disk and inserting Danny’s disk. Further, the name he gave the file relied on Danny misspelling his version of it. Or else he did some weird file renaming. None of which is impossible, but is oddly convoluted and I’m pretty sure was not intended by the writers since Jessica didn’t mention it.

Many of these things were important to the plot, and in fairly irreplaceable ways. On the other hand, many of them were just shortcuts. I think that it’s important to cut Murder, She Wrote slack on these sorts of things because it’s hard to cram so much into 48 minutes as it is. This is something that may apply to a short story, but does not really carry over into novels. Shortcuts are nowhere near as forgivable when time is not so precious. (A big part of what I seek to do in my reviews of Murder, She Wrote episodes is to see what can be learned from them to bring over to my novels; Murder, She Wrote was great in spite of most episodes having fairly large plot holes, so if we can figure out what made it great in spite of them, perhaps we can borrow some of that and have something even better when our novels don’t have plot holes.)

The way that Jessica and Denise find the deleted file may possibly be classed under the heading of “shortcut,” but I can’t help but think it could have been done much better. They segway from the review being irreconcilable with Danny’s notes on his program (to say nothing of common sense) to a demonstration of undeleting files without any kind of natural hook for the change of subject. It’s not even a single change of subject, either. Jessica complains about pressing the wrong button and losing everything, not about how easy it is to accidentally delete a file. Back in the 1980s it was common for computer programs to crash and far too many people didn’t save their work until they were done. File corruption on disk was also a not-uncommon problem. Undeleting a file doesn’t address either. The issue is not that they didn’t take the time to address all possible failure modes on a computer, but that they could have written what they meant in the same time. Instead of “pressing the wrong button and losing everything” Jessica could have said “accidentally deleting the wrong file”. And instead of the business with the program, Jessica could have just asked if Denise really liked working on a computer. I’m not sure Denise being caught completely off guard by Danny’s not liking the show is fixable, though. She sat through the play with him. How could she be under the impression that it was possible he liked it? Even if he didn’t talk about it and she never noticed a single one of his reactions, shouldn’t she have picked up on what he likes and doesn’t like in plays?

Overall, and despite the many plot holes, I think that this episode was a lot of fun. As I mentioned at the start, this was an ambitious episode. It contained a play, drama about the production of a play, and even a layer about criticism of the play. Also, while the story has plenty of plot holes, it also has things which stick together. For example, it actually makes sense that Elliot chose the play that he did to use for his murder. He needed a bad play, but it would help if it had a lot of money riding on it, as, presumably, Mainely Murder did because of J.B. Fletcher’s name would attract investors. I think that what really makes it, though, is the ending. Elliot’s explanation of why he murdered Danny was poignant. Some of this is up to the skill of the actor, of course, but the writing rings true. “It’s not perfect, but he has talent, and it’s a start.” That is how an awful lot of writers starting out feel. And I think his ending, which probably should have been the actual ending, was great.

“The detective in the wings, Mrs. Fletcher? I suppose I should have expected a climax so cliché.”

There is a sense in which this is Murder, She Wrote poking fun at itself, but there is another level to it. Elliot is just a man, and not, in truth, a special man. It is fitting that when he is caught, he is caught as other men are. The essence of sin, in a sense, is the refusal to recognize that one is man. But Elliot should, indeed, have known that.

Next week’s episode, which is the final episode of season four, is The Body Politic.

The Far Side Really Likes Westerns

I recently came across a Far Side cartoon (unfortunately there’s no point linking it because they disappear after a few days and they don’t allow any kind of embedding) which was subitled “Cattle Drive Quartets”. In it four tough-looking cowboys are sitting around a campfire playing stringed instruments. One of them is saying to another:

Gus, what the hell you doin’? This is “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” third movement, minueto allegreto, you brainless horned toad!

Part of the humor is, of course, based on familiarity with the tropes of Westerns. These are four tough, grizzled men. They’ve spent many years able to survive on their own or in very small groups, hundreds of miles from civilization. They’ve braved outlaws, desperados, wild animals, and all manner of things. And they’ve endured enormous amounts of solitude.

For a long time, this was standard cultural knowledge. But when I had to explain some of this after showing it to my son, I realized just how much westerns are no longer part of the broader culture. In one sense this is normal enough; trends in entertainment come and go. There are various things that made Westerns especially popular in movies and TV during the 1950s and 1960s—how cheap they were to film near Hollywood, for example. And yet they were no flash in the pan. Something I learned in the biography of William Gillette (“America’s Sherlock Holmes”) was that westerns were popular in plays long before they were popular in movies, and their popularity did not abate before they became popular in movies. They were popular in radio before they became popular in television, as Gunsmoke can attest. Bonanza, which ran from 1959-1973, was commonly available as re-runs on television when I was growing up in the 1980s. For a decent time afterwards, all sorts of shows would feature a western episode, with the characters riding horses in some sort of cowboy getup.

Narrative entertainment hasn’t entirely lost its taste for westerns. In the 1990s you had films like City Slickers and Tombstone. Even as late as 2007 there was 3:10 To Yuma. Though not a western, per se, 2019’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was about westerns, if to some degree about their demise.

Though they’re not gone, Westerns are certainly no longer ubiquitous. I can’t help but think that’s in no small part because the sorts of virtues they make it easy to explore, people are no longer interested in. I suspect that, even more than that, Hollywood is no longer interested in them.

Murder She Wrote: Showdown in Saskatchewan

On the tenth day of April in the year of our Lord 1988, the Murder, She Wrote episode Showdown in Saskatchewan first aired. It was the third from last episode in the fourth season. As the title implies, it takes place in Canada, making it the second episode this season to be set in the Great White North. (The first was Witness For the Defense.)

After some scenes of people driving in, we meet two of our main characters:

Her name is Jill Morton. She’s one of Jessica’s many nieces, which is why Jessica is going to be in this episode.

Here’s a better picture of the man she’s with:

His name is Marty Reed. As you might be able to guess, he’s a professional cowboy. Rodeo star is probably more accurate, since he does not in fact ranch cattle but ride ornery bulls and ornery horses and such-like.

After some discussion of dinner (and after-dinner) plans, Marty leaves and we meet another character:

Her name is Carla Talbot. She’s the wife of (aging) big time rodeo star, Boone Talbot. It comes up that it was Carla who invited Jill to spend the summer with her and Boone on the circuit; this places her in a difficult spot because she’s supposed to be watching over Jill, not being a pretext for Jill to live with Marty as if she was his wife. Jill’s mother has been calling Carla, making life difficult for her.

In the next scene, Jessica gets a call from Jill’s mother (Louise).

This was right after an establishing shot of Jessica’s home. I find this extremely domestic shot of Jessica quite interesting. They could have picked nearly anything for Jessica to be doing. They could have had her working at her typewriter or reading over galley proofs or reading a book or any number of book-related things. Instead, they chose to depict her cleaning her oven.

Jessica as detective is meant to contrast with Jessica as retired schoolteacher in Maine; with Jessica going to Canada there won’t be many opportunities to establish this dynamic. Taking a moment to lay it on thickly, here, works, I think.

In the next scene Jill is called to Carla’s trailer, but when she knocks, instead of Carla, Jessica comes out. Jill is pleased to see Jessica, but then realizes what she’s there for. Jessica owns up to having come in order to spy on Jill on behalf of her mother. They go for a walk to talk to each other. Jessica is compassionate and understanding, but also points out that Jill’s mother has a right to know what sort of a man Marty is, and what the situation really is. Jill doesn’t like it, but understands that Jessica is right.

Jessica meets Marty, who is very charming to her. We then meet another character:

His name is Luke Purdue. He works with Marty as some sort of partner/assistant. Marty invites Jessica to join them all for dinner at the restaurant that night, and she accepts.

At the restaurant there’s music and dancing. A rodeo clown named Wally introduces himself to Jessica by commiserating about not being able to go all night (she had begged off dancing again as the scene began, and he has a bum leg). Then we meet a new character:

He came to be a drunk jerk and eat lollipops and he’s all out of lollipops.

His name is Doc Shaeffer. He’s the rodeo association’s official doctor, but Luke and the rodeo clown give him the reputation of not doing a good job. In fact, the rodeo clown used to be a rodeo player until he broke his leg and Doc Shaeffer set it wrong. In the present, Doc is drunk and ornery, and tries to force Carla to dance with him, but Boone intercedes, angering the doc. The Doc’s wife, Consuela, comes up to try to get him to back off. Doc does back off, though angrily, and Consuela apologizes to Boone.

It looks funny in this still, but Boone was just telling Consuela that Doc isn’t her fault.

A few minutes later, Doc comes over and issues a challenge: whichever of Boone and Marty can stay on Doc’s bull the longest gets $500 ($1206 in 2022 dollars). The bull is apparently an extremely mean bull, even by rodeo standards. Boone accepts, since it was a public challenge, despite this being an obviously stupid idea.

The bull is in an open pen and no one actually manages to get on the bull. It chases them around and hurts Luke pretty badly. In Doc’s trailer, he pronounces Luke to have a hairline fracture in his leg, and he’s going to give Luke a walking cast. Marty was also hurt, though slightly; the Doc says that he got a concussion and he’s medically disqualifying Marty for the next day at least. When Marty protests, he tells Marty to leave before he medically disqualifies him from the whole rodeo. Marty storms off. He runs into Jill, who tries to calm him, but he yells at her too and then leaves.

That evening Boone is looking pensively at the bull when he notices smoke coming from the medical trailer. He runs over to it and it turns out to be very much on fire.

A red gel over a light is much safer than a real fire, in addition to being cheaper.

After calling for help, Boone goes in, calling to Doc. Instead of finding Doc, he stumbles over Luke, on the floor, who he drags out. Others run up and he tells them that Doc and Consuela are still in the trailer, but they only find Doc, who is dead. Consuela comes running up. She cries out when she finds out that he’s dead, and she cradles his body, sadly repeating “Doc, doc.”

The scene fades to black, and we go to commercial.

When we come back it’s the next day and the rodeo is starting. Amongst others riding through the gates to kick things off are the mounties. The camera zooms in on the mounty who will conduct the investigation into Doc’s death:

His name is Inspector Roger McCabe. He begins his investigation by interrogating Boone. He seemed to think it a suspicious coincidence that Boone was up and saw the fire. He also asks about their previous altercation with Doc. When Boone asks what’s up, McCabe says that the preliminary report indicates that the fire may not have been an accident, and if it’s not, he’s going to have a lot more questions so Boone should keep himself available.

Jessica runs into Jill, who is upset because Inspector McCabe is asking questions about Boone and Marty. She doesn’t seem very concerned about Boone, but is very worried about Marty. She hasn’t seen him since their fight the previous day (this is when Marty yelled at her when she tried to calm him down when he said that Doc suspended him for a day due to concussion). She asks Jessica to investigate, for Marty’s sake.

Jessica wanders around until she finds Inspector McCabe. At first, he’s none to pleased to see her (she crossed a police tape to find him), but his manner changes completely when he discovers who she is, as he’s read most all of her books. When she explains what she’s doing there, he invites her in to the scene of the crime, to fill her in on what’s known.

The fire was started on the couch, and didn’t actually get much farther than that.

The fire marshall found traces of a “flammable liquid” sloshed on the couch. Further, a crude time-fuse fashioned out of a matchbook and a cigarette was used to ignite the flammable liquid. Jessica notices a warped piece of plastic which Inspector McCabe explains was an x-ray. Possible, he suggests, used as fuel to help start the fire, though if so the perpetrator was unaware that x-ray film doesn’t burn well. Also, the window above the couch was found shut, but not locked.

Jessica asks if his theory is that someone tossed the flammable liquid and the time-fuse in through the window and didn’t enter at all. McCabe says that it’s a possibility. Neither of them seem to consider that it would be unlikely that the perpetrator also tossed an x-ray in through the window.

Jessica asks why someone would do this. To kill the doctor? To kill Luke? To frighten someone? Just to destroy the trailer? McCabe says that the reason is immaterial; the doctor died of smoke inhalation and everyone know that he had emphysema, so any way you look at it, it’s murder. I think he missed the point of Jessica’s question, but she doesn’t press it.

In the next scene, Jill finally finds Marty, who is flirting with (or at least being flirted with by) a blond woman in a shiny red shirt.

She brings the only shoulder pads to this rodeo I’ve seen, but at least it’s still the 80s for one character.

After getting rid of the blond woman, Jill demands to know where Marty was. His story is that he was playing cards with “some of the boys”, had a few beers, and slept it off. She doesn’t entirely believe him, but he points out that she doesn’t own him.

The scene shifts to the rodeo, where Boone rides a bronco. He looks like he does a great job. The announcer says that it wasn’t a great ride. (There’s a bunch of dramatic looking from Boone to Inspector McCabe, so I suppose McCabe was supposed to have ruined Boone’s ride by making him unable to concentrate.)

The scene then shifts to the hospital, where Jessica runs into Consuela (Doc’s wife). After expressing her condolences, and just as Consuela turns to leave, Jessica remarks that it was very lucky that Consuela wasn’t in the trailer when the fire started. Conseuela says that it was unfortunate, as she never let Doc smoke his cigars. Jessica asks if there was a particular reason she wasn’t in the trailer, and she says that she wanted no part of Doc when he was drunk, so after helping him with Luke she spent the night with a friend. At this point she picks up on Jessica’s questions being pointed and asks what’s up. This is a frequent thing in Murder, She Wrote—Jessica asks remarkably non-subtle questions as if she is being subtle. I never really understand it; it mostly just makes Jessica look incompetent. Given that she’s an older woman she should be able to make being nosy look perfectly natural. Maybe it’s just that I’ve recently been reading Miss Marple stories. Miss Marple never arouses suspicions.

Anyway, Jessica tells her that the fire wasn’t an accident. Consuela isn’t surprised. Doc was a mean man and not good at what he did, so he had a lot of enemies. She mentions that before he worked at the rodeo he worked in a prison for ten years, and she wondered if he might have been on the wrong side of the bars. She’s not sorry he’s dead, she only feels relief.

That conversation over, Jessica visits Luke. He’s fine except for his leg, but when the orderly offers to get him an x-ray, he aggressively refuses it. As he’s going to leave Inspector McCabe shows up. Luke is in a hurry to get back to the rodeo, so McCabe offers to drive him there.

Rear projection is never less than delightful.

Luke scoffs at the idea that anyone was trying to kill him. His enemies would face him down with a knife, not set a fire. When Jessica asks if he remembers anything, he says that he kind of woke up at one point and heard footsteps and a jangling, like of fancy spurs. He was on a lot of pain killers, though, so he’s not sure of anything.

In the next scene Jill is giving Marty a massage while she tries to talk about their future. Marty will have none of it. Their agreement was one season on the circuit then she would go back to college and hit the books.

In the next scene Jessica talks with Carla. It comes up that Wally (the rodeo clown) had Luke as a manager when he was injured; he didn’t like the look of the bull but Luke made him ride it.

In the next scene Inspector McCabe is talking to Consuela. Jessica comes up and asks if it was generally known that Luke was heavily sedated. Consuela says that it is, but Doc kept asking Luke questions anyway, such as where Luke worked before the rodeo and where he lived. Consuela takes her leave, then Jessica tips McCabe off about the rodeo clown.

Jessica is pulled away from this conversation by Jill, who wants to talk to Jessica. She asks Jessica for advice about Marty, who she loves and she feels loves her too, but who she also suspects isn’t ready for commitment. Jessica gives her the advice to talk to Marty about her concerns, and to ask the hard question, and if he won’t answer, then that is her answer. At this point Marty steps out of his trailer and a child cries out “Daddy! Daddy!” and runs up. He picks up the child, then kisses the woman who was with the child and asks what she’s doing here.

Well, we now know why Marty is afraid of commitment (with Jill). We get a few significant looks between the various parties, and we go to commercial break.

When we get back from commercial break, we get a very strange scene:

Her name is… actually, we don’t learn her name. Based on the credits, it might be Mona. Anyway, she’s his wife. She stays home during the rodeo season because they have a little ranch back home, and Buster is too young for all of the traveling. She’s just so gosh-darn lucky to be married to Marty, who is the greatest. She’s so naive it’s cute, if completely implausible. She’s from a small town in Montana. If small town folk are known for anything, it’s for suspecting sexual interaction when attractive women are hanging around attractive men without supervision. I mean, have the people who wrote Murder, She Wrote never listened to country music? (An example that leaps to mind is Dolly Parton’s song Jolene, in which she begs a prettier woman to not steal her husband. It came out in 1973.) In the 1980s, a hick from Montana might not suspect something new like cocaine use or recently popular sexual perversions. Infidelity is as old as the hills. Be that as it may, Marty comes over to get her and she says it was nice meeting some of his friends—it’s the first time she’s ever met any of them.

The next scene is more rodeo, this time bull riding. Boone has a great ride, at least according to the announcer, though it doesn’t look any better than his bronco ride (which looked good but was called bad). Next up is Marty, who is thrown from the bull and then attacked by it while he’s on the ground. We see Boone, who hadn’t left the arena yet, start to run over and the scene goes to Jessica receiving a phone call in her hotel room (Jill is with her). It’s Carla. Boone’s been hurt. Jessica says that they’ll be right there.

The next scene is Marty talking to Boone. He asks Boone what he did that for, was he going for hero of the year? Boone asks if there’s any prize money for that, and Marty replies, “not as I’ve heard of.”

We get more of the story from the rodeo clown, who met Jessica on the way. The bull was going for Marty and Wally couldn’t distract the bull but Boone ran out in front of the bull, which then started going after Boone, and Boone is lucky to be alive.

They talk to Boone a bit, then Marty comes up, and when asked says that he feels fine except for his arm. “The medic says that it’s not broken, but what does he know?” Luke then walks up and angrily demands what Marty thinks he’s doing, pulling out of the competition. He only needs one more event to beat Boone. Marty explains that his arm hurts too much. (Marty’s arm is obviously fine, and is throwing the competition in gratitude, so that Boone will get the prize money.) Luke angrily storms off.

After this, as Jessica and Jill are walking away, a woman we haven’t seen before is in Doc’s trailer and calls out to no one in particular that someone is calling Doc long distance, and she doesn’t know what to do. (For those too young to remember, in the late 1980s telephone numbers were tied to particular locations, and telephone numbers for locations that were far away were expensive to call—often in the range of $.25/minute or more. Such calls were called “long distance”.) Jessica says that she will take the call. When she asks to whom she’s speaking, it turns out to be Warden Barnes of the Oregon State Penitentiary.

He’s been trying to return Doc Shaeffer’s phone call from last night. Doc had called at about 9pm, which Jessica says would have been 11pm Saskatchewan time. Jessica asks, and it turns out that the prison Doc Shaeffer had worked at was the Oregon State Penitentiary. He had quit 8 years ago, but for the decade prior had been the prison surgeon there. Jessica thanks the Warden, saying that he’s been extremely helpful. More than she can tell him.

Jessica then calls Inspector McCabe. She asks about whether there was oxygen in the trailer, since Doc suffered from emphysema. He checks the report, then says that there was. An oxygen tank was found on the floor inside the door, nearly empty. He remarks that it was strange that it was empty, but Jessica says, “No, not strange at all.”

The scene then shifts to a bar.

Jessica and Inspector McCabe come up. He gets Luke to identify a picture of Wally, but it was just a ruse to get his thumb print on the photo when he handled it to look at it. McCabe tells him this, saying that Mrs. Fletcher has a theory that Luke is actually an escaped prisoner from the Oregon State Penitentiary. He’s going to hold Luke in protective custody until he finds out. Luke strikes him down with a beer mug and tries to steal his gun, but police officers rush in from both entrances and point their guns at him. Luke knows that he had it and surrenders.

The explanation comes in the next scene, in Boone’s room at the hospital. Luke’s real name is Carl Mattson. He escaped from the Oregon State Penitentiary thirteen years ago. He grew his hair out and grew a beard, which is why Doc didn’t recognize him. Presumably Doc recognized his own handiwork in the x-ray he took of Luke’s leg, though, which is why the x-ray was destroyed. Luke must have heard Doc’s phone call to the penitentiary and knew he had to do something quickly. He staged the fire, ensuring that the x-ray was destroyed, and then used Doc’s oxygen tank to keep himself alive until Boone broke the door down.

Jessica then tells Jill that they need to go as they have a plane to catch. Outside, Jill worries because her Mom will kill her. Jessica says that if she does, it will be asphyxiation from excessive hugging. Then she hugs Jill and we go to credits.

This was a fun and interesting episode.

It was more complex than the typical episode, or at least the complexity was more pleasing. The character of Boone Talbot was interestingly drawn—the aging athlete who still has it but is recovering from injury and won’t have it for too much longer. This is a very real phenomenon. People do come back from injury to be on top, but it’s very hard, and over time it’s not even so much that the athletes are older as that they’ve got a lot of accumulated injuries, especially smaller ones. For a while they can work around this because they’re getting more skilled and doing fewer stupid things like staying up late drinking, but eventually the injuries add up. I like that he’s a genuinely good guy, too.

The character of Marty Reed is a great contrast to Boone, especially once we learn his true character. Initially he’s charming and has great manners and is a young up-and-comer with a very bright future. He turns out to have few morals and poor self control. Eventually this helps explain how he was working well with as bad a character as Luke. It also fit in that when his wife turned up and so his using Jill was exposed for what it was, he didn’t say anything at all to her. He was not a good man, but he was a polite man, and there was nothing polite to say.

I do wish that Carla had been given more depth. I’m not sure how old Carla was supposed to be. Cassie Yates, who played Carla, was 37 at the time the episode came out, and Larry Wilcox, who played Boone, was 41. Presumably they were both playing younger, so perhaps Boone was supposed to be in his mid thirties and Carla her early thirties? It’s a bit strange that there was no mention of children, for example, or how she got involved with Boone or even what she does other than come with him.

Jill Morton, Jessica’s niece, was also an under-drawn character. She’s foolish and a slave to her impulses, which wouldn’t be too bad as a starting point if there was some character growth from learning this about herself. There really isn’t. As she is, she’s mostly an excuse to get Jessica up to Canada and into this strange world with which she has nothing to do.

The murder itself was interesting and, by Murder, She Wrote standards, the motive was fairly plausible. Luke was a bad guy and the sort of person who would murder in order to protect himself, especially as far away from where his motive for murder would be known. He’s been a criminal and caught before, and he’s got no morals, so taking a criminal risk that didn’t look too big but turned out to be is in character. He was made just clever enough to do it but not so clever as to not do it. It was a nice touch that big prize money seemed within reach, which is why he didn’t just run away as soon as he figured out that Doc suspected him. On the other hand, that suspicion was a weak link in this plot.

Doc Shaeffer suspecting that Luke was actually an inmate at an Oregon penitentiary thirteen years ago who escaped, and suspecting this because he recognized something in Luke’s leg that showed up on an x-ray is… implausible. There’s really no aspect of this which is believable. It’s hard to believe that Luke had some sort of thing in his leg which would really stand out as so unique it would be memorable to someone who looked at a lot of x-rays. The idea that it was Doc Shaeffer’s handiwork is even less plausible unless Luke’s leg was badly damaged and the bone had to be held together with an unusually high number of titanium bolts, or something like that. Merely setting a broken leg badly isn’t likely to be as unique as a fingerprint. Moreover, even if Doc Shaeffer had seen something in Luke’s leg thirteen years ago which was highly memorable, why would he have heard about Luke escaping in a way that he would connect with what he remembered in the x-ray? Unless for some reason he knew that Luke had been in prison for a very long sentence (and why would a prison doctor know this?), on recognizing Luke in the present day from his x-ray, he’d have no reason to think that Luke had escaped. At most he’d think that he knew Luke a long time ago. On top of all this, Doc Shaeffer was a drunkard. They’re not known for their powers of recall.

All of this relates to two small plot holes: Luke’s aversion to x-rays. If, somehow, Doc Shaeffer had recognized Luke by the x-ray of his leg, this was a power unique to Doc Shaeffer. Luke had no reason to burn the x-ray Doc had taken of his leg and no reason to avoid an x-ray at the hospital. No one else could have recognized Doc Shaeffer’s handiwork from thirteen years ago when he was a prison doctor. This could be explained away, though, as Luke panicking because murdering someone makes one paranoid.

Next week we’re back to New York City for the episode Deadpan, where a critic is murdered after the opening night of a play based on one of Jessica’s books.

Murder She Wrote: Just Another Fish Story

The episode Just Another Fish Story first aired on March 27, 1988 putting it late in the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. It is a Grady episode, set in New York City, and features Grady being engaged to a young woman named Donna.

The first scene opens with an introduction to a shady character:

“Listen, just because it’s you, how about 1,000 for the lobster and 2,000 for the caviar?” he says quietly, so no one can hear. He asks if the other party wants it delivered at the usual time, and answers some question with, “Hey, they haven’t noticed so far. Why should they now?”

We then cut to Jessica in a taxi cab looking at her watch and saying to the driver that she would like to stop off at her hotel and freshen up but Grady said that they can’t change the time of the reservation for anything, so she doesn’t have time. The driver replies that if they hit cross-town traffic, she’ll be lucky to get there for desert, if the place is still open by then. A lot of places have opened and quickly closed on the block she’s going to.

Well do I remember NYC cabs with their raised back seats and lack of windshields.

Jessica mentions that Grady advised her to invest in this restaurant, and it seems to be doing well. The driver mentions that he took a lot of people to a Serbo-Croation restaurant at the same address last year, and it was doing well, then, too. This cab ride fit a lot of exposition into a short space, and made it all the more entertaining with glorious rear-projection and the occasional camera shake to make it seem like the car was going over a bump.

When they get to the restaurant, Grady is outside, dressed like a cowboy for some reason.

He really looked like he was about to draw a six-gun.

Apparently this is the dress code for accountants at Alice’s Farm Restaurant, where Grady works. Or perhaps it’s Donna, his fiancé, who works there, and Grady is just dressing appropriately for a theme restaurant. He doesn’t say.

Their sign is interesting:

I can’t help but wonder if this is meant to be a reference to Arlo Guthrie’s song, Alice’s Restaurant. It was a somewhat famous 1967 anti-vietnam war song (sort of) and also a film of the same name based on the song. I’m pretty sure that the plot has nothing to do with the song or the movie; at most it would be meant for a humorous moment.

When they get inside it turns out that the shady character from the first scene—his name is Chaz—is the maître d’ of the restaurant and cannot find their reservation. He keeps interrupting the conversation to welcome famous people and bring them to their table.

Chaz excuses himself to see to someone exceptionally famous and a new character, Doug, walks over and greets Grady.

That is a weird, weird necktie.

He’s apparently the brother of the Alice after whom the restaurant is named. They have a convenient arrangement: he stays out of her kitchen and she stays out of his books. Once he finds out that their reservation has been lost he angrily finds Chaz and points him to the reservation. Chaz claims he mis-heard the name and sheepishly says he’ll have their table ready in a few minutes. Doug takes them to the bar to buy them some drinks.

A famous video artist named Narissa walks in and hands Chaz money to get her a table, which he gladly does. Doug walks up and tells him that he’s had it with Chaz selling off tables and snatches the bribe, but Chaz snatches the money back and replies, “Look, amigo, I don’t take orders from some punk who rides in here on his sister’s apron strings.” Doug angrily walks off to the kitchen where he talks with his sister about what a problem Chaz is.

Ah, the 80s, where even casual blouses for professional kitchens had shoulder pads.

Doug suggests buying Chaz out but Alice doesn’t really care that Chaz takes bribes since he brings in a lot of investors and also attracts the right sort of clientele. In her words, “Look, he brings in the right kind of people, OK? The kind of people who think there’s something chic in paying $22.50 for fried chicken.” That would be $53.47 in 2022 dollars, which for an exclusive Manhattan restaurant isn’t all that expensive. Considering that in 2018 you could get 10 gold-covered chicken wings for $30 (I’ve got a post talking about its symbolism, btw), this is closer to the value-side of Manhattan pricing than it is to the Ritz.

It also puts the character of Chaz in a strange light. He’s sleazy, but his partners accept him being sleazy. Also, for that matter, he’s a partner. It’s a bit weird that he’s stealing from the restaurant for relatively petty amounts, considering that the restaurant is, at the moment, highly profitable, and he’s making plenty of money on bribes for tables, too. Greed knows no bounds, however, so it’s not implausible.

Back at the bar, the bartender, Harry, is pouring wine for Jessica. The same wine he poured for “Tennessee”, presumably Tennessee Williams. Jessica likes it.

He looks really familiar but, oddly, was in only one other episode (Dead Heat)

Given that Tennessee Williams died five years prior to this episode, that bottle must have been open for a long time. He then does something where we get a closeup. I don’t know what it means, but it’s got to be a clue—Murder, She Wrote doesn’t give closeups for non-clues.

He said that he’s got a wine cork signed by Hemmingway. Given that Ernest Hemmingway died in 1961 and this restaurant is only a year old, it’s a bit strange that he keeps this treasured memento here. Anyway, we can see that the drawer has no handle and Harry uses some sort of knife to open it; it has scratches from where he did that many times before.

Shortly after, another character comes up.

I wonder if you can see a message in her coat if you look at it through red cellophane.

Her name is Mimi and she writes a gossip column. Harry introduces her to Jessica with, “meet a real writer.” She’s rude and brash, and also seems to be given Jessica and Grady’s table.

They don’t have long to lament that their table has been given to another, though, as Grady’s fiancé Donna walks in.

Ah, the late 80s, where even accountants wore shoulder pads.

Fun Fact: in real life Michael Horton, who played Grady, and Debbie Zip, who played Donna, are married (and were at the time of filming, too).

Donna is thrilled to meet Jessica and, if anything, is even more nervous than Grady is. She also has the news that her parents are throwing a party for her and Grady at their house up in Fishkill and she’d like terribly if Jessica could come. Her parents are looking forward to meeting both Jessica and Grady.

It strikes me as a bit odd that Grady is engaged to their daughter and they’ve never so much as met him, but the 80s were a strange time.

Jessica asks them to tell her about their plans for the wedding, and is greeted with an embarrassed silence. Neither one wants to be responsible for making any decisions and the conversation devolves into them assuring the other that whatever the other wants would be fine.

Finally they’re seated at a table and Jessica tries to order caviar. The restaurant is out of caviar, though, but the waiter recommends “Alice’s Farm Caviar”, where instead of fish eggs it’s made of “oeufs de poulet”, aka chicken eggs.

Presumably they’re out of caviar because Chaz sold it. This means that he’s not only greedy and dishonest, but also stupid. It’s one thing to steal some lobster and caviar such that they need to be ordered more frequently than makes sense. It’s another thing to clean the place out; that just draws attention.

By the way, given how the place is southern-country themed and sells fried chicken for $22.50, why do they have lobster and caviar in their freezer?

Alice comes over and thanks Jessica for her investment and asks how the food was. Jessica says that it was marvelous. She didn’t know it was possible to get yellowtail on the east coast, and Alice admits that it was frozen. Jessica is surprised; she never would have guessed that.

In the next scene, Grady and Jessica drop Donna off at her place, then Grady smashes his fingers in the door getting back into the cab. Jessica relates the story of how Frank (her deceased husband) had a broken leg when she and he got married.

The scene then shifts to Chaz stacking up boxes of frozen lobster in the empty kitchen (presumably it’s late at night). He checks his watch, then the scene shifts to the next morning. The phone rings while Grady is singing in the shower so Jessica answers the phone. It’s Donna, in distress.

Does her dressing gown have shoulder pads?

The police have come to her apartment to take her to the restaurant. Chaz was just found murdered at there. Then the scene fades to black and we go to commercial break.

It seems a bit weird that they are escorting Donna to the scene of the crime, but there is an explanation and we find out what it is as soon as we come back from commercial break:

It turns out that there is a ledger that has entries whited out, and the detective wants to know what they were. When Donna says that she doesn’t know off the top of her head. He asks her to find out. Now.

Lt. Rupp goes to look at the body and Jessica follows to ask if Donna can look up the books after the weekend (because of the party). In the freezer, where the corpse was frozen, Jessica finds a pocket knife tucked away.

How did it get wedged between the boxes?

We never got a good look at the tool that Harry used to open the drawer, but it might well have been a pocket knife, which means it’s highly like that this is his pocket knife.

The cause of death is currently unknown. The victim was slashed across the chest but the wounds seem too shallow to cause death. He was also hit on the head by something. After Rupp is done examining the body he talks to Doug about a slip found on the body. Alice interrupts to announce that they’re missing six cases of lobster (Lt. Rupp had her check). That’s about $1,500 worth of lobster ($3,564 in 2022 dollars). Lt. Rupp suggests that Chaz interrupted a thief at work.

That’s a curious suggestion because, while in real life it might be plausible, we know it wasn’t the case because we’re watching a murder mystery and that would be a completely unsatisfying solution. As a result, it makes Rupp look a little dumb, or at the very least not clever, since we know he has to be wrong.

There’s a small interlude where Grady is reluctant to go up to meet Donna’s parents because, he reveals to Jessica, several years ago he worked for Donna’s father for a few days then was fired. Then Mimi calls and asks for a breakfast date with Jessica, and Grady accepts on Jessica’s behalf. Jessica doesn’t like this but since it would be convenient to pump Mimi for information, she goes.

Mimi gossips about the restaurant they’re at and in so doing reveals that it’s the restaurant at which Alice had worked before opening up her farm restaurant. Moreover, Alice took Harry and Chaz with her when she left. Valentino, the owner of the restaurant, was absolutely furious. I suppose Chaz could have been the maitre d’ here, though his style would certainly seem to clash. But what did Harry do? This doesn’t seem like the kind of restaurant to have a bar, and certainly when we pan over the restaurant, none is visible. So what did Harry—a lifelong bartender—do there?

Mimi then gets a message on her beeper, asks the waiter for a phone, and calls whoever paged her. She discovers that her fingernail designer has been arrested and—since she has a major party to go to that evening—she has to go and bail him out. She asks Jessica to messenger her a bio for the article Mimi is writing, then leaves after handing Jessica money for her portion of the breakfast since she always pays her own way because of journalistic ethics.

There’s an interesting gag which happens as they leave. Someone tells Valentino to turn off the ambiance tape as no one is listening anymore, which he does, and and the restaurant goes silent. As Jessica comes up to the register, we see that she and Mimi were the only customers.

The camera panned to get here and there was no one anywhere else.

Jessica goes to pay the bill and Valentino tells her the meal is on the house. Besides, he adds, it’s easier than starting a new register tape. This gives Jessica an idea, which she presents to Lt. Rupp over at police headquarters.

I think the American flag in the corner really pulls the office together.

Jessica explains that perhaps Chaz closed the register out early and pocketed the money from later meals. Donna explains that it’s consistent with the white-out entries, which always had smaller amounts written in—after Donna paid the larger amount. Rupp asks why Chaz would rip himself off and Donna explains that Chaz was ripping off the investors in the restaurant.

Rupp asks for a list of the investors and who had access to the books, since anyone who found this out could have a motive to kill Chaz. When Jessica objects, he threatens to arrest them for suspicion of murder. While the charges wouldn’t stick, it would take all weekend to process them, so it would be faster for them to just get him the information he wants.

In response to an accusation from Jessica that he’s having them do all of his work, he tells her that he found out that the blade which caused the wound was “a sickle-shaped, jagged-edged knife.”

At lunch the next day, Jessica is enjoying the fish, which was also previously-frozen yellowtail. it was left out over night to defrost, Alice thought by Doug but he disclaimed this. Jessica says “Oh my.”

“I think I just found our sickle-shaped murder weapon, and we just ate it,” Jessica says. (This makes the title of the episode a bit on-the-nose.)

“Yellowtail” can actually refer to several different species, but apparently the yellowtail amberjack is the most common. Here’s what it looks like before eating:

I can see the sick-shape of the dorsal and anal fins, but I’m having trouble believing that the fins could be strong enough to cut deeply enough into a human being’s chest to cause fatal wounds. There’s a lot to get through, and the vital stuff is protected by ribs. A fin, when frozen, might be sharp, but I doubt it’s got the structural integrity to cut through bone.

Actually, I guess the writer’s thought the same thing because in the next scene—Alice and Jessica are in Rupp’s office—it comes up that the wounds were not the cause of death. (The police did find traces of the victim’s blood on the fins, btw.) Rupp wonders who would use a fish as a weapon to attempt to murder someone in a kitchen full of much better weapons.

Jessica suggests that the person caught Chaz steeling, then Chaz attacked them and they defended themselves with the fish because it was close at hand. It fits the position of the body, Jessica says, and he might have bumped his head as he stumbled back. Rupp replies that he needs to read one of Jessica’s books. (Also, it comes up that Alice was home with her brother when Chaz was murdered. They live together because no one can afford to live alone in Manhattan.)

The only problem with this theory is that it doesn’t account for how the fish got out of the freezer and into the kitchen. If the frozen fish was the closest thing to hand in the freezer, where Chaz was killed, the killer would have had to carry it out to the kitchen and leave it on the counter in order for Alice to have found it there, defrosted, the next day. It’s hard to see how anyone could have a motive to do that, but that is especially the case for someone who struck out in self defense.

In the next scene, Jessica visits Grady and Donna, who are working on the information that Rupp wants. Grady can’t make the investors’ investments add up to the total capitalization of the restaurant and Jessica suggests that there are silent partners. There is also a list of initials nearby, one of which matches Mimi Harcourt’s initials, and Jessica takes a cab ride over to see if she can find out from Mimi that this is correct.

It is. Chaz talked her into investing, promising her secrecy, then blabbed all over town about Mimi’s involvement. Jessica all but accuses Mimi of murdering Chaz, so Mimi produces an alibi—she was in her apartment all night with Doug (Alice’s brother).

Jessica confronts Alice about this, who admits that she lied, but now swears that she didn’t leave her apartment all night. She lied, not for herself, but to give Doug an alibi. (I don’t know that a sister swearing her brother was home would count as an alibi… for precisely this reason. A sister might be 1% better than a mother as an alibi, but that’s not saying much.) Doug takes offense that she thought he needed an alibi, and they squabble for a bit. Then Jessica asks if there would be many people interested in cases of stolen lobster.

This leads Jessica to talk to Valentino, who, after all, is not an unreasonable guess for the purchaser. Chaz had a relationship with him, and he had no great love for Alice’s Farm Restaurant. Jessica’s pretext is that she is thinking of setting a novel in a restaurant and wants to do research. Of course, Jessica discovers the boxes of lobster left out on the counter.

Odd that he’s thawing all of it out at once.

She accuses him of it and he more-or-less admits to buying them from Chaz. How else can I get lobster and caviar at reasonable prices, he asks? Then Grady calls calls her at the restaurant because Donna broke off the engagement.

They talk, then Lt. Rupp comes and finds Jessica. He thanks her for putting him onto Valentino, as his alibi “won’t hold minestrone.” Jessica points out that this doesn’t make any sense—Valentino had no motive. Perhaps there’s someone they hadn’t thought of, though. Chaz wouldn’t have done his own deliveries. Harry then goes to show somebody his Hemmingway cork, but can’t find his pocketknife to open the drawer. Rupp notices this and accuses him of being the owner of the pocketknife found at the scene of the crime.

He denies it, but Jessica points out that it wouldn’t be hard to get fingerprints from the pocketknife, or to get Valentino to identify the guy who dropped off the stolen supplies. Harry admits that he worked with Chaz to scam the restaurant, but last night was weird because the supplies were out but Chaz was nowhere to be found. He went into the freezer to get one more box of lobster tail to complete the order—how he knew what the order was, he didn’t say—and then he saw Chaz just lying there. (He guesses that the pocket knife fell out of his pocket as he was backing up. Pocketknives jumping out of pockets is a common problem when walking backwards, and why one should always stick to walking forward if carrying a pocket knife in one’s pocket.)

Jessica goes back to Grady, who is trying to figure out what’s wrong and says that he snapped a little bit when Donna said that she was calculating the value of the lobster and caviar that was stolen—Jessica interrupts him in surprise that caviar was stolen, too. When she confirms that Donna said lobster and caviar, she realizes who did it.

We get clue face.

Jessica then excuses herself.

We next see Donna packing when there’s a knock on her door.

I don’t believe that Donna would have that awful modern art on her wall. The unicorn on the desk, I believe.

Jessica points out that the only way she (Jessica) knew about the stolen caviar was because Valentino told her. The only way Donna could have known about it was if she had seen it the night Chaz was killed.

Donna tearfully admits that this is true. She thought she made a mistake when she heard at dinner that they were out of caviar, since she had just paid for a shipment of it the day before. She asked Chaz and he told her to come back later. When she arrived, he let her in and wasn’t even trying to hide what he was doing. He tried to bribe her to join him and got angry when he refused. He hit her and she ran away, accidentally going into the freezer. He followed her and was about to hit her again when she grabbed the frozen yellowtail.

I get why they used a styrofoam prop, but they could have cut a sickle shape into the fin.

He was going to hit her again, so she struck out with it.

The scene shifts from this recollection to Lt. Rupp’s office, where Jessica asks if he agrees that it was self defense. He says that it looks like it, but they should talk to the DA first thing on Monday morning.

Grady comes to the police station and he and Donna are reunited. There’s a cute bit where Grady finally confesses that he’s already met her father, and he fired him. Donna replies, “Oh, that’s fine. He fires everyone. He probably won’t remember it. He fired me, once…”

And we go to credits.

There’s something always a bit disappointing about a mystery whose solution is that the killing was done in self defense but the person who committed the justified homicide just didn’t admit it. It robs the mystery of the element of the detective restoring the right order of things, since things were not actually disordered. The detective still provides a service, but it’s not much of a service to explain that everything’s actually the way it should be. Instead of the brilliance of the detective, all that would have been required was a little bit of courage on the part of the innocent killer.

This episode was pleasantly low on plot holes, though to some degree that was because very little actually happened. No one had a motive to kill Chaz and no mysteries were untangled before coming to the solution; we kind of killed time until Jessica figured out that Donna did it.

The one plot hole I can think of is that it makes very little sense for Valentino to spend $3000 on lobster and caviar when he doesn’t have any customers. Where is he getting the money from, and who is he planning to feed them to? The problem is that if his business was only a little hurt, it wouldn’t be possible to set him up as a suspect (which I think the episode was trying to do). If his business was badly hurt, he shouldn’t have the money. It would have made more sense if his business was doing fine but he was unreasonably angry at Alice and was buying the stolen goods just to hurt her. That would have been a very minor alteration to the story.

Speaking of Valentino, it’s a historical curiosity that Sonny Bono played the character. It was later in 1988 that Bono became mayor of Palm Springs and thus began his political career. At the time this episode was cast, he was just a former rock star doing bit parts on TV.

Oddly, I can’t find much to talk about in this episode. The only real human drama in it was Grady and Donna. I’m more sympathetic to Grady than most people I know are, but instead of Donna being written to temper Grady, the writers took everything that people dislike in Grady (his cluelessness, social awkwardness, and timidity) and turned it up to 11. I think that this was done to make it believable that Grady could find a woman who would tolerate him, but this was the wrong way to go about that. It would have been much better to have a more normal woman—only a little mousy—who could see past his flaws. As it was, one is just left hoping that the scenes with Donna in them would be over sooner than they were.

(I want to be clear that I don’t think that this is a question of the actress, but of the part she was given.)

Lt. Rupp wasn’t a sympathetic police detective, given how much he bullied Grady and Donna to do accounting work for him, but he then was shifted into that role towards the end, especially in his collaborations with Jessica. This made him hard to like. You need enough consistency to feel like he’s a person in order to like him. A bully who suddenly turns nice just feels like a manipulative bully.

Alice and Doug were barely characters in the story, and the plot twist where Mimi spent the night of the murder with Doug was, perhaps, the least believable part of the episode. I think that they just cast about to find some man who was actually a character and since Harry was unavailable because he had to be at the scene of the crime to drop his pocket knife, the only other option was Lt. Rupp, and that would have been even less believable. I suppose that there was also Valentino, except they needed his alibi to be unable to hold minestrone. Anyway, I don’t think that Mimi was ever a very plausible suspect. There wasn’t much of a reason for her to avoid publicity about investing in the restaurant—she wrote a gossip column, not a restaurant review column—so even by the standards of Murder, She Wrote she didn’t have much of a motive.

Ultimately, I suspect that the episode was more of a comedy episode than a mystery episode. Grady is always played for laughs, and much of the beginning of the episode was making fun of expensive gimmick restaurants. As such, it’s bound to be a bit disappointing as a mystery. There can be jokes in mysteries—there certainly were plenty of funny parts in the Father Brown mysteries—but I don’t think that a comedy can really be a mystery. Actually, that’s not quite right. It can. But it is very difficult and must be a certain sort of comedy—the sort where the comedy is over at the end. Since the essence of a mystery story is that something wrong is put right, the problem the detective is trying to solve can generate comedy, but when the detective solves it, there should be nothing left to generate the comedy. If there is, the detective has not really put things right; at most he put a small thing right.

A good example of this is the movie Clue. It has some plot holes which are excusable for the sake of the comedy but make it hold together poorly as a mystery. Even if they had been resolved, though—for example, had Mr. Body’s butler been given a plausible motive for why he showed up and acted as he did—it would still not have been a satisfying mystery because the characters were all too shallow for the sake of the comedy. The third ending is my favorite because it comes closest to a satisfying mystery ending, but even so it’s a thing that needs to be enjoyed for the jokes, not the mystery.

That said, while I’m sure it can be done, it would need a very deft touch indeed. Clue didn’t try—part of why it was excusable that they didn’t succeed—but it feels like Just Another Fish Story tried a little bit. It also tried just a little bit at being a comedy, though. I suppose the lesson we can take away from it is: if you’re going to do something, commit.

Next week’s episode is Showdown in Saskatchewan. Jessica is going to go to the Great White North (in summer, when it’s green) to track down a wayward niece who’s at a rodeo. If nothing else, it should be picturesque.

Murder, She Wrote: Benedict Arnold Slipped Here

Benedict Arnold Slipped Here first aired on March 13, 1988, which puts it in the later part of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. “Slipped here”, in the title, is, of course, a play on “slept here.” For those not familiar: there was a trend—or at least a supposed trend—of making places such as bed & breakfasts in the United States more interesting by claiming that a famous person once slept there. George Washington was a popular figure for this.

Also for those who aren’t familiar: Benedict Arnold was an American general in the American revolutionary war who switched sides and fought for the British. In consequence, he is regarded as a traitor in America and his name became, here, synonymous with betrayal and treason. Curiously, I don’t know how much that is still the case. American history largely isn’t taught, anymore, and the current fashion against patriotism heavily mitigates against being angry at someone for switching sides. Some of the punch of the episode will thus be lost to modern audiences.

The scene opens with Jessica and Seth entering an old and very cluttered house, with Seth holding a paper bag and asking Jessica, “Now what did you get for her?”

Cardboard boxes are surprisingly organized for decades of unattended clutter.

The “her” is an old woman named Tillie who doesn’t leave her house much owing to her age and health. They talk a little bit about what poor repair the house is in and what little evidence there is that the cleaning woman does anything, then they go up to see Tillie.

You’d think Seth would know to not take a person’s pulse with his thumb.

Tillie, however, is dead. Jessica and Seth are somber, but not shocked.

The scene shifts to a pawn shop:

It’s not Tatoine, but it’s a pretty wretched hive of scum and villainy.

The young fellow is Kevin Tibbles, son of Benny Tibbles (in the center), and on the right is the cleaning lady who doesn’t clean, Emily Goshen. She tries to buy something back from him at the price he paid for it six months ago, $30, but the price has gone up to $50 now. ($70 and $118 in 2022 dollars.) She accuses him of trying to cheat her and he accuses her of stealing it from Tillie’s house. Emily leaves and Kevin gives the news that Tillie is dead. Benny declares he had nothing to do with it and Kevin tells him that she died of natural causes. Benny begins to calculate what money he can make off of Tillie’s estate if he can get his hands on it.

The funeral is not very big.

Characterization of a lonely old woman or cheaping out on extras: you decide.

Nothing happens at the funeral, other than Benny loudly sobbing and everyone rolling their eyes at him. I’m not sure who he was trying to impress; no one there had any power over the disposition of Tillie’s stuff. The scene then shifts to Jessica’s house after the funeral, where Amos Tupper visits.

It’s always fun to see that smiling face coming through that door.

Amos missed the funeral because he had to be in court, but while there he ran into Tillie’s lawyer, who told him about the contents of Tillie’s will. Tillie left her house to her grand niece, and the contents of the house to Benny Tibbles. Jessica was named executor of the will. Jessica is honored, but Seth points out that this leaves a lot of work for Jessica, since she’ll need to catalog what all it is so that death taxes can be paid.

The next scene is in a fancy antique shop, where Benny’s younger brother, Wilton, receives a call from Benny.

Wilton is far more successful than his older brother.

Benny asks him to come down to help him with Tillie’s stuff. Initially reluctant, he decides to go when he finds out a customer just purchased a settee for twelve thousand dollars which he bought from Benny for seventy (the $12k would be about $28k in 2022 dollars). He decides to go to Cabot Cove since there might be more where that came from.

In the next scene Eve Simpson, the town real estate agent, comes in and talks to Jessica and tells her that the house is in truly awful condition.

Jessica asks if there isn’t some redeeming feature? She recalls there being a legend about some American revolutionary war figure who slept there. Eve breaks the news that it was Benedict Arnold, which is hardly likely to make the house go up in value.

After Eve leaves, Jessica talks with Emily Goshen, who tells her that Tillie (who was a relative of Benedict Arnold on the wrong side of the sheets) told her that there was treasure in the house, though no one knows where it is hidden.

That night, Liza Adams, Tillie’s grand niece, shows up.

She is a gruff, unpleasant person. She says that she heard that Tillie is dead and has come for her inheritance—in cash. Jessica raises her eyebrows and the scene moves to early the next morning.

Jessica answers the phone and it’s Eve Simpson, who has a gentleman from out of town who is very interested in buying Tillie’s house. Jessica says that this may be premature, as legal ownership hasn’t been established yet, but she will certainly introduce Eve to Tillie’s grand niece.

Seth comes over while Jessica is on the phone. After she hangs up, he notices that Jessica has a squatter in her back yard.

Jessica told Eve, in Seth’s hearing, that she had advised Liza to stay close. When Jessica identifies the squatter as Liza Adams, Seth remarks, “Appears she took your advice. Couldn’t be much closer unless she moved in.”

The scene then shifts to Tillie’s house, where Jessica is taking inventory and Seth is sitting around complaining about how Tillie never threw anything out. Jessica then pauses to reflect on the sampler on the wall, saying that she’s gone past it many times but never really noticed it.

Samplers normally have an alphabet and a homely motto that shows off the worker’s skill. Whoever made this one was short on either skill or patience. (That’s Jessica’s appraisal.)

Shortly after, Benny, his Brother Wilton, Wilton’s lovely assistant, Liza Adams, and Emily Goshen show up (at slightly separate times) and, though bickering, insults, and general unpleasantness, all establish that they all have motives for whichever of them is going to be murdered.

Later that evening, Mr. Andrews—the gentleman from out of town who’s interested in buying Tillie’s house—shows up at Jessica’s house.

He’s hoping to get a look at the house. Jessica asks why he’s so eager and he explains he has a fascination with Benedict Arnold. He had worked in cryptographer during the war (World War 2) and in doing so worked with Americans, one of whom was a new Englander who made a joking reference to General Arnold’s mistress. He’s been writing a book on Benedict Arnold from a whole new perspective, and he requests to see the house.

Jessica says that she can’t let him in on his own and is so far behind in her writing that she can’t spare the time to accompany him. She offers to arrange with Eve Simpson to show him the house the next morning. He thanks her and leaves.

The scene shifts to somewhere—I think Benny’s pawn shop—where Wilton is adding numbers on an antique adding machine.

You have to admire a man who wears formal clothing to try to cheat his brother.

After each number he enters, he pulls the handle back to add it to the total. I can’t imagine why the thing is there. Perhaps to show how utterly cheap Benny is that he hasn’t bought an electronic calculator in the decades that they’ve been out?

Anyway, Wilton makes Benny an offer which is ridiculously low and Benny ridicules it, then tells Wilton to leave. Wilton tells Benny, “Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Benny says that he’s heard it all his life and still doesn’t know what it means. “Be careful,” replies Wilton. “You might find out.” This raises the odds of the victim being Benny, but there were no witnesses to the threat, which is unusual for Murder, She Wrote.

The next day Jessica and Seth come to Tillie’s house but find the door unlocked. When they go in the door to the den is open, too. Jessica suggests perhaps Emily came back, and tells Seth to remind her to ask Emily for her key.

Then they find the corpse.

This looks a lot more like the body fell, lifeless, than the typical Murder, She Wrote corpse

Seth goes to it and turns the corpse over, recognizes it as Benny, then takes a pulse and pronounces him dead.

Then we go to commercial break.

When we come back, Amos Tupper is at the house, investigating. He identifies the poker by the floor as the murder weapon and goes to pick it up until Jessica stops him and points out it should be checked for finger prints. Seth puts the time of death at around midnight, give or take an hour.

Eve shows up with Mr. Andrews, who asks about the presence of the ambulance and police car, but Eve tells him to nevermind all that and begins showing him the house. Then they wheel the body through. Eve tries to keep showing him the house but Amos puts the kabosh on that. Mr. Andrews agrees, saying that he’ll have to see the original part of the house some other time.

Some conversation ensues in which it comes out that Mr. Andrews intends to buy the house, have it dismantled and shipped to England, where it will be reassembled as a shrine to Benedict Arnold. Amos is none to pleased at this, taking a more traditional American view of Benedict Arnold, and is sent by Jessica out to get his police tape while he mutters, “next thing you know we’ll be celebrating Mussolini’s birthday.”

Mr. Andrews takes his leave and Eve stays behind to tell Jessica that she is in dire financial straights and desperately needs the sale of this house. She asks Jessica to give her some support in getting it sold, and upbraids the doctor for doing nothing. After she leaves Jessica remarks to Seth that Eve’s behavior is strange; she never even asked who had been murdered. This is an interesting detail; I don’t know that it makes Eve a suspect, though. Her interest is in selling the house and murdering Benny couldn’t help with that. If anything, it would get in the way since he was going to clean out all of the junk which a buyer wouldn’t want to have to haul away.

Seth and Jessica begin their inventory work, and Jessica notices that the sampler is missing. Seth says that there was a picture of it in the gazette last year; Tillie stood in front of it for a picture for her ninetieth birthday. He’ll see if he can get her a copy.

He wonders if everything will go to Kevin and Jessica suspects it will, then wonders how many people will attend Benny’s funeral. In the next scene we get the answer:

Nice that it’s a different coffin & flowers even though this was probably shot minutes apart.

It’s the same number as attended Tillie’s funeral. Like at Tillie’s funeral, the scene lasted a few seconds and no one spoke a word.

The next scene involves Wilton, his assistant, and Kevin, and further cements that they are unpleasant characters. The one practical upshot is that Wilton and Kevin agree to go in together to buy Tillie’s house so that they can take possession of the antiques inside of it without Liza Adam’s interference. (That said, while Liza spoke some nasty words about Benny’s taking the stuff he inherited, she’s not actually causing any trouble for the disbursing of the goods. The holdup, if there even is one, is that Jessica and Seth are taking a long time to inventory the place.)

After that, Jessica talks to Liza Adams, who heard about Benny’s murder on Jessica’s radio and who was not in her tent last night because she went out for a walk. Also, she has no form of identification, having burned her birth certificate in 1970 and her driver’s license in 1972, which Jessica points out will make it difficult for her to establish a legal claim to the house. Liza is offended by this, rather than taken aback that her actions rendered it difficult for people who don’t know her to recognize her claim, proving that she’s stupid and unimaginative.

Hippy Moonbeam leaves and Eve Simpson calls Jessica and asks for help. She’s got a second bidder on Tillie’s house, but Mr. Andrews insists on seeing the rest of the house today. Can Jessica show him around? Jessica reluctantly agrees.

That evening, she shows Mr. Andrews around in the house. Just as they’re getting to the original room the doorbell rings and Jessica excuses herself. It turns out to be Amos who saw the light on and wanted to check that everything was OK. When they get back to the room, the light is on and Andrews is standing by the fireplace, soaking in the presence of Benedict Arnold. He talks about how magnificent it is, then excuses himself as he has to go home and write down the feeling before he loses it. Amos offers to give Jessica a ride home, which she accepts.

On the way out of the room Amos goes to turn off the light but there’s no switch by the door. Instead it’s on another wall by a bookshelf.

That is a weird place for a light switch.

Amos remarks on how this is a strange place for a light switch, and Jessica explains that when they wired up these old houses they sometimes had to put things in rather strange places. What she doesn’t explain is why anyone bothered with a light switch in such a strange place. If a switch is that far out of the way, it’s easier to just use the knob or pull chain on the lamp itself.

They talk about the case as they leave and Amos says that his deputies looked all over the house and couldn’t find any sign of forced entry. If Benny got there after the killer, then the killer had to break in unless he had a key. The only people with keys, though, were Jessica, Eve Simpson, and Emily Goshen. The sheriff suspects Emily, but Jessica can’t bring herself to think that Emily is a thief, to say nothing of a murderer.

In the next scene Emily Goshen breaks into the pawn shop and tries to steal the brooche she was trying to buy back earlier in the episode, but she’s caught by Kevin and Wilton’s assistant who heard the sound of the breaking glass while they were discussing antiques in the next room.

Whatever they were doing, the state of their clothes and hair shows it wasn’t athletic.

Amos gets Jessica out of bed to come get Emily Goshen, as apparently they only have a single cell and he wouldn’t want to put a drunk in with Emily should one be arrested before morning. This clearly isn’t Jessica posting bail (Jessica later says that the Sheriff is releasing Emily into Jessica’s custody), so I guess Jessica is supposed to lock Emily up in a closet in her house?

Anyway, they get Emily out of the cell and upon seeing Jessica Emily asks if Jessica has been arrested too. Jessica asks Emily if she understands why she’s been arrested and Emily replies, “I can’t say that I do.” I guess she’s supposed to be mentally retarded? She didn’t seem like it before, but from this point on Jessica talks to her as if she’s a child and she replies much as if she is. Jessica asks if Emily took the sampler on the wall and she says that she wouldn’t want it. The words on it didn’t make any sense.

The next day Seth is over at Jessica’s house with a blow-up of the section of the photo that had the sampler in it. Jessica points out that Emily is right, the words don’t make sense. It should be “Pause and Relfect” not “Reflect and Pause”. Then Jessica suddenly realizes what this means: it’s a key to the treasure. Jessica looks at the picture of the sampler in the mirror. Most letters stay the same in the reflection, but capital ‘E’ becomes a 3 and the small ‘r’ becomes a 7. Seth points out the B, so it’s 3B7. Jessica figures that this might mean the third brick in the seventh row on the fireplace.

Jessica decides to set a trap by calling Eve Simpson, who was concluding a deal where Liza Adams was selling the house to Wilton for a handsome price, to tell her that the building inspector said that the fireplace was about to collapse and that the house would be closed until the fireplace was completely rebuilt. This is a little ironic because fireplaces are generally the most structurally sound part of a building—they’re masonry resting directly on the foundation. They often survive the building burning down or rotting away. That said, it’s not like anyone Jessica was trying to bait was likely to know that. Seth, who was standing next to Jessica, remarks, “Now that’s what I call throwing the fat into the fire.”

(For those not familiar, fat, once in a fire, will burn very intensely, producing a large flame.)

We next see the murderer letting himself into the trap:

The figure remains in shadows, his face framed out of the shot as he walks along with a flashlight, giving us time to talk over who it is with the people we’re watching with.

The murderer removes the brick in question and Amos switches on the lights, remarking, “Looks like you were right, Mrs. Fletcher.”

Then we see who the murderer is.

I wonder what the purpose of the burglar costume is.

Jessica presents the theory that he let himself into the house and found the sampler while he was looking for the den. Being a cryptographer, he recognized the simple code and knew at once what it meant. Benny surprised him and was an excitable person. Mr. Andrews figured he could kill Benny to keep him quiet and return later, so he killed Benny, then stole the sampler on his way out in order to prevent anyone else from figuring out the secret.

Mr. Andrews points out that this is pure conjecture and he will swear that he knew the location through other sources. Jessica then points out earlier when he revealed he knew the location of the light switch despite it being in a stupid location since he found it in a few seconds, in the dark.

He crumbles at this and admits his guilt. He asks if he can take a look at the contents of the hiding place, and Amos says that it can’t hurt and he is curious, himself. Andrews looks inside and find a box which contains a very old letter. Andrews says that if his theory is correct, the document will prove that Benedict Arnold was under the direct orders of George Washington when he surrendered West Point to the British.

It turns out to be an angry letter from Benedict Arnold’s mistress saying that he betrayed not only his country, but his mistress with one of her maids.

Andrews remarks, “It’s ironic. It seems that I, too, was betrayed by Benedict Arnold.”

The episode ends in Jessica’s house, where she makes a present of the chess set from Tillie’s house that Seth fell in love with because it was an 18th century British chess set with intricate workmanship—he saw one like it in a museum once. After Seth thanks Jessica in a very unpracticed way, they sit down to a game of chess and we go to credits.

This was better than the last two episodes, but it was not one of the greats. It’s also much better in the way I related it, with most of the scenes of anyone with the last name Tibble in them left out. Both generations of Tibbles were terrible, the older generation focused on greed and the younger generation on greed and lust (I’m counting Wilton’s assistant as an dishonorary Tibble for these purposes). Emily Goshen was unpleasant in every scene she was in and Liza Adams really should have been shot. Eve Simpson, who is, as always, a comedic figure, was practically having a panic attack in every scene instead of being funny. That’s the majority of the characters in the episode.

Standing against this, Seth was a lot of fun. He’s often a curmudgeon, but in this episode his sense of humor wasn’t nearly as biting as it often is and his detachment was, most of the time, detached amusement. He was one of the bright points of the episode.

Amos Tupper was also fun in this episode. He wasn’t at his best, but he was in good form. (As a side note, this is the last episode he appears in.)

Cabot Cove outside of Jessica’s house didn’t show up too much, but Jessica’s house did show up a lot, which is always pleasant because it’s familiar and homely. Jessica is at her best in Cabot Cove, and especially in her home.

Alistair Andrews, the Benedict-Arnold loving Brit, was mostly enjoyable. He was constantly impatient, which wasn’t great thought it was necessary to the plot, and at least he was impatient in a very polite way. It also helped to give him character flaws which make him turning to murder more plausible. It was not wildly plausible, but by Murder, She Wrote standards it was in character. It at least wasn’t directly contrary to both his immediate and long-term interests, though, unfortunately, it wasn’t directly in line with them, either. It would probably have made more sense to just offer to pay Benny for the letter, or at least a copy of it—it would not have been hugely valuable to anyone else—but he was shown to be impatient and to not have the greatest self discipline. Also, fun fact: the author who played Alistair Andrews played Robin Hood in the 1973 Disney movie of the same name where Robin Hood was a fox and Little John was a bear.

There were a few plot holes in the story, though not really major ones. It doesn’t make any sense how Liza Adams heard of her great aunt’s death and got to Cabot Cove so quickly. The last anyone had heard of her was around the time of Woodstock (the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was in 1969, which was 19 years before this episode). No one even knew if she was dead or alive. Since she showed up on the night of Tillie’s funeral, this gives us a rough idea of how much time she had to show up—about a week, at most. How on earth did the news of Tillie’s death reach wherever Liza was in that time? We can expect that there was an obituary for Tillie in the Cabot Cove Gazette, but I doubt that’s a daily paper and its circulation is going to be limited to Cabot Cove. It’s hardly likely that Jessica would have put a notice in more major newspapers, though to be fair that was the thing to do if you have no idea where the relatives are. That said, even if she did, I can’t imagine that Liza would regularly read the obituary section of major newspapers. And she didn’t seem like the sort to have friends, let alone friends who would read the newspaper and tell her about it. (I’m not counting this has a major plot hole, by the way, because the episode would have been improved had Liza been written out of it, and that would certainly have solved this problem.)

It’s also never explained how Alistair Andrews managed to make a duplicate key to the house for himself. How would he have stolen the key to have a duplicate made? I suppose he could have stolen it from Eve Simpson; this is not as hard to work around as Liza Adams hearing of her great Aunt’s death. It would have been nice to have it addressed, though.

Another minor plot hole is that it’s not explained why Benny showed up to the house at night (the night he was murdered) despite not having a key and thus not being able to expect to get in. What possible motive could he have had to go to the house and peer in the windows so late at night?

There’s also the question of why anyone hid this letter from Benedict Arnold’s mistress in the house and kept it secret. I can’t really see a possible motive for this. Still less can I see a motive for it that would extend as far as creating a sampler with secret instructions as a sort of homely treasure map. Who could have thought it valuable but also in need of such secrecy? And since the house belonged to Benedict Arnold’s mistress, why would she write the letter and then not send it but keep it in her own house in a secret hiding spot and then make a low quality sampler as a coded treasure map to it? Who could she want to hide it from? And who could she have wanted to find it?

(On the plus side, Benedict Arnold did actually go through Maine, though I doubt by where present day Cabot Cove would theoretically be, so having a mistress in Maine has some slight historical plausibility.) Still, though there is no obvious solution to this problem, it can be waved away through the quirks of people long dead. Human beings do occasionally do strange things, and when we know so little about them because they’ve been dead for two hundred years, who are we to say that it didn’t make sense to them at the time?

A related problem is why Alistair Andrews removed the sampler. As a cryptographer he could recognize the code, but it wasn’t likely anyone else would have—most of them had seen it for years and took no notice of it. This wasn’t something just discovered in a box, it was hanging on the wall in front of the noses of everyone but Andrews. And, in fact, removing the sampler had the predictable effect of drawing attention to it. This could have been fixed by simply having taken the sampler down to examine it and put it back up slightly wrong because of some mishap, or having disturbed the dust that Emily Goshen never disturbed, or something like that.

Those are the only plot holes that come to mind. Compared to the previous two episodes (A Very Good Year for Murder and Murder Through the Looking Glass), this is doing very well!

Not really a plot hole but just a kind of loose thread, Eve Simpson’s odd behavior of not even asking who was murdered was never explained. It was only ever meant to confuse suspicion, of course, but it’s always nicer when those red herrings get explained in the story.

The main problems with this episode were related to the characters, not the plot.

This episode is marred by a lot of scenes that are both hard to watch because of the characters in them and are also irrelevant to the mystery. Mostly these involve any of the Tibbles and/or Wilton’s assistant, though Emily Goshen is such an unpleasant character that I can’t think of any scene with her in it that’s a good scene. I also don’t understand whether she was meant to be mentally retarded or not. She seemed to understand what was going on some times, but not others. Not understanding why she was arrested for breaking and entering in order to steal something suggests she should be in somebody’s custody who has power of attorney over her. On the other hand, living independently and being hired to do cleaning for an old woman suggests that she was trusted on her own.

One real lesson of this episode is the difference between making a character unpleasant and making him a suspect. Most of the characters were unpleasant, I suspect to try to cast suspicion in their direction. But none of them were given motives. Well, that’s not quite true—Kevin could have murdered his father to inherit the family pawn shop—he asked his father for money to go start his own business in Boston and was refused—and Wilton could have murdered his brother because Benny dismissed him and he thought Kevin might have been easier to manipulate. Neither of these seems a serious possibility, though. Wilton is too delicate to commit murder, and his assistant was only really interested in getting her leg over Kevin (to use a British expression). Kevin was, perhaps, a bit more plausible, except that as a jock type that likes restoring old cars it’s hard to see him coveting a pawn shop—and it would be a hard thing to convert into ready cash.

This brings up a problem with Murder, She Wrote as a game where you’re supposed to guess who did it that applies to the concept of fair play in general but is especially significant in Murder, She Wrote—it’s very hard to account for plot holes when trying to make deductions. There was no way for Kevin or Wilton to get into the house before Benny, but it was kind of a plot hole that Alistair Andrews had a key, too. None of the Tibbles had a plausible motive, but Alistair Andrews’ motive was… not very convincing. If a Tibble had wanted to put an end to Benny, they could have done it anywhere—but there was equally no reason for Benny to go the house at night. This makes guessing the murderer as much an exercise in mind reading as it is in deduction. Even if a particular episode doesn’t have plot holes, since so many other episodes do it still requires telepathy to know that this one is the exception. That said, I suspect that the best we can do is to guess at who the murderer is if there are no plotholes, and merely give ourselves credit anyway if the episode’s murderer required a plot hole to do it.

Next week’s episode is Just Another Fish Story, which is a Grady episode. Those are always fun.

Murder, She Wrote: A Very Good Year for Murder

In the later half of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote was the episode A Very Good Year for Murder. The episode is set in a vineyard, so the title is a reference to a thing commonly said of wines. Fine wines don’t really enter into the murder, though, so the pun, such as it is, is not great. Pretty scenery, though.

The title card is an overview of the Gambini vineyard. We know because of a voiceover provided by Marco Gambini. The Gambinis grow the finest grapes in the world, using love. The voiceover turns out to be a conversation between Marco and Jessica, as they walk their horses on a trail:

I imagine that actors walking horses is less expensive than having the actors ride them.

Can you believe that a penniless immigrant (his father) created all of this from nothing, he asks? Speaking for myself, I can’t. And I don’t even mean that only God can create ex nihilo. I strongly suspect he had to have some seed money to at least buy the land and some starting grape vines (grapes are grafted, not grown from seed). Still, it does help to establish characters; there is an intense sense of ownership and pride in the vineyard because it was built by the family. There’s also a weird exchange where Marco says “Papa did all of this” and asks Jessica what she thinks and she replies, “I’d say that you are very proud of him, Marco.” Answering a request for an opinion with not giving one is normally an insult, since it implies that anything you could say would be too painful and you’re trying to spare the other person. Marco takes it well, though, saying, “Proud? You bet.”

Jessica is in town for Papa Gambini’s seventy fifth birthday party, because apparently she’s an old friend of the family. How a school teacher in Maine became a family friend of rich vineyard owner in California, I doubt we’ll get an explanation for because I don’t think an explanation is possible. One advantage of Jessica being in her sixties is that she’s had a long time to make friends. Still, this is stretching things, given her small-town backstory.

Here, by the way, is the family mansion:

We then meet one of Marco’s children, Paul, and also (to my surprise) find out how Jessica is a family friend:

It turns out that she used to tutor Paul in English, and in fact Jessica is the reason he was able to stay on the football team in… they don’t say. College is the most likely answer, but how on earth would a kid from California require summer tutoring in English from a high school English teacher in Maine? Are we to suppose he somehow ended up playing football for a university right next to Cabot Cove that had a major football program that fed to the NFL? Jessica’s backstory was that for most of her life she lived in a small town (Cabot Cove), teaching English in the local high school until she retired. She only became a literary titan when her nephew Grady stole a manuscript for a murder mystery that she wrote—to keep busy during her retirement—and showed it to a publisher. (This happened in the pilot episode, The Murder of Sherlock Holmes.)

All that said, stranger things have happened. But how did she go from tutoring Paul in English to being a family friend? Even if Paul was somehow in Cabot Cove during the summers he was at college, that doesn’t explain how any other members of his family met her.

Anyway, another of Marco’s children arrives. His name is Tony:

He introduces himself to Jessica as Paul’s younger brother, and she says that she remembers him. No details on where or how, of course. It’s clear that she hasn’t seen him in years, though.

Paul asks Tony if their sister is coming. He says that she is, presumably with her latest boyfriend. Tony and Paul explain to Jessica that their sister has a constant stream of new boyfriends which she uses to make her father think that she’s going to settle down, but it’s just for show as she’s having too much fun being free. We then meet their aunt, Marco’s sister, Stella:

She tells Tony in a disappointed voice that she got a message from a “John” in Tahoe. John apparently knows horses like Tony knows nuclear physics, which is said in a way that suggests John knows a lot about horses and Tony knows a lot about nuclear physics. He goes off to see about the phone call. After Tony leaves, Paul remarks to Jessica that Tony has a gambling problem, which is a pity because he’s got more brains than the rest of the family put together.

We then meet two more characters:

The woman is Fiona, Marco’s wife. The old man is Salvatore Gambini, the patriarch of the family and the immigrant that Marco spoke about building the vineyard up from nothing. She’s trying to get him to take his medication, but he out-stubborns her and she gives up and hands the pill bottle to Jessica as she leaves. Salvatore asks Paul to leave her and Jessica alone.

Paul overhears Tony on the phone with some gambling associate; there’s not much to the conversation but Tony tells his associate to not threaten him, and moreover he’s definitely good for the money he owes.

We next see Salvatore showing some special wine to Jessica that they’ll have at the evening meal; it’s made from special grapes from northern Italy that he imported 18 years ago and he only drinks it with special people. He then talks to Jessica about how, when he’s dead, all of this will belong to Marco, and he hopes that Marco and his children will value it as much as he (Salvatore) does. He clearly doesn’t believe that they do.

Jessica goes to the kitchen and talks with Stella. She says that Salvatore doesn’t look as good as he should. Stella explains that there’s a company from out east who wants to buy the vineyard. Salvatore is fighting it, but how much fight does he have left? Jessica reasonably points out that if Salvatore doesn’t want to sell, that’s the end of it, but Stella refutes this by saying that the men who want to buy the vineyard wear suits. (I’m not kidding. Her exact words are, “Do you know what kind of people we’re talking about here? Men in fancy suits who make screwdrivers and shaving cream.”)

The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Michelle with her boyfriend-of-the-week, Ben Skyler. (Michelle is the wayward sister Paul and Tony talked about before.)

I will miss giant hair and shoulder pads when we get into the later seasons.

Paul and Tony come out to meet their sister and are introduced to Ben. He makes some small talk which makes Ben seem as dumb as a box of rocks, then they go in.

The camera pulls back to Marco’s room, where he was watching this happen through a window. Fiona is sitting on a chair in front of a mirror in a dressing gown, brushing her hair. He mutters frustration at how Michelle can’t keep a boyfriend, but Fiona changes the subject to how oppressive living on a vineyard is and how she and Marco are just part of the farm equipment. Fiona is not at all a sympathetic character, and I suspect that she’s being set up as a suspect for Salvatore’s murder. Time will tell, though.

The scene shifts to dinner, which is quite awkward. Paul talks about his recent football games which Stella finds offensive because of the violence. Tony accuses Paul of accepting bribes to throw games, or at least that the team is even if Paul isn’t. There’s a lot of complaining and not much in the way of manners. Marco interrupts the bickering with a toast to his father. Salvatore then makes a speech about how happy he is to have his family (plus Jessica, who is like family) gathered together, and how it warms his heart that they will all toil for the rest of their lives on his precious vineyard, long after he’s gone. (That’s not quite how he puts, but it’s not too far off.)

The next morning Tony wakes Salvatore to tell him that he’s got to run off to Tahoe for business but will be back in time for the party—he’s chartered a plane. Salvatore is very understanding. He intends to sleep in, though, so he asks Tony to go fetch some wine from the basement so it can be decanted. He then tells Tony not to do anything dumb, and that if he gets in trouble he should come to his grandfather.

As Tony goes into the cellar one of the steps gives way and he falls. The rest of the family wakes up and finds Tony on the floor at the bottom of the steps.

Hard to see how he hit the front of his head but is lying unconscious on his back.

Then we go to commercial break.

When we come back, Tony is sitting on a stool in the kitchen having his wound cleansed by Stella.

Jessica goes to the cellar, where Paul is installing a makeshift new step. Jessica examines the old step. Paul remarks that it’s just an old step that gave way. Jessica says that in spite of the splintered wood, it’s obvious that the step had been sawed through:

The prop department went to town on this board.

Maybe this is a Californian wood I’m unfamiliar with, but that’s not how normal wood breaks when you support it on two ends and put pressure in the middle. For one thing, the fibers are bent in both directions (up and down). Really, the fibers look like they were raised by being banged with a hammer edge-on, or perhaps with a chisel. When wood fails from weight being applied to the middle, it’s one of two ways: either you get tensile failure (the fibers are pulled apart from each other) or you get delamination (layers of wood grain that correspond to growth rings separate from each other). This is neither of those.

Perhaps worse, the part of the board that was clearly sawed through is about 5% of the total cross-sectional area of the board. On a step as big and thick as the one shown, that wouldn’t even make it creak. There’s no way it would not result in catastrophic failure.

Now, based on what Jessica said, it is established that, plot-wise, the board failed from being tampered with, so that’s what we need to base our understanding of the plot on. So, we’ll do that. I just don’t understand the purpose of a close-up of the evidence that’s completely wrong.

Paul and Jessica don’t do anything with this information, though. The scene shifts to Tony leaving to go to Tahoe and having an argument with his father while doing it, but it’s just yelling and a rehash of what we already know. Then we move on to the party that night.

Jessica strikes up a conversation with Ben Skyler. He’s not dancing with Michelle, and Jessica asks if it’s not his kind of music. He says that when it comes to dancing, he’s all thumbs. He then tells her that he grew up on a little farm outside of Moline, Illinois, and wrote stories. He asks for advice on novel writing. Jessica’s advice is to read, read, and read some more.

This isn’t the worst advice in the world, to be sure, but at the same time writing is actually pretty important, too. Writing is a skill that takes practice, and some advice about going for it and not waiting around until you think you can do it perfectly would probably be better advice than just doing copious amounts of reading.

Be that as it may, Jessica says that she’s in the middle of a gripping novel by P.D. James. Ben says that he loves “his” (James’) work. Jessica corrects him that P.D. James is a she, not a he—the P is for Phyllis—and Ben laughs and says that he knew that. This establishes pretty clearly that Ben is lying, though not why. Whatever the reason, though, he clearly isn’t the sharpest light bulb in the picnic basket

Later on at the party the local police chief, Thaddeus Kyle, introduces himself to Jessica and asks her about the accident that morning. He’s got men stationed around the place, and asks if she has any ideas who might have done it—he’s heard of her reputation as an amateur solver of crimes. Jessica demurely says that her reputation is exaggerated, then gets down to business but doesn’t have any ideas.

The next morning everyone gathers in the kitchen and Salvatore invites Jessica to pick the wine for lunch. They go down to the wine cellar and discover Ben Skyler, dead on the floor.

The wine cellar’s constant temperature should help with the time of death.

This was definitely an unexpected turn of events. It’s hard to imagine who could want the poor dope dead. No one even knew him.

Anyway, as soon as Jessica stoops over the body and announces who it is, we go to commercial break.

When we come back Thaddeus Kyle is overseeing the body being put into an ambulance to be taken to the morgue. Then Jessica questions Michelle and asks if Ben could have had a heart condition she didn’t know about. Michelle says that she didn’t really know him well. She met him eight weeks ago when he came to the agency she works for and asked her boss for a copywriting job.

Jessica confers with Thaddeus and he tells her that the doctor puts the time of death at around 2am, give or take an hour. The cause of death is uncertain, but could be poison. Another thing that concerns Thaddeus is that the door to the wine cellar was locked, and there’s only one key—Salvatore’s. He keeps it in the nightstand by his bed. Jessica asks if Thaddeus is accusing Salvatore, and Thaddeus says no, someone could have copied the key or even borrowed it while the old man was sleeping—he’s reputed to be a sound sleeper. What he’s getting at is that it points at someone inside the house.

Jessica asks to see Ben’s luggage, and Thaddeus agrees. They go to do it and it’s revealed that Marco was listening in from behind a nearby door.

I know that look. It means he’s not the killer but we’re supposed to think he is.

Jessica and Thaddeus go through Ben’s luggage. Jessica finds a receipt from a gas station in Long Island City, NY. It’s dated nine weeks ago, which is one week before Michelle met him. However, he had told her (in their brief conversation) that he had spent the last four months in California researching lost gold mines. Jessica wants to know why he lied about that. Thaddeus points out, reasonably, that he didn’t exactly lie; a short trip to New York City over two months ago would hardly be worth mentioning in small talk at a party. Jessica admits the possibility in a way that makes it clear she doesn’t believe it for a second.

This is a weakness that Murder, She Wrote has because of time constraints. It doesn’t really have the time to put many clues out and very little time for red herrings. As a result, when it tries to make it seem possible that clues are red herrings, it tends to overdo it because it doesn’t have time to provide the counter-evidence that the clue is a real clue. In this case, it isn’t even a little bit strange that the guy didn’t mention being in New York nine weeks ago while making small talk—he wasn’t very conversationally skilled, but irrelevant details are precisely the sort of thing one should leave out at a party when you get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk with a famous author.

Also, he never actually said he was in California for the last four months. His exact words were, “For the last four months, I’ve been writing every day on a piece about lost California gold mines.”

In the next scene Jessica is snooping around the outside of the house when Salvatore walks up and asks what she’s doing. She says that she’s almost embarrassed to tell him, and he surmises that she’s “playing detective.” She explains that Thaddeus thinks that someone inside the house killed Ben, so she was hoping to find some indication that someone broke into the house. Salvatore angrily says that Thaddeus is crazy for thinking it was someone inside the house. This indignation is odd, since how could an outsider sneak Ben into Salvatore’s private wine cellar? Jessica changes the subject to asking about Ben, though of course Salvatore knows nothing. Michelle has a new boyfriend each month; they’re all the same so why should he take notice? Jessica says that there’s something different about this one. She relates the P.D. James story to no effect, then says that he drove a luxury car and wore expensive clothes, despite claiming to be an unsuccessful writer who grew up on a farm in Illinois.

They’re interrupted by the news that Tony is back. Apparently he didn’t show up for the party as he’d promised; no one mentioned it at the party so this is the first we’d found out about it. There’s some pointless bickering, then a call comes in from Thaddeus for Jessica, so she excuses herself. The Coroner’s report is in and the cause of death was, indeed, poison. (No poison is named. Just… generic poison.) That’s not the only news he has, however. On a hunch, he sent Ben’s fingerprints “to the central file in Washington” (I assume this means with the FBI). Ben Skyler’s real name is Benito Soriano. He is, or was, a hitman for the mob.

(“Benito Soriano” seems to me to be quite a stretch. The guy had no accent; certainly not a NY Italian accent, and I suspect that the actor, Grant Goodeve, is about as Italian as Angela Lansbury. I mention this not to nitpick, but to say that the casting/acting was misleading. I suppose, though, he could have been actually quite intelligent and merely faking his accent as well as pretending to be dumb in order to make people not suspect him.)

In the next scene Michelle is sitting in Thaddeus’ office, telling him about Ben.

I really admire the set decoration. It feels like a real office.

The only thing is that she doesn’t have anything to tell. They met when he came in looking for a copywriting job, one thing led to another, and they went on a date the following evening. Jessica asks who initiated the date and it was Ben. I’m not sure what the point of that is, though, since it would be unusual for the woman to ask the man out, just given social norms. Jessica also asks if he ever tried to pump her for information about anyone in the family, but he didn’t.

Thaddeus lets Michelle go and Marco takes her home. Jessica stays behind to speculate with the chief. He asks who Ben would have been there to kill, and Jessica says that if Tony’s accident was Ben’s handiwork, the target must have been Salvatore. Thaddeus asks who might have done it; he wonders about Tony’s shady Tahoe contacts.

Jessica dismisses this because Tony was injured; Thaddeus says that he just got a bump on the head and for all anyone knows didn’t even fall. The problem with this counterpoint, that otherwise could have raised suspicion, is that we, the viewer, saw Tony fall when he was alone. Be that as it may, both of these arguments seem to miss the fact that there’s no reason to suppose that—if Tony had hired the mob hitman—that he’d know who the hitman was, and still less that he’d know how the hitman planned to perform the hit. Since (I assume) Tony isn’t the culprit, though, I suppose it’s OK that they miss this.

In the next scene, a weird, open-mouthed fellow whose name turns out to be Steve Ridgely shows up at the Gambini mansion in a blue car.

His mouth was open before he got out of the car.

I don’t know why he keeps his mouth open so much of the time; it’s a very strange acting choice. It doesn’t seem to be part of the character, though, as it’s never remarked on. He’s come to talk to Paul, explaining that he took the first flight he could could get when he heard about the murder on TV in LA. Paul suggests that they go for a drive.

As they drive off the scene shifts to Salvatore’s office, where Salvatore wants to know who it is and Marco says that he will ask the deputy later. Right now he wants to grill Tony about the fifty thousand dollar check he wrote when he doesn’t have fifty dollars in his bank account. Tony whines that “they were threatening me!” Marco is furious, and Salvatore tells him to leave. Salvatore then gives Tony a check and a lecture about how he needs Tony to take over the vineyard when he and Marco are gone, since he’s the smart one.

There’s an interesting part to the conversation where he says, “I’m an old man. I don’t have much time left. I don’t want to die with things like they are now.” Tony replies that Salvatore won’t die, and Salvatore corrects him, “Everybody dies. It’s what you do before you die that’s important.”

I like this scene both for the content and the characterization. The episode hasn’t been subtle about Salvatore being concerned with the vineyard, but it does establish that he has a sense of urgency about fixing the problems with his wayward grandchildren, but doesn’t know how to do it.

After this Jessica runs into Steve and Paul. Paul introduces Steve, and Jessica asks if he’s on Paul’s football team. Steve laughs, and Paul hesitates, then says that Steve is an investment advisor. Whatever he is, he’s clearly not an investment advisor.

Salvatore then asks Jessica to come into his office. He’s upset because Thaddeus had called him and asked questions about the company that wanted to buy his winery, because Jessica told him about it. He then yells at her that his business dealings have nothing to do with the death of the hired killer.

Ordinarily, I’d take that to be a slip—that he shouldn’t have known Ben was a hired killer—but since he was recently talking to Thaddeus, it’s possible that Thad told him.

Jessica suggests that it might be related—that the so-called accident was clearly aimed at him, not at Tony. Salvatore angrily replies, “I don’t know what that New York bum was up to. The guy is dead. Who cares?”

Again, this is information that Salvatore shouldn’t know, unless Thaddeus told him, which he very well might have done. It’s also suspiciously bizarre. How could what the “New York bum” was up to not be relevant to his murder investigation?

Salvatore insists that Ben’s death has nothing to do with anything, and the people who want to buy the winery have nothing to do with anything, and in fact nothing has anything to do with anything, and Jessica should just go home.

Jessica leaves to pack her things and we go to commercial break.

When we come back from commercial break, Jessica finds Steve Ridgley sneaking around some room he’s not supposed to be in. She rushes away but Paul catches her before she makes it many steps and tells her that it’s not what she thinks, but he can’t tell the rest of the family. In a private conference Steve shows his credentials—it turns out that he’s a special investigator working for the football commission investigating gambling. There had been rumors that some of Paul’s teammates had thrown some games and Paul was working with Steve to find out if they were true, and if so, who was involved.

Jessica says that she now understands; when Steve heard that a mob killer turned up on the Gambini house, he thought that the mob might have hired a killer to put an end to the investigation. Paul then says that it doesn’t make sense that anyone would go to that much trouble to kill him. They could have killed him anytime, anywhere—he’s a proverbial sitting duck. (Which is a slightly odd metaphor because it is his frequent traveling that makes him accessible, but the point is that one hardly needs to lay months of groundwork to get at him to kill him.)

Jessica agrees, and then in a moment of inspiration says that the same is true of Tony. She doesn’t say it, but she knows of whom that isn’t true.

Clue face.

She excuses herself and goes off to confront Stella.

Just kidding.

After clue face, it’s the kiss of death for Jessica to walk in on you alone.

The odd thing, here, is that Jessica has maintained throughout the entire episode—at least since Ben Skyler turned out to be a hitman—that the real target had to be Salvatore. How she had a revelation of what she already knew, I can’t figure.

Jessica confronts Salvatore and he admits it. He researched all of Michelle’s boyfriends through contacts of his, and when he research “Ben Skyler” he found out who he was. He let Ben come because he figured that him being murdered might finally bring his family together. His health is bad and he only had a few months to live, anyway. He willed the winery to the entire family in equal portions, where none could sell unless they all agreed on it, and wrote up a letter explaining what happened in an envelope marked “To be opened in the event of my death”

Those don’t look like Angela Lansbury’s hands, to me.

Salvatore soured on this plan when Tony was almost killed, so he brought Ben down and gave him a very special wine—the first wine that Salvatore ever bottled. Ben’s palate was so dull he didn’t taste anything; neither the wine nor the poison. Salvatore remarks in disgust that he shouldn’t have wasted the good wine on Ben; he should have given him junk. (How a fifty year old wine wasn’t junk, he didn’t say. Most wines go bad after a few years.) He then asks Jessica to make sure that his family gets that letter and collapses. Salvatore was drinking wine while talking with Jessica and it’s implied, but not stated, that he laced his wine with poison as he was confessing to Jessica. Or possibly that he just kept the bottle of poisoned wine from when he murdered Ben and that’s what he drank.

The scene shifts to a hospital waiting room, where the family plus Jessica and Thaddeus are gathered.

That’s quite the hospital waiting room, even for the 80s.

After a bit, Fiona gets up and walks to Jessica (who is sitting next to Paul) and tells her that they all want her to know that, whatever happens, the family is going to fight to keep the winery. Jessica is very relieved by this, and Fiona continues that she’s been very selfish and never realized how much Marco was like his father—how much he loved the place.

Then the doctor walks in and says that Salvatore is going to make it. He’s asked for Marco. Marco and Fiona go off to his room.

Jessica and Thaddeus then talk, privately. Thaddeus remarks that there are parts of his job that he hates (that he’s going to have to arrest his friend for murder). Jessica points out that the only real evidence against Salvatore is his confession, and it’s fading fast in her memory. By the time the county prosecutor got around to questioning her, she wouldn’t be surprised if she’d forgotten it entirely. Thaddeus thinks on this and remarks that if Salvatore got himself a good lawyer, it would be six months, at least, by the time they got him to trial. By that time, it hardly seems worth the bother of the paperwork. Jessica says, “That was my thought,” and we go to credits.

Overall, I’d say that this was in the bottom half of Murder, She Wrote episodes. In many ways it suffered from the limitations of TV of its era. For example, Jessica is a close family friend of the Gambinis but we’ve never heard of these people before and never will again. Worse, from the perspective of consistent characterization, she is a dear family friend despite the fact that she spent her life teaching high school English in Cabot Cove, Maine, while Salvatore and Marco, if not necessarily their children, spent their lives growing grapes in California. Also, despite being a close family friend, she hasn’t seen them in a long time and this is the first time she’s seen the vineyard. There’s just no way to take this and the characters seriously. But television writers, in the 1980s, largely didn’t take their characters seriously. They were so focused on the individual episode that they generally were willing to sacrifice the characters for the needs of the moment. (I’ve read about this in books about TV screenwriting.)

Another thing typical of 1980s screenwriting was the focus on the drama of the moment. This was driven in large part by the existence of TV remotes and the (comparative) plethora of channels which had become recently available; it was important to always hold people’s attention so they wouldn’t flip the channel. Thus we get the nonsensical drama of Ben Skyler being killed right where Tony was almost killed the night before. It made for a great moment to go to commercial break on. It would really hook the viewer to not flip the channel, or at least to come back after a minute. But it made absolutely no sense.

Ben’s murder was premeditated and carried out at Salvatore’s convenience. Why would he do it in his private wine cellar and lock the door? He couldn’t really expect that the police wouldn’t investigate, and killing Ben in a place where only a member of the family could have done it was just asking for trouble.

The whole thing about Ben having been killed by “poison” was also badly done. That’s just not how cause-of-death works. Poisons kill people by some actual means, such as cardiac arrest, asphyxiation, etc. Cyanide, for example, (in high doses) generally kills by cardiac arrest. If you look at a corpse killed with a high dose of cyanide, you’ll find, basically, that they died of heart failure (I’m oversimplifying). To find out that it was cyanide, you have to run tests to detect cyanide in their body. And so it goes with other poisons; they kill by making some part of the body fail, so to the degree that you can tell how they died, you’ll find that they died of something-failure. It’s chemical tests for particular poisons that let you find out that the poison was in sufficient quantities in the body to determine that it was the poison that caused the whatever-failure.

This is why there are undetectable poisons—because there are no specific tests for the poison. It’s also why there are many detectable poisons that often go undetected—because no one thinks to test for that poison. This is why recognizing the symptoms of rare poisons was a somewhat popular subject in golden age mysteries—without knowing what to test for, the odds of finding it were essentially nil. Without knowing that the person was poisoned, it was very hard to prove that someone murdered his uncle to inherit the title and fortune since as far as anyone could tell, the uncle died of natural causes.

Here, all we have is that Ben Skyler died of “poison.” And this isn’t a detail. The kind of poison really matters; did it kill almost instantly or hours later? That’s going to dramatically effect questions like where was he killed and who did it?

That said, it won’t affect questions like, “how did he get into Salvatore’s locked wine cellar?”

Which is a question which Salvatore really should have asked himself before killing Ben there. It’s a question which should have been central to the investigation and was only dropped in favor of investigating Ben’s background as a mob killer because, I suspect, it would have led directly to Salvatore too quickly.

Also, why did a New York organized crime syndicate want to buy the Gambini winery so badly that they’d first offer a lot of money then send a hitman on a multi-month assignment to kill Salvatore in order to get it? If they just really want to make good wines, there are plenty of wineries in the finger lakes region of upstate New York that they could try to acquire. If they want to make money, making wine isn’t exactly a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s even less of a get-rich-quick scheme if you pay a high price for the winery, which is usually what happens if you make a very handsome offer and the offer gets accepted. So what was the idea?

And why would this crime syndicate pick a dumb hitman to go off to pretend to be Michelle’s boyfriend for months in order to get into the house? Jessica tried to explain it as Salvatore rarely leaving the house anymore, but it’s a big house with few people in it, not a fortress. I assume Marco and Fiona live there too, but Marco works in the vineyard, most days, and I’d tend to assume that Fiona likes to drive elsewhere. It wouldn’t be that hard to wait for Stella to go to the grocery store, or the beauty parlor, or somewhere, and then go into the house and push Salvatore down the stairs. Heck, it would be pretty easy to pretend to be a burglar and kill Salvatore when the old man caught the “burglar”. If he had a flair for the dramatic, he could have just shot Salvatore through a window then left a note saying, “In the old country you shot my father through a window before you fled. Finally, justice has caught up with you.” They might have thought a lot of things, but probably not, “let’s not sell to that eastern company because the crime syndicate that they’re a front for probably had Papa killed this way so they could buy it.”

Becoming someone’s boyfriend for two months is such an uncertain way to gain access to their grandfather, too. She could get tired of him and move on at any moment.

The character of the football investigator was an interesting plot thread, though it was only there for about seven minutes (by timestamps). That’s something of another issue with this episode—instead of front-loading possibilities then working through them, the episode tended to deal with one thing at a time. There was Ben’s mysterious identity, which was answered almost immediately. There was the question of what Michelle could tell us about Ben—which was absolutely nothing. Then there was the mysterious investment advisor, who turned out to be a football investigator two scenes later. Had these things been re-ordered—and had Michelle even had so much as a red herring to tell about Ben—it would have given us a lot more to chew on during the episode.

There’s also an issue that comes up in a lot of Murder, She Wrote episodes, which is that the murderer didn’t have much of a motive for the murder. Usually, though, it’s more that the murderer turning to murder is an over-reaction. This is excusable because we need a murder each week and human beings do occasionally overreact. In this case, it’s contrary to the murderer’s immediate and long term motives. Salvatore permitted the hitman to come because he thought that being murdered might help to solidify the family. OK. But when the hitman proved to be dangerous to others, why kill the hitman? Why not simply tell him to leave? Either he leaves, which makes him not a danger to the grandkids, or he kills Salvatore then and there since his cover was blown, which is what Salvatore wanted.

Then we come to the issue of what Salvatore wants, which is a major driver of the plot of this episode: that all of his descendants will spend their lives working on his vineyard. This is always portrayed as a noble thing, but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with growing excellent wine on a vineyard and making a lot of money by selling it to people. There is just nothing especially wonderful about it, either. It’s simply a way to earn one’s living, and perhaps an art form. There are many ways to earn a living and many forms of art. The vineyard is his dream. To be fair, it’s also Marco’s dream. But if it’s not his grandchildren’s dream, that’s either the way things go or his fault, depending on whether God didn’t make his grandchildren to be wine makers or whether they had the potential to love making wines as he did and were never shown what’s good about it.

I suspect that the grandchildren taking an interest in the winery is related to Murder, She Wrote‘s theme that old things are still good. There was a generational disconnect which existed, and which older people partially blamed younger people for. The younger generation didn’t value the things the older generation did, and they should. Etc. etc. So I suspect it was enough that this had that structure; it was referencing a problem that most of the audience would recognize, so it didn’t need to be plausible in itself.

In thinking about what went wrong in this episode, it seems to me that a big part of it is that there were a lot of characters, but they were all wasted. The grand children had potential, but none of them were taken anywhere with it. Paul is somewhat dutiful but mostly uninvolved. Further, being a professional football player would have made him financially independent of the winery, but this never comes up. He neither seems to show interest in the winery nor disinclination for it; the closest we come is a moment when Thaddeus offers Paul a job as a deputy and Salvatore says no, he’s going to work in the winery when he retires from football. Paul says nothing, positive or negative.

Tony’s gambling problem drives a lot of yelling in the episode, and some lecturing and some sighing, but very little else. Tony isn’t emotionally connected to anyone else, except his father who is angry with him, so his gambling problem just kind of takes up space. I think it was supposed to provide an alternative target for the hitman, but Tony will drive up to Tahoe so that his gambling associates can beat him up, so it’s not a very realistic possibility.

Michelle is barely even a character. She’s in the story to bring Ben to the house. Apart from that and being the occasion of a bit of complaining, she ads nothing to the episode.

When we come to their parents, it’s no better. Fiona resents Salvatore and the winery, even though she married into it, then repents of wanting luxury for no reason we can see.

Marco is angry at his sons for bickering, angry at Tony for gambling, secretly angry at Michelle for not settlng down, and annoyed with Thaddeus for questioning Michelle when her boyfriend turns out to be a mob hitman, as if Thaddeus should just ignore the presence of a mob hitman. Other than a few lines here and there about being proud of his father, all he brings is negativity. Even the part where he’s praising his father, he does negatively: “When I die, I hope the only thing they say about me is, ‘he was the son of Salvatore Gambini’.” Granted, he adds “and that, ‘he was a credit to his father’.” Still, that’s not much in the way of positivity.

Also, when my children come to die, I hope that people will be able to say more about them than that they were my children.

Anyway, with all of these wasted characters, there wasn’t much time to do anything good. Though that’s only a partial excuse; what they had could have been better had they re-ordered it to produce some mystery.

So, I’ve pointed out a lot of problems with this episode; is there anything good to say about it?

Salvatore Gambini’s accent was a lot of fun and the actor who played him (Eli Wallach) played him quite well. The police chief, Thaddeus Kyle, was a fun character. He didn’t get a ton of screen time, but he was intelligent and humble. Murder, She Wrote could use more police chiefs like him.

Ummmm.

I’m having trouble, here. Most of the things that weren’t problems were merely… serviceable. You’d think a California winery would at least provide beautiful scenery, but all we get is an overview at the title card and a narrow path with greenery on the side during the horse walking. There are some overview shots of the house, too, but they’re nothing spectacular. So even the setting is merely serviceable.

Oh well. Next week’s episode is Benedict Arnold Slipped Here, set in Cabot Cove. That’s promising.

Murder She Wrote: Murder Through the Looking Glass

In the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote towards the later middle of the season was the episode Murder Through the Looking Glass.

The car we see in the opening title pulls up at the peer and two men get out. The older, grey-haired one pulls out a gun and tells the other to face him.

The man who is about to be shot asks who it was who ordered the hit, but the hitman says that it would do him no good and then shoots him twice. The shots are off-screen while the camera pulls in on a headlight. In theory, this is supposed to be to shield the viewer from witnessing even simulated violence. In practice, I suspect that it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to just film a headlight and put the sound of two bullets and a splash over it in post-production than it would be to use special effects and do a stunt.

The hitman gets back in the car and drives off.

The scene then changes to a sign saying that the guest speaker of tonight’s meeting of the New England Booksellers’ Association is J.B. Fletcher. She leaves amid thunderous applause, and accepts the organizer’s invitation to get some coffee up the street. As they’re going to the coffee place, the hitman suffers a heart attack and crashes his car next to her. He asks for a priest, and Jessica calls out for one. A priest actually pulls up in a car, across the street, and she calls him over. The hitman, in his delirium, he seems to mistake Jessica for the priest and gives her his dying confession. “I killed a man tonight: Karl Kosgrove from Farmington. H&H.”

He then slumps over dead, and the priest gets there. He asks what the man said, and Jessica merely says that he asked for a priest. The priest checks the hitman’s pulse and pronounces him dead. Jessica widens her eyes in shock, and we move onto police headquarters the next day. There we meet the police detective for our episode.

His name is Sergeant Cooper. He’s telling a woman named Edie the story of how he insulted her sister the previous night. From context, Edie’s sister is Cooper’s wife, and she’s left their house and he doesn’t know where she is and is trying to find her. Jessica walks in and talks to him about the man who had the accident last night whose death she reported to him half an hour ago. Yeah, that doesn’t make sense to me either, but it’s going by very quickly and I think that they’re just trying to get it over with as quickly as possible.

Anyway, Jessica is surprised to hear that he didn’t have any identification on him. He was driving a car so he should have, at least, a driver’s license. Unless, she adds, he wanted to conceal his identity because he was a professional killer. Sergeant Cooper is amused by the idea that he was a professional killer and wonders where Jessica got that idea. She said from his dying confession—he said H&H, which according to her research means “head and heart”; a bullet in both places is the mark of a professional killing.

She doesn’t explain why the assassin’s union—or would it be a guild?—would have this standard. I suppose the idea of two bullets is to ensure that the victim can’t possibly survive, but why not two bullets in the head and two in the heart? If the idea is that they only need two in order to show off their skill, why not one?

Be that as it may, why would a professional killer benefit from not having identification on him? If he’s arrested for the murder he just committed, not having ID will not help him at trial. If he were pulled over for a traffic violation, it could get him in extra trouble for not having his driver’s license. I can see why he might have a fake ID, but not why he would have no ID.

Be that as it may, Sergeant Cooper finds Jessica’s very amusing. Jessica makes clear her expectation that the police will investigate, starting with Carl Cosgrove in Farmington. Cooper is in the mood to humor her, so he dials directory assistance to get Cooper’s phone number and calls it.

At the residence that the phone number reaches, a woman dressed in black comes down the stairs and answers the phone.

She says that she’s Mrs. Cosgrove and that Mr. Cosgrove is alive and well. Cooper asks to speak to Carl but Mrs. Cosgrove says that he can’t—he was working in the rose garden and had an asthma attack, but she can have him call Sergeant Cooper when he recovers. Sergeant Cooper says that that won’t be necessary.

Jessica is satisfied, and the episode ends only 8 minutes in.

Just kidding.

Since Sergeant Cooper will not help, Jessica takes a taxi over to the Cosgrove house to investigate for herself. The house has a gated driveway with a security guard at the gate. As he talks with her and asks if she has an appointment, several people inside watch the security camera footage of this in some sort of command center.

What has Jessica stumbled into? On the other hand, when you hear the dying confession of a professional killer, it’s probably not something ordinary. Still, this is one heck of a control room. They’ve got a super-computer in the corner (look at all the blinkenlights) and also some very serious grey drapes to keep the tone somber.

The security guard is reluctant but calls the command center to ask what to do. The youngest one says that perhaps they should ask “Adams,” but the middle one (the one with the mustache) who seems to be the most authoritative says that Adams isn’t here. The one in the tan sport coat says that a woman this persistent could be trouble, and the authoritative one with the mustache says, “Let’s get this over as quickly as possible.” After being told she can go in, Jessica thanks the security guard and for some reason gets back into her cab, which then pulls up to the house.

I find the houses in Murder, She Wrote very interesting. There was a lot that they were trying to convey with an establishing shot. At least, normally. In this case, I’m really not sure. This sort of estate is a strange place in which to run a… well, whatever this is. And whatever it is, who is supposed to live here? As a cover story, I mean? A gated property with a security guard manning the gate is no trivial matter, but it’s hardly enough to keep out an attacking force. On the other hand, if the purpose of the security guard is not to defend against direct attacks, what purpose does he serve? If people don’t know what’s here to attack it, the security guard would, if anything, draw attention.

Jessica comes to the front door and Mrs. Cosgrove lets her in. Jessica apologizes for Sergeant Cooper’s phone call, as if somehow the problem was Sergeant Cooper’s manner and not the call itself or Jessica’s refusal to believe Mrs. Cosgrove. There’s some chitchat and Jessica says, suggestively, that the police have reason to believe that something happened to Carl Cosgrove. Mrs. Cosgrove replies that it’s time to introduce Mrs. Fletcher to her husband, and leads the way upstairs.

That’s one heck of an asthma attack.

When she introduces Jessica, he weakly waves his hand. Jessica expresses her condolences on his asthma attack. While she’s doing this, the shot changes to the other side of a one-way mirror in the room, where the same people who were in the control room are watching:

The mustached fellow in the grey suit asks if Jessica buys it, and the man in the tan sports jacket expresses the opinion that Jessica isn’t even slightly fooled. Mrs. Cosgrove then leads Jessica out to show her the rest of the house (for some reason). Once the door is closed the man pretending to be Carl Cosgrove—his name turns out to be Señor Delgado—gets up and talks to the mirror, saying that he does not like role-playing. Mustache Man acknowledges this, but says that it’s sometimes necessary for security. Another man walks in—he appears to be some sort of aide and refers to Señor Delgado as “Comandante”. They speak in Spanish and he translates, despite Delgado seeming to speak English perfectly well.

Delgado feels uneasy in the house and wants to return to Washington. Mustache Man says that this cannot be arranged, but they will bring him back to Washington the next day. Delgado demands to speak with Adams but is told that Adams is in Washington arranging the security for his appearance before “the committee”. Delgado says that he doesn’t believe them, and on that bombshell the scene fades out.

We’ve gotten some definite clues about what Jessica as stumbled into, though I’m not sure that they make sense. Delgado is some sort of South-American dictator, or at least military figure. It doesn’t make sense why a South American dictator would be hiding out in a safe house, so presumably he’s a military commander who has run away from his country to testify in front of congress that… who knows?

This is apparently a safe house run by some government agency. Why they let Jessica in and why they picked Delgado to pretend to be Carl Cosgrove, I can’t make out. Perhaps it will eventually be explained.

The next scene is of Jessica in her hotel room. A desk clerk recognizes her as she walks past and tells her that Father Francis was looking for her. He left a message for her to meet him at his church, Saint Jerome’s, which is only two blocks away.

Jessica goes there directly.

Fr. Francis calls out to her by name as she’s walking along the nave of the church, which startles her. She asks how he knew her name. He says that he described her to the desk clerk who identified her. He asked her to come because he wanted to know what the dying man said in his confession, as the confession was meant for a priest. Jessica acknowledges this and, knowing nothing about how the sacrament of reconciliation (“confession”) works, tells him.

He responds that a parishioner who is a police officer told him that the man who died was identified as a professional killer from another city. He asks if the confession included who hired him to kill Mr. Cosgrove.

Frankly, this isn’t a great impression of a priest. (It’s pretty obvious by now that “Fr. Francis” is not a real priest.)

Jessica says that no, the killer didn’t say, and she just met Mr. Cosgrove and he seemed very much alive.

“Fr. Francis” then asks if she’s sure that it was the Mr. Cosgrove. Jessica starts to ask him what it is he wants to know, but they’re interrupted by the actual pastor of the church who calls out, “Anything I can do for you, Father?”

“Fr. Francis” replies, awkwardly, “No. Thank you very much, Father.”

He then turns back to Jessica and explains why he wasn’t recognized, “Father Sweeney. His eyes aren’t what they used to be.”

Jessica replies, “Well, in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, we are much as we see. Faith is sight and knowledge.”

“Father Francis” grins, thinks for a moment, then replies, “and the old boy certainly knew what he was talking about.”

You’d think he’d be better at imitating a priest than this if he took the time to actually get black clothes and a roman collar. They’re laying it on pretty thick, but I suppose it’s for an audience who knows nothing about priests. Or Saint Thomas Aquinas. I mean, you don’t even need to have read any Saint Thomas to know that this isn’t a quote from him. That said, Saint Thomas isn’t a great choice to catch someone up on—if you’re not making the quote obviously impossible—since he wrote so much you have to be a Saint Thomas scholar to recognize every possible quote from him. That said, it’s not even a great test since it’s rude to correct somebody on a misquotation, and a person may let it slide out of politeness rather than ignorance.

The actual pastor of the church then gets a message from a boy in a cassock and surplice who apparently wears them to do office work:

The message turns out to be that there is a phone call for a Mrs. Fletcher. The priest asks if Jessica is Mrs. Fletcher, and tells her that she can take the call in her office. When she takes the call in her office, she notices the nameplate that the camera zoomed in on which says, “Reverend Paul Kelly.” This is for the slow witted, I assume, though given that they think that churches employ 10 year old alter servers in full vestments as office secretaries, perhaps they thought that they were actually being subtle and the nameplate was necessary.

The phone call turns out to be from Sergeant Cooper, who knew where to find her from the desk clerk at her hotel. He would take it as a personal favor if she came down to police headquarters immediately because they just pulled a body out of the Connecticut river with two bullets in him, one in his head and one in his heart, and his ID says that he’s Carl Cosgrove of Farmington.

Jessica arrives at the police station and there is some banter between her and the sergeant, but she explains what she found in Farmington and Sergeant Cooper says that it’s time for a house call.

When they’re let in, the fellow in the tan sportscoat says that Mrs. Cosgrove is not at home, but he’s her brother and asks if there’s anything he can do. Sergeant Cooper starts to go up the stairs to look around, but his way is blocked by the Spanish assistant, then Tan Sportscoat pulls a gun on Cooper. Mrs Cosgrove comes out and checks Cooper’s badge, then Mustache Man comes out and asks everyone to join him in the living room.

In the living room Mustache Man says that their insistence on coming might have compromised the security of a DSS safe house. Jessica is unfamiliar with the acronym DSS, and Sergeant Cooper explains that it stands for “Department of Special Security”—which is a made up department, explaining why Jessica never heard of it. Mustache Man is angry with Sergeant Cooper for coming to the house as DSS authority supercedes local authority, but since he has no idea why Sergeant Cooper is there and Sergeant Cooper couldn’t have known that it was a DSS safe house, this makes no sense.

There’s some banter where Jessica deduces that the “Carl Cosgrove” she saw was their house guest and Mustache Man says that he expected no less deductive ability from a mystery writer who outwitted a KGB agent to help a pair of Russian ballet dancers defect (a reference to a first season episode). Jessica surmises that they have a file on her and he rattles off a bunch of harmless facts about her like her maiden name and marital status. Jessica is deeply upset by this recital of information that might as well have come from the jacket cover of one of her books, for some reason. Anyway, they finally get to who “Carl Cosgrove” is—a house identity that they all use when they go out on house business. Sergeant Cooper then shows a picture of the stiff, and it turns out that it is Adams. “Mrs. Cosgrove” then cries at Mustache Man that he lied—he had said that Adams was on assignment in Washington. Tan Sportscoat then says, “Meeting with somebody he didn’t know in a deserted parking lot was stupid. You should have stopped him.” Mustache Man replies, “I didn’t know anything about it.” He then reminds them that they’re secret agents in front of non-agents. Tan Sportscoat takes Mrs. Cosgrove out for some fresh air.

Why they’re blaming Mustache Man is very non-obvious. He was clearly Adams’ subordinate. Also, how did Tan Sportscoat know that Adams met with somebody he didn’t know in a deserted parking lot when Mustache Man didn’t? This seems like a pretty typical Murder, She Wrote slip up, though you never can be 100% certain. There’s some more banter between Mustache Man, Jessica, and Sergeant Cooper. The only really interesting part is when Cooper asks if Mustache Man and Adams were friends, and Mustache Man replies, “I found his company bearable… most of the time.”

We still have no explanation for why on earth they used the person they’re guarding as a pretend Mr. Cosgrove to try to fake Jessica out. For that matter, if Mr. Cosgrove was a name that they all used when going out, why did Mrs. Cosgrove pretend that “Mr. Cosgrove” wasn’t home? Why didn’t she just fetch one of the men who had a driver’s license that said “Mr. Cosgrove” on it to the phone?

Come to think of it, why did every agent in the house use the same fake ID? It would get very awkward if they had to come into contact with the same person twice—by all pretending to be the same person, they would need to coordinate who they met so the rest could avoid them. If everyone had his own ID, it would simplify their safe house business and also provide an explanation for why they would pretend that Mr. Cosgrove was just fine without actually getting him because Adams was out.

Be that as it may, the scenes at the safe house are done and Jessica goes back to her hotel. Incidentally, I really love the hotel rooms in Murder, She Wrote:

Jessica had to walk down the hallway inside her hotel room to get this this enormous living room, btw. To be clear, I don’t mean the hotel hallway. Inside of her hotel room was a hallway past other rooms to get to this one.

The New England Bookseller’s Association sure put her up in style.

She notices the beer on the table and “Father Francis” walks out of the shadows and says that they need to talk. Jessica suggests that he talk to the police and explain why he broke into her room, but he merely says that she nailed him on the quotation in the church. He had to look it up—it wasn’t Saint Thomas Aquinas, it was Henry David Thoreau.

I’m actually quite surprised that this was a real quote—I mean apart from it being very stupid. “We are much as we see. Faith is sight and knowledge” doesn’t mean anything. Actually, it’s a slight mis-quotation. The real quotation is “We are as much as we see…” That doesn’t make sense either, though. And it’s not just that it’s taken out of context. Take a look at the quotation in context (it’s from the seventh volume of Henry David Thoreau’s collected writings):

How much virtue there is in simply seeing! We may almost say that the hero has striven in vain for his pre-eminency, if the student oversees him. The woman who sits in the house and sees is a match for a stirring captain. Those still, piercing eyes, as faithfully exercised on their talent, will keep her even with Alexander or Shakespeare. They may go to Asia with parade, or to fairyland, but not beyond her ray. We are as much as we see. Faith is sight and knowledge. The hands only serve the eyes. The farthest blue streak in the horizon I can see, I may reach before many sunsets. What I saw alters not; in my night, when I wander, it is still steadfast as the star which the sailor steers by.

To be fair, the passage as a whole is merely wrong, not meaningless. But the part about “faith is sight and knowledge” is meaningless, especially when you realize in context that he’s talking about literal eyesight since the whole is a panegyric to eyesight.

Anyway, the real reason I assumed that it was not a real quote was not that it’s meaningless prattle, but that if you use a real quote you might accidentally get something that two people said. I’m quite certain that Jessica never read so much as a word of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and frankly it would be a bit shocking if she even knew who he was. Even having heard of his name is a bit of a stretch. Since she could have no idea what he’d actually said, for all she knew Thoreau got it from Aquinas. No, if you want to catch someone out on a quotation, you should make it up yourself so you can be sure it’s not real.

Anyway, Father Patrick reveals that he works for the DSS in internal affairs—investigating all the other DSS agents to keep them honest. Jessica asks if he can show her identification, and he laughs—he can, but it all says, “Father Patrick Francis”. He asks if they can go outside to talk and Jessica agrees but only somewhere with people around. He very readily agrees to that suggestion and asks her to name the place. She picks a public park.

I like this turn of events. Finally having a good guy in the story is pleasant. Also, I like that he recognizes the difficulty of proving who he is and takes steps that demonstrate trust and make Jessica feel safer, such as going someplace public and letting her pick the place. It doesn’t prove he’s telling the truth, but it’s consistent with him telling the truth and also with being able to see things from her perspective. That’s a good trait for a character to have.

They go the park and he gives Jessica some backstory.

Last week Adams called internal affairs and said that he suspected that there was a traitor in the DSS safe house. We get a bit of backstory on the people there; Mustache Man was passed over for promotion for a younger man. Tan Sportscoat was a hotshot recruited off of an Ivy league campus, but hasn’t gone anywhere because of his lack of leadership material. The young timid guy is young and timid. Delgado, not that I can see how it matters, is actually the leader of a revolution in his country here to ask Washington for more money for his revolution. Sanchez is his bodyguard, factotum, personal servant, etc.

He then tells what he knows about Adams death: Adams telephoned “Fr. Francis” last night and told him that he heard from an informant who would reveal the traitor. They arranged to meet at the Trinity College parking lot, and Adams told no one about this. It didn’t smell right to “Fr. Francis” so he persuaded Adams to wear a tracking device. Adams spoke to the so-called informant briefly then got in his car and they drove off. “Fr. Francis” followed at a safe distance but well within range of the tracking device. As he was going over the Connecticut river, the signal suddenly stopped. He retraced his steps but couldn’t pick it up again. He waited a bit but then saw the “informant’s” car, so he tailed him back to the city, only to see him crash in front of Jessica’s hotel.

Jessica then asks what he wants, and he wants her to do the investigation for him, since the people in the safe house will just close ranks if he shows up and identifies himself as being with internal affairs. Jessica absolutely refuses to be a spy for him—despite that being exactly the same thing as investigating the murder that she wants to investigate.

In the next scene Jessica is in her hotel room and runs in a bath robe to catch the phone which is ringing.

It turns out to be “Mr. Secretary.” She does remember meeting at at the cocktail party at the state department, and—short story even shorter—in the next scene she’s being prepped for going into the safe house to dig up what she can. This includes a lipstick that is actually an emergency beacon.

Interestingly, the cover Jessica is using is that she wants to gather information about the safe house for an upcoming book and has pulled strings with friends in Washington to get her access. I do like this twist on what really happened—that Washington used their connection with her to get her to do it. It’s got a nice plausibility to it, though, given that within the world of Murder, She Wrote Jessica is a literary titan who routinely attends everything, everywhere, and knows everyone. She certainly could pull strings to get access, if she wanted to.

Mustache Man is reluctant, then Tan Sportscoat (now wearing a sweater, and his name was revealed to be Van Buren, but for consistency I’m going to keep calling him Tan Sportscoat) comes in and he and Mustache Man bicker until a call comes in from the gate that Sergeant Cooper is there and wants in to discuss a development in Adams’ murder. (Incidentally, Mustache Man’s actual name—or at least code name—is Jackson, but again I’m going to keep using the name I first had for him since we learned his name pretty late in the episode.)

The new development is that Sergeant Cooper ran Adams’ prints and he had a rap sheet a mile long. This isn’t a development, though, since this is just leftover from a previous cover identity. However, while Cooper and Mustache Man are bickering, a real development happens:

Sanchez can’t wake up Delgado, and not in the “he’s sleeping very deeply” sense. As opposed to Timid Guy, who is sleeping pretty deeply but quite alive. We’ve got a second murder on our hands. I guess it’s convenient that Sergeant Cooper is on the premises.

Timid Guy wakes up and hears from Sanches that Delgado is dead and runs off to bring the news to Mustache Man. Everyone runs out of the room except for Jessica, who goes and activates her lipstick beacon for some reason. “Father Francis” picks up a walkie talkie and tells everyone to surround the house. Then we go to commercial break.

When we come back, Sergeant Cooper is yelling into the phone that he needs the homicide team. The camera then pans over to the next room where Timid Guy is being interrogated. He admits he fell asleep, which had been a problem before, but those times were late at night. That’s why he thought switching to taking a morning shift would be a good idea. But it didn’t work, even with an entire thermos of black coffee.

Cooper then interrupts and starts his own line of questioning, which leads to how Timid Guy saw saw Sanchez shaking Delgado, but couldn’t actually see what he was doing, so Cooper leaps to the conclusion that Sanchez strangled Delgado while he pretended to try to wake him.

Jessica decides to confront Sanchez, says that he was more loyal to his Comandante than to the revolution, and asks if he would be so even if Delgado was stealing money meant for food for the people and to fund the revolution. Sanchez angrily says this was a lie, that Delgado was a good man, and that he never would have stolen from his people. I’ve no idea what the point of this is, since Sanchez is literally the least likely suspect in the building (after Jessica).

Francis and Cooper come and arrest Delgado for the murder, but Jessica isn’t buying it. Sanchez could have had no way of knowing that Timid Guy was asleep, and it seems more than a bit foolish to kill Delgado right in front of someone watching him. Francis says that Sanchez was the only one who could have done it, but I don’t see how this was the case since they have no idea what happened while Timid Guy was asleep.

Jessica is more bothered that this wouldn’t link the murder to the murder of Adams, and she’s convinced that there must be a link.

A little later Mrs. Cosgrove talks to Jessica and plaintively says that Adams would never have let this happen. He was omniscient, I suppose, except when it came to obvious traps. Jessica suggests that the impossibility of killing Delgado with Adams around might be why he was killed. Mrs. Cosgrove wonders why he went off on his own without telling anyone where he was going and Jessica replies, “I don’t think he meant to hurt you. I think he wanted to prevent any possibility of a leak by not confiding in anyone.”

Then she realizes what she just said and we get clue-face:

So, the good money is on Tan Sportscoat’s remark about Adams meeting someone he didn’t know in an abandoned parking lot being a real slip.

Jessica anounces that she knows who killed Adams and Delgado.

We next see her in the murder room.

Yup, the murderer is Tan Sportscoat (now wearing a sweater). To seal the deal, he says, “You wanted to see me?” (I can’t recall a time that Jessica wanted to see someone with less than 5 minutes to go in the episode who wasn’t the murderer.)

Jessica asks Tan Sportscoat if he’ll give her his opinion on a theory she has: the killer was assigned to the safe house and felt his career had reached a dead end. He was restless, and Delgado’s country contacted the killer and offered a large sum of money for the assassination of Delgado.

Oddly, Tan Sportscoat doesn’t stop her here and ask how on earth the head of some South American country would be aware of the personnel in a safe house in Connecticut, to say nothing of how they would know that Delgado would be assigned to this safe house ass presumably the DSS has more than one. Both of those seem effectively impossible, ruling out this theory, but we hear not a word about this.

In fact, he says nothing and Jessica continues. First, the killer had to get rid of Adams, who kept a very watchful eye on the safe house. Which meant the killer had to contact a hit man.

Also oddly, Tan Sportscoat doesn’t object that Adams wasn’t omniscient and could hardly personally watch the safe house 24/7, so there was no need to kill him. Instead he observes that Mustache Man had access to the department’s list of hit men. Jessica pounces, saying, “Oh, you know about the list?” He replies that he’d heard of it.

He asks how Mustache suckered Adams, and Jessica says it was with a scenario. First, creating suspicion about a traitor in the ranks, then having the hitman contact Adams with an offer of information of who it was. Tan Sportscoat says that he didn’t think Mustache had it in him, and Jessica says that he didn’t—she’s talking about Tan Sportscoat. He then walks over to the mirror and asks who’s behind it—the cop or the internal affairs man. Jessica replies, “both.”

This is a very strange setup. I can’t see how it accomplishes anything for Jessica to accuse Tan Sportscoat with people watching from behind a mirror instead of being in the room with them. For that matter, why does the safe house have a room behind a one-way mirror at all? If they want to be able to observe the person that they’re guarding, closed circuit TV would work perfectly well and be less cumbersome. Plus if they had closed circuit TV throughout the house they could then watch the person that they’re guarding at times other than when they’re sleeping. And they do have closed circuit TV watching the gatehouse. (Presumably the answer is that the plot wouldn’t work with closed circuit TV since that would almost certainly be recorded on 24 hour loop, making the murder impossible.)

Be that as it may, there’s an interesting twist that comes up: Tan Sportscoat says that he can account for his whereabouts during every minute of Timid Guy’s shift. Jessica replies that he didn’t kill Delgado during Timid Guy’s shift, he killed him during his own shift, then made it look like Delgado was still sleeping so that Timid Guy would assume Delgado was still alive and everyone would think that Delgado was killed during Timid Guy’s shift (Tan Sportscoat had been drugging Timid Guy’s coffee and increased the dose today).

He replies, “Well, your theory… turned out to be better than I thought.”

“Father Francis” asks him why he did it, and he replies that Jessica got it right—for the money. Jessica gives him a disapproving look, and he asks her, “Or would you prefer if I did it because I believed in a cause?” Jessica says, in her dour way, “Either way, it was murder.”

Oddly, this is not the end of the episode. There’s a final scene at police headquarters where Sergeant Cooper tells Jessica that Mr. Francis called and Tan Sportscoat is singing like a bird about the people who paid him to murder Delgado. This is interrupted, briefly, by a call from his wife, to which he habitually replies, “I can’t talk now, Norma” then goes back to talking to Jessica. She interrupts him to point out that he’s been trying to get in touch with his wife for days, and he realizes what he did and asks somebody to trace the call. Then we go to credits:

This is a really weird episode. On the face of it a spy-thriller should mix well with a murder mystery, but I’ve never heard of that being done in a way that isn’t just a spy thriller. This episode is, of course, not really a spy thriller. It only pretends to be one as a red herring for the murder mystery. Still, that takes enough time away from the episode that it doesn’t feel like a murder mystery.

For one thing, there isn’t really much of an investigation in this episode. Much of Jessica’s time is spent uselessly trying to figure out who the hitman killed, only to have that eventually revealed by forces outside of her control. Another large chunk is figuring out the identity of the pretend priest, but he turns out to be another investigator, and investigators are (in legitimate mysteries) outside of the mystery.

Of course, ultimately, it turns out that the spy thriller is a red herring and this is a murder mystery, but we only get the murder to investigate 10 minutes from the end of the episode. Better late than never, but it robs a lot of the fun, especially since Jessica knows who did it 5 minutes from the end of the episode. The problem with using the appearance of being the wrong genre as a red herring is that, “it only looks like it’s in the wrong genre,” is still not in the right genre for most of the episode.

The story also had a lot of problems with its plot, too. The way everyone at the safe house stonewalls about Adams’ death makes no sense. They’re running a safe house on US soil, not a fake business in foreign territory. There’s no one they need to convince that nothing has happened. Moreover, there’s no real reason for the agents to be under cover at all, but still less is there a reason to have them rotate through the same cover identity. However, given that they rotate through the same cover identity, there was absolutely no reason to pretend that “Carl Cosgrove” was having an asthma attack. Since any man there could be Carl Cosgrove, one of them should have been. And if not, there was no reason to say he was having an asthma attack rather than just saying that he’s on a business trip. And given that they said that he was having an asthma attack, why on earth did they pick Delgado to play Carl Cosgrove? In the entire house, only two men did not have ID which said Carl Cosgrove, and they picked one of them. In the house, only two people did not speak English natively, and of the two they picked the one who spoke English worse. Also, in the house, everyone there is guarding one person, who is being kept in the house anonymously, and that’s the guy they picked to introduce to a stranger??? In what way did picking Delgado to pretend to be Carl Cosgrove make even a shred of sense?

Next, and though it’s a comparatively small thing, why did they have Tan Sportscoat say that Jessica didn’t buy Delgado-as-Cosgrove for a minute? She seems to have dropped the matter when we see her next and in fact she protested to “Father Francis” that Carl Cosgrove seemed very much alive when she saw him. As far as we can tell, she did buy it.

The parts with Father Francis were laid on thick, but were fine, if more spy thriller than murder mystery.

We run into problems, again, when we get to the background on the people at the safe house. First, only two of the five people assigned there have anything like a motive to murder Adams (since Adams didn’t order the hit on himself). Of the two, Mustache Man’s motive is a bit weird. Supposedly he’s jealous that a younger man was chosen for promotion ahead of him. The thing is, Adams doesn’t look like the younger man:

To be fair, Robert Reed, who played Mustache Man, was 56 at the time of filming while Kirk Scott, who played Adams, was 52. That’s not much of an age gap, though. Also, we’re told that Jackson was shunted aside when Adams was put in charge of the safe house, but how long are agents assigned to the safe house for? And how much can being in charge of a safe house be worth killing for? It’s basically a high (ish) security secret one-room hotel. Apart from when the head of it gets assassinated, the routine must be very dull.

Speaking of which, I can’t help asking again: why on earth do these people have cover identities? They’re just running an extremely small hotel that, presumably, they all live in. They don’t need to go to work, or really to go to anywhere. Is it really critical that they have a fake ID when they go to the grocery store or the hardware store, or run out to the drug store to pick up some extra toothpaste when they’re running low? Can’t they just pay in cash and not need an ID at all?

If this safe house was the home of a couple who was stationed at it, I can see why they’d have fake ID, just so that the people aren’t really traceable when they get reassigned because somebody’s name needs to be on the deed to the house. But in this case everyone had a unique code name despite most of them would not be listed on any official documents, plus they had the “Carl Cosgrove” fake identity to use when going outside of the house. No matter which way you look at it, it seems to serve no conceivable purpose. It’s intrigue just for the sake of having something more complicated.

Speaking of things just for the sake of having something more complicated, Sanchez being suspected of Delgado’s murder makes no sense. Granted, motive isn’t everything. Still, it’s a lot, especially when it would have been utterly idiotic to kill Delgado in the way he would have had to do it then when he could have killed Delgado at any time. It’s not even slightly plausible, and just makes Francis and Cooper look like idiots. That’s especially unfortunate for Francis since he started off seeming intelligent.

But that brings me to Cooper: why was he part of the episode? Does Murder, She Wrote simply have to have a policeman in every episode because of some sort of clause in the contract with the studio? He served no purpose that I can see. He didn’t even help Jessica find Carl Cosgrove of Farmington—he used directory assistance to find the number. He did tell Jessica about Carl Cosgrove being pulled out of the Connecticut river and give Jessica a ride into the safe house the second time she went there, but she just as easily could have taken a taxi after reading, in a newspaper, about the body being found.

So, was there anything good about this episode?

Yes.

I really liked how they snuck Jessica into the safe house. Pretending that she pulled strings in Washington to get in when Washington pulled strings with her to get her to go was a very nice twist. It was also a clever cover story because it was both plausible and gave her a reason to snoop and ask questions. It also played nicely into the character of Musctache Man who is inclined to defer to his superiors on everything and to do what he is told without question. This is somewhat marred by the fact that she didn’t actually do any investigating under her cover story, though.

I also liked the twist where Tan Sportscoat had given himself an alibi for the entire time that Timid Guy was on duty. This was diminished by the statement of the alibi and Jessica’s solution taking only 46 seconds from start to finish. It’s the sort of difficulty which should have taken most of an episode to unravel, or at least should have posed some sort of challenge that Jessica would need to think about. They could easily have cut Cooper’s part to make more time for this. It would have been a much better use of time.

I also like the beginning of Tan Sportscoat’s confession at the end. After she broke his alibi, he said, “Your theory… turned out to be better than I thought.” A moment later, after Francis asked him why he did it, he replied, “She got it right.” The calmness in being caught aligns with the way both murders were cold and calculating. They also contain a certain amount of respect at being bested by a superior intellect.

There were also a few comedic moments that were enjoyable. For example, when Jessica activated her lipstick beacon, she first tried the motion on her actual lipstick, but all that happened was lipstick came out. Not high comedy, but it was fun in the moment, and I think helped to distract from there not really being a reason to turn on the emergency beacon. Cooper’s arguing with his various female relatives and in-laws, followed by habitually hanging up on his wife when she finally called him, was mildly amusing.

Overall, I’m not sad to see this episode over. I don’t watch Murder, She Wrote for spy thrillers, and certainly not for nonsensical spy thrillers. I think that main lesson of this episode is that it’s good to stay within one’s genre, and very good to at least stay within a genre one can write competently.

Next week’s episode is A Very Good Year for Murder, which takes place in a vineyard, which is certainly more promising than a spy thriller.

I’ve Never Been Nostalgic for Star Trek: The Next Generation

I recently looked up a few clips of Star Trek: The Next Generation and noticed, to my surprise, that it evoked no feelings of nostalgia whatever. This is curious because I was watching it at the same time as I watched Murder, She Wrote, which certainly evokes nostalgic feelings. (Murder, She Wrote ran from 1984-1996, while ST:TNG ran from 1987-1994.) Moreover, I liked The Next Generation back when I first watched it.

There might be various reasons for this. Science fiction may be less conducive to nostalgia because it is supposed to be set in the future. Since different science fiction stories are set in the same future (ours) and thus contradict each other, there is a certain degree to which it is simply impossible to suspend one’s disbelief, and hence to enter into it in a way conducive to nostalgia. This may be related to how the costumes have changed with current fashions, and possibly a great deal more how the computer technology of the day is largely an extrapolation from current technology and thus becomes horribly dated and in no way plausibly The Future.

Of course, if that were the issue that it should be even less possible to feel nostalgic for Star Trek than for Star Trek: The Next Generation. But, at least for me, it’s not. In some ways I think that the original show has aged better than its successor despite its successor having far more accurate technology. The original was simpler and had something of the utilitarian feel of a navy warship. Much of it was almost cartoonish (in the sense of abstract but representational art). It was almost like a sketch of the future rather than a fully done painting. TNG was, by contrast, more filled out and directly representational. You can see this in how they ate colored cubes, cylinders and such-like (the futuristic food was probably variously food-colored marshmallows, to give you an idea of what it looked like if you haven’t seen it). In TNG they just ate normal food produced by a “replicator”. The result was that you are inclined to take TNG more at face value. The problem with taking TNG at face value, however, is that it was a heavily armed and armored diplomatic science vessel upholstered something like a luxury cruise ship that also had a school and a daycare, whose saucer section could separate from the main part of the ship for combat because it makes no sense to bring the daycare into battle, but they never separated after the first season. (For that reason; looking it up they did separate it during the battle with the Borg and Wolf 359 for tactical purposes, i.e. to have two targets).

Another possibility is that Star Trek: The Next Generation was an episodic show with inconsistent characterization. It’s hard to feel nostalgic for characters who one didn’t feel like one knew because they could (and did) change so much from episode to episode. Murder, She Wrote was episodic, but Jessica was mostly a consistent character—as were any of the other characters that did recur. Plus there were elements that were just consistent, even if the show is (somewhat) incorrectly described as formulaic. (This spoof is highly recognizable despite actually describing very few of the episodes.) The only thing that was really reliable in Star Trek: The Next Generation was the technobabble.

Which gets us to what I think is the real reason I don’t feel nostalgic for the show.

Star Trek: The Next Generation just wasn’t very good. Bureaucrats in Space are not really more interesting than bureaucrats are anywhere else. The writers didn’t really care about quality, as far as I can tell. Legend has it that the technobabble was filled in by consultants after the script was written, with placeholders in the script for the technobabble. The ship itself was nonsensical; no one who could conceive of the greatest warship of the federation being a science daycare could not possible care about quality.

In some ways nothing sums up the approach of the series so much as the episodes Best of Both Worlds parts 1 and 2. They started with a neat idea that they didn’t think through at all, painted themselves into a corner, then used technobabble that made no sense to get themselves out of it. (The Borg were a hive mind, not a computer; they should have had no problems at all with reconciling different impulses since their hive mind was always the summation of many individual minds.)

It’s almost enough to make me want to watch Chaos On the Bridge.

The technobabble could have been forgivable if there was some reason to forgive it, but there never was. I think that this might be part of the reason that the Q episodes were, generally, the best episodes: the Q episodes didn’t have technobabble. It’s not that the technobabble was bad in itself, but it was cheating. Q threw all rules out the window, so the episodes with Q in them were the rare episodes in which the writers didn’t cheat.

That may be the real key, here. Murder, She Wrote, for all of its flaws, was written in earnest. If the writers made mistakes they were honest mistakes where the writers didn’t notice. They occasionally had Jessica trick the murderer into confessing, but Jessica at least figured out who it was she needed to trick on her own, and generally legitimately. She never made up a way to extract fingerprints from thin air, only to forget about it in later episodes. She never just added tachyon particles to the murder weapon and suddenly the murderer was in prison, already convicted.

In short, I don’t think it’s possible to feel nostalgic for something that the writers didn’t take seriously.

Bureaucraaaaaats iiiiiin Spaaaaaaaaace!

In a climactic scene in the episode Ensigns of Command, Picard manages to out-maneuver the Sheliak who are intent on clearing out human settlers on a planet in Sheliak space (by accident; a settlement ship went way off-course 90 years ago and these are their descendants). They have given 3 days notice as required in a treaty, but it will take 3 weeks to clear out the settlers due to some technobabble. The Sheliak intend to wipe out the remaining humans after 3 days, but Picard finds a way to get the time he needs:

The episode, overall, is a good one. It primarily focuses on Data and the theme of Data trying to understand humanity and also to be human, though he cannot be human since he is an android. This scene, though, really encapsulates the difference between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Captain Kirk had regulations used against him, though even this was rare. Kirk never defeated an enemy by reading a contract more closely.

I’m not really sure what to make of this. Next Generation had things going for it but somehow always managed to be, as my mother put it, bloodless. Data was, in many ways, more human than the rest of the crew. In 1984, I am told, there is the image of the future as a boot stamping on a human face—forever. Star Trek: The Next Generation softened this to a dress shoe placed firmly but no more than firmly on top of a human foot, except on Sundays and Saturdays from 9am-4pm and alternate Wednesdays from 7pm-9pm.

I’m not sure what made TNG the way it was. Presumably Gene Rodenberry should take much of the blame. I can’t help but think that TNG was also a product of its time, though, which makes me wonder what about the late 1980s and early 1990s produced this.

Tonight On Murder, She Wrote

Every episode of Murder, She Wrote began, before the theme song and title credit, with some clips from the upcoming episode. A moment into these clips, Angela Lansbury would say, “Tonight, on Murder, She Wrote.” The clips invariably made the episode seem more exciting than it was, and frequently misdirected as to the villain and just as often made the episode seem like it was a very different episode.

I find it curious that this was a part of every episode. It was by no means standard on TV shows of the time. Morever, Murder, She Wrote episodes were packed very full so it’s not like they needed to pad the episode out.

I suspect that the main reason for the clipjob of the episode we’re about to watch is that Murder, She Wrote normally starts out a bit slow. It’s quite uncommon to have a body in the first sixty seconds and only about half of the episodes have a body by fifteen minutes in. This isn’t a problem for regular viewers, since we know what we’re getting into and in any event murder mysteries are meant to be considered, not action-packed. Murder, She Wrote was distributed via broadcast (and later cable) television, however, which had some peculiar quirks to it, relative to how people watch TV shows now.

In particular, if one changed the channel something else would be instantly on. This differs from modern streaming in that no choice is necessary prior to viewing something else; one simply would start seeing a different show and could evaluate without any decision-paralysis whether it was better. If one is watching a show on a streaming service, or via DVDs, or what-have-you, switching from the current show involves some amount of time spent evaluating options while not watching anything, and the new things may not be a replacement of the same length. This meant if you didn’t grab someone, they might easily decide to change the channel to see if something better was on.

This phenomenon was exacerbated by the way one got a decent fraction of one’s viewership: they were watching whatever was on in the timeslot before you. Of the ones who didn’t come in this way, some decent fraction had been watching something else and flipped channels to see what else was on. They might not even be intending to check out the channel on which your show is playing, so you have only a moment or two to grab them before they follow their original intention and flip away.

The longer one watches this on-demand, and thus intentionally, the stranger this seems. I stopped watching linear TV about twenty years ago. In college I would catch Mystery Science Theater 3000 on the shared TV in the dorm lounge, but when I moved into my own apartment for grad school not paying for cable TV was a very easy savings and I was not tempted to get an antenna for broadcast TV, either. And I’ve never been tempted to get TV service since then, either, despite the internet company all but throwing it in for free with my internet service.

(Incidentally, I’ll never forget the look of horror on my oldest son’s face when I explained to him how broadcast TV worked, where if you missed it when it broadcast you simply didn’t get to see it until re-run season.)

I have no idea if “Tonight, on Murder, She Wrote” served its intended purpose. If you had any experience of the show you know that at best it was irrelevant to the episode and most of the time it was misleading; thus it was just annoying. On the plus side, though I only realized it later in life, you didn’t need to bother avoiding it because it never contained any spoilers. It’s curious to see it now, watching the episodes on DVD. It’s an odd connection to when I was a child and watched it over broadcast (we didn’t have cable back then), in spite of it being a bad memory.

It’s curious how one can become nostalgic for things one didn’t like; perhaps it is in some way connected to the improved powers of enjoyment one gains as one ages, providing one doesn’t waste the time.

Murder She Wrote: Curse of the Daanav

In the latter half of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Curse of the Daanav. This episode is set in the mansion of Seth Hazlitt’s estranged brother, Robert. As settings go, mansions are one of the best.

The episode actually begins in India, though, some unspecified amount of time before the episode begins. It begins, specifically, with two guys in a cave using an oil lamp.

The non-Indian guy looks like he’s wearing a suspiciously modern style of clothing, but the oil lamp makes this likely to be quite some time ago. Flashlights with tungsten filament bulbs were invented in 1904 and had sold millions by 1922 in the United States. They are here to steal a ruby from a golden cobra.

A golden cobra statue, I mean.

The non-Indian guy tries to lift the statue, but it’s too heavy, so instead he uses a knfie to pry the gem loose. The camera goes wonky, the Indian guy screams and collapses, and then the non-Indian guy grabs at his throat and collapses. Then the Indian guy wakes up in a bed, screaming.

So perhaps it was all a dream? Or perhaps he was just remembering something that happened. Given that he seems to be in the present day, I assume it’s just a dream because the guy hasn’t aged at all from when he was in the cave with the oil lamp.

We then cut to Seth’s brother, Richard, giving the ruby to his young wife, Alice.

He says that it’s not half as beautiful as the woman wearing, but that it will turn a few eyes at the party tonight. Alice is distressed by this. She says that his friends will take one look at it and think that she married him for his money. Also, it puts the gift she gave him to shame. He laughs this off, but she protests that being swept off her feet and honeymooning all over Europe, and the jewels and the parties are nice and all, but they’re also overwhelming.

He tells her that she’ll get used to it.

They’re interrupted by Richard’s daughter from his first marriage, Carolyn:

She comes in with the cattiness turned up to 11. About the necklace, she remarks, “It doesn’t surprise me at all. But then he’s always been very generous. Haven’t you, Daddy?”

He replies, “To a fault, in some cases.”

She then says, “Aww, come now, Daddy. What’s the point of having money if you don’t spend it? Besides, all I want is a measily thou. You can call it an advance on my inheritance.”

Richard sighs and, as he picks up his checkbook, says, “Carolyn, honey. These advances are becoming an all-out major assault.”

He tells her that money is not unlimited and he works hard for it. He then says that she has to learn that she can’t buy everything she wants.

She asks, “Why not? You have.”

She grabs the check from him and leaves. He remarks, “that’s a chip off the old block.”

That last part is interesting, because it acknowledges that her patterns of behavior had to come from somewhere, and that’s probably mostly her parents. You usually don’t see that in murder mysteries; spoiled children are typically treated as if they sprang fully formed from their parents and went wholly wrong entirely on their own.

Which is not to say that people do not have free will and do not make their own choices. They do. Bad people can make themselves that way despite being raised well, just as saints can overcome having been raised badly. These are not the norm, though. It’s far more common that if people don’t have principles, it’s because they were raised without them. And this makes the rich old man with the awful children not nearly so much an object of pity as he’s typically made out to be. There is something sad about a man reaping what he has sewn, but that is tempered by the fact that it’s only justice.

We then meet the spoiled brat’s brother, Mark:

She’s walking down the stairs quickly and he asks her what the rush is—is she afraid that some trendy new fashion will start without her?

I get that Murder, She Wrote needs to be time-efficient in its characterizations, but this level of casual antagonism is dysfunctional. I suppose it’s meant to help make him a suspect—Carolyn suggests that if their father and her young wife have a son together, Alice will ensure that her own issue takes over the bank when their father dies, not Mark.

This is basically just taking aristocratic primogeniture from golden-age detective mysteries and pretending that it applies to American businessmen. Even there, Mark would have to be a nephew with Richard having no male issue, so far. As the oldest son, his position under primogeniture would be assured.

In the actual circumstance, this is absurd. Richard Bradford, the actor who plays Richard Hazlitt, was born in 1934 and was thus 54 years old in 1988 when this episode aired. I suspect he was playing older, though, since his children are clearly in their thirties and Richard Hazlitt was unlikely to have fathered them in his early twenties. But heck, let’s suppose the character was supposed to be the same as as the actor—and it’s weird for a thirty year old to talk of a fifty year old as being “old”—this means that in twenty years he’ll be 74. Even if he survived this long, he’ll probably retire, and the oldest his son with his new wife could be is nineteen years old. Are we really to expect a bank to be run by a nineteen year old with no experience in preference to a fifty year old who’s worked in the bank for the last thirty years? Primogeniture will pass a title and estate to a child. American corporations don’t work that way.

This is one weakness that Murder, She Wrote sometimes runs into when it tries to pay tribute to golden age mysteries—some of them simply don’t work in modern America. (See The Lady in the Lake.)

In the next scene Seth and Jessica are in a car with glorious rear-projection of Washington DC behind them.

I can’t help but wonder what it was like shooting rear-projection scenes. Did they feel as silly as they looked, or was it just a part of the business? My mother likes to say that people were more innocent and accepting back then, but I have dim childhood memories of my father making fun of rear projection even back then.

They were in Washington D.C. to confer with their congressman, and that done, Jessica is trying to talk Seth into accepting an invitation to a polo match from his estranged brother (Richard). With effort, she talks him into it, but he makes it conditional on Jessica coming with him, which she reluctantly agrees to.

The scene shifts to the polo match. Richard and Alice are watching, while Mark is playing. The game ends moments after red team (Mark is on blue team) scores a winning point. Richard upbraids Mark for bad playing.

I find it interesting that Richard is not a sympathetic character. Earlier, it was a bit more ambiguous, where he was pulling in the reigns on a spoiled child; it’s possible to not notice who it must have been who spoiled the child. Here, he’s just being pointlessly critical and cruel. I wonder if this is to help make Seth more sympathetic for being estranged from his brother for so many years.

Mark asks his father why he doesn’t get off his (Mark’s) back, and Richard asks Mark why the hell he doesn’t learn to play the game. He then says, “and there’s someone who could teach you,” and calls out to Vikram Singh, and congratulates him on a good match.

It’s the same guy as in the dream!

Jessica and Seth come up and Jessica observes that they seem to have missed the entire match. “So much for that driver’s short-cuts.” This is a cute way to get them there at the right time, story-wise. It’s not a big deal, but saves a bit of time.

We then meet Alice’s father as the two of them walk up to Jessica and Seth.

Seth guesses that she’s Caroline, but she clarifies that she’s Richard’s wife. She introduces her father, whose name is Burt Davis

Richard then notices Seth, and the two of them stare at each other warily.

It then comes up that Richard was not the one who invited Seth, it was Alice who took the liberty. She then tells Seth and Jessica to come stay at the house, and Richard can’t say no to her so it is arranged. She has a forceful personality, but also means well, which is unusual in a murder mystery.

The scene shifts to the party that evening, where we see Burt eating and drinking off of the plates that servants (or catering staff) are carrying. I think this may be meant to establish his character as low class and unused to the events, or else just someone who really enjoys eating and drinking. He wanders into Seth, and then Jessica walks up with Vikram Singh, and it turns out that they’re standing next to Caroline and Mark.

The children complain, as is their habit. Jessica tells them that she was just saying to Singh that she was sorry they missed the polo match. Mark says that she didn’t miss anything but Vikram begs to differ; prior to his fall Mark scored three goals, which Singh considers most impressive.

Richard and Alice join the group, and Vikram Singh notices the ruby she’s wearing (the one from the dream which Richard gave to Alice at the beginning of the episode). Singh identifies it as “The Eye of the Daanav” and tells them about its curse. The ruby, he explains, is the all-seeing eye of a powerful demon called “The Daanav”. It’s a golden-headed cobra which controls all that is dark and evil in this world.

I’m kind of curious what religion this legend is from, because it doesn’t really match up with Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam, the three major religions you’ll find in India. (I wonder if this is like the episode where there was a Sheik with thirty six wives.) Anyway, the Daanav was angered by the theft of its all-seeing eye (more than a century ago), and laid a curse on it that would rob the breath of life itself from one whose heart is less than pure, killing them most horribly.

Richard thinks that this is merely a scare tactic, though, as Singh has already, on behalf of his government, offered Richard twice what he paid for the jewel. Richard, however, is adamant that he won’t sell it. Why, is not stated. It’s hard to see how he could have a strong attachment to it, but as we will see the plot requires him to not be willing to give it up. Perhaps this is why he was shown to be such a selfish, inconsiderate bastard earlier.

At this awkward juncture Alice excuses herself as having a ton of people to meet, then remembers that she hasn’t given Richard his gift yet and tells him to wait in the study while she goes to get it. It turns out that she left it in her car in the garage. When she gets there an engine is running. She leaves the door slightly ajar and goes to investigate, but the car’s doors are locked. Then the door she left ajar is slowly and quietly closed. She bangs against the door, calling for help, as she coughs from the carbon monoxide. She eventually falls to the ground, unconscious and we fade to commercial.

When we come back from commercial, Burt and Mark are walking to the garage because Burt had thought he’d lost his pipe then remembered he’d left it in the car in the afternoon. Mark tries the door to the garage and remarks that it’s locked, which is unusual. He thinks he’s left his keys “upstairs” (this is a detached garage so “back in the house” would have been more accurate, but Mark appears to be drunk). Burt holds up the key to the garage and asks, “what’s this?” Mark replies, “Oh, what do you know?” They then hear the sound of the car engine and rush in to investigate and find Alice.

They rush her back into the house, Mark carrying her, and Seth takes charge while he instructs Richard to call the paramedics. This done, Richard comes to tell Seth that the paramedics are on their way and he tells her that it’s OK, Alice is coming around. Burt then insists on calling the police as he thinks that someone tried to kill Alice. Richard thinks this is ridiculous, but the next scene shows a police car so someone called the police.

Jessica meets Lt. Ames in the garage, looking at the scene of the crime.

Lt. Ames is played by Larry Linville, best known for playing Frank Burns in M*A*S*H.

Lt. Ames tells Jessica that this is probably a failed suicide attempt. Jessica finds this ridiculous because who commits suicide by turning on a car and closing the garage door so the garage will fill up with fumes and then going off to a party only to leave in the middle to kill themselves, since it must have taken longer than the fifteen minutes that Alice was gone for the garage to have filled up with fumes (It’s an enormous, many-car garage).

Larry looks at her with new interest, closes the door, and asks who she is. She lets it slip that she had been in Washington to meet with Congressman Hale. Ames recognizes the name; Hale is the head of the House Committee on Secret Intelligence. He concludes that Jessica is some sort of secret agent who cannot reveal her identity. He then gives Jessica all of the evidence he has.

The entirety of his evidence amounts to Alice’s key having been in the ignition of the car with the doors locked. Alice admits that it’s her key, but protests that she always kept it on a hook in the garage and anyone could have taken it. Under questioning, she said that she pushed the button that should have opened the garage a few times and it didn’t work, then she tried to go out the side door but found it locked.

Ames notes that when he tried the electric garage door opener, it worked fine. Seth interrupts and suggests that she might have been confused. Inhaling that much carbon dioxide was bound to cause a certain amount of confusion.

Alice then interjects that the paramedics said it could have caused far worse than that, had Seth not been there. Seth acknowledges this with an smug nod.

This is a thing that the writers try to develop during the episode—Seth’s medical prowess. The only real problem is that so far as I can see, he didn’t do anything at all. The only thing we know he did was listen to some part of her with a stethoscope and say that it was going to be OK because she was coming round. He didn’t even do as much as Dr. Watson often did (give the patient brandy). Nor do I see what he could have done, given that he didn’t have an oxygen canister on hand to administer oxygen with—the main treatment of carbon monoxide poisoning. There isn’t really a way to administer higher levels of oxygen without an O2 tank (that I’m ware of), and some searching that I did didn’t turn up anything besides administering O2 that will help (in the short term).

A bit of debate happens in which Richard suggests that the carbon monoxide confused Alice and she locked the door herself, while Jessica points out that carbon monoxide confusion still doesn’t explain who started the car. Richard declares that it was an accident, and Lt. Ames accepts that and leaves.

On his way out Lt. Ames tells Jessica, sotto voce, that if she needs his help on this she has it, on the record or not.

Alice goes back to her room and Jessica comes with her and helps her undo her hairdo. As she does so, Alice tells Jessica that she’s confident that she didn’t lock the door herself. Jessica asks who knew where the gift was and Alice says that Caroline was the one who suggested the garage. Burt, who was getting Alice an aspirin, reminds her that Mark knew as well, since he drove up just as Burt and Alice were hiding the present.

After this Jessica and Richard are talking and Richard said that it had to be an accident and it was just luck that Alice wasn’t killed. Jessica replies, “Luck, and your brother.” Richard admits that Seth was impressive and he didn’t realize that Seth had it in him to be so cool under pressure.

Again, I don’t get what Seth is supposed to have done. He didn’t have oxygen or any medicines with him. Is he supposed to have elevated her head in a way that made her breath twice as well, or something? There is an experimental technique where administering a small amount of carbon dioxide can speed the person’s breathing and help them to expel the carbon monoxide faster. He didn’t have any canisters of carbon dioxide on hand either, though.

Structurally speaking, it makes a lot of sense that the writers want Seth to have shown off his medical prowess and to have saved his estranged brother’s beloved wife, but I don’t see any legitimate way to have that here. Had there been an older person on oxygen whose tank could have been borrowed for a few minutes at a critical moment, this could have made sense. As it was, though, how impressive is it supposed to be that he laid her down on a couch and then listened to her lungs? I think that the lack of doing anything really hurt the emotional effect, because all of this talk about Seth saving Alice has the effect, not of drawing one’s attention to the brothers, but of making the viewer wonder what the heck Seth was supposed to have done.

This might not be an issue in a romantic comedy, but this is a mystery show. The viewers are self-selected for being interested in poisons, medical details, and exactly what happened. This is the worst genre to hand-wave away crucial details.

They then run into Vikram Singh, who is still in the house for some reason. He expresses his personal condolences. Richard thanks Singh then excuses himself. Singh interrupts him leaving, though, and says, “Mr. Hazlitt, but for the grace of a god we cannot hope to understand, your wife could very well be dead. Now will you trust that the curse of the ruby is true?”

Richard responds to this about as well as can be expected, but he catches himself at “Listen, you son of a-” and then moderates his language because a lady (Jessica) is present. He informs Singh that the ruby is not for sale, now or ever.

Again, why he has such an attachment to the ruby is never explained or even hinted at. It’s a bit hard to imagine why; so far as we know it’s just a pretty stone he bought as a present for his wife on a lark.

He adds that if he finds out that Singh was responsible for Alice’s almost dying, he will kill him. Singh finally departs.

Richard puts the ruby away in the safe in his study and runs into Seth, who was sitting in a chair in the study. Richard invites him to share a drink and Seth accepts. They begin reminiscing, then talk over what drove them apart—a woman named Molly. It seems that Seth was romantically involved with her, or at least interested in her, but she and Richard eloped. When they got back Seth had already left for Portland, and Richard couldn’t find the words. Then his business took off, and the kids came, and then Molly got sick and died very quickly.

Richard apologize, but Seth says that he should be the one to apologize, since his blindness was what drove Richard and Molly to have to run away. Then Seth did his own running away, and even after he married Ruth he couldn’t bring himself to make the first move toward reconciliation. “And now, Ruth’s gone too. And here we sit. Two of the biggest fools that ever drew breath.” (They then formally reconcile.)

It’s a very well done scene. I think it lacks a little punch because as a TV show it’s hard to take seriously since Seth is an ongoing character and Richard didn’t exist in anyone’s imagination before this episode and won’t exist in anyone’s imagination after it, either, not even in impact on Seth’s character. If this were a one-off story such that both characters existed equally, I’d say it was a superb scene. Both actors are really excellent, though that’s a thing specific to television and not really generalizable to writing mysteries in print form. I think that there’s a lesson, here, though: scenes of large emotional impact should generally be between equal characters.

Actually, a second lesson is that if you’re writing anything episodic or otherwise can’t live with the consequences, make sure to have the big stuff happen to non-major characters who will not be around in the future. We can then give them, in our imaginations, the consequences of their actions and the character changes of their significant improvements. Giving it to characters you will have to take it away from is simply wasting the character development.

General lessons aside, there is another problem, which is that it’s not entirely in character for Seth. He’s a cranky curmudgeon who never thinks deep thoughts. Also, what he said was too eloquent for him. I wouldn’t normally complain about improvements, but this gets back to the part about knowing that it won’t last.

Shortly after they reconcile.

A few hours later we see Alice in a nightgown coming down the stairs and looking for Richard. She seems to believe that he’s in the study. She knocks increasingly loudly and calls to him, but the door is locked. This brings Jessica and Caroline to the top of the stairs.

Jessica asks if something is wrong and Alice says that she thinks Richard must be hurt. This general commotion brings the rest of the house out of bed. Seth says that he left Richard in the study not half an hour ago. Unfortunately there is no key; the latch is an old-fashioned hinge-latch that can only be opened from the inside.

They break the door down and find Richard on the floor, dead.

Caroline then says, “Oh my God. The ruby. It’s gone.” And we get a closeup of Richard.

I think that this is supposed to illustrate that the ruby is gone. Since the ruby was never on any part of Richard that we can see, I’m not sure how it does that. So far as anyone knew, he had put it in the safe. (In fact, he hadn’t, since he was interrupted in that by Seth, but no one else could have known this, and we’ve no reason to suppose he didn’t put the ruby back after his conversation with Seth was over.) The scene then fades to black; I suspect that this would be to the mid-point commercial break. We come back to someone from the police pulling a sheet over the corpse.

Jessica talks to Seth and he tells her about the reconciliation, then goes to get fresh air. Lt. Ames is talking to the rest of the family, asking about secret passages, but Mark assures him that the only way in or out was through the door or windows, all of which were locked.

So, we have a locked room mystery.

I really should be more excited about them than I am but my experience with locked room mysteries is that they’re always disappointing. I’m beginning to think that they have to be. The problem is that a murderer can only get out of a locked room by some trick, and tricks are not very satisfying. Latches can be lowered after a door is closed, for example. In The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side, for example, the latch on the door would close if it was propped up and the door banged shut. A lot of play has been made about the breaking down of the door removing the evidence of how it was locked, too. So, for example, the deadbolt can be broken open and only the catch used to lock the door, and when the innocent people break the door open they will see both the deadbolt and catch broken and so assume that they broke both. (Another approach which I associate more with pre-1930s mysteries, though examples can be found afterwards, are the use of devices to kill the victim such that they were actually killed in a locked room, and the device is disguised or removed later.)

The other issue here is that locked rooms only matter in a mystery when there is the suspicion of suicide that the locked room strengthens. Oddly, we’re never told what the cause of death was, but there is no suspicion of suicide ever brought up.

Pausing for a moment to talk about the cause of death, since it’s very strange that we’re not told: in the establishing shot there was no knife sticking out of the corpse and in the shot above we can see no ligature marks on the neck. There are also no pools of blood, so we can rule out stabbing and strangulation, but beyond this we’re given no information about how he came to be an ex-Richard. We’re not even given the proximate cause of death, such as heart failure, stroke, asphyxiation, etc. My guess is that he was struck from behind on the head with a blunt instrument. The half-hour window since Seth left him until when he was found dead leaves very little time for poisoning and the body wasn’t contorted, the lips not blue, etc. There is also the possibility of being shot since the dark clothes might not show a small bloodstain and if he was shot in the chest and fell backwards, and if the bullet didn’t exit the body (as they frequently don’t), there would not be obvious blood. Still, my money is on a blow to the head from behind.

Assuming, of course, the writers ever figured out a cause of death. I actually suspect that they didn’t.

The one thing we do know is that Lt. Ames treats this as a murder investigation from the beginning and everyone seems to agree with that. So this brings up the question of the locked room: what purpose did it serve? If everyone agrees that Richard was murdered, figuring out how the murderer locked the room after leaving is just a detail. The room being locked from inside only helps the murderer if there is some plausible alternative to “well, you must have done it somehow, as clearly somebody did it somehow”.

Anyway, at this point Caroline brings up the curse of the ruby . This brings Vikram Singh to Lt. Ames’ attention. It’s interesting, btw, how the writers dance around him being Indian. When Ames asks who Singh is, Jessica replies, “He’s the cultural attaché at his country’s embassy in Washington.” Also curious is that Ames tells one of the police extras to check on Singh and see if he was connected to the muslim protests a few weeks ago. Jessica tells Ames that Singh said he had attended a Divali festival last year, which would make him Hindu, not Muslim. Also possible is that he’s in some wierd made-up-for-TV Indian religion and happened to go to a Divali. (Divali is a festival of lights that is celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs; it thus seems to be largely a secular festival to which people attach various religious meanings as they care to.) This impresses Ames, anyway.

It’s getting late so Jessica suggests that Ames wrap up and he does so. He then asks her which federal service she’s with, but Jessica again protests she’s just a mystery writer from Cabot Cove, Maine. Ames takes this to mean that she’ll reveal her real identity when he needs to know and not before then, which he is content with.

This running joke serves the larger purpose of securing police cooperation for Jessica, and is an enjoyable way to do it. Every Murder, She Wrote episode needs to handle the question of how Jessica relates to the police; the episodes run the gambit from complete hostility to fawning admiration. This one is more on the fawning admiration side, but does so with a touch of dignity. Just a touch, but at least he’s clever about his mistake.

The next morning Ames runs into Jessica examining the outside of the room. After some further protestations that she isn’t a government agent, to which Ames enthusiastically (though insincerely) agrees, he asks what she has for him and she replies, “unfortunately, nothing.” The windows were not tampered with and except for their own footprints there are no marks in the flower beds outside the windows. Jessica concludes that the murderer wants them to believe in the curse.

They walk on and the camera pans up to Caroline, who had been watching them from a second floor window.

I believe that this is supposed to make us think Caroline is a suspect. She was the one who drew everyone’s attention to the ruby being missing. She was the one who told Lt. Ames about the curse. Of course, in a Murder, She Wrote, a suspicious close-up like this rules her out as a suspect.

The next scene of Mark, Mark is on the phone with, presumably, the family lawyer and angrily demands a copy of his father’s will today. Ames walks in on the tail end of this and finds it suspicious. There is some interesting word-play, though. “In a pretty big rush to see the will, aren’t you, considering your father is lardy cold?” He replies, “Lieutenant, my father was never anything but cold.”

In the ensuing conversation Seth protests and Mark points out that Seth is in no position to say what Richard was like. The long estrangement makes Ames suspicious until Jessica tells him that Seth can be trusted, which Ames takes to mean that Seth is also a government agent.

Jessica and Ames then go to investigate the study. Jessica figured out how the locked room was accomplished—a lit cigarette that propped up the latch while the door was closed.

As I said, it’s always some sort of trick. Oddly, no one raises the question of what the purpose of this trick was. Ames asks who would go to all this trouble for a ruby, and the scene cuts to interrogating Vikram Singh in the lounge. When Jessica says that Seth was killed by a man, not a curse, Singh leaves. As he goes he puts on black leather gloves, but then pauses as he puts the second one on, then takes it off again, looking quizzically at the glove.

Jessica, eagle-eyed as ever, spots his perplexity about what’s inside his glove. She calls him on it and it turns out to be the Eye of the Daanav.

Back at police headquarters, Jessica doubts that Singh is guilty. For one thing, he couldn’t have known that Alice was going to get Richard’s present from the garage, making it very hard for him to have tried to kill her that way. Also, he’s far too intelligent to have brought the ruby he stole the night before back to the victim’s house to hide it in his own glove without knowing it and then all but show it to Jessica and Lt. Ames. OK, Jessica only says, “Well, frankly, I doubt that an intelligent man like Mr. Singh would have deliberately hidden the ruby in the glove and then put it on in front of us.” She forgets to mention that this is the next day and Mr. Singh did not sleep at the house—it’s never explained why he was questioned there—and so he would have had to bring the ruby back to the house after stealing it the night before in order for it to be at the house.

I think that the writers wanted to write an isolated English country house murder with its closed set of suspects, but forgot that they didn’t actually do that. There’s kind of a lot of stuff that they forgot to do, when you get down to it.

Caroline is summoned to Lt. Ames’ office and questioned about her spending habits. She denies murdering her father for money—he had refused to pay her debts to a collection agency a few weeks ago. She suggests that if they want a financial motive, they should look to Alice, who will receive millions because of an outrageous insurance policy which she forced Richard to take out during their honeymoon.

In the denouement, Lt. Ames, Jessica, Seth, Alice, and Burt are in the accusing parler. They accuse Alice of murdering her husband (and faking the attempt on her own life), but it turns out to be a ruse to force Burt to confess. Well, not so much to confess as to make a slip. Lt. Ames suggests that Alice used one of her cigarettes in the latch and Burt points out that she smokes English cigarettes, not Turkish. Of course, he could only have known that it was a Turkish cigarette used to prop up the latch if he was the murderer.

Burt asks if Jessica is accusing him of trying to kill his own daughter and she says no, it was not meant to be fatal and only meant to raise the specter of the curse.

There’s a problem, here. People—and especially Burt—only learn about the curse moments before Alice goes to the garage to get her present to Richard. As Jessica established, the car had to have been running for a while before this. If Singh couldn’t have known that Alice was going to go to the garage to get her present to Richard, Burt couldn’t have known about the curse in order to make it look like Alice was nearly a victim to it. I think that this is just a plot hole.

Jessica tells Burt she had wondered at how lucky it was that Burt “just happened” to go to the garage and find Alice. When he protests that he had forgotten his pipe in the garage, Jessica reminds him that he had his pipe at the party and put it in his pocket in order to shake hands. There’s also a bit earlier where Burt had told Alice that the ruby was found in Singh’s glove, when Burt couldn’t have known that if he didn’t plant it there himself.

Any one of these is sufficient (in a Murder, She Wrote) to prove Burt is the murderer on its own, so all three together clinches it. Alice is astonished and asks her father why he locked her in the garage—he nearly killed her. He tells her that he had it planned down to the second. He had the key in his pocket and if Mark hadn’t found his key, Burt would have blown it there and then and opened the door and got her out.

He then explains why he killed Richard—he saw the kind of man Richard was: cold, possessive, king of the bloody world. And now he owned Alice, and would show her off to make people think more of him. What kind of a life could she have with a man like that?

Then we get to the real reason: But without Richard, she’d inherit. Oh, they could have been so happy, Burt and Alice. Going first class, never needing a by-your-leave from anybody. It would have been grand.

When this fails to get the reaction he was hoping for, he asks Alice, “You do see, don’t you? I was thinking of you.”

Since he very obviously wasn’t and she may be innocent but she’s not an idiot, she doesn’t say anything and tearfully hugs him. The scene ends and that’s all we get of her character.

The final scene is of Lt. Ames helping Jessica and Seth with their bags. He tells Jessica that it was a privilege to work with someone of her security clearance. She tries one last time to convince him that she’s not a secret agent by showing him her social security card, library card, and voter’s registration card. (Why she’s carrying the social security card and voter’s registration card in her wallet, she does not say.) He looks at them but then Seth calls to Jessica, “You’d better hurry if you want to meet with that agent before he goes to Moscow.”

This is a callback to a line from the scene in the car where Jessica is trying to talk Seth into accepting his brother’s invitation and he’s trying not to: “You’ve got to see that real estate agent about your vacant lot before he runs off to that family reunion of his up in Moscow, Idaho.” Without that context, which of course he doesn’t know, Ames takes it to have its more plain meaning. He looks at her cards again and remarks, “Best phony ID I’ve ever seen.”

Jessica only stares in disbelief, and we go to closing credits.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable episode. It was clearly inspired by the classic English manor house murder, which is always very fun. The theme of the reunion of brothers was well done and well acted, even if Seth was the wrong choice for the part. Alice, the young wife, was also a real asset to the episode. Her innocence and universal good will was really touching.

This was not an episode that stands up to scrutiny, though. You can see the amount that the writers paid attention to detail in things like the cause of death never being mentioned. For that matter, how was the murder supposed to have happened? Did Burt wait up until Seth left the study to creep in and kill Richard? Did he sneak in without Richard noticing him, or did he talk with Richard and wait for him to be standing there with his back turned?

However he did that—and neither options seems very practical—why steal the ruby if the idea was to try to blame the curse? If the ruby could steal itself, presumably it would have done so a long time ago and be back in the golden cobra’s head. If, on the other hand, the idea was to frame Vikram Singh, why wait for a time when Singh almost certainly couldn’t have been in the house? And what was the purpose of the locked room except to use a Turkish cigarette to frame Singh? But why bother using it to lock the door? It would have done as well to leave it in an ash tray.

Less of a fundamental problem, but still showing how little detail mattered, is the way that Burt started the car for the plot to pretend to have the curse try to kill Alice before he learned about the curse. To be fair, this would not have been easy to fix, since the episode started on the day of the party and Murder, She Wrote is generally so packed that the episodes are on a tight deadline. Even so, it’s still a mistake.

I’m also not sure what to make of Richard having been a lousy man and a terrible father to his Children. They did touch on the interesting theme of Alice’s goodness, with the aid of her beauty, reforming him. I wish that they could have done more with it but having the victim alive until the halfway mark is already pushing it in a murder mystery.

Which brings me to the abrupt ending.

One flaw in Murder, She Wrote is that the amount that they cram into less than 47 minutes doesn’t permit them to give characters a real farewell. They tend to just disappear. We never see Mark again after his telephone conversation with his lawyer. We never see Vikram Singh again after he’s arrested for having the ruby in his glove. We last see Caroline in the police station where she tells the police about Alice’s large inheritance. These aren’t well developed characters, though, so it’s not much of a loss to see them go without any closure. It’s far more of a pity that we don’t learn about what Alice will do. If this weren’t an episodic TV show where nothing that happens in it will affect future episodes, she might even lean on Seth for support which he would provide in his recently reconciled dead brother’s stead. Your father murdering your husband and your step children (who are older than you) hating you is a position in which you will want a friend, wealth or no. Alice would be a very interesting character to meet again, though unfortunately that won’t happen. They could at least have cut the opening sequence with the dollar-store Indiana Jones stealing the ruby in exchange for an extra minute in which to give Alice some closure.

The relationship between Jessica and Lt. Ames was also an interesting part of this episode. As I said, Murder, She Wrote has to establish some kind of relationship between Jessica and the police, and if they’re friendly, some sort of reason for them to be friendly. The more usual reason for them to be friendly is that they’ve been impressed by Jessica’s books. Mistaking Jessica for a high ranking secret agent accomplished this in a more fun manner. It’s also nice that while Ames wasn’t brilliant, he wasn’t an idiot, either. He merely had a mistaken premise that he stuck to. It also played, to some degree, on the fact that as the main character in the show Jessica was, in fact, as special as Ames assumed, just in a different way. It’s interesting as an example of how far one can go with taking a bit of comedy seriously without damaging the seriousness. It would have hurt had Jessica required Ames’ belief in order to succeed, but he was initially friendly anyway, so it remains plausible that Jessica could have secured his cooperation without the mistake, and this permits us to enjoy it.

Overall I would rate this in the top half of Murder, She Wrote episodes. It has many flaws but I think that they’re all forgivable in light of its good qualities.

Next week’s episode is Mourning Among the Wisteries. Jessica is off to the south to visit a playwrite friend of hers.

The Old Discovery Channel Ad

For those who haven’t seen it, over a decade ago the Discovery Channel made and ran this ad to promote their television shows:

Now, when it comes to advertising, a great deal of skepticism and even cynicism is warranted. I think that this is expressed nowhere so well as in what might be one of The Last Psychiatrist’s best posts, The Dove Sketches Beauty Scam. It’s well worth reading the whole thing, and gives a good perspective on supposedly wholesome advertisements. Here is possibly my favorite part, though it loses something out of context:

“Oh my God,” you might say, “I know it’s just an ad, but it’s such a positive message.”

If some street hustler challenges you to a game of three card monte you don’t need to bother to play, just hand him the money, not because you’re going to lose but because you owe him for the insight: he selected you.  Whatever he saw in you everyone sees in you, from the dumb blonde at the bar to your elderly father you’ve dismissed as out of touch, the only person who doesn’t see it is you…

I think that TLP is substantially correct.

So, all that said, I think that there is something of value in this ad, despite it being an ad. The value is two-fold, and I say this as someone who hasn’t watched TV, and hence hasn’t watched the Discovery Channel, in close to two decades now. Actually, before I get to those, let me quote the main conclusion (which is in the penultimate section) of TLP’s post:

That Dove wants you to think of it as the authority on beauty so it can sell you stuff makes sense, there’s nothing underhanded about it and hardly worth the exposition.  The question is, why do they think this will work?  What do they know about us that makes them think we want an authority on beauty– especially in an age where we loudly proclaim that we don’t want an authority on beauty, we don’t like authorities of any kind, we resist and resent being told what’s beautiful (or good or moral or worthwhile) and what’s not?…

“But I hated the ad!”  Oh, I know, for all the middlebrow acceptable reasons you think you came up with yourself.  Not relevant.  The con artists at Dove didn’t select these women to represent you because you are beautiful or ugly, any more than the street hustler selected you for your nice smile.   They were selected because they represent a psychological type that transcends age/race/class, it is characterized by a kind of psychological laziness: on the one hand, they don’t want to have to conform to society’s impossible standards, but on the other hand they don’t want the existential terror of NOT conforming to some kind of standard.  They want an objective bar to be changed to fit them– they want “some other omnipotent entity” to change it so that it remains both entirely valid yet still true for them, so that others have to accept it, and if you have no idea what I’m talking about look at your GPA: you know, and I know, that if college graded you based on the actual number of correct answers you generated, no curve, then you would have gotten an R…

“Everybody gets something out of every transaction,” said Joe, explaining why people want to be conned.  That’s what ads do for you.  They’ll let you complain that they are telling you what to want, as long as you let them tell you how to want.

Again, TLP is substantially correct. (I, personally, tended to get almost every answer on every test right, and teachers tended to ignore me as an outlier when setting curves, but that’s irrelevant to the point.) So how does the Discovery Channel ad have value when it is substantially similar to the Dove Beauty Sketches ad?

It does because of the description of human beings implicit by contrast in my favorite description of God: He who accomplishes all things according to the intentions of His will. The effects of human actions are mostly accidents, because we don’t know enough to know most of what we’re actually doing.

The Discovery Channel was trying to establish itself as the source of awesome, as being on team love-reality; much like Dove it’s trying to establish itself as an authority on what is interesting and awesome, and also as the source for these things. Yes, they’re doing these things, but that’s not all that they’re doing, because they’re human and so most of what they do they did not intend.

The goal was to present themselves as being the gateway to the awesomeness of the world, as well as having the brand identity of being on team awesome. The key distinction between this ad and the dove beauty sketches is that the latter used entirely artificial things—descriptions and a drawing—while the Discovery Channel ad uses real things—a picture of the earth from a satellite (the astronauts were, admittedly, obviously fake), real video of a great white shark flying out of the water as it tries to catch a seal, a picture of a real mummy, real video of lava and spiders, etc. While Dove was trying to sell a fiction as reality, the Discovery Channel ad has some reality in it.

The other key difference is that the Dove ad sets Dove up as the expert, while the Discovery Channel ad is largely supplicating itself to the grandeur of something else which existed before and will exist after the Discovery Channel.

Maybe the Discovery Channel is on Team The World is Awesome and maybe they’re just pretending, but if they are, then it is a case of hypocrisy being the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Either way, there is tribute being paid to virtue. And you don’t need to watch the Discovery Channel to appreciate that tribute to virtue.

I don’t watch it.

Murder She Wrote: Harbinger of Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m glad that someone noticed.

“Our work is scientific. And peaceful.”

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

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

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

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

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

He helps her bring her stuff into the hotel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The body turns out to be Drake Eaton.

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

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

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

Jessica’s response is not, precisely, encouraging.

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica is shocked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t even hear it go off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week’s episode is Curse of the Daanav. Jessica and Seth are off to Washtington DC to meet with their congressman, and after that to visit Seth’s brother, from whom he’s been estranged for decades.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail & God Appearing in the Clouds

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there’s a scene where the knights of the round table have a vision of God in the heavens and he commands them to find the holy grail. About 50% of MPatHG is quite funny, while the other half is very stupid. This scene is meant to be in the former, but it in the latter. It’s very stupid in a kind of interesting way, though, because it is stupid in a way that is profoundly typical of its time.

MPatHG was released in 1975 and made by men (the pythons) who were in their mid 30s at the time. (They ranged from 32 to 36 years old.) Having grown up primarily in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, they were at the height of the rejection of the old institutions which had failed Europe so spectacularly in two world wars separated by a scant 31 years. When Jack Weinberg famously said, in 1964, that his group didn’t trust anyone over the age of 30—he didn’t really mean it, he was just trying to annoy a reporter, but he accidentally captured a zeitgeist, which is what really matters, not his intended meaning—that put the cutoff at being born in 1934, while the oldest python (John Cleese) was born in 1939. What’s important to remember is that this spirit was not about age per se, but about generation; the new generation didn’t trust the previous generations. The pythons were in the trusted generation, and did not trust anything before them.

The scene of God giving the knights their quest begins with the knights showing respect at the heavenly vision, by kneeling and averting their eyes, and the pythons have God being annoyed at this. This is stupid beyond description, of course, which can get distracting, but its stupidy perfectly captures that spirit, pervasive in the 1960s and 1970s that everything traditional is bad. To the pythons it was funny to have even God himself annoyed at things merely because they were old, since God was part of what was old, but also an authority figure for what was old.

There was a second aspect to this humor which was also bound up in its time period. Part of the rejection of the old was the rejection not merely of the particular ceremonies of the old, but of all ceremonies. Not merely of the particular signs of respect that were old, but of all signs of respect. The pythons depict God as tired of signs of respect and wanting to just get to the point, just as the zeitgeist of the culture was to get rid of everything “superfluous” and get to the point.

This gets to the curious idea of “relevance” which mattered so much at the time, perhaps most notoriously in the priests who put on street clothes and picked up acoustic guitars in an effort to be “relevant”. History has not been kind to them, and I doubt that it should be, but this may at least make the action somewhat intelligible. The spirit of the time was to strip away everything rich, everything meaningful, everything symbolic—and to get as close to a bare animal immediacy as rational language would permit. It is that strange state of mind that permitted intelligent, educated men like the pythons to have the God who told Moses that he would shield Moses when he passed by because Moses could not see God’s face and live, complain when people averted their eyes.

The Youth Movement of the 1960s was made up of very timid people, which is why they were so allergic to symbols and rituals. They could only deal with things that mean nothing more than themselves, and even then often only with the help of drugs. Of course, they told themselves that they had the courage to deal with things as they were instead of hiding behind symbols—which is why they often seemed like idiots.

But they weren’t idiots, they were merely (frequently) neglected. Those born during the war and those born in its aftermath (the boomers) were born to exhausted parents who had lost faith in everything and were too scared to really raise their children. That’s why the main thing they really passed on to their children was their fear. (Let me reiterate, I’m only really talking about that fraction of these generations that became the Youth Movement.)

It has been said that great movies transcend their time and speak the human condition, while bad movies are mired in their times; thus it is bad movies that are most useful for historical research. Monty Python and the Holy Grail shows that it need not be entire movies; bad moments in good movies do just as well. (That said, I don’t think that you can really call MPatHG a good movie; it’s barely even a movie. It’s really an hour and a half long loosely connected series of (mostly) medieval-themed sketches which range anywhere from brilliant to terrible, though even the terrible sketches occasionally have a brilliant line in them.)