Murder, She Spoke

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

The episode opens with a band recording a country song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We then get a few more characters introduced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We next go to Jessica continuing her reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica sees something on the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the sharp intake of breath that Alerted Jessica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al then looks up and sees an unwelcome sight.

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

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

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

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

Not exactly the greatest comeback of all time.

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

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

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

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

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

And then we come to infrared motorcycle helmet vision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder She Wrote: Mourning Among the Wisterias

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

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

PENTAX Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re next introduced to several characters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If your money was on Crystal, congratulations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder She Wrote: The Days Dwindle Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bullets match.

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

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

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

Jessica then has an epiphany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder She Wrote: When Thieves Fall Out

The second episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote, is titled, When Thieves Fall Out. It’s a very unusual episode of Murder, She Wrote.

The episode begins with the owner of a car dealership firing a drunk salesman. After that we meet a rather enigmatic character. I’m not sure whether to call him the protagonist or the antagonist, and in many ways the episode isn’t sure, either.

His name is Andrew Durbin. It’s a bit complicated, but we learn his backstory: he just got out of prison for a murder he claims he didn’t commit 20 years ago. He had been a hitchiker, and a wealthy businessman was giving him a ride. A car swerved almost into their lane and they swerved to avoid it, crashing. The businessman was injured and Durbin ran to a nearby farmhouse for help, but they didn’t hear his banging on the door. When he got back someone had bashed the businessman’s head in with a rock, and $100,000 in bearer bonds were missing. At that moment the police showed, and he was taken to be the murderer, and was convicted.

He’s back in Cabot Cove because he recognized a kid in the car (in a prom outfit; it was prom night) that ran them off of the road, and he wants vengeance and to know who the driver is.

The kid turns out to be Bill, the owner of the car dealership.

Somewhere around here, the car dealership owner recognizes that some weird things are going and her husband is very scared, so she goes to Jessica for help.

Andrew Durbin goes to the car dealership and says that there seems to be some electrical trouble with his car.

Bill says that he’s busy and will need some time to get the repair done. He suggests that Andrew come back at 9pm to pick up his car. Andrew agrees. Jessica shows up and talks to Bill, but not much really comes from this. He denies everything. Jessica leaves, and Bill calls a confederate—presumably the other person in the car, that fateful night.

Interestingly for a Murder, She Wrote episode, while we’re pretty sure that someone is about to be murdered, we don’t really know who.

It turns out to be Bill, which is an interesting turn of events because it leaves the field so wide open for who the murderer could be. One obvious suspect is the man with whom he had an appointment at around the time he was killed, Andrew Durbin, but it turns out that Durbin has an air-tight alibi. He was eating dinner for 2 hours at a restaurant where several reliable witnesses could vouch for him.

The alibi is useful, structurally, but it’s also very curious that Durbin never showed up to the appointment. It’s somewhat implied, later in the episode, that this was really a setup; he expected this to stir up Bill’s confederate and get him to kill Bill. It’s never explained in detail, and doesn’t make all that much sense as a plan. Unless he figured that Bill’s killer would be sloppy and get caught, this plan would most likely result in the trail going cold and Durbin’s only hope of justice being extinguished. That said, for whatever reason he does it, he never shows up and is careful to have an excellent alibi for before, during, and after the murder is committed.

Convinced that Durbin is both innocent and telling the truth, Jessica interviews Bill’s old high school friends who were with him that night.

They lie to Jessica, of course, in order to protect Bill’s memory, and say that he was with them the whole time. Eventually it comes out that Bill was drunk and left early. There’s some further investigation and a sub-plot where one of Bill’s old football friends who is pretending to have been crippled in a car crash and is suing Bill turns out not to be crippled and to only be scamming.

I probably should have mentioned earlier that high school football was a big theme. All of Bill’s male friends from high school were on the football team with him, and they were the only team from Cabot Cove who ever won the state championship. This is important because it turns out that the driver, and the murderer both of Bill and of the driver 20 years ago was the beloved high school football coach.

There was actually a pretty good line from his confession, when he talked about how the business he had invested his share of the $100,000 into went bust almost immediately: “I guess I should have known that nothing good would come of that money.”

What really makes this episode special, though, is that it doesn’t stop here. Later that night, as Jessica and Amos are having dinner, Andrew Durbin shows up at Jessica’s doorstep to thank her.

Jessica says that she wishes he wouldn’t. She acknowledges that he was telling the truth and spent 20 years in prison unjustly, but he knew what would happen when he came. He replies that he did warn her that he was after justice.

“I can’t help but think that justice could have been served in a better way.”

Then he gets one of the all-time great lines in Murder, She Wrote.

“Oh? Well you give it some thought, Mrs. Fletcher, and when you figure out what could have been, let me know.”

Jessica is at a loss for words. He turns and leaves, and she closes the door. She then leans against it, thinking.

And there the episode ends.

Something I touched on in my blog post about how Jessica Fletcher is an oddly libertine scold is that she has an extremely strong but highly selective sense of indignation. She deplores violence but not, in general, any of the things which tend to make it necessary.

She dislikes, tremendously, that people she cared about were made to suffer. This is understandable, but it is a fault in Jessica that she didn’t rise above her feelings and stick to her principles and acknowledge that Durbin was in the right. Instead, she resents being made to be the one to find them out. In short, she is entitled to grieve, but not to be indignant, and Durbin’s final line points out to her how little she is entitled to her indignation.

Jessica does not learn from this moment, of course. First, because she’s written by television writers. Second, because Murder, She Wrote was episodic, with episodes not being related to each other. Frankly, I think it’s really more the former than the latter, though. All that said, it’s pretty satisfying for Jessica to get a comeuppance, for once.

Apart from all this, it’s an interesting episode. Detectives investigating long-ago mysteries is interesting, because the evidence is so limited (at least when people don’t have oddly good memories about things long-past to which they hadn’t attached any great significance at the time). This is done much better in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, but it’s an unfair comparison. That was a novel. A forty eight minute long TV episode cannot be as good. It does partake of some of what made that novel so good, though, even if it takes the easy route and uses photographs instead of people’s partial memories.

Jessica Fletcher is a Weirdly Libertine Scold

I am a big fan of Murder, She Wrote. I watched it very fondly as a kid, and I own the DVD box set of all 12 seasons. I enjoyed it then and I enjoy it now. I am a fan. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the thoughts I am going to relate.

One of the really weird things, that’s obvious to me now that I’m watching it as an adult, is that Jessica Fletcher is a weirdly libertine scold. She absolutely deplores violence, and also murder. She also has absolutely no patience for selling drugs. Other than that, she really doesn’t care what people do and will smile at just about anything.

This is odd for several reasons, not the least of which is how completely at odds this is with her background. Jessica is a retired school teacher from a small town in New England. This is a place where people are expected to pull their weight and screwing over friends and family for personal selfishness is frowned upon. The sort of selfishness involved in cheating on a spouse, prostitution, casual sex, leaving someone to move to a big city and follow ones dreams, and the like—these are the sorts of things which city-folk don’t care about, in part because half of them have done these things and the other half expect that they will in the not too-distant future. These aren’t part of the things small-town America approves of because they see the damage they cause.

Another odd thing about this is Jessica Fletcher’s age. She was a retired schoolteacher, which means that she had to have been in at least her late 50s in 1984 (the shows are contemporary). The latest she could have been born would have been around the year 1930. (Angela Lansbury was born in 1925, and was generally about the age of Jessica Fletcher.) A woman who grew up in small-town America in the 1930s and was a young woman in the late 1940s and early 1950s would not have been someone who instinctively approved of fornication, adultery, infidelity, and selfishness.

It may be objected that we normally see Jessica take in all of these acts unphased during an investigation, when, as a detective, she needs the confidence of the people she’s pumping for evidence. This might work if she weren’t willing to turn scold if one of the few things which offended her popped up. Moreover, she never scolds anyone about these things after the investigation, though she will scold them, then, for murder and violence.

This is most easily attributed, of course, to the loose morality of the people writing Murder, She Wrote. They, being in Hollywood, didn’t really disapprove of much of anything at all, though at times they were obliged to pretend to. That said, if we refrain from drawing back the curtain and only consider the work of fiction on its own terms, Jessica Fletcher is a very strange character.

Murder, She Wrote, for all that it’s fun, is often corny, though I admit it with great reluctance. That Jessica Fletcher was never given any actual principles, which is to say that she was never given any definite beliefs about the meaning of life and the attendant consequences of that, is I think what really kept the show from ever being great. She is, in a certain way, a direct descendant of the early detectives, who were often supposed to be mere calculating machines with legs. She had traits, but never really a personality.

I think that this is a great pity, though I doubt that it could have been otherwise in American television in the 1980s.