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 In fact, being out of date is one of its themes.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: If The Frame Fits

The final episode of Season 2 in Murder, She Wrote is titled If The Frame Fits. It’s a really good episode. It’s got good structure, good dialog, good acting, good settings—it’s very well done. Other than not being set in Cabot Cove, it’s the sort of episode that’s why one falls in love with Murder, She Wrote.

The opening is dramatic. We go from the establishing shot of a grand house (used in the title screen) right to a burglar breaking in.

Shortly after, Jessica and her friend Llyod Marcus come driving up. It turns out that this is Llyod’s house.

They came home early from a party because Llyod wanted to discuss a manuscript with Jessica. A “friend” wrote a draft of a murder mystery, and he wants Jessica’s thoughts on it. They go inside and he calls for his valet, but then remembers that it’s the valet’s day off. Jessica then recognizes one of the paintings. “That’s a Desmond DeVries, isn’t it?” “I wouldn’t know,” Llyod responds. “One of those splatter paintings is the same as the next, to me.”

It turns out that it was his late wife who was the collector. In turn, Jessica reminisces about Frank’s model car collection, until Llyod reminds her that they are there to discus his “friend’s” manuscript. Jessica fetches her copy from the library and we get an ominous shot of the thief hiding behind a curtain, his boxcutter knife held in a vaguely threatening way. Jessica doesn’t notice, though, and returns to Llyod. She tells him it might be better if she spoke directly with the author, and Llyod says that would be impossible because he lives in Tibet. Then they hear a sound from the library. When they examine the library, a painting which was there a minute ago is now missing.

Soon thereafter, we meet the police chief, named Cooper, and, so far as we know, the only policeman in the community. He was originally from New York, as we could tell by his accent if he didn’t mention it in his backstory. Also, his wife wants him to be a plumber, since it pays better. This is a recurring theme in his conversation.

To be fair, he looks more like a plumber than a police chief. He also doesn’t seem to be very good at the police stuff. Later on, Jessica has to stop him from handling evidence with his bare hands.

Anyway, it comes out that this is but the latest in a rash of burglaries in Cedar Heights. There’s been one approximately every three months. The thief leaves no clues and none of the paintings have been recovered. This conversation is cut short by the appearance of Llyod’s valet. He’s in his late fifties or early sixties and has a very English accent, which feels a little out of place. The episode tries to make him a character in the story, but not very hard, so I’m not going to bother with the extremely minor sub-plot that involves him. His entrance through the kitchen door did give Jessica the opportunity to examine the door, though, and she finds that there was a piece of tape on it. The piece of tape that’s left isn’t in a place to do anything useful, but it does suggest that the thief had taped the latch to prevent it from engaging and locking the door.

The next day, at some sort of country club, we meet the mayor and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Tilley.

Apparently being the mayor is a side-hustle for him; he makes his living selling insurance. In fact, he’d insured all four huge art claims this year. He’s worried he’s going to be fired for… insuring paintings that art thieves like to steal? Would they have preferred that he not sell policies to people? Would replacing him with a different insurance salesman be at all likely to result in only selling insurance to people who buy paintings that art thieves don’t want? I’m unclear what he’s nervous about. Now, if he worked for a small insurance company, or better yet owned a small insurance company (not that small insurance companies can really exist anymore, but that’s a more esoteric detail), it would make sense for him to worry about it going out of business because of all of the claims. Alternatively, it would make sense for him to worry that with premiums going up so much because of all of the thefts, no one will buy insurance anymore and all of his commissions will disappear.

Be that as it may, we’re introduced to the next character—Lloyd’s oldest daughter, Julia.

You may not be able to tell from the picture of her, but she is a deeply unpleasant woman. Within all of her complaining, we learn that her father doesn’t approve of her marriage, and we get the idea that she blames his disapproval for her marriage not being what she wanted it to be.

Julia takes Jessica for a walk, to show her “how the leisured class lives”. Somehow or other this ends up at a golf course, and we meet another of the important characters in our story: Binky Holburn. He’s played by the inimitable John DeLancie (if you know him, there’s a good chance that it’s as Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation).

With him is Ellen Davis. She’s… somehow attached to the country club. I’ve no idea how; she seems to be simultaneous a golf instructor, bill collector, and manager.

Binky is delighted to meet Jessica. So much so that Llyod remarks, “Binky was so anxious to meet you he came by my house yesterday before I’d even left to meet your plane.”

Murder, She Wrote needs to strike a balance between disguising the clues so that one needs to be watching out for them and also obvious enough that many if not most people will catch them. Indeed, this is a needle that all mystery writers must thread, though in a novel one has a much larger amount of hey in which to hide the needle, if you’ll pardon me for switching metaphors mid-stream. A TV show—even an hour-long one—doesn’t have nearly as much time and so disguising the clues is much harder.

Binky then brings up the subject of the art thief, remarking on Jessica nearly meeting him. He mentions that one of his was the first painting stolen, and advances the theory that it’s a drug addict, since he only takes mediocre paintings and leaves the masterpieces.

Binky then invites everyone to a dinner party in Jessica’s honor. Ellen declines because of too much paperwork to catch up with. Julia declines saying that she planned a very quiet evening because she and Donald, her husband, so rarely get to spend time together.

In the next scene, Jessica, Llyod, and Julia are having lunch. After Julia is monstrously unpleasant for a bit (can you guess by now who is going to get murdered?), her husband and younger sister, Sabrina, walk in to join the lunch. There’s a curious tension about this, like there’s more to it than a brother-in-law merely helping out his sister-in-law.

This completes the cast of major characters in the episode. It’s an interesting collection of characters; there are many relationships and many possible relationships, though still a small enough group to keep track of. Not much happens at lunch before the scene is over. Jessica is introduced to Donald and Julia gets the double martini she had ordered. She and Donald are a little cold, though they don’t say much past the minor discussion of why he’s late.

The next scene is Binky’s dinner party with Jessica and Llyod. Binky finishes up a story about his favorite cafe in Paris, laments that Donald has a business meeting and Sabrina a headache, then remembers Llyod’s book. Jessica (who signals to Binky that she doesn’t want to read it) says that she left her manuscript back at the house. Binky suggests to Llyod that he go get it. Llyod delightedly jumps up and says that he won’t be ten minutes.

On the car ride home, Llyod looks crestfallen, while Jessica tells him that his friend would be far better off writing about something closer to his personal experience.

Llyod dejectedly says, “That’s allright, Jessica, your comments were very helpful.” He then pulls up in front of his daughter’s house (it was established that they live “practically nextdoor”) and peers out of the window. Then he says, “That’s odd. Julia’s front door is open.” Llyod cranes his neck to look out of the windshield, and they show us what he’s looking at:

If you look very carefully, you can see that the front door is in fact open, but Llyod couldn’t have seen this when he started to slow down. In fact, he comes to a stop before he looks closely at the door. It’s pretty clear that he knows something is up.

They go to investigate, and if your money was on Julia as the corpse, congratulations, you win. They find her crumpled on the floor with a rope around her neck.

I’m guessing that there’s a commercial break here, because we cut to the chief of police crouching over the dead body, saying that the situation is under control. What situation he’s referring to is unclear. It seems unlikely that anyone is worried about Julia reanimating as a zombie or a vampire—other than that, I’m not sure what control there is to worry about. He doesn’t seem to have done any investigating yet past having removed the cord from around the victim’s neck.

Jessica offers to take Llyod home and he refuses since he might have things that he can tell. Jessica relents and starts investigating. It’s unlike her to have waited for the police chief to have arrived. Normally she’d have investigated than said to the police chief, “surely you’ve noticed…” after he arrived. This way plays a little better, though, so I suppose we just have to forgive it.

Jessica asks how long the clock on the mantle had been broken, and Llyod says that it was perfectly fine the day before. The police chief concludes that it was “broke in the struggle” and provides a time of death. Jessica, very sensibly, asks what struggle it was supposed to have been broken in. Everything else on the mantle is in good condition, nothing is in disarray, and the body is nowhere near the clock. Jessica recommends that he takes the clock in for lab analysis and he starts to grab it. She reminds him, “including for fingerprints” and he then thinks to pull out a handkerchief to use to pick it up. I generally like it when the police invite Jessica’s help, but it’s stretching credulity a little far that he wouldn’t think to look for fingerprints. In fact, the more incompetent an investigator the more I would expect him to want to lean on easy evidence like fingerprints.

Jessica then looks at Julia’s neck, now that the cord has been removed, and there’s a thin cut along it. The cut is the sort of thing that would be made of she were strangled with wire, not with a thick rope like was around around her neck. The clues are beginning to add up that we are not looking at a pristine crime scene. Clearly, what we found was staged. But by whom, and why?

Jessica notices a button clasped in Julia’s left hand.

Victims ripping buttons off of their murderer’s clothes is a somewhat overdone trope since grabbing your attacker’s buttons and yanking is neither useful nor instinctive. Even grabbing one’s murderer’s buttons and hanging on until you’re dead so that the murderer must yank his sports jacket away from your corpse’s steel grip isn’t exactly a strong instinct in our species. Moreover, even if one were to rip a button off of one’s murderer’s coat, it would be incredibly hard to do it between the thumb and palm, as it’s shown in the picture above. All that said, for reasons we’ll get to soon, the button being where it is actually fits in this case.

The button turns out to have the initials “DG” on it. Llyod proposes that they stand for “Donald Granger,” as he recognizes the button from a suit Donald had made in Saville Row on his honeymoon. I guess we’re supposed to believe that he put on his honeymoon blazer to murder his wife out of sentiment?

Just as Llyod is explaining his theory as to why Donald did it, Donald walks in and says hello, then notices the chief of police and the corpse on the floor. Llyod rushes over, shouting about how Donald killed his daughter. Then they go to Donald’s wardrobe and match the button to the blazer. When it matches, Donald says, “Stop it! Everything is all wrong. This is insane. I didn’t kill her.” Jessica ignores this and asks Donald where he was. Llyod interjects that no business dinner lasts until one (presumably, AM). He must, therefore, have been cavorting with a floozie. He movies to attack Donald once more, but Jessica restrains him.

The next day Llyod is pacing the floor, having refused food as well as not sleeping, apparently waiting for a telephone call. It arrives just as Jessica walks in the room. The police chief called to let Lloyd know that he has formally charged Donald with the murder of Julia. After Sabrina says that Donald couldn’t have done it and Lloyd explodes at her the evidence is clear, then storms off, Sabrina tells Jessica that Donald wasn’t a fortune hunter—at Lloyd’s insistence he signed a prenuptial agreement which means that he wouldn’t get a penny of Julia’s estate. This clue duly delivered, Sabrina leaves to get Donald a lawyer. I’m kidding, slightly. She said it in Donald’s defense because her father had just called Donald a fortune hunter. It works the information in naturally. The problem is just that the information stands out so much that we can’t help noticing it. And if somehow you did miss it, Jessica pauses and looks thoughtful to make sure you know that something important just happened.

If I were inclined to be flippant, I might call this “clue face”.

Mrs Fletcher then goes to see the police chief. The police station is interesting, by the way:

Cedar Heights is generally discussed as if it’s a secluded enclave for rich people an hour or more outside of New York City. The chief of police does his own plumbing and doesn’t have so much as a single deputy that we’ve ever seen. And yet, to go by this establishing shot, it’s got multi-story buildings and elevated train tracks. Also, the sign says “Police Station 15”. That’s an awful lot of police stations to have with a single policeman in town.

Anyway, as he’s trying to fix the pipes in the sink in the office attached to his bathroom, the police chief says that Donald Granger’s story doesn’t hold water any more than the pipes do. His business meeting had been canceled earlier in the day. His story is that he went to the seafood shanty, met a friend, and had a late supper. However, the police chief says, no body drops in to the seafood shanty. It’s way out near the beach somewheres. The kind of place people go where they don’t want to be seen. He won’t name the friend, either. The chief’s analysis is that for someone who is supposed to be bright, Granger committed one hell of a stupid murder. Jessica emphatically agrees. Granger’s lawyer then shoes up to bail him out.

We now move to the country club, where Ellen Davis hand-delivers a bill to the mayor’s wife.

Mrs. Tilley makes an impressively catty comment. After complementing Ellen on her outfit, she observes that if you’re going fishing, it pays to have attractive bait. Ellen smiles, and attributes not receiving a payment from the Tilleys in several months to the mail being dreadful, lately. It’s a decent disguising of information, but I, suspect that the writers actually wanted to draw attention to it and so didn’t disguise it too carefully. Jessica isn’t around to draw our attention to it with clue-face, so they can’t afford to be as subtle, I suppose.

Ellen smiles and walks off. I still wonder what her job is supposed to be at this country club, but we never do find out. The mayor’s wife then walks into Jessica, who is at the country club for some reason. She invites Jessica to a dinner party, but Jessica declines because she can’t make any plans under the circumstances. Mrs. Tilley interprets that to be about investigating the case, and starts talking with her about it. It’s hard to tell whether she’s interested in the case as a mystery or just loves nothing so much as gossip. Either way, she’s got information to share, and is eager to do it sotto voce.

She tells Jessica to cherchez la femme, in this case, the younger sister, Sabrina. It turns out that Donald had originally been with Sabrina, but then she introduced him to her sister and he switched to the older sister. However, Donald has had lots of late-night business meetings in Manhattan… need she say more? Jessica replies that she’s said quite enough enough already. Why Jessica disapproves of gossip now, when it helps her investigation, I don’t know. She’s normally happy to smile at any sexual impropriety, and in fact will again later in this episode. Mrs. Tilley goes on to say that it would be convenient if the murderer were Donald, though, since it would mean that her husband’s firm wouldn’t have to pay up on the million dollar life insurance policy that her husband sold them the day after they were married. I guess they must have waited to take their honeymoon. That one warrants clue-face with eyebrows.

Jessica goes off to see the police chief. For some reason, she runs into him at the scene of the crime. She tells him about the life insurance motive that Donald Granger has, but he gets a phone call from someone confirming that Donald Granger was, in fact, at the Seafood Shanty at the time of the murder. They didn’t recognize who he was with; she was a brunette and a “real looker”. Chief Granger remarks that none of it makes any sense, and Jessica agrees. She goes through the list of contradictory evidence.

Supposedly Julia tore the button off of the tailored blazer, but her carefully manicured nails suffered no damage. The cuts on the neck were unlikely to be made by a thick rope. Then Jessica notices the painting on the wall. The chief of police looks at it too, and remarks that they all look alike to him.

Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that this is Lloyd’s Desmond Devries splatter painting.

Jessica goes to Lloyd’s house and confronts him. The other day, on the drive home, she thought he was preoccupied because of her comments on his manuscript, but now she thinks otherwise. As much as he believes that all splatter paintings look alike, they don’t, she recognizes that the painting now hanging over Julia’s fireplace was in Lloyd’s library the day before. Further, she has to wonder about his having been gone fetching the manuscript for forty minutes when he said he’d back in less than ten minutes. This last part isn’t playing fair with the audience as the length of time he was gone was never mentioned. For all we knew until now, he had indeed returned in less than ten minutes.

That bit of hiding evidence from the audience aside, the revelation that Lloyd had found Julia dead on his way to pick up the manuscript and rearranged the scene of the crime to frame Donald does certainly make sense of many of the things we saw that night. Lloyd was excessively preoccupied, and stopped by Julia’s house before he could have seen the front door was open. His having already known that Julia was dead makes more sense of what we saw, so I do think this twist is entirely fair.

At the police station, Lloyd tells the police chief what happened. The painting over Julia’s mantle was missing from the frame, and the room was in a horrible mess.

They all go to the crime scene where Lloyd describes what he had found. The painting had been cut out of its frame, and the wire from the painting was wrapped around Julia’s neck. A pizza cutter was lying on the floor nearby, presumably used to cut the painting from the frame. The lock on the reader door was taped over, just like at Lloyd’s house. There was a small penlight outside the door. The clock had been smashed on the floor, he just replaced it. He cleaned the crime scene up, replaced the stolen painting with one of his own, ripped off the button and pressed it into Julia’s stiff fingers, then left the door open and went to rejoin Binky and Jessica.

In response to Jessica’s question about what happened to the frame and wire, he threw them in the garbage, which according to the police chief is incinerated every day, so all of the evidence has been destroyed. Daily garbage pickup is pretty impressive. This evidence being gone somehow allows the police chief to conclude that Lloyd killed his daughter himself, since (according to him) the only reason to frame someone is if you committed the crime yourself. Frankly, I’m not sure how the empty frame and the wire and pizza cutter being found in the trash would have exonerated Lloyd. There would have been no reason to switch paintings if the painting had not, in fact, been taken. Strangling his daughter with a wire then substituting a rope also served no possible purpose if she hadn’t been killed as part of an art theft, and the chief is not accusing Lloyd of being the art thief.

At the wake for Julia, Jessica delivers the news to Donald and Sabrina. He’s surprised that Lloyd hated him so much, and Sabrina is, as ever, confused. She asks what to do and Jessica says that the only way to exonerate Lloyd is to find the Cedar Heights art thief. Donald says that there must be some evidence—finger prints, or foot prints, or perhaps they could trace the pizza cutter?

Apparently waving one’s glasses back and forth signifies cutting a painting with a pizza cutter.

Unfortunately, Jessica says, Lloyd destroyed all of the evidence. They need to go to the country club to begin at the beginning. Donald gives her a ride and drops her off. She runs into Ellen Davis, and asks where Binky Hoburn is. Ellen says she just left him, and Jessica gives her the good news that Donald Granger is no longer under suspicion for the murder. Ellen looks confused and agrees that it is good news. Jessica continues that it’s especially convenient for her because it relieves her of the obligation to give Donald an alibi. She surmises that while the employees at the Sea Shanty didn’t know her name, they would probably recognize her photograph. Ellen says that she was just checking out the place and ran into Donald there. She recommends not reading too much into that, it might prove embarrassing, and Jessica asks, embarrassing for who? Ellen doesn’t answer, she just walks off.

She finds Binky on the putting green, and apparently he is absolutely terrible at golf. In response to her question, he says that the night his painting was stolen he was on his evening constitutional. He always goes for a walk after dinner, and you could practically set the town clock by him.

Next she talks with the Tilleys, since theirs was the next painting stolen. Their painting was definitely insured. Mayor Tilley was offended at the idea that he wouldn’t ensure his own property—insurance isn’t about the money, it’s about peace of mind. Anyway, they were at the opera in New York when it happened. Everyone who was anyone was there. It was also the maid’s night off. Jessica then goes to see the police chief. He’s doing more work on the pipes on the sink in his office.

Mayor Tilley is with them, and somehow got the information that by pure luck “a friend of Carpenter spotted [one of the stolen paintings] in an Edinburgh gallery.” In the ensuing discussion, it comes out that in every theft it was the servants’ night off and the owners weren’t home either. This suggests to Jessica that the thief is someone with intimate knowledge of the community—one of its members.

Jessica then pays a call on Ellen Davis. (She actually first runs into Lloyd’s valet, but the conversation doesn’t really add anything besides the suggestion that the Tilleys are in financial difficulties, which we already knew and which probably didn’t change what Jessica did anyway.) Somehow the subject of Donald Granger comes up, with Jessica implying that there’s something between them. Ellen replies, “You mean, were we having an affair? This is the ’80s, Mrs. Fletcher. Promiscuity is not, exactly, page one news.” In contrast to her scolding tone of Mrs. Tilley talking about infidelity, here Jessica just indulgently nods her head and looks at Ellen.

Jessica is, as always, remarkably selective in what she shows disapproval of. Moreover, she’s remarkably cosmopolitan in what she shows disapproval of. She dislikes gossip, but isn’t phased by cheating and adulterating a marriage. One of the great weaknesses of Murder, She Wrote writing is that Jessica is in no way a small town character. In a small town, you have to deal with the fallout of people adulterating marriages because people still live with each other afterward; adultery can be a hardship on an entire community. In a big city, adultery just means that people stop going to the same parties which they probably won’t be invited to anyway, and otherwise they never see each other again. Quite apart from the moral aspect of adultery, someone who comes from a small community will instinctively dislike the way this is community-wrecking behavior. It’s only city-folk, who have no community, who don’t give a thought to the communal impact of decisions.

Jessica stares Ellen down, and Ellen discards her bravado and explains. She had worked in Donald’s club in New York. He was very unhappy in his marriage and was going to ask his wife for a divorce. (For some reason, on television, mistresses always believe that the married man is going to leave his wife and marry her and then be faithful to her. How similar this is to reality, I have no idea, though since adultery is hardly a smart idea, it would not be shocking if the people doing it are prone to not thinking it through in real life.)

She took the job at the country club—whatever it is—to be closer to Donald. This I find a little odd, since part of the problem in the marriage is that he spends all of his time away from home. Working at the country club should actually put her further away from him while he spends all of his evening in business meetings. (If “business meetings” was code for sleeping with her after work, it’s unclear how moving to cedar heights could have put her closer.)

Her friendship with Buinky Holburn is just a ruse. In reality, she finds him a bore. He talks incessantly of his house and art and his trips to England and Scotland and other places that art might be fenced, approximately every 3 months. Jessica asks if Binky is in financial trouble, and Ellen replies that while the idle rich are notoriously slow payers, Binky is the exception. She just wishes she knew where he got the money from.

Well, if she can’t put two and two together, Jessica can. Her next stop is at Binky’s house, with the chief of police and a warrant to look at his passport. I wonder on what basis the chief got a warrant; having money and supposedly making trips to Great Britain every three months isn’t exactly slam-dunk evidence, especially when all we have is the word of some guy that one of the paintings turned up in an Edinburgh gallery. Fortunately, the warrant is unnecessary—Binky admits it and is delighted that it took someone of Jessica’s caliber to catch him. He opens his safe and produces Lloyd’s painting.

The odd thing about it is that the painting goes all the way to the edge. The thing is, canvases always go several inches past that, in order to wrap around the wooden stretcher and be nailed or stapled into it with the edge folded over so that it won’t fray loose. If the painting were actually cut from the front, it would ruin the painting as it couldn’t be re-mounted without losing several inches. Unless we’re going to chalk this up to the prop department, it seriously calls into question Binky’s competence as an art thief. Especially with this being his sixth time—surely some art gallery he fenced it at would have complained by now. More on this in a bit.

Binky remarks that it was great fun while it lasted. He never took the real masterpieces, the insurance always settled so no one was hurt financially, and no one got hurt. The chief adds, “until Julia Granger caught you.” Binky laughs at this. He was having créme caramel with Jessica when Julia was murdered. The chief wonders if this means that they have a second art thief, and Jessica says, “not exactly.” They go over the evidence, and when they get to the pizza cutter, Binky exclaims in surprise. What on earth would a pizza cutter be doing there. He always used a single-edged razor. A pizza cutter is ridiculous because it would ruin the painting. Upon hearing this, Jessica sees the light.

The light Jessica sees, of course, is that a pizza cutter is an inappropriate tool to the task, which means that the “thief” had no idea what he was doing. There’s actually a secondary significance to this, which I’ll get to in a minute. Before we get there, there is a problem with this evidence.

Actually, before we get to the problem with the evidence, I want to mention the problem with Binky’s response to it. He protests that he doesn’t have a pizza cutter. In fact, he’s never eaten a pizza in his life!

The logic is somewhat odd; to not have eaten a pizza is not the same thing as to not have a pizza cutter. In the recesses of my pantry I somehow own a slap chopper, and I’ve never in my life slap-chopped anything. When I chop things, I use either a kitchen knife, a cleaver, a hatchet, or an ax (depending on the thickness of the thing to be chopped). With a knife one cuts to chop, with an ax one swings to chop. Never once have I slapped anything to chop it, and yet there the thing somehow is. That said, Binky has an alibi for the time of the murder so the fault in his logic is of no great significance. So let’s move on to the problem of the pizza cutter being a bad tool for stealing paintings.

The episode doesn’t give full details on how the painting was actually removed in Julia’s house, but in general there seems to be the suggestion that the cutting tool would be used to cut the painting from the front. If you did this with a pizza cutter, this would indeed ruin the painting, but no more than if you did it with a single-edge razor. Heck, you could cut it with a high-tech laser or a sci-fi monomolecular saw. The problem, which I mentioned above, is that the canvas for a painting is several inches wider and taller than the part that you see because it has to be wrapped around the wooden stretcher that holds the painted surface taught. If you cut it from the front, you’d lose several inches of the painting when you wrapped it around a new stretcher. Now, there is something for a competent art thief to cut when stealing a painting, but it’s not the canvas.

When mounting a painting on a wooden stretcher into a frame, it is typically taped, from the back, to the frame. This is done with a specialized tape called, uncreatively, “framing tape”. It’s a brown, papery tape which has an adhesive that’s meant to last years and ensure that the painting never falls out. If you are going to steal a painting, it would be more convenient to remove the frame and it would be a pain in the neck to peal the framing tape off, so the easiest option is to turn the framed painting around and cut the framing tape on the back. The painting will not be wedged tightly into the frame, so there’s room for a knife to go in without harming the canvas. So here’s the thing: this is equally true of a pizza wheel as it is of a single-edged razor. You are no more likely to damage the canvas with a pizza wheel than with a razor. In general, I would expect art thieves would normally go for a razor over a pizza wheel simply because the razor, being smaller, is easier to carry, and less likely to make noise since pizza wheels are frequently prone to rattle. That said, you can find tools meant for cutting fabric which are basically extra-sharp pizza wheels with a bit smaller blade because they don’t need to worry about the axle getting caught in cheese. Here’s a picture of my wife’s:

When I cut fabric I just use fabric scissors. The wheel cutter requires, or at least does best, with the backing mat you see it resting on in this picture, which is too fussy for my taste. Still, it exists and, I’m told, works well. A pizza cutter is more optimized for cutting pizza, but the things are just as capable of taking a sharp edge as any other piece of thin metal, and it would be perfectly fit for purpose, as the British say.

What we’re left with is that a pizza cutter is a slightly unusual choice for the imitation art thief to have picked. That is sufficient, though, because we did hear somebody who knew about this odd choice without being told.

Before we get to that, though, we have one final scene with Sabrina and Donald Granger. They’re at the funeral home, getting the flowers ready.

If you’re familiar with Murder, She Wrote, you’ll know this means that there’s a 98% chance that one of them did it. Sabrina seems to be implying that she wants to move on from being brother and sister in law to having a romantic relationship. Jessica even interrupts them by telling Sabrina that they’ve discovered the identify of her sister’s killer. This is so much the setup for the revelation that Sabrina did it that it might almost make one forget that Donald Granger had mentioned the pizza cutter without having been told about it.

Jessica presents the evidence, except for his slip about the pizza cutter. It’s not very strong and he argues with her. He presents his alibi, of being at the seafood shanty with Ellen Davis, but Jessica counters that the medical examiner couldn’t be so precise with the time of death. He counters that it had to be 9:45 because the clock was broken during the struggle. Whereupon the chief of police walks in from just offscreen and asks him how he knew that, since it wasn’t made public and he had bagged the clock for evidence before Donald had come into the house. Moreover, Lloyd said that when he planted the jacket button in Julia’s hand, her fingers were stiff, which means that she had to have been dead some hours. (That said, I don’t think that Lloyd’s evidence is worth a damn against his son in law, given that he’s already tried to frame him once, but that’s OK because catching Donald doesn’t hang on this.) As he tries to struggle out of this, Jessica then reveals his slip up with the pizza cutter. Then the dramatic music signaling that the case is proved plays.

Sabrina, troubled by everyone’s silence and the conclusive music, declares that she doesn’t believe it. Donald tells her, “Believe it, Sabrina. It was a million dollar craps shoot, and I lost. Count your blessing, kid. It could have been you in that box.” Sabrina attacks Donald uselessly. He pushes her off and Jessica holds and comforts her as the police chief leads Donald Granger off to one of the many police stations in the small town of Cedar Heights. Interestingly, the episode ends here, on a somber note:

I would be curious to know how the writers decide between ending solemnly and ending slightly after the denouement, with everyone laughing. This ending fits, though I actually think it’s a pity that we don’t get to see Ellen Davis anymore. It would be interesting to know whether she blames Jessica for catching Donald or thanks her. It would also be interesting to see Lloyd’s reaction to learning that he had framed a guilty man.

Be that as it may, I hope you can see why I think that (despite not taking place in Cabot Cove) this is one of the great Murder, She Wrote episodes. It has an interesting cast of characters that are pleasant and interesting, with the exceptions of Julia (who, thankfully, is murdered fairly quickly) and Sabrina (who doesn’t get a ton of screen time). Despite having at least fifteen police stations, Cedar Heights has a small-town feel, which partially makes up for not being in Cabot Cove. The particular settings are mostly pretty, and even the awful splatter art is at least partially redeemed by its badness actually being a plot point.

The episode takes a little while to introduce all of the characters and for the murder to happen, but it makes up for that by starting off with the art theft and keeping that mystery going while we meet the characters. It both makes the episode more interesting and also makes it more complex. At the same time, it’s not merely complicated; the two mysteries intertwine in important ways. Even the murder mystery is done in stages, where we first have to unravel that the crime scene was substantially tampered with before we can get on to solving the murder. Once that progress is made, the art theft mystery becomes of primary importance, and only once that’s settled can we properly tackle the murder mystery. There’s a lot to sink one’s teeth in, and with how the plot is constructed, it all matters.

One tradeoff, due to the limited time in a Murder, She Wrote, to fit all of this in, is that the case against Donald Granger is a bit weak. The evidence against him is almost entirely having slipped up and mentioned the pizza cutter he shouldn’t have known about. Even that wasn’t worked in very naturally. He was trying to seem eager to catch the killer, but he should have waited a little bit longer, so he could make the slip while he was caught up in the conversation. The way it was done, he basically volunteered the information unprompted. This might have been OK if he wanted to seem clever, but what he actually wanted to seem was eager, not clever. Passion, conviction, and sincerity are what are needed to sound eager, not information or deductions. Other than this, there was no real evidence against him.

Which is actually a little bit odd, since he set the clock’s time while holding it in his bare hands.

This one I’m going to chalk up to an error in production. There’s no way that he would have forgotten to have worn gloves during such a carefully premeditated murder. Further, the chief bagged the clock for evidence, so unless we’re to suppose that Lloyd somehow smudged all of Granger’s fingerprints, he had to have worn gloves when he set the clock and wardrobe just forgot to give him gloves for this shot.

During the accusation, Granger does give a second piece of evidence against himself—his knowledge of the clock having been broken “in the struggle”. Realistically, these do seem to enough to get a conviction, but it’s a little unfortunate that the proof had to be manufactured rather than discovered. Still, it was at least manufactured through Jessica’s skill rather than by sheer chance, like the knowledge about the pizza cutter. It was also manufactured by presenting the case against Granger, rather than through lying to him about having lost an earring that never existed, or something like that.

Overall, I also think that the episode was pretty fair, as far as giving us all of the clues goes. We got a hint that the art thief was Binky pretty early, when Lloyd mentioned that he had been at Lloyd’s house the morning of the robbery—the clue which comes later about Binky taking trips every three months is confirmation of our suspicions, it’s not wholly new. (That Binky has plenty of money could go either way; we have no reason to suppose he didn’t inherit sufficient wealth to pay his dues at a country club on time. That said, his not being hard up certainly doesn’t cast doubt on his identity as the art thief.)

We also were given plenty of clues that the murder scene was tampered with. The clock was smashed in the struggle but there was no struggle. Julia was clearly strangled with a wire, but there was a cord around her neck. They did conceal from us that Lloyd took forty minutes to get the manuscript when it should have taken him less than ten, but I think that they made up for it by having Lloyd clearly stop before he could have seen that Julia’s door was open.

As to the murder itself, there was only one real clue that it was Donald and that was his slip up about the pizza cutter. Actually, that’s not quite true. Lloyd did mention Julia’s stiff fingers, which suggested that she had been dead for hours by the time he found her—not that they actually told us when that was—which does carry the suggestion that Donald’s alibi wasn’t good. That said, if the time of death was much earlier, Binky wasn’t having créme caramel with Jessica when it happened. In fact, I don’t think he was anyway, because the murder had to have happened before Lloyd left to get the manuscript, and they hadn’t started the créme caramel yet—Binky told Lloyd that if he hurried he’d just in time for it. Binky might still have Jessica for an alibi, but it would have had to have been long before desert.

All that said, Binky having been the killer doesn’t fit with the modus operandi of the art thief. He stole paintings every three months, and had just stolen a painting from Lloyd the night before. This was never brought up, but it was actually a bit of a slip-up on Donald Granger’s part. The art thief, having had such a regular schedule before, might hurry it up a bit, but it doesn’t seem plausible that he would hurry it up from every three months to every three thirds of a day. I think, though, that we simply need to forgive this as time compression so that Jessica can be present when the murder happens, in which case it wouldn’t be fair to use it to exonerate Binky. I think we’ll need to fall back on Jessica being Binky’s alibi earlier in the evening. He had invited everyone over for a dinner party, and even though they finished the evening somewhere in the viscinity of 1am and were having créme caramel some time after 9:45pm, they probably started dinner before 8:45pm, which is the time that Donald Granger started setting the clock forward from in the flashback. Rigor Mortis sets in anywhere from 1-6 hours after death (averaging 2-4), so if Lloyd found Julia at 9:50pm, that puts the time of death anywhere from 8:50pm to 3:30pm. The latter might run into the late lunch that Julia was at, but it seems unlikely that Binky had Jessica as an alibi for that entire time. If we suppose that the dinner party started with wine and snacks at around 6pm, though, I think that Binky is probably pretty safe.

Obviously, If the Frame Fits is not perfect, but at the same time its imperfections admit of explanations that are (reasonably) satisfying. It gives one meat to chew on. Oh, and it has a remarkably clever title. Quite early on, it seems to suggest that the art thief is the killer, but ends up referring to the guilty man having been framed for the crime. Even better, this is in distinction to the framing of the thief for the murder which the real murderer tried to do. That frame didn’t fit.

Murder, She Wrote: Obituary for a Dead Anchor

In the middle of season three of Murder, She Wrote is another episode about newsmen. This time it’s TV news rather than newspaper news, but other than that, it’s much the same.

Unusually for Murder, She Wrote the title card has a person in it. This is the titular anchorman, no less. His name is Kevin Keats and he’s a hard hitting reporter and also a self-important jerk.

He is conducting what is ostensibly an interview about art with Ronald Ross, who has one of the finest private collections of abstract expressionism in the country. This lasts for a few seconds, then Keats starts accusing him of being a drug dealer. Ross says that he’s very disappointed, because he loves to show off his art collection. He walks off, and his enforcer, Gerald Foster, a big bald man, signals that the interview is over by blocking the camera.

The TV that’s being watched in this shot belongs to Mr. Ross, btw, who is watching it with his enforcer. As a side note, I love the close, personal friendship that crime bosses almost invariably have with their enforcers. It’s so helpful for the casting departments of TV shows and movies that crime bosses never have intermediates so as to have plausible deniability if their enforcers are caught in one of the many criminal assaults they commit. Also nice to know that enforcers aren’t, generally, unpleasant psychopaths who enjoy hurting people but rather cultured and sophisticated gentle souls who by preference would discuss art and are merely willing to do the dirty jobs that someone has to do, out of a deep sense of loyalty to their best friend and employer.

The show cuts to Kevin Keats talking about how he’s got new and explosive information to reveal next week. Mr Ross throws a towel at the television and shouts at it, “You’re a dead man!”

I wonder if, in the whole history of Murder, She Wrote, the murderer has ever shouted a death threat at the victim? Certainly, I can remember no instance of it. Granted, we’re only three seasons in at this point so it’s harder for the audience to be sure that Mr. Ross’s threat entirely exonerates him of the murder soon to take place, but even at this point in the series it’s a good bet.

The end of the show is interesting, btw.

When they’re done they sign off in a curious way. Keats says, “Goodnight, Nick.” Nick replies, “Goodnight. And goodnight, Paula.” She looks up at the audience and says, “Goodnight, America.”

It reminds me a bit of how 60 Minutes ends, though it’s been decades since I saw the show and I can’t easily find any clips to verify that they sign off like this. My recollection is that it did have a bit of a Waltons feel (“Good night, John Boy”), but I’ve no idea if that’s accurate. Either way, I suppose that this is at heart a callback to Edward R. Murrow’s “Good night and good luck.”

I often confuse Edward R. Murrow with Walter Cronkite, who was, back in his day, “the most trusted man in America.” In hindsight, that was largely a testament to how gullible Americans were in the post-war period. From what I’ve gathered from family stories, Murrow was regarded in a similar way, though Murrow acquired a halo of sanctity around him, granted by marxists in the media, because of his supposed role in the takedown of Joe McCarthy (how much of an influence Murrow had is a subject of debate, but popular history will always be simplified history). Be that as it may, the real news had, in this time, acquired a tone of faux-familiarity that was very ingratiating. I suspect that this pretense of being part of the family watching—together with other things, such as the relatively few television channels, the imprimatur implicitly granted by the US government in its fairness doctrine, and many other reasons—was part of why so many people now in their sixties and older regard the news with a completely unreasonable level of trust.

The faux news show in this episode, coming, as it did, in 1986, is in an interesting time. Older people still regarded the news with obsequious gullibility, but children (I was not yet ten) did not, and even in this show one can see a certain amount of cynical realism about the news starting to creep in even to the way it’s presented here in Murder, She Wrote. News was, by this time, a business. Nick, the old man of the three, represents the old time, respected news. Confidential audience research suggests that audiences don’t like him nearly as much as his two younger, better-looking co-stars.

(As a side note, the sub-plot of the network wanting to replace him with a younger, more attractive reporter is a bit silly. It was at the time, and even still is, common practice to have at least one older, respectable-looking character on a show to reflect respectability onto the younger, prettier ones. It would be far more realistic to move him to a small part where he’s often visible but not doing anything of substance.)

The show, Scrutiny, presents itself as beyond reproach, but we do catch a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors, and the sausage making is not attractive. But I’m getting ahead of the episode. Before we see the inner workings of the show, Paula Roman pitches a feature on Cabot Cove to Jessica Fletcher.

Apparently Scrutiny has down-to-earth, gentle segments, and Paula does those. That feels quite dissonant with the segments that Kevin Keats does, but perhaps Nick does some sort of middle-ground which acts as the glue for these two very different kind of segments. Anyway, Paula insists that unlike Kevin’s mean-spirited exposés, her segment will be like a television post card.

Jessica isn’t sure, but Paula’s assurances that the interview will be a gentle, lovers’ caress of Cabot Cove makes Jessica say that she’ll bring it up with the town council and see what they think (spoiler alert: they love the idea).

Then we get a plot twist!

In a meeting with the producer, the anchors, and the guy whose job it is to liaise with the “network” (his title is “vice president in charge of the news”), after they abuse the network guy for thinking about the people who pay for everyone’s fun and he leaves, it turns out that they’re killing part 2 of Kevin’s show about the drug dealing art collector and instead he’s going to be doing Paula’s Cabot Cove segment. She’s been reassigned to do a story on a boy who joined a girl’s basketball team.

Oh, and it comes out that the “network” is very concerned about the shows’ ratings. Nick is an American institution and Kevin and Paula are young and attractive, but the show is not doing so well anyway. This will be a major plot point, later, but it does feel a bit dissonant. Within TV-land, what is the show supposed to do to get higher ratings?

In reality they need to move more niche and pretend that the world is constantly about to end and only watching their show will save it. Even that is a short-term solution as TV news is constantly slipping in ratings to the point where many brand-name news shows have lower viewership than some of the bigger YouTube channels, but that would make for a very different episode. And TV news’ falling ratings doesn’t seem to result in personnel changes anyway.

But what are they supposed to do in TV land? Usually there is some unsavory alternative presented, such as bringing on women in bikinis or covering more sensational events even though they aren’t as Important. This show already covers sensational things that aren’t important. I suppose they could have Paula wear a bikini, but nothing like this is mentioned. It’s just left in the air that things aren’t great despite Scrutiny being a smash hit that enough people watch that Kevin Keats’ face is almost as well known as that of Ronald McDonald (this is mentioned later in the episode).

This being left completely unresolved, we move to Cabot Cove, where the residents are getting ready for their closeup. Interestingly, this episode, despite being in Cabot Cove, does not feature Seth Hazlet. Filling in for him while he’s visiting his sister is Wylie.

Wylie is only in two Murder, She Wrote episodes. The other is Dead Man’s Gold. (The actor, Robert Hogan, showed up in two other episodes, one as Lt. Bergkamp and one as FBI Agent Guilfoyle.) He’s a fun character. He’s got Seth’s crusty cynicism, except with more charm. He notes that the town is going crazy with the coming of the TV show. Then we get the gag of the TV news crew overwhelming Jessica’s house with TV equipment (mostly lights).

I really wonder how realistic this is. It’s made by a TV show who knows how to film outdoors, so I expect they could use very realistic equipment if they chose to. On the other hand, I doubt they would have chosen to. For one thing, not a single one of those lights is like the other and real lighting has a tendency to be symmetric about the subject it’s trying to illuminate. For another, I suspect that the crew who set up would have found it funny to make the lighting as unrealistic as possible. Also, these aren’t the days of technicolor with its huge light requirements because they’re exposing three films, one with a red filter in front of it, one with a green filter, and one with a blue filter. How many lights do they really need outdoors on a sunny day, for a TV show?

Jessica demands that they get the lights out of her flower gardens (you’d think, if they were setting up, they’d have wanted to get her flower gardens as background), and Kevin Keats introduces herself.

We then cut to Amos Tupper, in an ugly brown suit which he apparently bought just for the occasion, driving along the coast road. (I’ve got a screenshot of the ugly brown suit later on.) He pulls over when he sees a helicopter descending towards a stretch limo. The helicopter lands…

…and out of it steps the drug trafficing art collector’s enforcer, carrying a suitcase. He runs to the stretch limo.

As soon as he’s in, the stretch limmo tears onto the road, wheels screeching.

All of this sure attracts Amos’ attention, but it serves absolutely no discernible purpose. There is no reason for the enforcer to be in such a rush, or at least no reason that we are ever told about. There’s no obvious reason for the guy to have taken a helicopter when there’s an airport near Cabot Cove that everyone else uses. There’s no reason for him to have a stretch limo waiting in a field for him. There’s no reason for him to run from the helicopter to the stretch limo. There’s no reason for the stretch limo to tear onto the road so fast its wheels squeak. Literally the next thing we know that the enforcer does is to show up the next morning at the docks. There is absolutely no plausible reason for all of this haste. Moreover, if the enforcer is here to murder Kevin Keats, he would need to wear one of those one-man-band outfits with all of the instruments tied to him in order to draw more attention to himself. It’s almost a small thing, in comparison, that there is no way (we know of) for the enforcer to know that Kevin Keats is in Cabot Cove. It was in no way the obvious place to look for him, and with them worrying about death threats against Keats, it’s a bit odd that they’d publicly mention where they’re filming taped segments.

However improbable, though, this dramatic appearance moves the plot along. Amos shows up in the middle of Kevin Keats interviewing Jessica and tells her all about the big ugly bald guy, which makes Keats request the Sheriff (in private) to quietly hire a boat for him.

I don’t want to entirely skip over that interview, though. We come to it as Keats is asking Jessica, “It makes you wonder, J.B. Fletcher, how you came to buried in a tiny town in the back of Maine where the people are, if you’ll forgive me, hardly your intellectual equals.”

Her intellectual equals? She’s not a philosopher, or even someone who is reputed to write Great American Novels about people without principles or religious beliefs being depressed that life is meaningless and full of suffering. (Those aren’t, in fact, intellectually great, but I would at least see why a pretentious TV news anchor would treat them as if they were works of agonizing brilliance.) She’s a mystery writer! She writes whodunnits where a law student from the deep south catches a murderer because his friend who is accused of the murder claims he didn’t see a light flashing on an extension when he was hiding in the music closet. Mystery stories are actually quite deep, at least when done well, but it’s implausible in the extreme Kevin Keats would regard them that way. The detective being a Christ figure who descends into a world broken by the misuse of reason in order to, by the right use of reason, restore right order to it, is not something it is slightly plausible Kevin Keats would appreciate.

Besides, if she was living in an apartment in New York City she’d be likely to have a corporate lawyer on one side of her, a banker on the other, and the personal assistant to an executive across the hall. Why on earth would these be her “intellectual equals”? People in big cities like a variety of ethnic foods, unusual shops, fornication, committing crimes, and stepping over homeless people to get to all of these things. They would be far more urbane than Jessica’s Cabot Cove neighbors, but why on earth would he think that they’re intellectually superior? If you’ve ever encountered city dwellers, plenty of them can go several weeks at a time without having a single thought in their heads that a dog would not. Liking varied entertainment is not at all the same thing as being intelligent. If anything, it’s a symptom of intellectual weakness to require constant variety in order to sustain interest.

None of which Jessica says because she’s written by people who live in a big city (Los Angeles). Instead she tells Keats that if he’s going to insult her friends and neighbors, he’s going to have to do the segment without her. He apologizes and they do it over again. He asks roughly the same question but without the insults, and she talks about how this is where her roots are, and how she’s lived for decades in that old, drafty house with Frank…

I really wish she gave an answer that had something to do with loyalty and how each place is good in its own way, and she’s good at appreciating the goodness of this particular place. Of course, the problem here, too, is that she’s being written by Hollywood writers, which means people who gave up their roots to move to Los Angeles in order to pursue their dreams of fame and fortune. That is, they are nearly the worst people in the world to answer this question, and not nearly imaginative enough to think of how someone unlike them would answer it for real. All they can do is give the pat answer, “I’ve had lots of experiences here.” I doubt that it’s ever occurred to Hollywood writers that there actually are people you couldn’t pay to move to Los Angeles.

Anyway, Amos Tupper interrupts this interview which Jessica has to know is going to be cut up and mangled, but goes along with anyway, because he’s got extremely important news that just can’t wait. There’s a not very funny bit where he pointedly ignores Keats and tells Jessica about the guy he just saw get out of a helicopter and into a limo.

Amos doesn’t even notice when Keats tells the TV crew to cut the film. Eventually he asks who this fellow is. It’s mildly amusing, but I don’t think it was worth sacrificing Amos’s manners for. It’s also nearly the only time I can think of where Amos was in a hurry for anything. Anyway, he eventually finds out that it’s Kevin Keats, and is embarrassed, though not very embarrassed. He shakes Keats’ hand and says that he looks a lot taller on TV.

The scene is very odd because Amos bought a new suit to show off for the TV cameras and yet doesn’t care about them and even partially looks down his nose at them. I don’t know what to make of it; I guess they just had to stitch the next plot element to the current scene and wanted to get through it as quickly as possible (when writing). It does, at least, do that; we’re now on to the next part of the plot.

Oh, almost. We have a few things to get out of the way, first. It’s now night time and Kevin Keats’ estranged wife calls him at his hotel to vaguely threaten him.

That phone call over, it’s time for Dough, the producer, to walk in and have a fight with Kevin in front of the hotel manager.

“This assignment was a change of pace. A fresh approach. Don’t take it personally.”
“Oh, but I do. Scrutiny is a hit for one reason, and you’re looking at him. They toss out producers like so many empty beer cans but I keep rolling along. So you get off my back, before I do something you’ll regret.”

Scrutiny is a hit but the network is worried about the ratings. OK, whatever. This publicly-witnessed threat session over with, we can finally get to the important part: in the morning Kevin gets on the boat the Sheriff Tupper rented for him. Sheriff Tupper then turns around and sees the bald enforcer standing by the dock, watching Kevin. He shouts to him to hold it, whereupon the enforcer runs away and Tupper sighs in disappointment since running after the man is clearly out of the question.

Kevin Keats’ boat makes it about 100 yards away from the dock and then we get the murder.

It was kind of whoever planted the bomb to put it on a timer after the ignition started so that it wasn’t right next to the dock when it exploded. Sure, he destroyed an innocent man’s boat, but at least he didn’t cause unnecessary damage to the dock, which having the bomb go off as soon as the ignition was started would probably have done.

Anyway, we go to commercial and when we came back the big bald enforcer calls the art collector from a phone in the limo and tells him that the situation has resolved itself. The art collector replies that he’s late—he’s watching Paula Roman live, from the scene of the explosion.

I find this perplexing since it entirely rules the enforcer out as a suspect. We’re seeing him in a private conversation where he would have no motive to lie. So what is the point of these characters? If they’re not suspects, why spend time on them? I suppose they could be trying to suggest that the art collector actually carried out the hit without telling his enforcer and was using the enforcer as a blind, but neither appears again in the episode.

We go to Paula Roman, live on the dock only an hour or so later. After she signs off, she talks to Jessica. She claims that she took the first flight over. Jessica looks dubious, but says nothing. They leave together.

They get to the hotel, where Paula doesn’t recognize the busy-body hotel manager, and he directs them to the private dining room where the “TV folks” have set up a temporary field office.

Nick is there, running things in the absence of anyone else. Paula asks where Doug is and Nick says that nobody knows. He checked into his hotel late last night, left early this morning, and nobody has seen him since. He’s probably off climbing a mountain somewhere. This being a potentially identifying personal detail in a Murder, She Wrote, you can bet that it will be significant before the end of the episode.

Paula and Jessica have coffee, and Paula asks about the look Jessica gave her when she said she flew in on the first flight this morning. Jessica tells her that she was on the air a half hour before the first flight from NYC landed in Portland. Paula then admits to having flown in the night before with Doug, the producer. Jessica knows that Paula spent the night with Kevin because she didn’t recognize the hotel manager, which meant that she didn’t go to her own room. We also learn that Richard Abbott, the vice president in charge of news, is also missing (back in NYC).

Some comic relief later, Jessica calls the hotel manager on the phone and asks about the phone call from Keats’ wife. She wasn’t calling from California, it turns out, she “left a local number”. It’s the phone number of a nearby motel. How she left a number when the hotel manager never talked to her other than to say “hello” is unclear. This is before the days of caller ID and the phone had no caller ID screen on it anyway. It’s useful information, though, because it enables Jessica to go interrogate Kevin Keats’ wife, which she does.

It turns out that she came to Cabot Cove in order to try to reconcile with her husband, but he saw Keats with Paula and realized that there was no chance of it when she saw the look of love in his eyes when he looked at Paula. This makes the timing a bit suspect, since Paula arrived with Doug the producer but Mrs. Keats called her husband both after she saw Paula with Kevin but also before Doug walked in the front door.

Plot holes aside, Jessica is busy rudely observing that now that Kevin is dead Mrs. Keats will get all of his assets when the bartender says that there’s a call for a Jessica Fletcher. It turns out it’s Wylie.

He asks Jessica to ask Mrs. Keats how many toes her husband has. Jessica asks, and before she can relay the answer, Wylie tells Jessica, “Unless she said eight, the fellow I’ve got lying here on my table is not the late Kevin Keats.”

Amos, Jessica, and Wylie meet to discuss this new development. Amos, as usual, takes the changing of facts personally. He saw Kevin Keats get on the boat, and doggone it, it’s not fair that it isn’t Kevin Keats who’s dead. Poor Amos. Life as a small-town sheriff is supposed to be simple.

Incidentally, it’s definitely the case that whoever it is on the table didn’t lose the toes in the explosion, they were surgically amputated some time ago. Also, Wylie checked with Seth (who, you will recall, is on vacation) and no one in Cabot Cove is missing those toes. Jessica then brings up another mystery, in addition to whose is the body: where is Kevin Keats? (Apparently it doesn’t occur to anyone that there could have been two people on the boat and Keats was in fact killed but his body not found because they stopped looking after finding the first body.)

Curiously, the next thing we see is where Kevin Keats is.

To be fair, it takes a minute to actually show us Kevin; he’s watching the news where somebody or other is interviewing Cabot Cove’s mayor, but eventually we pan over to him on the motel’s bed.

I love Kevin’s outfit. It’s the pointless leather patch on the flannel shirt that really makes it, for me. That said, the bag of potato chips and the drink in a red plastic cup really pulls the shot together. That’s about it, though. All of the action takes place in the newswoman asking the mayor questions and him not having answers. Then Kevin picks up the phone and dials someone as we fade out.

I’m very unclear on why this scene exists; all it serves to do is to remove the mystery about what happened to Kevin Keats only a few seconds after the mystery was raised. In that way it’s reminiscent of the scene in which the bald enforcer calls his art collector boss and tells him that he didn’t have to kill Keats after all. Is this meant to be a help to the audience? Does Murder, She Wrote have a maximum amount of mystery it’s supposed to maintain in order to not be too confusing to the viewer? I don’t know if that’s the case but it’s an interesting thought. This is television, probably at its height in terms of numbers of viewers of an episode—at that time when an enormous number of people were watching but there were not, yet, hundreds of TV channels competing for viewers. According to Wikipedia, at its height Murder, She Wrote had about forty million viewers, and even in its eleventh season it had about fifteen million viewers per episode. Perhaps in order to be most comfortable to a general audience they wanted to keep the number of things the audience had to keep track of to a minimum.

The next scene has the vice president of TV news, Richard Abbot, walking into the make-shift office in the hotel in Cabot Cove. He and Nick argue, though it’s difficult to characterize what the argument is about. Nick is mad that Richard was missing, and Richard is angry that… I don’t know. He seems annoyed that Nick is annoyed, as much as anything else. Jessica walks in and interrupts them to say that Kevin Keats is very much alive—a thing she doesn’t actually know, btw, unless she knew it by reading the script. It certainly has not been proven yet.

Nick asks whose body was pulled out of the water. Jessica hypothesizes that it’s actually Doug Helman, the producer, because earlier Nick joked that Doug was probably off climbing a mountain, which she free-associated to frostbite, and then noted that the body was missing two toes on its left foot. No one actually knows whether Doug was in fact missing any toes on his left foot, but this is taken as sufficient evidence to conclude it definitely was Doug. (And see, I told you that it being a random personal detail, it would definitely come up again!)

Paula walks in when Richard is asking where she is and she says, “so it was Doug.” Nick tries to get her to work on the rewrites that they have to do but she only wants to talk to Jessica. Nick grabs her by the elbow and tries to pull her to the typewriter, saying “Listen, Helman didn’t even want you up here, the only reason you came is because Kevin insisted, now come on, now let’s get to work.” This being a Murder, She Wrote episode, a random bit of detail about someone other than the person speaking must be a clue. They do a halfway decent job of disguising it by putting it in a heated moment, but it doesn’t really fit very well. The biggest thing is that it stands out for not really being in character, in the sense that there were far more persuasive things that Nick could have said which would also have been far more natural for him to say. If this wasn’t a murder mystery, he’d have given some speech about journalists having to put aside their feelings for the sake of the public, or some such. That instead of that natural thing he went for irrelevant detail is a huge red flag.

There’s also the problem of this not really being in character. Nick’s motivation to drag Paula in is very slight. Granted, he seems to be angling for the producer job by filling in for Doug in this pinch, but Paula isn’t a writer and isn’t even an investigative journalist. Her beat is doing TV postcards of small towns. It’s pretty far fetched that he even wants Paula at a typewriter. It would be different if he needed her pretty face to go in front of the camera, but that’s not what he wanted. Paula refuses, and she and Jessica leave.

As they’re walking, Jessica tells Paula that Kevin called her. Paula asks how Jessica knew, and instead of referencing Paula’s inflection when she said “so it was Doug Helman who was killed on the boat” which would have been decent evidence for it, she instead said that Paula trusts Jessica, and who would Kevin trust? His mistress isn’t entirely implausible, but you’d think he’d have a few friends, too. Paula’s reaction was much better evidence, but oh well. Jessica talks Paula into talking Kevin into coming forward to the Sheriff because staying in hiding could be too easily misconstrued. You’d think that Jessica would know Amos by now. We’re not at the end of the episode, so no matter what Kevin did, Amos would misconstrue it. It’s what he does.

It turns out that the fight Doug had with Kevin over reassigning Doug to Cabot Cove was a put-on. They’d planned it together. The goal was to fake the drug dealing art collector into thinking that the series was dropped (how the art collector was supposed to know this is anyone’s guess) when in reality he was in Cabot Cove because there was a witness in New Hampshire who would only talk to Kevin. The boat thing was “cover”; he wanted people to think that he was on a boat in the harbor when he was really driving to New Hampshire to see the confidential witness.

Augie Wilkin had the only boat in town for rent, and the Sheriff couldn’t get in touch with him until about eight O’clock that night. Once he told Kevin about it, Kevin called Doug and told him to get up to Cabot Cove on the double. Doug must have gotten in very late if he didn’t know he was going to be taking a plane to Cabot Cove until after 8pm. Still, this was before 9/11 and was probably doable.

The fight between Doug Helman and Kevin Keats in front of the hotel manager was staged. “Just another part of the act.” Why there was this is act is… very unclear to me. I’m not sure what could be gained by convincing the hotel manager that Kevin Keats and his producer were fighting. If they were on the best of terms, it wouldn’t make the dropping of the drug dealing art collector story any less plausible. It also wouldn’t make him supposedly running away by boat any less believable, either, which was all he really wanted to disguise. It feels like the sort of thing that’s normally in a story that features people worried about there being a mole in the organization, and so they had to deceive everyone because they didn’t know who it was. Except, there was no mole. There was no reason to not tell Paula and Nick about the plan to disguise Kevin’s going to a secret informant. Also, given that they were keeping up this pretense of a fight, why on earth did Kevin insist that Doug bring Paula up to Cabot Cove with him? He couldn’t keep his pants on for one whole night? From all of the other precautions they took, Paula could only get in the way of the plan. Besides that, no one was covering the boy on a girl’s basketball team in Nebraska. From Kevin and Doug’s perspective, someone should have been covering that, no? They expected there to be a show that would air the next week.

This story is pretty much nothing but loose ends, which makes me somewhat sympathetic to Amos for arresting Kevin. He reasons that whoever planted the bomb had to know about the boat, and since only Kevin and Doug knew about the boat, that means it had to be one of them. It being Doug seems unlikely, so by process of elimination, it had to be Kevin. For once, Jessica has no objections.

Paula visits Kevin in jail and they talk. It comes out that Nick and Richard haven’t sent a lawyer to get him out on bail because they figure it will be better for ratings, at least when the special which is the former Kevin Keats eulogy is broadcast. The Sheriff has even kindly given his permission to let Kevin tape his segment in the jail cell! Amos is nothing if not thoughtful. Why Kevin can’t hire his own lawyer is never said.

Next we see Jessica go interview Mrs. Keats one last time.

I’m not sure if the writers are trying to keep her alive as a suspect or are just using her to give the next clue. She does give a clue, anyway—she thinks that Kevin was about to be fired because the network had just done confidential audience research. The writers really can’t decide whether Scrutiny is more famous than apple pie or going under. Why on earth he told his estranged wife about this, I’ve no idea. She described it as “in a fit of paranoia,” though trying to make her think that she couldn’t get much out of him in divorce would have been more plausible.

Jessica goes and takes this up with Richard Abbott (the vice president in charge of news). He’s cagey, but she gets out of him he didn’t want to discuss the confidential network research in front of the anchors because it concerned one of them. Also, when Doug Helman was killed he (Richard) was in NY having breakfast with the president of another network. “You see, in television land, when the canoe springs a leak, one doesn’t bail water, one just looks for a new canoe.”

And now we go to Jessica’s house, where she’s playing chess with Wylie.

In a Murder, She Wrote episode a scene unrelated to hunting clues, this late in the episode, means that all of the clues we’re going to get have been given. It’s time to guess who the murderer is.

Wylie puts Jessica in check, with mate in one. Usually she beats Seth, so Wylie was able to beat her because she’s distracted—she can’t stop thinking about Kevin Keats’ story. Wylie says that there had to be an easier way to slip out of down, and Jessica says that she didn’t remember telling Wylie about Keats’ plan. “You didn’t. I overheard you talking to Sheriff Tupper on the phone.” And now Jessica realizes who the murder is. She just has to go the jail to be certain.

In jail, Jessica goes over the phone call with Kevin, and indeed Doug had gone over the time table in detail to make sure that he got everything right. Keats was sure that Doug would never have talked about it with a third party present, but Jessica asks, “What if he didn’t know, or care, that there was a third party present?” She means what if it was a third party that he didn’t care about, but it was badly phrased coming right after Kevin saying that he was certain that Dough would never have discussed their plan in front of a third party. Anyway, the scene closes and we open on our murderer, who Jessica visits, alone.

That’s right, it was Nick Brody. He’s working late on a rewrite. Jessica tells him about the confidential audience survey, whose result was that the audience preferred the younger Kevin and Paula to him. Why this means that he needs to be fired is not explained, but that’s OK. Jessica informs him that he was there when Kevin called Doug and worked out their plans, a fact proved by his knowledge that Paula was only in town because Kevin insisted—which they had only ever discussed on the phone.

This is the only actual piece of evidence which Jessica has. It’s a bit like an Encyclopedia Brown case where there is literally one clue, and if you pick up on it you can solve the case and if you don’t, you can’t. It’s an interesting balancing act, but I think it probably gets back to the issue of having such a large, general audience. Too many clues and a large fraction of the audience will think that the mystery is too easy. (Fewer than one clue and the mystery will be too hard, and not just for some people.)

Anyway, it’s enough, and he admits it. Jessica asks how he got to Cabot Cove and he replies that he drove all night. It’s only 350 miles. (Averaging 60 miles an hour, that would take just under six hours. If he left at 9pm he’d have gotten in at the earliest at 3am—he should be tired!)

It’s curious how they deal with the question of how Nick got the bomb. “Oh, about the bomb? Well, you don’t get to be a 63 year old reporter without learning something.” I doubt that there were any reporters of any age in 1986 who could put together a bomb with the explosive power of a few pounds of TNT on a moment’s notice, late at night. Or worse, in the middle of the night in Cabot Cove.

Jessica asks him why he did it—Doug was just following the network’s orders. Nick’s reply was interesting, so I’m going to quote it in full. He said:

Without Helman, I had a better than even chance of staying with the show. I had more experience than any of them. To hell with the audience research. So I wasn’t young, vicious, or even pretty. But I was the one who could talk sense to them. I’m a news man. I’m not a performer. I tried to tell Doug that. And whatever he started out believing, in the end he bought the idea that the wrapping paper—the wrapping paper!—was more important the package.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to finish this rewrite while we’re waiting for the Sheriff. Just dial 9 for an outside line.

One of the unusual things about Murder, She Wrote is that its star was not young. Born in 1925, Angela Lansbury was 59 when the show started and 61 when this episode aired. The primary recurring characters in Cabot Cove were not spring chickens either. The guest stars were frequently actors who had been famous twenty or thirty years before, and now were getting small parts as older people. What’s true of the actors is true of the viewers, as well. The audience of Murder, She Wrote famously skewed much older than for most of prime time television. My mother remembers the commercials frequently being for things like denture creams while I remember them as being for life insurance that you can’t be turned down for no matter how old and sick you are. The final episode of Murder, She Wrote was even titled Death By Demographics.

(To be fair to the networks, they didn’t care. It was advertisers who paid top dollar for younger viewers and much less for older viewers, quite possibly because younger viewers bought more things and also were more malleable; if you could turn an eighteen year old just starting to buy his own toothpaste onto your brand of toothpaste you might have a loyal customer for decades.)

The theme of Nick’s monologue is that, despite being old, he’s still, in reality, valuable. More than that, he’s actually the most valuable. This is a theme that resonates with an older audience, but especially with an older audience in the 1980s. People born in the 1920s and 1930s saw truly enormous amounts of change in the world by the 1980s, not just technologically but even socially. The worship of youth was (partially) socially dominant in the 1970s, with people proclaiming that one should never trust anyone over 30. With the advent of the birth control pill and labor-saving devices like washing machines, traditional restraints and traditional divisions of labor seemed to many pointless and anachronistic. The future was in plastics, as the uncle in The Graduate foretold. The future was in computers, as many people told Jessica when suggesting she replace her old typewriter with a word processor. What place was there for people who vividly remembered horse-drawn milk delivery and wartime rationing?

Nick’s impassioned speech proclaims that there is a place for them, that the world hasn’t actually changed that much. I think this is why Jessica doesn’t say anything. You can see in her face that she agrees with him, but he crossed the line in blowing Doug up. She slowly walks over to call the Sheriff, and he goes back to typing, then pauses a moment in thought.

I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be thinking about. At first it looks like he’s pausing to regret getting caught, but then his look of consternation is replaced by a very slight smile. The music is sad, though.

(Incidentally, the story was by Bob Shayne who was born in 1941 and the teleplay was written by Robert van Scoyk who was born in 1928.)

There’s also the curious theme of this lionization of news. He’s not this new breed of reporter, who is all glitz, he’s a News Man! As if the news was some deeply respectable thing, back in his day. Back in the days of Edward R Murrow (hah!). It is interesting to consider the timing, though. People born in the 1920s and especially the 1930s were young when radio and later TV news journalism were new. Growing up they might have felt that they were so much better informed because of the increased immediacy of these things. One didn’t have to wait for a newspaper, an authoritative voice would boom them over the radio or television might even show you pictures of the things as they happened! There were not many channels and they were more regulated than the newspapers were; it seems plausible that some reasonable fraction of people growing up then might have thought of themselves as better informed than their predecessors, and better informed than younger people today who watch news that’s all about sensationalism and glitz.

Incidentally, this is a separate issue from Baby Boomers who trust the news. They were young adults during the era when TV news was turning glitzy. Someone born in 1946 (approximately the oldest baby boomer possible) would have been forty years old in 1986. Chad Everett, who played Kevin Keats, was born in 1937. In 1986, when this episode was filmed, he was 51 years old. Granted, TV actors usually play younger than they are, but not usually more than about a decade down. In other words, the youthful TV anchor was supposed to be the same age as the oldest baby boomer watching and was, in reality, a decade older than them. (Mark Stevens, who played Nick Brody, was born in 1916. He was 70 playing 63. Kathleen Lloyd, who played Paula Roman, was born in 1948, making her 38 at the time of filming—young enough to be Mark Stevens’ daughter, but no spring chicken.)

Looking back from the vantage point of the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2020, the view of news as something that was once reliable but is now turning commercial and unreliable is quaint to the point of being laughable. The multiplicity of viewpoints expressed when cable television was just getting off of the ground is nothing in comparison to what news is like these days, with each news source trying to cater to its very specific niche, which largely means that the reporters are just being somewhat honest about their biases. Moreover, as a remove from the events sheds light on the biases of the newsmen of old, the rosy view which people had when there were only three major networks seems more like gullibility. Still, we’re all prone to such myopia; to not seeing what is not easily within our horizon.

One other interesting thing about this episode is how much Jessica does not believe in sexual morals at all, or if she does, she keeps them entirely to herself despite being willing to criticize people for all sorts of lesser moral failings or things that aren’t even moral failings but she just dislikes (such as violence in movies and other entertainment). Paula Roman is sleeping with a married man. Even worse, she is getting in the way of that married man reconciling with his wife, which his wife was trying to do. Jessica fawns over Paula like a dear child when Paula is, in fact, very much an adult and actively engaged in adulterating a man’s marriage. Jessica doesn’t even bat an eye. She’s supposed to be a small-town retired English teacher but she’s really a big-city cosmopolitan socialite.

So, all that said, what’s good about this episode?

It has interesting characters. Not all of them, but at least the trio of reporters from Scrutiny are. The character of Richard Abbott, though under-developed, is also interesting for his extreme calm and forthright cynicism about his business. Wylie is great as the doctor. Tom Bosley as Amos is always fun for his manner.

OK, but this is the stuff which comes from good casting, rather than good writing. What about the story?

It is difficult to praise the story because, in part, it’s really a bunch of unrelated stories happening near each other and with some minor relationships to each other. At that level of abstraction, it’s merely the description of a mystery story with red herrings, but these don’t really feel like red herrings because of the way that they are almost serial in their presentation.

The sub-plot of the drug dealing art collector is at the start of the show and gets things in motion, but then is dropped as soon as the murder happens. The sub-plot of a small town preening itself for the cameras and not getting what it hoped is also dropped before the murder happens. We then get a sub-plot of a small town overrun with TV news crews because a famous TV man was (supposedly) murdered in it, but this never really goes anywhere. We have the sub-plot of the vindictive estranged wife who had wanted to patch things up with her husband, but that never really goes anywhere. (I don’t think that she’s ever a realistic suspect.) We get the sub-plot of the two anchors who are romantically involved with each other, adulterating the one’s marriage, but this only really serves to get Kevin Keats out of hiding, and then goes nowhere. The sub-plot of trying to get over to a confidential witness results in a cockamamie scheme whose time table is highly questionable, and in any event it’s linked to the story about the drug dealing art collector, and that plotline being dropped, this one goes nowhere too.

The upshot is that the episode is interesting while it happens, but since all of the sub-plots go nowhere, it’s disappointing once it’s over. Even the theme that was raised of the big city versus the small town ends up nowhere. Jessica is really part of the big city, so the small-town end of this theme has to be held up entirely by Wylie, which he stops doing as soon as there’s a body for him to examine.

About the one thing I can say for the story—rather than the characters, acting, sets, etc—is that it does have an interesting premise of outsiders bringing their troubles someplace else in order to settle them by being unknown in the place they’ve gone to. That is a structure that can be quite interesting. It’s the premise of my favorite Cadfael story, Saint Peter’s Fair. It’s the premise of my third and upcoming Brother Thomas novel, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake. It’s an interesting premise. It’s disappointing when an interesting premise isn’t used to its full, but it’s still something just to have the interesting premise.

Actually, there is a second thing I can say for the story. It does have a nice twist partway through. The corpse being identified as someone other than Kevin Keats was interesting, both simply as a twist and also as a way of changing who the suspects were. Or, rather, raising the question of who the intended victim was, and whether this changes who the suspects were. (It didn’t really change who the suspects were because the suspect who might remain—the enforcer—was already ruled out by the time of this reveal.)

That’s probably about the best that I can say for this story. Like so much of television, it had a lot of promise that it didn’t fulfill, but it was fun while it seemed possible that the promise would be fulfilled. Also like so much of television, it gains quite a lot from having interesting people and interesting sets. Television is a very visual medium, and this (legitimate) visual interest can make up for a lot of weakness in writing.

Murder, She Wrote: It Runs in the Family

Having recently talked about one of the strangest episodes of Murder, She Wrote (Murder in a Minor Key), it seems like a good time to talk about another very strange episode. It’s the only episode (so far as I know) in which Jessica Fletcher doesn’t appear, even at the beginning to introduce the episode.

It Runs in the Family is set in England and stars Jessica’s identical cousin, Emma MacGill, as the detective. Of course, she’s not a detective at the beginning of the episode, but then again Jessica usually isn’t, either.

The episode starts with Jessica Emma in a bar, chatting with friends, when she’s approach by Humphrey Defoe, the family solicitor for Viscount Blackraven, who turns out to be an old admirer of Jessica’s Emma’s.

He invites Emma, on behalf of the Viscount, to come visit him. It’s been about forty years, and he’s a dying man, so Emma agrees. Humphrey drives her out to the Blackraven estate.

It’s big and beautiful, though it never looks that much larger than some of the larger half-million dollar homes I’ve seen in America. That’s still several times more expensive than my own (not very large) house, but it doesn’t quite bowl me over in the way it seems like it’s supposed to.

She meets several of the family. They’re rude to her with a thin, transparent veneer of politeness on top of it. We also meet the adult child of one of the Viscount’s relatives, who is spoiled beyond belief (literally—it’s not plausible he’s really this spoiled). Then we meet the Viscount.

Incidentally, I looked up what a viscount is. It’s the rank in the English peerage below Earl and above Baron. (The ranks go, in order of highest to lowest: Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron.) Viscount comes from “vice count”, with “Earl” being an anglo-saxon name for a count. Curiously, there is no female form of Earl; an Earl’s wife is called “countess”.

Anyway, Emma and the Viscount reminisce about their time together forty years ago. Then we get introduced to some more characters, a husband and wife (pictured below). I’m not sure how they’re related to the Viscount, but the previous Viscount Blackraven, who passed away two months ago, is his grandfather, and he’s in line to be the next Viscount Blackraven when the current one starts pining for the fjords. His wife is very socially ambitious and we later learn was a baker’s daughter.

Her facial expression gives you a pretty good indication of what her character is like. Her husband is far more reasonable and far less snobbish, making me wonder how they are married. It’s plausible that he married her for her beauty, though—he wouldn’t be the first character in a murder mystery to have married for physical rather than moral virtue.

A minute later, we get introduced to the final members of the cast, the next Viscount’s (I presume, younger) brother, Johnny, and his floozy (“personal assistant”) who happens to have the same accent Emma does.

After some more snobbishness and rudeness, everyone assembles for dinner, which drags on for a long time. The women of the family and the younger men snipe at each other unpleasantly throughout, while the Viscount reminisces with Emma about old (embarrassing to Emma) times. An extremely important fact comes up, though, which is that the Viscount served Emma pickled herring because they used to eat it at a charming little restaurant. He asks what happened to the restaurant and she says that it went bankrupt after serving bad pickled herring, which she herself got sick on. She hasn’t been able to look at a pickled herring since.

They retire to the study (or some such room) and there is some music, with the Viscount asking Emma to play and sing. She tries to refuse but eventually does. She tries to sing a nice song and he demands a bawdy song from forty years ago, which Emma is embarrassed for but plays since he’s a dying man, to the disgust of the ladies present.

The next day the doctor shows up to breakfast and announces that the Viscount’s health has taken an amazing turn for the better. His blood pressure is normal, his heartbeat is regular, and if what the doctor just saw is any indication, the Viscount could go on living for another twenty years!

Oh, and he doesn’t need a wheelchair anymore!

The doctor said that it’s as if he’d found a reason to go on living. I guess he was dying of a broken heart? Seriously, what the heck did the doctor think was medically wrong with the Viscount that he diagnosed him with only two, maybe three months to live? Are we really to believe that the only thing wrong with the Viscount was that he didn’t have his useful sweetheart by his side? Also, how could such a cheerful, down-to-earth person be so depressed that he psychosomatically needed a wheelchair?

No one asks any of these questions. The Viscount has decided on a picnic with Emma, and a picnic with Emma there shall be. I guess they spent too much time establishing how awful the family was at dinner and need to on with the murder.

On the way to the picnic the Viscount mentions that his father, the seventeenth Viscount Blackraven, died only a few weeks ago. He was eighty seven and the doctor wanted him on a strict diet of boring food but he snuck brandy and chocolates every night. Then they found him one morning ice cold and stiff as a board. When the Viscount and Emma get to the picnic, the Viscount eats some pickled herring and…

…he starts (painfully) to think of the fjords. From the look of things he’ll be pining for them in minutes.

Emma says she needs to bring the Viscount to the hospital, but he says that instead she should go for help. I’ve no idea why Emma takes this idiotic advice, but she does, and when the help she goes for arrives the Viscount is long dead.

As the detective inspector investigating the case is smelling the pickled herring, the doctor muses that it’s surprising that the Viscount died of a heart attack when he was looking so good just this morning. “A heart attack? That’s what you think, doctor?” the DI asks incredulously. He orders an autopsy. The doctor, who still thinks that a man who ceased to need a wheelchair when he cheered up a bit was actually dying, protests that it’s outrageous to think that his diagnosis of a heart attack is in any way questionable. The detective is unmoved by the doctor’s protests and orders the autopsy anyway.

The detective then goes and interviews the family, who are on their worst behavior as usual, and also Emma. He questions her about the food and its preparation, then mentions that he thinks that the former Viscount might have been poisoned. Emma is distraught that the former Viscount (I’ll call him Jeffrey from now on since that was his name) was poisoned, and that the police think that she did it!

Except just a few scenes that have neither the detective nor Emma in them later, Emma is in the detective’s office at police headquarters and the detective says that he doesn’t think that Emma did it. The pickled herring was poisoned in order to frame her.

Why does he think this? Who knows? Certainly not the audience. On the other hand she’s the main character so we don’t need much selling on this point.

Seriously, though, these two scenes were practically next to each other. the longest scene between them involved the son of the new Viscount riding up on a horse to the funeral and asking for money to go skiing with his friends in Grenoble and his father telling him that he will get no more money and must go find himself a job. While there may have been a tiny bit of suspense because of the idea that Emma was suspected, her character did absolutely nothing (on screen or, so far as we know, off screen) because of it. On the other hand, Emma was the only one who said anything about her being a suspect; I’m tempted to think that it was included only to be available for the “tonight on Murder, She Wrote” teaser at the beginning.

The Detective Inspector asks Emma, in detail, about how she prepared the food and she did it all herself, with no help. She just used the leftover pickled herring from the night before then left the picnic basket unattended for a while after preparing it. Also, Emma gets the idea that if Jeffrey was poisoned for his title, perhaps the previous Viscount Blackraven was also poisoned. Jeffrey said that when they found him in the morning he was cold as ice, which suggests that he had been dead for a long time. I suppose that is meant to suggest that he might have died from the chocolate and brandy he would always sneak before bed. Of course, he could just as easily have died of a heart attack half an hour after falling asleep; she’s on much safer ground with the whole impatient-killer-might-have-killed-before angle.

The inspector thinks that this is excellent reasoning and orders an exhumation and autopsy of the Viscount Blackraven who died a few months ago. Curiously, we never find out the result of the autopsy. Anyway, we’re on to the next clue.

The butler (or whoever he is) is washing the new Viscountess Blackraven’s car. He was washing it anyway, but it’s got to be spotless for a luncheon engagement she has at precisely 1pm. Take careful note. The car must be absolutely spotless and the luncheon is at precisely 1 O’Clock.

And then we get the setup for a plot twist. Johnny (the younger brother of the new Viscount) is going to do some shooting with Derrick (the new Viscount’s son) in Brindley woods. He discusses his plans with the Viscountess.

When they’re done we’ve only got ten minutes left in the episode, so it’s time for some final red herrings. Humphrey learns from friends in London that Johnny is big into debt to unsavory middle easterners. Emma takes Johnny’s floozy out to lunch and pumps her for information. Johnny was, indeed, in best to unsavory middle easterners. And it turns out that the old Viscount had turned down Johnny’s request for money, and after he smuggled the old Viscount so many chocolates that we wasn’t supposed to have, too! That is enough of the herrings that are red, so it’s time to get back to the plot twist.

Humphrey intrudes with the news that young Derrick has just been shot. They run out of the bar to go back to the mansion, stopping on the way at the Viscountess’ luncheon, where it turns out that they hadn’t yet started eating. Humphrey calls attention to this, saying, “Luckily I caught them before they started to eat.” This seems oddly clumsy; why was it lucky? It wouldn’t be that big a hardship to put down a sandwich with a few bites taken out of it. It’s a clue, of course. We’re not told exactly how much time has passed but with the big deal that the Viscountess had made before about the luncheon starting at precisely 1pm sharp, the food being late simply has to be a clue.

Also, the camera carefully showed us the extremely muddy tires and undercarriage of the car that was so conspicuously washed just an hour or two before. Then, since that was too subtle, when they arrive at the mansion Emma’s attention is caught by the muddy tires and they show us a close-up of the tire.

How the tire is supposed to have gotten muddy up to the spokes but the body is only very slightly dirty is not obvious. I guess whoever’s job it was to paint the mud onto the tires wasn’t feeling energetic (you can sort-of see the brush strokes if you look closely).

Anyway, they go inside, into the accusing parlor, and Johnny gets accused of shooting Derrick. Why? The Viscountess suggests that with Derrick out of the way, Johnny is next in line to inherit the title after her husband kicks the bucket. This is more than a little flimsy. Are we really to suppose that someone who likes spending his time in London with east-end floozies killed four people to inherit a title? Are we further to suppose he shot one of them while out hunting and hopes to get away with it being called an accident? If that weren’t enough, there’s no way to believe this because his tires weren’t muddy right after being cleaned.

While they bicker, Emma calls the detective inspector over and (offscreen) shows him the muddy tires. He then asks Johnny to come with him to the police station. Emma is about to leave for London but Humphrey took the distributor cap off of their car so that they can be “forced” to borrow the Viscountess’ car in order to make Emma’s train. The Viscountess doesn’t want to let them, and the detective inspector appears from out of the bushes and asks what the problem is with them borrowing her car.

“I thought you left!” the Viscountess says in surprise. “No, you saw one of my sergeants drive off,” he replies.

This is like those scenes where the murderer confesses and is about to kill Jessica when the police walk in from behind the curtains, except that she hasn’t admitted anything and his pretending to not be there had no purpose.

Then it turns out that the car is actually registered to the Viscountess’ sister-in-law, who invites the inspector to open the boot (what we Americans call the trunk). In it we find…

…some muddy boots and the murder wounding weapon. The Viscountess shot her own son in the arm! Who could have seen this coming (except for someone who had been watching the episode)?

The sister asks her why she tried to kill her own son, and she replies, “No. I wouldn’t hurt him. Not seriously. I had to do something. I had to make them think it was Johnny who…” The sister asks, “Who what? Killed my father and my brother?” The Viscountess replies, “Oh don’t look at me like that. You’ve always been the great lady. You don’t know what it’s like to have people laughing at you behind your back because you’re a baker’s daughter and you won’t be anything else. Well I am something else. I’m the wife of the nineteenth Viscount Blackraven, and I… oh haugh haugh.” She breaks down sobbing and the sister says, “I’ll take her inside, inspector.” She puts an arm around the Viscountess and leads her inside.

Curiously, the detective inspector is fine with this. He doesn’t even send any men inside to follow. I suppose, in fairness, she’s not very likely to run away. Anyway, he doesn’t follow or even seem to care what happens to the woman he’s about to arrest for two murders and an assault with a deadly weapon. Instead he asks Emma if she’s ever considered being a detective? She has a knack for it. Emma replies, “Do I? Well, let’s just say it runs in the family.”

And once again the episode ends with everyone laughing. I’m not sure why this is supposed to be funny to the characters. It’s only funny to us because Angela Lansbury plays both Jessica Fletcher and Emma MacGill and both characters are written by the same writers. The detective inspector has never even met Jessica, and has heard about two lines of description of her the other day.

All in all, this is a very weird episode. It’s not just that it has English Jessica (Emma) in it, though that, too, is a strange choice. A big part of what’s great about Murder, She Wrote is the small town character of Jessica Fletcher. (Even though, depending on the episode, she really isn’t a small town character. Still, the episodes where she is carry a lot of episodes where she isn’t.) A big city, annoying version of Jessica is not nearly as endearing. That we don’t even get Jessica for a minute in the beginning to introduce the episode is even more unfortunate.

Apart from all that, though, the episode is kind of a mess. We spend a bunch of it reminiscing about a character we don’t like and will never see again (Emma) and one we don’t know, have never seen before, and never will again (Jeffrey, the eigtheenth Viscount Blackraven). It would be one thing if these reminiscences were in any way interesting, but they’re not.

We spend a lot of time establishing that every member of the family is unbearable. The one exception is, of all people, the stuffy banker who ends up with the title of Viscount Blackraven at the end of the episode. He has no personality and isn’t likable, but he seems kindly enough that one doesn’t dislike him, either. On the other, other hand, he did raise his son so badly that his son has no skills, no discipline, and no thoughts other than to find some form of entertainment. A father is not wholly responsible for the behavior of his adult child, but he does have some responsibility for it.

The family lawyer is played by an enormously likable actor, and his part is not tiny, but neither does it have substance. He’s a close friend of Jeffrey, and is loyal, but that’s only established right before Jeffrey is killed and he’s not a suspect. At one point he somewhat suspiciously points out that he wasn’t present at dinner when Emma says that she doesn’t eat kippered herring, but absolutely nothing comes of that.

The plot about the old Viscount Blackraven being murdered has no resolution. We literally don’t know whether he was or wasn’t poisoned. It’s implied by the sister’s line, “Who what, killed my father and my brother?” and the Viscountess’ reply “Don’t look at me like that”, but certainty would have been better. At the very least, we could have gotten the toxicology report back.

It was also strange that we got no closure on any of the family. We didn’t see the Viscount Blackraven learn that his beautiful wife murdered his father and brother. We don’t see Derrick learn that his mother murdered people. Neither character is given any growth or development. Emma has no real character development, here. She investigates the crime with all of the disinterest that Jessica normally has when she solves crimes as mere intellectual puzzles. The extraordinary turbulence of the last few days—someone she was very fond of was just murdered in front of her and she was sort-of framed for it—seems to have no effect on Emma whatever. Even discovering that detective ability runs in the family has no effect on her; it’s just sort of funny.

Even at its best, Murder, She Wrote isn’t Shakespeare, but it does often have the fundamental mystery structure of the detective using reason to put right what was put wrong through a misuse of reason. Technically this episode has that, in that the murderess is caught and stripped of her ill-gotten status (we assume), but far more is wrong than is fixed. Obviously the detective in a story never fixes the whole world, but there were things that should have been impacted by this that weren’t.

More than anything, this episode is just confusing. In the beginning there’s a momentary subplot on Humphrey giving Emma 1000£ for her trouble, which she turns down. Why spend time on that? All it establishes is that the Viscount doesn’t expect her to want to come, but then she does want to come. There are many such instances; there’s the better part of a minute wasted on Derrick being dismissive of his mother in the beginning and driving off. It doesn’t really establish anyone’s character—Derrick remains the same stereotype throughout—it just takes up time. It’s not like they needed to pad the episode out; they pretty clearly ran out of time at the end.

It is possible that they realized this, or at least some of it. The episode is early on in the fourth season and we never see Emma MacGill in Murder, She Wrote, again. And that despite having plenty of episodes set in England. I suppose, at the end of the day, when you have 264 episodes of a TV show, they can’t all be winners.

Certainly, this one wasn’t.

Murder She Wrote: Murder in a Minor Key

Murder in a Minor Key is a very special episode of Murder, She Wrote, because it’s the only episode in which we actually get to find out what murder she wrote. Unlike the typical episode it doesn’t even start with the title card. After an establishing shot of Jessica’s house, we begin with Jessica walking down the stairs.

But she’s not just walking down the stairs. She’s talking to the camera. She tells us that she had changed into something more comfortable as she has a long night of reading ahead of her because her publisher just sent her the galley proofs for her latest book, Murder in a Minor Key.

She adds that she doesn’t know why they bother sending her the galley proofs as she’s the world’s worst proof reader. I can’t help but wonder what sort of English teacher she made if that’s actually true. (Jessica had been an English teacher for decades before retiring.)

Jessica then walks over and sits in a comfy chair and says that it’s so good to sit down. She spent half the day on her feet at the power company, trying to get her last bill sorted out. Meanwhile, the audience is wondering why Jessica knows we’re here and why she is telling us about the minutiae of her day as if we’re old friends. Those of us who watched Mr. Rogers as a kid might have been wondering if she had recently installed any model trains. But wait, it gets weirder.

Jessica not only is wearing “slippers” with 2″+ heels and pink ostrich feathers, she calls our attention to them and explains that she is wearing them because they’re actually very comfortable, though she only wears them around the house when no one else can see them. For bonus points, her nephew Grady gave them to her.

Jessica laughs about this, then gets down to business. She starts telling us about her book. She’s very pleased with it—it’s a “nice little puzzle” about some young students at a southern California university.

This is certainly not what I expected Jessica to be writing about. What does she know about young students at a southern California university? Aside from book tours, teaching university courses in NYC about crime writing, visiting dozens of nieces and hundreds of wealthy and/or famous friends, she’s spent her entire adult life in Cabot Cove, Maine. I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to write about a fictional small town in Maine, but then I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to not write about that, if you get my meaning. At the very least I would expect her books to feature a consistent detective.

Jessica introduces us to three friends who will be the main characters. There’s Michael Prentice, who’s a “bright, budding music composer”. His best friends are Chad Singer, a law student from the deep south, and Jenny Coopersmith, a quirky young lady from New York. As a testament to Angela Lansbury’s stage background, she delivers the exposition in one take, which is no mean feat as it’s comprised of several different topics. Anyway, our main characters introduced, we finally get to the title screen. Oh, but before we do, fun fact: Shaun Cassidy, the actor who played Chad, previously played the character of Joe Hardy. That was eight years before this episode, on a Hardy Boys TV series. Shaun Cassidy only acted for another year, then a few years later started producing shows. Anyway, we finally get to the title.

The trio goes to a night club that has a singer who also plays the piano. Even in the 1980s, this feels a little odd. Perhaps it was more common in southern California, though. Anyway, the singer says that she’s got an advance copy of a song from a broadway musical. She starts to play and Michael recognizes the music as his. He goes to the piano player and looks at the sheet music, then hands it to her and sits down and plays several measures. He asks how he’s doing and she says that he hasn’t missed a note.

Michael storms off and confronts Professor Tyler Stoneham, who is a music teacher. Stoneham is conducting a quartet, and icily says that he and Michael will discuss the sheet music in his office, in half an hour, but in the meantime will he cease being rude and let Stoneham finish his rehearsel. Michael accepts this for some reason, and the next scene is in Stoneham’s office.

Stoneham denies any wrongdoing and tells Michael that if he goes to the Chancellor nothing will come of it. Irate college students who feel that they’ve been wronged are a dime a dozen, and besides it’s Michael’s word against Stoneham’s. This admission of guilt made, Michael issues some threats as Professor Papasian (played by Rene Auberjonois) walks in in order to witness the threats and Michael holding a tuning fork in a threatening way.

The next scene is at Professor Stoneham’s house, at breakfast with his wife.

Her hands tremble while she pours herself tea and he asks her “What the devil is wrong with you, Christine?” She replies, “are you being solicitous, Tyler, or merely polite?”

Eating breakfast at opposite ends of a long dinner table is effective symbolism for the state of their marriage. She accuses him of infidelity when he’s been away on business trips and she can’t reach him, and he laughs at her fears. He seems genuinely amused that she was worried he was dallying with other women when he was actually engaged in non-sexual criminal enterprises.

That said, the very next scene is of a woman being called on the phone by her friend to draw her attention to a picture in the newspaper.

The picture is of professor Stoneham, and she clearly recognizes it as the man she worked with. So, it turns out that the composer she had worked with—and, it is implied, slept with—who called himself Alden Gilbert turned out to be Professor Stoneham. (Alden Gilbert is also the name on the sheet music which had Michael’s music in the earlier scene with the piano.)

This brings up the question: why did Stoneham find the idea of him cheating on his wife so funny? He actually was. Was that supposed to be a bluff? But I thought that the joke was that she was worried that he was cheating on her when in fact he was engaged in criminal fraud, so what amused him was that for a moment he thought she was on to him and then it turned out that she was way off. If that wasn’t it, it was a very missed opportunity.

The scene now shifts to the campus, at night, where there’s a protest going on creating a lot of noise, making it a great night for murder as no one would be likely to hear a gunshot so the murderer can easily get away.

That makes it a bit strange that the victim is actually killed with a tuning fork. I mean, that’s strange even on its own. A tuning fork is not exactly easy to kill a man with. It’s blunt, so the speed and force required to make it pierce skin would be enormous. And then, well, it’s blunt, so how is it supposed to kill? It’s not very likely to sever blood vessels, and I really don’t believe that a human being is going to be able to hit someone else with a tuning fork with enough momentum to kill by trauma. Then again, given where it was, perhaps it cracked the sternum and a sharp piece of bone severed an artery.

Be that as it may, death by tuning fork isn’t the sort of thing one needs loud noise to cover. Perhaps it was just to cover the killer’s voice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

During the protest Michael goes into the music office building to raid professor Stoneham’s filing cabinets to get his music back. However, Stoneham is still there so Michael hides out in a music room that has an open window to the protest outside and also a dashboard that shows when the phones in the nearby offices are getting used. Actually, it’s a shared phone, presumably so one can receive a call in the music room during a class, park it, then pick it up in one’s office. Either way, it’s convenient that one of the primary suspects was able to keep close surveillance on the victim’s phone usage.

Stoneham makes a number of phone calls and is also visited by a drunk professor Papasian who is angry over not getting credit in their new music dictionary. Stoneham promises him the headship of the music department, whenever he decides to leave, if he still feels like it, then.

Clearly, no one is going to miss Stoneham after he’s gone. Which will be quite soon. The next sequence of events isn’t quite clear, but eventually Michael hears Stoneham’s door close, waits a little bit, then goes and burgles the professor’s office using the narrowest flashlight I’ve ever seen.

Seriously, that tiny circle of light wouldn’t be big enough to illuminate the whole area one plans to put one’s foot, to say nothing of where one is going. Perhaps owing to his flashlight, Michael goes into Stoneham’s office with laser-like focus to the filing cabinets and doesn’t notice Stoneham’s corpse near his chair. He’s interrupted by a security guard who, on account of turning on the lights, does notice the corpse.

I just want to note again that I really doubt that tuning fork could have been a deadly weapon, to say nothing of it having killed Stoneham so quickly that he was unable to cry out, go for help, etc. What was he even supposed to have died of? Clearly it wasn’t blood loss. The wound looks too low to have punctured either the lungs or the heart.

Let’s take another look at that tuning fork, when Michael was holding it in a threatening manner.

Let’s do that thing where the computer enlarges and enhances.

Hm. It usually works better in the movies. Still, we can pretty clearly see that the ends of this are not sharp. They might be rounded or like most tuning forks end abruptly because a change in width would cause a change in resonant frequency. Either way, it would take enormous power to drive those 6″ tongs 4″ deep into a human body through a sweater and a broadcloth shirt, no less.

I suspect that I’m just going to have to let this one go.

We now cut to Jessica pouring herself a cup of tea and talking to us about the story.

This bouncing back and forth between the story and Jessica talking to the audience is really weird. Don’t get me wrong, Angela Lansbury pulls it off. But it’s still really weird. And it was completely unnecessary, too. She could easily have had a friend come over who wanted to hear about her latest book.

Jessica says that when the security guard came in and found Michael then saw Stoneham’s body, he put two and two together and came up with five. Granted, Jessica does deal with a lot of people who leap to bad conclusions, but under the circumstances I don’t think that we can blame the security guard for holding Michael until the police arrived.

The next scene is back to the story, with Chad talking to Michael in prison. Chad asks for all of the details and Michael asks why. Is Chad going to represent him? Chad says no, but it’s like his uncle always said, “Finding a fox in the hen house don’t mean a thing. Unless the fox is picking feathers out of his teeth.” What does this have to do with Michael and why Chad wants to know all the details? Your guess is as good as mine.

Chad then talks with Jenny and they agree to investigate the crime together. Jenny makes the observation that it seems like Professor Papasian must have killed Stoneham, since Michael didn’t and Papasian was the last one to talk to Stoneham before Michael went in (that they know about at the time). The counter-evidence to this is that Papasian claims that Stoneham was alive when he left and he passed a polygraph test with flying colors, while Michael’s polygraph test was inconclusive. They agree to investigate together, Chad on campus and Jenny on broadway. This part of the story is quite solid.

Chad next goes to read back-issues of the campus newspaper, which seems to be a pretty major affair.

Chad’s friend at the paper has his own desk, and it’s only one of several. The room itself is quite large, what you see in the image above is only one corner of it. It’s only a slightly scaled-down version of the sort of set Murder, She Wrote would use for a full-blown newspaper. Chad asks to read through their files to dig up old information, and the mustache guy makes giving him an exclusive interview about Michael a condition. Why the school newspaper has secret files that only some students have access to, we are never told. In fact, I’m unclear on why the mustache guy is a character at all. (He showed up in an earlier scene about the protest and it possibly being because of an editorial he wrote in the school newspaper, but I didn’t find it worth mentioning at the time.) The idea that the school newspaper has such a huge effect strikes me as a bit silly. Granted, I went to college about 10 years after this episode was written and in a small school rather than a large state school, but I can’t even remember clearly if we had a school newspaper. I do remember we had a student-run radio station that more people DJ’d for than listened to and a student-run local TV show that I never heard of anyone watching. I assume that we had a school newspaper. Looking it up, it turns out that we did. I can’t remember ever seeing anyone read it and I have a lot of trouble believing that anyone could stir up trouble with an editorial in it. (Also, looking it up, it seems like the school newspaper came out about once a month, not daily, as the newspaper in this story seems to.) Why it is that TV shows in the 1980s (and 1990s) took newspapers of all kinds to be enormously important affairs, I’m really not sure. Wishful thinking, perhaps?

Be that as it may, Chad gives his interview than does his research and goes off to question people. He starts with the vice-chancellor, who he gathered from back-issues of the school newspaper used to be something of an item with Christine (the now-widow of professor Stoneham). The school newspaper was apparently so complete it even had a gossip column, I guess. Chad said something about seeing them in photographs together, but this strains credulity. Anyway, the vice-chancellor admits that he and Christine were friends, but nothing more, and he remained on excellent terms with Christine and Stoneham after their marriage.

He then interviews professor Papasian. They start out in the room that Michael had hidden in the night before, which turns out to be an instrument storage room. A call comes in which Papasian answers and it turns out to be for professor Stoneham, from someone who doesn’t know he’s dead. Papasian then explains that Stoneham’s phone also rings in the instrument storage closet because professor Stoneham use to spend a lot of time there, noodling around on the piano.

I find this explanation a bit thin, for two reasons. The first is that this is a terrible room to noodle about on a piano in. The acoustics will be terrible and there will probably be sympathetic noise from many of the loose instruments. Second, when trying to compose music one presumably does not want to get interrupted by every phone call that comes in. However, it’s necessary to set up how the killer is caught, so I guess we have to let Jessica have this one. Professors of music do get tons of important phone calls that they have to take, after all.

Chad and Papasian talk a bit. Papasian said that it was a great pity that Michael killed Stoneham, as Michael was a great guy. In the ensuing conversation Chad mentions the fight that Papasian had with Stoneham, and Papasian says that it was a disagreement, not a fight. To borrow a line from the MST3K episode of The Dead Talk Back: and another brutal interrogation scene… peters out.

We next see Jenny talking to someone named Rhoda.

I really love the shoulder pads on her sweater. I know that there was a time in the late 1980s where shoulder pads were high fashion for women, but Jenny looks like she just got back from football practice and didn’t have time to take off her armor before she had to throw on a sweater and make some phone calls. Either that or she does a truly impressive number of lateral raises and no other exercises.

Jenny’s idea of fashion aside, she dug up some info through the grapevine of her network of girlfriends (she comes from NY, you will recall). It turns out that there is a broadway play called Blue Lights and the producer is a man named Max Hellinger. She even got a phone number for Hellinger, though he is out of town for a while. There was no number of Alden Gilbert, he always called Hellinger, not the other way around. All correspondence went to a P.O. Box in Westwood, NY. Chad concludes that Stoneham was living a double life.

Next he goes to visit Mrs. Stoneham at her mansion.

OK, mansion might be an exaggeration, but the home is clearly large and impressive. This might possibly be intended to suggest that Stoneham had more than a professor’s income, but I have a hard time believing that he could really make all that much money selling his brilliant students’ compositions to broadway producers. Christine—Mrs. Stoneham—invites him in. She reminisces that Stoneham and Michael used to work together all the time in their music room. That was in the past, though. Lately he had been travelling to San Diego very frequently for… school business.

Anyway, time to question the suspect. He asks her if she talked to her husband that night, and she said that she called him and he said he was waiting for Professor Papasian to drop off the galley proofs of his new book. He asks what time she called and she works out that she called at about 9:45 because it was during a commercial break in a comedy show she was watching that started at 9:30. They talked a bit more, she did some crying about having lost her husband, then he bid her adieu, though not before commenting on how Mr. Stoneham must have been from a wealthy family because it’s one heck of a house.

Curiously, right after Chad leaves the vice-chancellor walks down the grand staircase and remarks that it was a strange visit.

I really can’t tell if the shirt collar and vest being unbuttoned are meant to indicate that he was in the process of taking off his clothes, or in the middle of recently putting them back on again. That said, it was about three seconds between when Chad rang the door bell and when Christine opened the door, so she had to be almost next to it when he rang the bell. The vice chancellor could have taken longer to get dressed than she took, but even so it was a bit odd for them to have been on completely separate floors no matter what the reason. I’m inclined to say that the two are meant to have recently slept together and the writers were a bit sloppy with the details.

Before we go to the next scene, Christine mentions that she got the impression that Chad thought that she might have been involved in her husband’s death.

Next we go back to Jessica, doing something with a pet bird I don’t think we’ve ever seen before or will see again.

Birds are terrible pets for people who travel a lot and by season three (which this episode is from) Jessica was travelling a lot, including teaching courses in a NYC university. As an interesting tie-in, the bird is yellow, and during the episode in which Angela Lansbury played both Jessica and Jessica’s English cousin, the English cousin sang the song, “Hello, Little Yellow Bird.”

Jessica notes that the vice-chancellor had claimed to only be friends with Christine, but then why was he hiding out in another room? If you ask her, it was hanky panky of the highest order. But she’s the writer! It’s up to her whether it was hanky panky or not. Literally. She can choose to make it either one. This isn’t a reminiscence she’s telling, it’s her own invention. She’s the creator. And if this was hanky panky, why is she telling us this only moments after hinting about it? Is she relaying what the narrator of her book says, or is she adding commentary on her own story as she goes? And what sort of mystery writer is she, giving away plot points partway through telling someone about the story???

Oh well. Having done taking care of the bird she walks back to her favorite sitting chair, plops down, and gets us back into the story.

Professor Papasian has just been promoted by “the board,” whoever they are, to professor Stoneham’s job, whatever it is. His celebrations are cut a bit short by Max Shellinger rifling through Professor Stoneham’s filing cabinets. He’s looking for two songs that Stoneham composed under the name Alden Gilbert. Upon learning that Papasian is now the head of the department, he makes him a proposition.

Why Shellinger is dressed like Sherlock Holmes (minus the deerstalker cap) is unclear, and it seems to put Papasian somewhat on edge. When he hears that Shellinger will give him “five big ones” if Papasian can find the other two songs that Stoneham owes him, his ears perk up, though. He agrees to help.

Next Chad goes back to the apartment he shares with Jenny, where she’s playing and singing one of Alden Gilbert’s songs. She gets to musing who wrote the lyrics, because it sure wasn’t Stoneham, and it definitely couldn’t have been Michael either. Chad deduces that there must have been a lyricist. The next day Jenny is going to use a contact she has in the business office to check all of Stoneham’s outgoing calls with a 619 area code to see if they can find the lyricist (since Stoneham had spent a lot of time in San Diego). There’s an odd moment where Jenny is reluctant to do more investigation and demands that Chad bribe her with sex in order to get the information he wants. Jessica’s small town mores are, shall we say, a bit questionable.

Next we get a scene where professor Papasian is burgling the Stoneham house, but clumsily, so Christine hears him. She takes a gun and goes to investigate. He runs out through a large window in the music room and she shoots at him.

The next day Chad pesters Professor Papasian, whose right arm is clearly almost useless. He then offers to shake his hand, which Papasian reluctantly agrees to, then he winces in tremendous pain at the handshake. Frankly, it was rather unkind of Chad, as Professor Papasian was obviously injured, going to great lengths to use his left hand instead of his right hand.

Chad then tells Papasian about the events of the previous evening, and Papasian admits that it was him. I guess he figures that the injury is sufficient evidence, and he hopes to keep Chad quiet. It’s a plausible enough reason to talk, though talking is risky. Anyway, he says that he was looking for the songs because of an offer from Max Hellinger.

Chad meets Hellinger coming from police headquarters where he wasn’t able to see Michael. Chad and Hellinger go to a bar, where they talk. Hellinger admits that he knew Stoneham must have been taking someone else’s music because up till now he had been giving Hellinger mediocre-at-best songs, then suddenly this. He had arrived in town the evening that Stoneham was killed, but all he did was phone him at about 9:30 to make a breakfast date, but Stoneham didn’t show up then Hellinger found out why.

It was a pretty reasonable fact-finding interview. He got Hellinger to talk by semi-accusing Hellinger of the murder (after showing that he knew Hellinger had arrived that evening and was not in NY as he had claimed). It’s an odd trope that a detective can get a person to tell everything he knows by accusing the person of the crime. It seems to me far more plausible that a person would take offense and moreover decide that if they say nothing, they cannot be caught in either mistakes or lies. That said, it is a common trope so it mostly won’t be noticed if employed.

Also, if Stoneham had mostly composed shlock until he started stealing from Michael Prentice last year, how did he manage to afford his gorgeous house? There’s no indication that they had moved into it just a few months ago. And if writing shlock for broadway really paid that well, why bother stealing Michael’s work?

Be that plot hole as it may, Chad returns home, where Jenny has the lyricist (Reagan Miller) sitting on the couch with her.

It turns out that Reagan is a big fan of shoulder pads too.

Anyway, she doesn’t have much to tell that we don’t already know. She wrote the lyrics but Stoneham took credit for them. She came to the campus to confront him but couldn’t find his office, then the police showed up. She then excuses herself because she needs to go home to tape an real estate commercial that she wrote a jingle for. This prompts Chad to go into a deep trance. Jenny tells Reagan to ignore him, he gets like this sometimes, then goes over, snaps her fingers in front of his face, and asks if she gets a prize. He replies, “Darling, you’re not going to believe this, but I think I just figured out which fox got in the hen house.”

We then get interrupted by Jessica again.

“Well how about you?” she asks. “Have you figured out who killed the good doctor? You can’t be hurting for suspects. Heaven knows, there were plenty of people with motive and opportunity. But if you’ve been paying attention there’s one particular clue that should pinpoint the guilty party.”

This is quite a change in tone from her commentary on how the vice chancellor hiding in another room in the Stoneham house probably meant that hanky panky of the highest order was going on. If we were supposed to be guessing who did it, why was Jessica commenting on the story, earlier, as if she was trying to figure it out too?

It’s also curious that this makes very explicit the murder-mystery-as-game. That’s not everyone’s idea of what a murder mystery should be, and it’s only somewhat an aspect of Murder, She Wrote. It is, I maintain, why Jessica typically solves murders by inspiration, often from some innocuous phrase that someone says—that’s to give people time to solve the mystery themselves after all of the clues necessary to do it are in. If Jessica solved it immediately, there’d be no time (or at least very little time) for people to guess. Worse, it would drive home what the clinching clue was. By delaying Jessica coming to the conclusion, it both avoids highlighting the clinching clue and also gives the audience time to guess or even to discuss with the other people watching who each person thinks did it. Here, that time is provided by Jessica asking who did it. It’s weird—which may be why they never did it again—but it does kind of work.

Then we fade back to the campus, where Chad has organized a recreation of the events of the night. Each person who was involved is supposed to do and say what they did the night of the murder. They even bring Reagan, who didn’t say or do anything so she’s supposed to not do that… again. The recreation of the events is pretty long (four minutes of screen time) and frankly it drags. The climax comes when Christine uses the payphone to place the call to her husband she placed that night, and Michael Prentice comes out of the instrument storage closet to say that the phone call going through at that moment didn’t happen the night of the murder.

Everyone looks at Christine and Chad says, “that’s right, Ma’am. It never rang. The call you said you made to your husband during the commercial break never happened… a fact I believe will be validated by your next month’s phone bill. It’s a toll call.”

For those too young to remember this, it used to be the case that people only got free telephone calls (made over landline phones) to regions within a mile or two, and calls more than a short distance away were “toll” calls, i.e. calls for which one paid by the minute, though not very much. (More expensive still were long-distance calls, such as calls between states.) Since toll calls were charged by the minute, phone bills would have an itemized list of what numbers were called, when, and for how long.

Christine does not respond until Chad says, “The only thing I don’t know is: was [the vice-chancellor] in on it with you?” Christine angrily replies, “No. No he wasn’t… Tyler was my problem.”

The police detective who was there in custody of Michael then walks toward her to (presumably) arrest her and we fade back to Jessica, who is still in her kitchen.

“Poor Christine,” she says. “It was only a little slip, but those are the ones that get you. She’s come to the office to surprise her husband, they fought, and long-suffering Christine finally went over the edge.”

And this slender woman in her fifties who looks incapable of lifting a full bag of groceries then plunged a tuning fork four inches into her husband’s chest, instantly killing him. Somehow.

I know I’m a bit obsessed with this, but seriously. I’m a reasonably large guy—I’m 6 feet tall, my best deadlift is 385 pounds (for 5 reps) and my best bench press is 300 pounds—and if you handed me that tuning fork to kill someone with and for some crazy reason I actually needed to kill them, I’d go for the eyes then throw the tuning fork away, get behind the person, and strange them with my bare hands. In all honesty I think that a large music textbook would have been a more plausible murder weapon. Even a small music textbook used to give someone a paper cut on the jugular vein would have been more plausible, though admittedly that’s in the same ballpark as the tuning fork.

OK, that aside, Jessica’s explanation of what happened seems very hard to reconcile to what Christine said about how Tyler was her problem. That really makes it sound like she killed him in order to get rid of him in order to enable her affair with the vice-chancellor. Further, how are we supposed to reconcile her affair with the vice-chancellor with the fight she had with Stoneham over his frequent business trips and shutting him out. A woman with a lover would welcome her husband going on frequent business trips where he was completely out of contact. She might or might not feel jealous about there being another woman, but if she’s at the point of murdering her husband in order to get rid of him—and Stoneham really seemed like the sort of person who wouldn’t even notice if his wife divorced him—another woman would probably be welcome news because it would make it easier to get rid of him.

Christine as the killer just makes no sense, no matter how you cut it. If she wanted to go with her lover, she would have just divorced him. If she was content having a lover on the side, she wouldn’t show up to his office to surprise him, nor, having done so, would she have fought with him and killed him in a fit of rage.

Leaving that aside, her “little slip” was also astonishingly unnecessary. Why on earth did she make up a story about calling him during a commercial break in a TV show when she didn’t and the phone records wouldn’t back her up. It would be one thing if she had set up some device to place a phone call at that time in order to establish an alibi (and actually picked the phone up herself, in the office, in order to complete the call to give herself the alibi), but she did the exact reverse. She invented a falsifiable story that served no purpose. OK, not precisely no purpose—it did provide an alibi that would have been difficult for the law student with no authority talking to her to have disproved. But he also could not have even superficially confirmed it, either, and she didn’t need to give him an alibi. Saying that she was home watching TV would have worked just as well.

The other problem with the demonstration was that—if we take Michael’s word for how many calls there were—all it proved was that of the several people who claimed to call him, one of them didn’t. They were not precise enough about the time of their calls to say it had to happen during the few minutes Michael was in the closet. He got there while a call was already going.

The timing of this murder is also really weird. On the night of the murder, Michael leaves off listening to Papasian and Stoneham shouting at each other to go to the window to look at the protest outside, and is attracted back when he hears Stoneham’s door closing. Given that he was an aopen window with a lot of noise, it needed to be slammed shut for him to have heard it, which would be a weird thing for Christine to do as she’s leaving the office after just having murdered her husband. Anyway, these two events are less than 60 seconds apart. That’s not much time for Papasian to storm out, Christine to come in, them to fight, Christine to stab him with the tuning fork in a fit of rage, wipe her fingerprints off of it, and run away. Doubly so when you consider that she either had to walk down the hallway past the music storage room or Papasian did, in order for them to not meet on the stairs Papasian took to go to Stoneham’s office. As a side note, she also had to fly home in order to be there when the police found her husband’s body only minutes later then came to notify her.

When you put this all together, this seems like very sloppy plotting by Jessica, doubly so with there being no evidence of any kind that points to Christine except for a lie she told for minimal reason. Worse, she either would already have been interviewed by the police or would be soon, and she surely would not have told them such a disprovable lie as having made a phone call she didn’t make. So she either told them an obviously disprovable lie or gave them a different story than she gave Chad. Either way stretches belief.

Leaving all that aside, this is still a really strange story to be her latest book. I really would have expected to meet her world-famous detective. That said, established authors will occasionally create a new detective. Agatha Christie gained her fame with Hercule Poirot, but she also created Miss Marple and also Tommy and Tuppence. Still, it’s kind of odd that this is merely her “latest book” when it’s got an all-new detective. She should be nervous about this change of direction. Instead, she mentions that she’s been noodling around with an idea for a sequel where, on the way to Mississippi to meet Chad’s parents, they run into a defrocked priest and a professional wrestler. She interrupts herself and says, “maybe we just better wait for the sequel”.

“Thanks for dropping by, and goodnight.”

The whole episode is weird. It’s tempting to think that Angela Lansbury had some time commitments and so they didn’t have time to film a real episode with her, and that would explain some things. On the other hand, they had plenty of those episodes, featuring all sorts of other detectives (my favorite were the ones with the ex-jewel-thief who worked for an insurance company; IIRC his name was Dennis). Maybe this was an unsuccessful first attempt? Frankly, it is a bit odd that they never got into what Jessica’s famous stories were, besides this really weird episode.

Anyway, I think that the lessons are clear: if you’re going to write murder mysteries about a murder mystery writer, invest some time in giving the detective some good stories of his own. And either way, if you’re going to stage a recreation of the night of the murder, don’t make it drag on with everyone complaining about it, with the denouement hinging on the word of the police’s prime suspect. Also, have the victim killed with a weapon that could plausibly kill a person without them having superhuman strength. Seriously, a tuning fork???

Update: I forgot about the missing song sheets that Stoneham owed Hellinger. There was absolutely no resolution on those. Who has them? Why were they missing? So far as I can see, absolutely no one had a motive to hide the missing song sheets. And the thing is, this isn’t a minor point. The missing song sheets drove much of the plot. Michael was looking for them in Stoneham’s office and was still there when the police came in because he didn’t find them. Max Hellinger flew to California in order to get them. He met professor Papasian because he was rifling through files in the school office looking for them. Papasian was shot while burgling the Stoneham residence in order to find them, which led to him telling Chad about Hellinger. Hellinger talked with Chad in the bar and gave him information because he wanted the song sheets. And then… nothing. The missing song sheets are completely forgotten about. (Papasian says that he suspects that Stoneham had put them in a safe deposit box, but we’re given zero evidence that this happened, there’s no obvious reason for it to have happened, and either way we get no resolution on it.)

Speaking of things being completely forgotten, Professor Papasian having been shot in the arm and unable to use his right arm or hand was completely forgotten about during the re-creation. He waves his hand around and at one point carelessly stuffs it into his pocket. Earlier that day he couldn’t move it enough to start to take his coat off. Perhaps he took some extra strength aspirin which he kept in his desk drawer at work.

Murder She Wrote: The Bottom Line is Murder

Late in Season 3 of Murder, She Wrote we get an episode set in a Denver TV sation called The Bottom Line is Murder.

As is fairly common with titles, it’s something of a pun on the episode itself—the TV show in the enter of the episode is called The Bottom Line.

It is a hard-hitting investigative journalism show which focuses on faulty consumer products. The show feels like a reference to something, but as it originally aired in February the year of our Lord 1987, I don’t know what it was referencing. I wasn’t even 10 at the time the episode originally came out, and even if I remembered much from that time I wouldn’t have watched the sort of TV shows this was referencing.

I was tempted to say it this was a generalized Dateline: NBC, as I have a vague memory of them having done the sort exposé journalism that The Bottom Line does, but Dateline: NBC first aired in 1992. Even if the writers could be that prescient, they would not have referenced something their audience wouldn’t know for another five years, so that possibility is right out.

It does seem like it was quite prescient, though. I looked up Dateline: NBC on Wikipedia and there was a section about a show that Dateline did about a GMC pickup truck purportedly exploding on impact because of poor design. The only problem was that their demonstration was completely fabricated. They planted remote control incendiary devices on the truck that they crashed and those were what caused the explosion that Dateline showed the public. An investigation actually found the burned husk of the vehicle in a junkyard and did analysis on it, finding that the fuel tank had remained intact. As a minor detail, they drove the truck into the barrier at about forty miles per hour but lied and said that it was at thirty miles per hour. It turns out that sanctimonious people are not always honest.

Actually, the entire format has a problem designed into it. A show which is focused on finding outrageous things can only find as many outrageous things as the world produces; if this is fewer per year than the number of episodes the show has, it must either cancel episodes or fabricate outrages. Worse, if someone looks at thirty outrages a year (one per week), they will become numb and require a higher dose to achieve the same level of outrage. Since the world can be relied upon to not produce ever-growing levels of outrageous material every week, either honesty or the show will have to give. (It should be noted that this also forms a selective pressure for bad judgement, which is more effective than outright dishonesty.)

Anyway, the show opens with a graphic demonstration of a bulletproof vest that doesn’t stop bullets.

The only problem is that the vest does stop the bullet, which causes the host doing the demonstration, Kenneth Chambers, to go into a meltdown. In fairness to him, though, he claims that they tried it ten times before filming and the bullet went through every time when the cameras were off. He then yells at everyone for everything, establishing that he’s a self-centered egomaniac without manners or human kindness. In other words, we establish who is 98% likely to get murdered in this episode.

We’re then introduced to a few more characters:

The guy on the left is Steve. He’s the producer of the show. The woman has a name I’ll remember at some point but she’s played by Adrienne Barbeau, which is far more memorable. (If you confuse her with Sigourney Weaver, you’re not alone.) This is Ms. Barbeau’s second (and final) appearance in Murder, She Wrote. She’s a tough-as-nails career woman who doesn’t like anyone and isn’t afraid to let them know. A few moments later we get introduced to another character, Ryan, but even though his introduction establishes that he was probably dallying with a female staffer in a closet, he’s so minor I’m going to use the shot which only shows the back of his head. We almost never see his face again, anyway:

Adrienne chews Ryan out and sends him to Mr. Chambers. Ryan is some sort of assistant and Mr. Chambers clearly needs assistance. Then we finally find out what Jessica has to do with this bunch of people:

The woman driving the car is Dr. Jayne Honig. It’s likely that Jayne isn’t one of Jessica’s many neice’s as there’s a reference made to Jayne’s wedding seven years ago and how she rescued Jessica from a dance marathon with Jayne’s Uncle Buck. Jessica also asks “how is your dear husband” which suggests that of the two it’s Jayne she knows better.

This question brings up an awkward moment, apparently the couple are having trouble related to Steve constantly being stressed and working late. Jayne has given up her career as a psychiatrist to be a full time wife in order to save the marriage, though why this is necessary as the problem is that Steve is never home is unclear.

Also, it turns out that Jessica is in town because she’s going to do a book review segment for the TV show. It’s not spelled out, but presumably this is a favor to Jayne. This was during the days of broadcast television when local TV stations were common and KBLR (the name of the station) certainly seems like a local affair. Maine to Denver is an awfully long way to go in order to review books on a local TV station.

Next we get more establishing of what a sleazeball Kenneth Chambers is. There was a segment where the police chief, acting as an expert for the show, said that while the Acme bulletproof vest (the vest from the opening of the show) is cumbersome, in a dangerous situation it’s the best safety equipment he knows. Kenneth had “the boys” do some editing, and he changed the testimonial around to have the police chief say that in a dangerous situation, he wouldn’t put it on his dog.

Steve objects that this is dishonest and unethical. Kenneth asks who cares, because it’s great television. Steve, defeated, says that he cares. Apparently no one stopped to think that this is the sort of thing which can generate lawsuits and, if nothing else, make an enemy of the chief of police which doesn’t seem like a great strategy.

Adrienne Barbeau then walks in saying that after weeks of intensive effort, she has finally dug up the evidence on some cheese producer that will “throw them into the fondue, as it were”. Kenneth declares that the story is dead, which does not please Adrienne.

Kenneth walks out, Adriene storms out, then Jessica and Jayne walk in. As a side note, these offices are really huge. It takes Adriene twelve steps to get from Steve’s desk to the door of his office. Adriene Barbeau is 5’3″ tall, so if we assume she has a 5′ stride, that makes it 30′ from the desk to the door. My house, which admittedly is not large, is shorter than that from one side to the other. This is one heck of an office.

“*Ahem* Got a minute for a famous author?” Jayne asks. Warm greetings ensue, and then we meet the final character who will make up the suspects cast. His name is Robert Warren and he is the station manager. He begins by asking Jayne when she’s going to leave Steve for him, and then remarks, after some banter, that when your best friends steals the love of your life it’s either “Laugh, Clown, laugh” or slit your wrists, and he had no blood to spare. He then charms Jessica, kissing her hand and saying that if there’s anything she wants, she has but to command. The character is played as flamboyant and over-the-top, but even so the professions of love for Jayne are far too sincere to just pass over. It’s a clue, of course—if someone is not the main suspect, background information about them is just about guaranteed to be a clue—but it’s not that well disguised. Especially because a TV station manager couldn’t plausibly be that light-hearted and unserious.

He then offers to take Jessica on the “fifty cent tour”. I’m genuinely unsure whether that’s meant to be a grand tour or a meagre one. Throwing fifty cents from 1987 into an inflation calculator, that’s worth approximately $1.15 now (it would be worth $1.19 if we use 1986, presuming that the script was written at least two months before it aired, but what’s $.04 between friends?). On the other hand, it sounds like a throwback phrase, though to when I’m not sure. If we were to go all the way back to 1925, it would be the equivalent of a $7.44 tour today. At the end of the day I don’t often go on tours that I have to pay for, so I’m out of my element here.

Either way, Jessica goes on the tour. She’ll soon get to see how unpleasant Kenneth Chambers is for herself, but first we get the semi-obligatory scene of a tough guy threatening the victim.

The tough guy, who is the owner of toy bears that Mr. Chambers is going to do an exposé on, demonstrated on the bear how he would touch Chambers if Chambers did a show about his bears. This character does show up again, but not as a suspect. For the most part people who were heard to threaten the victim are only suspected by the police if they are a friend of Jessica’s.

Shortly after this we get a scene of Mr. Chambers yelling for his assistant because his assistant was supposed to fix his TV.

This is a clue, of course—I would be hard pressed to think of a time in a Murder, She Wrote episode where a piece of technology was broken that wasn’t a clue—but it is disguised fairly well as a scene of showing just how awful Kenneth Chambers is by how he is short-tempered and yells at his subordinates.

There’s an argument that Robert Warren has with Chambers about the toy bears, saying that the tough guy (his name is Rinaldi) spends a lot of money advertising with the station and maybe they should cool it with the antagonistic episode. Chambers stands firm on principle. Then we meet someone who is, technically, a member of the cast, but she so consistently seems to be unambitious, reactive furniture that it’s impossible to consider her a suspect.

She lets it slip that she has a romantic relationship, as well as a business relationship, with Kenneth Chambers because she calls him Kenneth and then corrects herself to Mr. Chambers. This is something of a dated way of letting that information slip, since even at the time the transition from last names to first names in workplaces in America was well underway. In this case it’s especially strange since she appears on the show with Chambers, helping out in his demonstrations. Being both a mousy secretary and an on-air personality is really weird, almost to the point of saving on casting. I suppose giving her a romantic relationship with Chambers gives her some sort of motive for killing him, making him a suspect, but I don’t think that at any time it’s plausible. (Of course, the very fact that it’s implausible can be a red herring; one should always be on the lookout for the least suspicious person in a murder mystery.)

There’s some small talk, Mousy Girl says that Mr Chambers has been looking forward to her coming because he’s such a fan, etc. Then we get another clue. Kenneth leans back into his chair, knocking over the cup of coffee that Ryan the assistant was holding while fiddling with the knob on a sound system in order to get the VCR to give a video signal to the TV.

I know I always hold coffee while fiddling with nobs. How else would the detective be able to tell two identical chairs apart? There’s an attempt to disguise this clue by having Chambers fly off the handle and fire Ryan but if you’re at all familiar with the habits of Murder, She Wrote, there’s no missing this clue.

What the clue means is a different matter, though. You know that this chair and another chair will be switched, but—credit where credit is due—you don’t know why they will be switched.

Next we see Jessica, Jayne, Steve, and, for some reason, Robert, at a restaurant. Jessica works it into the conversation that Robert was a former patient of Jayne’s. Steve says, speaking of a racketball game he played with Robert, that Robert is competitive to the point of compulsion. Jessica then says, “Oh, perhaps your former psychiatrist could give us some insight into that.” But Jayne demures, saying that there are strict rules about doctor-patient confidentiality. Yeah, no kidding. Of course Jessica knows that; I don’t think that the attempt to disguise this clue as dinner banter works at all. The actors do a good job making it feel like trading wit but it really stands out.

Steve excuses himself because he has to go back to the station to work. Kenneth Chambers has demanded it, though how Chambers is in a position to demand it is not clear, since Steve is, in theory, Chambers’ boss. Shortly afterwards Robert says that he can commiserate with Steve, having worked at the station every night for the past week he can say that the station is a very lonely place when you’re the only one there. Robert then goes off home to get a good night’s sleep.

As he drives off, Jessica notices that Jayne looks upset. Asked, Jayne says that Steve had said he had worked late at the station every night that week, but Robert just let it slip that he had been there all alone.

In the next scene George Takei, sorry, Bert the janitor, discovers Kenneth Chambers slumped over in a chair. He turns the chair around and then is horrified, though of what we can’t see. It’s dark, and the bullets didn’t seem to penetrate through to the front of Chambers, so we don’t see any blood.

In the next scene Jayne is driving Jessica to the station in the morning.

Curiously, they both forgot to wear their seatbelts. This is consistent with other times that they’re shown in the car. I wonder if it was deliberate or if the actors just forgot because they were filmed in a stationary car with the driving just being a rear-projected film. The rear projection is pretty good, except that they’re on a two-lane highway that ends in the parking lot of the TV station without any kind of turning off. The station parking lot is filled with police cars and camera crews, so Jayne and Jessica discover that something happened.

We then meet Lieutenant Lou Flanagan, the police detective for the case. He turns out to be the expert that Chambers had dishonestly edited, though he never actually learns this and nothing comes of it.

He tells the reporters that Chambers was shot twice, and Jessica manages to get out of him that Chambers was shot between 10pm and midnight before he asks who she is. She is familiar, but he can’t place her, but thinks that she’s part of the media. She says no, she’s just a friend, but when he loses interest in talking to her, she pretends to be a reporter (though with plausible deniability in her wording) and was impressed that he “saw through” her.

Steve shows up from a run he was on—the man is certainly dedicated to exercise. Despite having gotten to be after 1am, he was up in the morning before his wife so he could go on a run in a sweatsuit. It’s a bit of an odd choice to do that early morning run and return to the office in need of a shower, rather than to return home, take a shower, then go to work. Nothing really comes of it, though, since it was his absence the night before which makes him a suspect. (He’s a friend of Jessica’s with no alibi, so the Lieutenant is, of course, convinced that he did it.)

During the investigation, Lieutenant Flanagan helpfully shows an ashtray with a large cigar ash in it to the camera, but it’s so blatant an action that even Jessica notices.

He then blows on the cigar ash (for good luck?) and puts the ashtray back on the desk. It’s instincts like that for bringing clues to the attention of other people which got him all the way to Lieutenant!

Then another clue turns up. The murder weapon (a revolver) was found in the back seat of Steve Honig’s car! A deputy spotted it when he looked in the window!

Flanagan asks if Steve has a permit for the gun, but Steve dismissively says that it isn’t his. Flanagan doesn’t believe him, and Jessica has had enough. She goes on a tirade about how there’s no common sense here. Why would Steve, if he was the killer, come to the scene of the crime with the murder weapon in plain sight in his car when he had hours to dispose of it?

Before he can answer, Robert Warren shows up in an exercise outfit that puts Steve’s to shame.

Warren asks what’s going on and Flanagan says that he is taking Steve into custody on suspicion of the murder of Kenneth Chambers. Apparently Flanagan has a very short memory. Warren says that he will send a lawyer along with Steve.

We’re almost halfway through the episode and the middle of a Murder, She Wrote rarely contains any clues. I think that this is to give the audience some time to think over the clues that they were already presented with. We’re given a bunch of suspicious stuff, of course. Jessica asks Jayne when Steve actually came home and it was around 1am. Adrienne Barbeau talks the blond assistant to become the new host of The Bottom Line.

Jessica walks onto the set of the new The Bottom Line and talks with Adrienne, who is the new producer. She observed that Steve never wanted the job anyway. He really wanted to be the producer, but Kenneth Chambers had made sure that Warren got that job. This might have been an interesting sub-plot, but we never learn any more about it.

Jessica talks to the blond assistant, but not much comes out. The subject of Rinaldi (the teddy bear thug) comes up. They look for the tapes of the show, but can’t find them. Jessica Fletcher talks to Rinaldi about the missing tapes, and he tells her that he paid Chambers twenty five thousand dollars in cash to buy the tapes and kill the show. This leads to a scene of a bunch of people standing around while Lieutenant Flanagan opens a safe in what I assume was Chambers’ office.

It turns out that Kenneth Chambers accepted bribes to kill stories. The cheese maker story that was killed towards the beginning of the episode was also in the safe. The blond assistant is disillusioned, and Adrienne Barbeau is excited because now she knows why the story was killed and as the new producer she’s going to run it.

This new evidence should have opened up the possibility of Chambers being killed for some reason relating to his criminal enterprise. It doesn’t, though. Flanagan gives Jessica a ride to somewhere and while riding they talk about the case and Flanagan comes up with the theory that Steve planted the tapes and money to smear Chambers’ good name and Chambers surprised him to Steve had to shoot him. How Chambers ended up sitting in his chair and turning his back to Steve isn’t mentioned, and the idea is so absurd Jessica just asks to see pictures of the crime scene instead.

Jessica notices that the chair was shot in the back, meaning that his back had to be to the door. Unfortunately for this revelation we already saw it when George Takei found the body. Flanagan says that he must have been watching TV, but Jessica points out that this is impossible since his TV was broken. Somehow it never occurs to either of them that he could have been shot while facing another direction then his chair rotated afterwards, e.g. to make people think that he was doing something so as to delay the finding of the body. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case so our sleuths not thinking of it doesn’t matter.

The next morning Jessica talks with Robert Warren to get some more information. It turns out that it was Adrienne Barbeau’s idea to revive the show with the blond assistant as the star. Warren went on to say that Chambers wanted to take the show to the national network and leave everyone behind, but with him dead everyone comes out ahead, especially the blond assistant. Personally, I don’t think that this red herring is very plausible based on the character herself, but I do have to admit that the motive was a decent one and innocents with big doe eyes have turned out to be murderers before and will again.

Jessica then steps in to watch the filming of the new Bottom Line, with the blond assistant as the star.

Claire flubs a line and they move on to another scene. Jessica runs into Ryan, who Chambers had fired by Adrienne Barbeau re-hired. Jessica says that she finds it perplexing how much better off everyone his. Ryan tells her the secret of show business. “The secret to this business is hustle. Any boob can do these jobs. You just have to make sure that you’re the any boob who gets hired.” There’s another minor interaction, but that’s the last we see of this character. He had a good line before we went, at least.

Now we finally move on to the last act before the denouement. Jessica meets George Takei, who has a bunch of evidence to give her. Jessica tries to throw away her coffee cup but George grabs it before it lands in the garbage.

It turns out that he has a collection of trash from famous people, which he offers to show her. Jessica agrees to see it because she would like to talk to him. Pleasantly, he not merely collects trash but he preserves it in a way that sanitizes it.

I thought that the embedding the trash in lucite was a nice touch. (He also bronzed an apple core someone threw out.) I suspect that this would have been funnier back in the late 1980s because there was more of a trend for preserving things in bronze and lucite back then—more typically things like baby shoes and comic books—but it’s still amusing now.

During the course of the conversation George reveals three important clues. The first is that he cleaned Steve’s office when Steve and Kenneth were fighting. The second was that Steve actually was working late every night for the past week. The third was he spilled coffee from his coffee mug, making Jessica think to look for the chair with the coffee stain, which turns out to be in Steve’s office.

Can you see the coffee stain? I can’t. We just have to trust Jessica that it’s there.

Jessica runs over to police headquarters and gets Lieutenant Flanagan to let her look at the murder chair.

Personally, I don’t see a coffee stain here about as much as I don’t see one on the other chair.

No coffee stain! That proves it!

What does it prove? We’ll have to wait for Jessica to set a trap for the killer to find out.

George helpfully plants the bait. He very conspicuously says that the chair in Steve’s office needs to be replaced because of the terrible coffee stain that no power on earth can get out. So, of course, the killer will come to take the chair away at night once everyone has left in order to… OK, I’ve got nothing. Once it’s publicly known that the chair had an awful coffee stain, removing it will accomplish precisely nothing. Still, someone has to go to the trap and threaten to kill Jessica to hush her and her flimsy evidence up.

Jessica actually waited in the chair, in the dark, for the murderer. You’ve got to give it to her—when she sets a trap, she’s willing to use herself as bait. And the murderer turns out to be…

Robert Warren!

But, there’s a twist. He wasn’t trying to kill Kenneth Chambers, he was trying to kill Steve Honig. All those things about being madly in love with Jayne? Yeah. It turns out that they were true. Robert wanted Jayne for himself and tried to kill Steve to make room for himself. But when he discovered that the man he shot in Steve’s chair was actually Kenneth—who was watching Steve’s TV because his own was broken—he figured that framing Steve for the murder would serve the same purpose.

Steve does what any Murder, She Wrote killer does when Jessica presents him with extremely flimsy evidence alone, at night—he announces his intention to kill her.

He doesn’t say it, but one gets the distinct impression he’s planning to strangle her with his necktie. Jessica asks if his solution is to kill her too, and he replies that it shouldn’t be too hard to find another writer for their book review show.

Jessica then says that he needs help. Specifically, help from Jayne. I really don’t get that last part; she’s given up her practice and a man who is madly in love with his psychiatrist probably should get help from just about anyone but the object of his fixation. However that may be, as is the case in about 9 out of 10 episodes, Jessica has witnesses waiting in the wings to hear the killer’s confession. As is often the case, one of them is the police detective.

Oddly, the other witness is Jayne. This is a very odd choice for a witness, but it gives her the opportunity to talk to him. She says that violence didn’t work before, and it won’t work this time.

Yeah, no kidding. That’s kind of the meaning of that police offer standing there in the background looking glum.

He says that she shouldn’t be there and she asks why. Would he kill her too? Then she caresses his face.

This seems wildly inappropriate no matter which way you look at it—as a psychiatrist or a married woman or the woman he murdered someone for or the wife of the woman he framed for the murder. Maybe that’s why, when she looks over at Jessica, Jessica just looks down.

The next morning Jessica talks to Steve and Jayne on the front stairs of the television station and explains why she set the trap. Steve says that he can’t thank her enough, both for getting him off of the murder charge and also for the brilliant interview she gave. Apparently they didn’t bother talking about what happened the night before until after they filmed her book review show. That’s show biz for you, I guess.

Lieutenant Flanagan then walks out of the station, followed by a gaggle of reporters. What he was doing in the station or why the reporters were in their with him, I cannot imagine. He stops at the top of the stairs and tells the reporters that it takes a trained eye to spot something like the switched chairs because of the coffee stain. He’s going to take credit for it but then spots Jessica. However, she gives him her blessing to take credit.

Which he does, with aplomb. The episode ends with Jessica, Jayne, and Steve laughing when Flanagan said, “I said to myself, ‘mere furniture? I think not.'”

The Bottom Line is Murder is, overall, a strange episode. It is very memorable, but not really for the mystery, which was not all that well crafted. Don’t get me wrong, it holds together well enough, minus it being a bit strange that the janitor didn’t hear the gunshots and the direction the chair was facing in no way being an indication of the direction it was facing when the victim died. The coffee stain indicating the switched chair was solid enough, though it was extremely contrived that the chair had a coffee stain. Likewise the broken TV causing the victim to be in the wrong place was fine, if the significance of the broken TV was a bit telegraphed. (Also fairly coincidental. It isn’t very plausible that Chambers would have had hours of footage to watch, so the odds of catching him in Steve’s office, sitting down and watching, would not have been very high. Granted, it’s fine for coincidence to be involved in the murder itself, but only up to a point.)

I think that what really makes the episode so memorable is that it has so many talented actors playing well defined—if not always sensible—characters. Adrienne Barbeau’s tough, ambitious producer leaps off the screen, even if she is barely related to the plot. Barry Corbin’s Lieutenant Flanagan is, despite his foibles, deeply likable. Judith Chapman’s Jayne makes you feel all of the trouble and pain her character is going through; one believes that she was a magnificent psychiatrist before she gave it up. She is plausible as a woman worth killing for. George Takei’s janitor was a fascinating character. He’s almost like a happy grouch, with a completely unrelatable love of garbage. One might almost want to see his collection of immortalized trash. Even Pat Klous’s blond assistant was a vivid character—so innocent, fragile, and trusting. That makes no sense for a woman who was romantically involved with a man like Chambers, not to mention being both his secretary and an on-air co-host makes absolutely zero sense. Still, she was a vulnerable almost-child, and you felt that. And then there’s Morgan Steven’s Robert Warren. He is plausible as a charming psychopath, especially the charming part.

So, ultimately, the story structure doesn’t make much sense but the setting is great and the actors are phenomenal. To some degree they’re under-developed because there are so many great characters, development takes time, and there is only 47 minutes divided by the number of characters available to develop them. None the less, it makes for a very memorable episode. I am almost fixated on structure, so I have trouble regarding it as a really good episode, but it is certainly an extremely memorable one.

I also have to say that I found the set decoration very interesting in both Steve and Kenneth’s office. (It was pretty clearly actually the same set just redecorated, with the TV/sound equipment on the back wall not even being different.) The cavernous office was so large it had quite a lot of furniture in it, so there was plenty to look at. Wall sconces, art on pedestals, five varieties of things to sit on, statues, paintings—there was a ton of visual interest. It was just an interesting place to watch a murder mystery.

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.

Murder She Wrote: One White Rose For Death

One White Rose For Death is the fourth episode in the third season of Murder, She Wrote.

It’s not one of the most memorable episodes, probably because the setup of Jessica being used to help a classical performer from behind the Iron Curtain to defect while on an American tour was used in the first season (Death Takes a Curtain Call) and had the extremely memorable Major Anatole Karzof of the KGB. That said, this is a fun and interesting episode.

The plot is very different; instead of a former Russian defector and relative of the performer, who brought Jessica to the theater, being the one to help the couple, it’s a British secret agent they met at the theater, and instead of hiding out at Jessica’s house they end up hiding out at the British embassy in whatever country they’re in (most everyone has a British accent, but they hide out at the British embassy so the one country they can’t be in is Great Britain). It’s this later part that makes the episode so interesting: since the murder is committed inside of the embassy, it becomes a closed-mansion mystery.

The murderer is one of these people (or the host’s wife, not pictured).

There is the added tension from the defection story; only the brother (Franz) defected—he had been a spy for the British after the secret police murder his wife—while his sister (Gretta) was dragged along and isn’t happy about it. Then they find out that the East German secret police is holding their parents hostage. This spy-thrilleresque thread vies with the murder mystery thread to be the main plot; it keeps the tension up for the entire episode.

The murder victim gives us a clue—his dead hand clutches the titular white rose.

Jessica overheard the victim asking spy headquarters for information on a mission that had been called White Rose. Fortunately, Michael, the spy who got Jessica into this mess, knows what it was about—it was a failed mission to protect an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, ten years before. (The activist was assassinated.)

The victim was also a spy, in fact Michael had recruited him into the spying business, so he took the murder very personally. He came from a long line of stuffy bankers and his “banker’s face” made him perfect for the spy businesses. The most important thing about being a spy is to be able to pass oneself off as anything, such as a tradesman.

Fortunately for everyone, not least of all the audience, because everyone in the embassy is a suspect, the diplomat in charge of the embassy gives Jessica free run to investigate the murder. I didn’t quite follow his logic, here, but it’s always more pleasant when the detective has the right to investigate, so I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Initial investigations turn up that:

  1. the doctor had ties to anti-apartheid activists in South Africa
  2. the diplomat’s wife is from Rhodesia
  3. the victim’s fingernails and eyes show “moons”. He was killed with a fast-acting poison, which Jessica takes to mean a poisoned weapon.

#3 means that the murder weapon was probably professional; not many people besides professionals carry poisoned stabbing weapons. With the white rose connection, it seems likely that the victim recognized the assassin from operation White Rose. #1 gets dismissed fairly quickly because he was on the wrong side to have assassinated the activist being protected in operation White Rose. #2 bears more investigation, which happens fairly quickly.

The diplomat and his wife come clean.

While she came from Rhodesia, she was the daughter of a light-skinned servant who had been raped by one of her white masters. She was taken from Rhodesia as a child and grew up in England; she hadn’t been near South Africa in over a decade when the assassination happened. The diplomat was stationed in Hong Kong back then. They had been secretive and not forthcoming with their alibis because they wanted to keep the wife’s background a secret due to the diplomat’s needing social standing for his job. After this is revealed Michael walks in with the news that the doctor can be ruled out too because he was in prison (for having participated in a peace march) the day that the activist was killed.

Michael declares the theory that the victim was killed because he recognized the assassin a bust. “I mean, what would a professional assassin be doing here at the embassy?” This question is the spark which gives Jessica the answer. “Unless here is not where he was supposed to be,” she replies.

At this point we can figure out who did it by simple process of elimination. There’s no way it could be the East Germans, so the only person left is the literary agent who met Jessica at the airport and accompanied her to the concert.

Fans of Hogan’s Heroes will recognize him as Colonel Crittendon.

There’s a brief scene at the beginning where we meet the literary agent who escorts Jessica and he apologized for the person, Jeffrey, who she expected wasn’t able to meet her because he got tied up in some meeting. Jessica reveals that she just called her agency and they knew nothing about Jeffrey being on any sort of assignment. The police went to his apartment and found him strangled in bed.

The literary agent pulls out his pipe, which the secret agent grabs from him. It turns out that there was a secret stiletto blade in it, presumably poisoned. Later on, we see him arrested. Jessica complains to the British spy that the faux literary agent used her to try to get at the Prime Minister to assassinate him, and it would have worked had the British spy not brought them to the embassy at gunpoint.


The setting of this episode is really excellent. Especially when it comes to a TV show, the embassy of a reasonably rich country like Great Britain makes for a spectacular setting. It’s one of the few places where you can have an ornate, old-fashioned mansion outside of England. Even more, it’s one of the few places where you can have a sealed mansion in America that’s not on a private island. It’s a really great setting. It’s not surprising that embassies are a popular place to set a murder. Really, it’s only surprising that they’re not more popular. After all, there are a lot of embassies in the world.

The construction of this episode is interesting. The dramatic event of an East German trying to defect to the west is merely the setting for the murder. This complicates the plot and serves as an excellent distraction. Further, it does a very good job of hiding the murderer to have him brought along at gunpoint to where he would rather not be. As Chesterton put it:

A great part of the craft or trick of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime. Many mysteries fail merely by leaving him at loose ends in the story, with apparently nothing to do except to commit the crime. He is generally well off, or our just and equal law would probably have him arrested as a vagrant long before he was arrested as a murderer. We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious.

Now, the device of the murderer having to improvise a murder because he was recognized by someone he was thrown together with by chance fulfills this criteria exceedingly well. It does so with a trade-off, of course. That trade-off is that there is exceedingly little that could point to one person instead of another as the murderer. Structurally, the murderer could be anyone since he has an entirely secret relationship to the victim. There is no alternative to examining each person in turn and arriving at the correct conclusion by a process of elimination.

The best the author can do is to eliminate all of the suspects, in which case there is some deductive work to do in figuring out which suspect should not have been eliminated. The second best one can do is what was done in this episode, where it merely seems that all of the suspects have been eliminated because there was one we never thought of.

There is a difficult question which comes up here of giving the murderer an opportunity to murder the victim. This is difficult precisely because it must be done in a way that the reader sees, but not in a way that he notices.

That was done in this episode by an exchange where the faux literary agent demanded to leave and when he was told that he was not yet free to leave no matter who in the home office he knows, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. This exchange was colorful and mildly humorous, which seemed to explain its presence. It did put him alone for a time, which gives him opportunity, but it didn’t give him much opportunity. The body is discovered about two and a half minutes later in the episode, which is close to what it would have been in the story. There’s only one scene break, and it’s Jessica going to find Gretta—they discover the body together after their conversation. This gave the faux literary agent very little time to find his man, stab him, and make his escape. Other than that very brief time, he was always in the lounge, at least as far as we can tell, and always with one or more others there with him. It was enough time, but only if he was lucky and ran into his man, alone, almost immediately.

One thing that was never explained—and possibly because this would have been difficult, never questioned—was what the victim was doing in the garden. We last saw him trying to dig up information on operation White Rose on the telephone. There’s no obvious reason for him to go into the garden. And the body was not hidden, so it pretty much had to have been killed in the garden. If the body was moved to the garden, it would have been hidden. The last thing that the faux literary agent wanted was for the body to be found. The garden was clearly large enough to hide a body such that it would take a while for people who weren’t looking for it to find it. Where it was, Gretta only found it by tripping over an extended foot. (Also, had the body been moved, the killer would presumably have removed the white rose which pointed to him.)

The final thing to discuss, I think, is the choice of killer and victim. The killer was a professional assassin and the victim a professional spy. Granted, the professional assassin murdered the victim only in order to protect himself from being recognized and not because he was being paid for it, but it still removes the murder from those ordinary motives and passions which make murder mysteries morality plays. It’s just difficult to relate to someone being able to identify one as a professional assassin when one has never killed for money.

(Also, come to think of it, how on earth did the victim recognize the killer? The activist who was killed during operation White Rose was stabbed to death, but the assassin escaped into the crowd “before anyone knew what had happened”. That’s not really the sort of circumstance under which one will get a really good look at the assassin, to recognize him 9 years later in a completely different context. And, given that the victim did recognize him, why did the victim let him get within stabbing range in the garden? He was stabbed in the chest, not in the back. A solitary garden, even in the dark, is a sub-optimal place to sneak up on a man to stab him in the chest. I suppose he could have sneaked up on the victim from behind and at the last moment the victim heard him and wheeled around, too late to defend himself.)

Overall, I think that the plotting and structure of this episode are above average for Murder, She Wrote. It’s a fun episode, though of course part of that is the setting. That said, the setting is a choice, and it was a good one. A good setting can go a long way to making a good plot easier to pull off.

Murder She Wrote: Night Of The Headless Horseman

I first watched Murder, She Wrote when it aired on television and had seen more than a single season before reaching my tenth birthday. Most episodes, though enjoyable, are not all that memorable, but some really stick with me. One such episode is The Night of the Headless Horseman.

It’s an episode in the middle of the third season and borrows heavily, as the title implies, from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s a very interesting episode and I’m going to discuss its plot and characterization, but first I’m going to give a brief recap of the plot in the reader has not watched this episode recently.

We begin by being introduced to Dorian, a tall, gaunt poetry teacher in a rural boarding school/horse riding academy. He is very much Ichabod Crane. He is reading a poem to the lady he’s courting, Sarah, who is the daughter of the wealthy owner of the school/riding academy. She, too, is very much Katrina Van Tassel (Ichabod’s love interest, if you don’t remember).

The school is set in the south, at least to the degree that the actors can do southern accents (it varies), so we even have the plot element of Dorian being a Yankee outsider (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Sleepy Hollow it was a Dutch settlement). Further borrowing from the famous story, as Dorian walks home, he is comes to a covered bridge:

And then, to pay off the title, out of nowhere a headless horseman carrying a jack-o-lantern rides up.

The rider chases Dorian onto the bridge and throws the jack-o-lantern at him. As the rider rides off, Dorian shakes his fist and exclaims, “Damn you, Nate Finley!”

So far, we have a remarkable homage to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. We’re only about three minutes in, however, and things will begin to diverge, as they must, when Jessica arrives. Speaking of which…

The scene now changes to Jessica arriving from Cabot Cove via the train; Nate picks her up at the station. They begin to catch up, then in what is ostensibly an explanation of what Dorian is doing at the prestigious Wenton Academy (the school/riding academy), we get some obviously important backstory.

Dorian has the job because over the summer the previous poetry teacher, a beautiful young woman named Gretchen, died under mysterious circumstances. The daughter of the Academy’s stable master, she drowned in the river, and—hint, hint—rumor has it that there was a man with her who was the one behind the wheel. If you can’t guess that the earlier mystery will drive the murder we haven’t seen in this episode, you clearly haven’t been watching Murder, She Wrote for long. They do work it in as backstory and gossip well enough that you can feel clever for spotting it, though.

Next, Dr. Penn Walker, the town dentist, shows up:

In this encounter we learn two major things:

  1. The doctor has a strong interest in jewelry; it’s a hobby of his.
  2. He thinks that Jessica is Dorian’s mother.

On the car ride from the train station, Dorian tries to stall Jessica with conversation, in which we learn that the good doctor was engaged to Gretchen, the poetry teacher who died under mysterious circumstances. Also, he was in Europe when it happened. (This simultaneously clears the doctor of being the man behind the wheel and also sets him up with a very strong revenge motive.)

After these important details, Jessica forces Dorian to come clean, and he admits that he’s fallen in love but his intended fiancé’s father has a fixation with pedigrees and so, being an orphan, he wanted to present at least one parent and so lied that Jessica is his mother. This conversation is interrupted by Nate Finley, who rides his horse in front of their car for no reason, then laughs at them.

Clearly, we’re not meant to feel sorry for him when he turns up dead.

(Nate Finley does match the character of Abraham Van Brunt, in being the other suitor for Sarah’s hand and a far better physical specimen, though less socially adept. His character does depart from Van Brunt’s, though, as we’ll see.)

Jessica and Dorian get to the school where some awkwardness ensues as Jessica isn’t sure whether to play along with the lie of being Dorian’s mother. We then get introduced to a trio of boys who play a prank on the stablemaster (driving the horses off, out of the stable). The stablemaster appears to be German; he is named Van Stottard and has a thick German accent, anyway.

Nate Finley happens to be around and threatens the stablemaster that he will find a new stablemaster if the current one cannot keep control of the horses. It’s a noble effort on the part of the writers to distract from the characters just introduced by highlighting what a bad guy Nate Finley is, but one of the problems that Murder, She Wrote writers labor under is that they don’t have the budget for unimportant characters. That said, they do at least have the freedom to make characters important for surprising reasons, so we don’t really know what part the boys play in this.

Dorian accuses Nate Finley of being the headless horseman, which he doesn’t deny. Finley then rides off.

In the next scene, we get the owner of the school telling the headmistress that he wants Nate Finley fired.

This is an unusual move for a television show; ordinarily bullies on TV have the unconditional support of authority figures. The headmistress tells him to calm down; he knows as well as she does that Nate Finley is as good as they come in the saddle, and their riding program is, for some reason, of the utmost importance to the school. Why, is never explained. Even in the 1980s it was a bit of a stretch that wealthy parents would choose to send their children to a boarding school primarily on the basis of its riding program.

The headmistress surmises that the owner is afraid for his daughter, and suggests he should look out for the new English teacher instead. Some more introductions are made and the stablemaster barges in holding all three boys we met earlier. He charges them with committing pranks and they do not deny it; the headmistress says that she will deal with them later.

That night, the headmistress interrupts Nate Finley saddling up his horse to tell him to stay away from the owner’s daughter.

“I want you to stay away from Edwin’s daughter. Satisfy your needs elsewhere.”
“Is that an order, or an offer?”

This dialog is a bit odd in that we learn moments later that the two were involved with each other; she threatens to fire him if he doesn’t stay away from the owner’s daughter and he threatens to tell the owner that they were together. Either way, though, Nate Finley clearly deserves the murdering he’s about to receive, and I suppose that this scene serves to establish the headmistress as a possible culprit.

The next scene moves to a restaurant in which the wait staff dress up in period costume for some reason, and we meet the waittress, Bobbie.

She seems to be set up almost as a love interest for Dorian, except that he never really pays any attention to her. The dentist comes in and sits down with Jessica and Dorian. He notices Bobbie’s neclace, and asks where she got it. She replies, “Nate Finley, Doc. Guess he figures it will get him somewhere, which it won’t.” And before anyone else has a chance to speak, Nate Finley walks into the bar. Jessica warns Dorian not to start anything, but in vain, because Finley starts it.

Finley tries to warn Dorian off of Sarah, but Dorian punches him in the mouth. They fight for a while, and Dorian gets shoved against the wall where he knocks down an old saber. He picks it up, as several of Nate Finley’s friends are standing around him.

If you think that there’s any chance that Dorian isn’t holding the murder weapon, you haven’t seen Murder, She Wrote before. Nothing happens here, though, because the Sheriff—who had been conveniently on his way to dinner, I suppose—breaks up the fight.

The fight over, Nate mentions that he thinks he broke a tooth, and a raw nerve in his mouth being exposed, he does the logical thing and asks for a stiff drink from the bartender.

Dorian leaves. As Jessica leaves, she notices the leader of the three trouble-making students feeding Nate Finley’s horse. She says hello to him, but he just walks off.

Dorian goes to Sarah’s house, but no one is home. On his way back, right before the covered bridge, Nate Finley’s friends show up in a yellow pickup truck. He asks them for a ride back to the academy but instead they give him the murder weapon.

They drive off. Dorian only makes it a few more steps before the headless horseman rides again. Dorian tries to defend himself with the sabre…

…but only gets knocked down. His head hits a rock and he falls unconscious.

The next day the stablemaster and headmistress are concerned about Nate Finley’s horse. He had been ridden hard but not cleaned. The sweat has dried into his fur. (This is a problem for horses because the tack the wear—bridle, saddle, etc—will tend to rub the sweat into their skin, causing irritation. Any good horseman will always clean his horse after riding him, for the horse’s sake.) The attentive viewer will infer that Nate Finley has finally been murdered, though the characters don’t catch on just yet. This does yield an interesting problem for the viewer, though, since as far as we know Nate Finley was the headless horseman, and the headless horseman was the last person we saw alive.

Dorian stumbles into the stable and announces his intention to get even with Nate Finley. No one knows where Finley is, though.

Jessica, out on her morning bike ride, runs into the police who have found Nate Finley’s body. The Sheriff asks if Jessica knows where “her son” is, but she doesn’t. No sooner has she said this than a car pulls up with the headmistress and Dorian in it. Dorian launches into a complaint at the Sheriff about how Nate Finley had attacked him the night before. The Sheriff is interested, and asks questions that don’t seem entirely related. Jessica puts two and two together and realizes that Nate Finley has been killed. They see the body under a tarp, or possibly a black cloak. Jessica notices something about the feet:

The boots are on the wrong feet! I’m not giving anything away here, at least by more than a few seconds, as Jessica starts pointing this out to anyone who will listen almost immediately.

It is revealed that Nate Finley was decapitated, so the Sheriff arrests Dorian as having recently threatened Nate Finley with a saber. Curiously, it never occurs to anyone to ask whether a wall decoration at a restaurant was actually sharp. It’s actually pretty rare for wall decorations to be kept in fighting condition. I suppose we’re meant to assume that it was, since the saber is later referred to as “bloody”.

Jessica argues with the Sheriff, pointing out problems with his case, and finishes with the fact that Dorian has sworn that he didn’t do it. That’s supposed to hold weight because Dorian doesn’t lie. When the Sheriff points out that of course she thinks that, being his mother, Jessica accidentally admits that she’s not his mother. As he puts Dorian into the jail cell, he tells Jessica that it’s encouraging to hear that Dorian doesn’t lie.

In the next scene, Jessica and Dorian talk over the situation.

A little bit is added to what we already know. Dorian saw the owner of the school driving off from his house in a hurry. When Jessica talks to Sarah about it, Sarah claims to be the one who drove off, but is obviously lying. The owner comes out and admits to being the one who nearly ran Dorian over. He had gotten an anonymous note that the headmistress was embezzling funds, so he waited until his daughter was asleep and drove off in a hurry to confront her. He did, she denied it, the owner said he would retain an independent auditor, then returned home. (The owner also asks her to tell Dorian to stay away from his daughter or there would be another killing.)

Back at the academy, Jessica runs into one of the three boys, but he runs off when he’s questioned. She runs into the stablemaster, but he refuses to answer questions, except to say that he had no reason to kill Finley but there are others who did. He walks off when Jessica asks if he meant the headmistress, perhaps. So, on to the headmistress.

We get a small scene of the three boys in a secret room at the top of the stables, where one says that they need to tell someone, and the ringleader says that they won’t tell anyone. What won’t be told is, of course, suggestively left off.

When Jessica talks with the headmistress, she says that there is a problem but she’s not the thief. Jessica wonders who knew about the problem and the headmistress gets defensive, asking if she’s trying to implicate her in Nate Finley’s death. Jessica deflects by asking if she’s seen the note.

The spelling is so bad it could even be written by a German! (The stablemaster, you will recall, is German.)

The next scene takes place at the restaurant; it turns out that Dorian has been released from jail, though whether on bail or what is unclear. The waitress, Bobbie, comes over and tells Dorian that she believes that he’s innocent, but if he did kill Finley she could totally understand. It comes out that Bobbie saw Nate riding through town with his black cloak and black floppy hat pulled down low. This was at 11:30, but the Sheriff said that Nate was at the restaurant until 10:30. What happened in that missing hour?

Dorian then breaks a took on an olive, which necessitates a trip to the dentist.

It turns out that he only loosened a cap, which the dentist can re-cement for him. Jessica asks if the doc noticed anything odd about Nate’s dress last night, as he was found with his boots on the wrong feet. The doc observed it would be hard to walk like that; perhaps he had gotten undressed and re-dressed in a hurry. He heard Nate did that quite often, usually with an irate husband in the vicinity.

Jessica then notices a picture on the Dentist’s bureau.

(The inscription reads, “Love Forever, Gretchen”. It’s curious how often people in TV murder mysteries give each other signed headshots as keepsakes.)

That night we see a fight between the owner and his daughter, then one of the three boys spies the stablemaster burying something in a horse stall.

The next morning Jessica is with the headmistress, who tells her that it is the stablemaster who stole the money. Jessica goes to talk to him, but can’t find him. She does, however, hear the boys in their secret loft in the stables, and goes to investigate. She uses the secret knock she heard earlier, then as she opens the door tells them, “When I was a little girl, if you knew the secret knock it entitled you to enter.”

She talks to the boys and they admit to having been the headless horsemen who harassed Dorian the first time, but had nothing to do with the second time. Also, one of them saw the stablemaster bury something (he took to be Nate’s head) in a sack.

In the next scene the Sheriff has his deputy digging up the spot. As the Sheriff goes to open the box that had been buried, Jessica shields the boys from the terrible sight, but it turns out that the box contains only money. The stablemaster had been embezzling money in order to pay a detective to investigate the death of his daughter. He hands over the file that the detective had assembled. There was nothing of value in it, but for some reason it did include another headshot of Gretchen.

Luckily for Jessica, this time Gretchen was wearing a necklace. Jessica recognizes it and solves the puzzle.

In the next scene the dentist comes to visit Jessica in the restaurant which hasn’t yet opened. Dorian told him that Jessica wanted to talk to him.

Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.

This can mean only one thing. If you hadn’t figured it out from the clues or by simple process of elimination, the doctor is the killer.

She realized that the necklace Gretchen was wearing in the headshot was the same necklace that Nate Finley had given to Bobbie. The dentist, who makes jewelry as a hobby, had made it and given it to Gretchen and recognized it when it was on Bobbie’s neck. He couldn’t help but know what it meant—that Nate Finley had been the man with Gretchen when she died. (Presumably he snatched the necklace off of her neck before swimming to safety and leaving her to drown.)

Finley had complained of a busted tooth after his altercation with Dorian, and presumably went to a dentist about it. A lot of things in the case didn’t make sense, like the severed head, unless there was something about the head that would instantly point to the killer, such as fresh dental work.

The dentist broke down and told Jessica what happened. Finley did come, and, seeing the picture of Gretchen, started laughing and telling the dentist all about how he had been drunk and drove the car into a lake and abandoned Gretchen to die. Finley was apparently very drunk, because in the re-enactment, he found the whole thing very funny.

At his bragging about leaving Gretchen to die, something snapped in the dentist and he jammed a pick into Nate’s neck. He died quickly. The dentist then figured that he had to make it seem like Nate died elsewhere, so he stripped Nate, put on the clothes, and rode Nate’s horse out of town, making a lot of noise to ensure he would be noticed. He ran into Dorian and knocked him out, then got the idea to frame Dorian using the saber Dorian was holding. The rest, we already know.


The use of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow setting is definitely very interesting, but it faded pretty quickly. Really, after the first few minutes the only thing that was left was the headless horseman. To some degree this was inevitable as they made the horseman the victim, rather than the murderer. That is simply unrelated to the original story.

Now, variation from Sleepy Hollow was inevitable, since that was not a murder mystery. However, I can’t help but think that they didn’t really make as much use of the headless horseman as they could have. First, I’d like to explain why, then I’d like to talk about how they could have made more use of it.

The big problem that the writers had was that in the original story, Ichabod Crane was not the hero. He was wooing Katrina Van Tassel for her money, not out of love. Worse, Katrina didn’t love him, either. The original story isn’t explicit, but it is very strongly hinted that Ichabod proposed marriage to her and she rejected him. It is further implied that her reason for encouraging Ichabod was to stoke the interest, by jealousy, of Abraham Van Blunt. Van Blunt is not as smart as Ichabod, nor as socially graceful, but he was the man Katrina wanted. This, coupled with Ichabod’s mean motive for wooing Katrina really make him a thoroughly unsympathetic character. So right off the bat, making Dorian the underdog-hero of the story creates a lot of distance from the original.

Further, the structure of the story just isn’t paralleled, because the headless horseman (a decapitated Hessian soldier) was a local legend and Ichabod Crane was an extremely superstitious man. Van Blunt used the legend and Ichabod’s cowardice and superstition to drive him out of town. Indeed, for all of his quicker wits, Ichabod was in a way the intellectual inferior for being superstitious. It’s an evocative story in which a pretentious man was shown up for what he truly was. Except for the way that Dorian is a bit full of himself—which is portrayed in a sympathetic way by the writers—none of this comes forward.

To now consider how it could have been used: the more traditional approach to dealing with this sort of thing is for the murderer to try to use the legend or story which everyone knows and to use it to divert suspicion onto the person who most fits the villain of the original legend or story.

If this were a Scooby Doo episode, then someone could pretend to be the headless horseman in order to try to get people to believe that it was actually the headless horseman who committed the crime. Since this isn’t Scooby Doo, we would need the Ichabod Crane figure to be the victim and the Van Blunt character to be the suspect.

Now, obviously the setup in this episode is nothing like that, but that’s why the episode didn’t really live up to its first few minutes. In fact, they stuck to it too closely at the time of the murder—it really makes no sense for the victim to have knocked the killer unconscious immediately prior to his own murder.

There is, admittedly, something interesting about the idea of the headless horseman turning up to be really headless, but I don’t think that idea can really be made to last any longer than the words necessary to describe it.

The other typical way to handle something like this would be to have someone who rides as the headless horseman then try to frame the victim as the headless horseman, and frame someone else for the murder, as revenge.

This approach would still entail a large divergence from the original story, but it would at least keep up the appearance of being related to the original story, and on purpose. The killer would need to benefit from getting rid of both the victim and the person he frames for the death, of course. This motive would be obscured behind the bigger grudge between the victim and the one framed.

This approach could have been made to fit much better with the setup, though it would need to be the horse instructor who was Jessica’s friend, not the Ichabod character. The doctor, instead of seeking revenge for his dead (unfaithful) fiancé, would be in love with Sarah, too. The doctor would have ridden as the headless horseman, possibly two or three times, then would have killed the Ichabod character. The riding instructor friend of Jessica would then come under strong suspicion of the crime, and she would need to clear his name. The gullible Sheriff could actively point to the legend of sleepy hollow, and how it pointed to the riding friend as the guilty party. If they wanted, they could even have made the parallel stronger by making the death accidental, with the doctor only meaning to scare off the Ichabod character and instead frightening the coward into jumping into the river, where he drowned because he couldn’t swim, or the river was too fast, or whatever. His original plan could have been to just frame the riding instructor for being mean to the poet, and using that to make Sarah dislike him as a suitor, with the homicide and subsequent framing of the riding instructor for murder being accidental.

All that said, this is a very memorable episode, owing largely to the first few minutes and how well they remind one of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. However much they could have done better, it is a testament to the power of being evocative that this episode sticks with one.

Give people something to remember you by, and they will probably remember you.

Murder She Wrote: A Lady in The Lake

As I’m getting started on the third Chronicle of Brother Thomas, He Didn’t Drown in The Lake, I can’t help but think of one of the classic Murder, She Wrote episodes. I’m not entirely sure why, but I still have fairly vivid memories of the first time that I saw A Lady in The Lake.

I’m going to discuss the construction of plot of this episode, but because I suspect most people don’t remember it as well as I do, I’ll give a brief recap of the plot so everyone can follow along.

Jessica goes off for a writing retreat at a lakeside resort near Cabot cove. There she meets an assortment of guests—a wealthy, older, overbearing husband (Howard Crane) and put-upon younger wife (Carolyn Crane), an older man who is devoted to bird watching (Burton), a young woman who loves to run naked in the forest (Joanna), and a younger husband and wife where the husband (Kyle Jordan) likes to go fishing and the wife (Betty Jordan) likes to fool around with the boat house manager (Jack Turney) while her husband goes fishing. Not entirely surprisingly, at least given how much screen time the overbearing husband gets, while on a morning bird-watching walk that Burton invited her to, Jessica sees Howard and Carolyn in a boat, wrestling with each other. She calls out, but the wrestling continues then Carolyn goes into the water.

Apparently she doesn’t come back up; what happens in the immediate aftermath happens off screen. Sheriff Tupper arrives soon afterward and looses no time in jumping to the conclusion that Howard Crane murdered his wife.

Jessica isn’t so sure, but doesn’t say much. Kyle Jordan approaches the Sheriff and gives some damning evidence. He had asked the Cranes to go fishing many times, but the they always declined. He thinks Howard couldn’t have meant to go fishing otherwise the Jordans would have come with them; clearly this meant Howard needed them out of the way to commit the murder.

Worse, the previous night Kyle and his wife overheard the Cranes having a loud argument in their room. Carolyn wanted a divorce but Howard said that she wouldn’t get a penny of his money.

After this, Sheriff Tupper goes to the room where Doctor Hazlet is tending to Howard Crane (he jumped in the lake after his wife, which apparently requires medical attention for some reason) to interview him.

Doctor Hazlet gave him a sedative (apparently, getting wet in a lake takes a lot out of you and rest is important), so the interview will need to be short. Howard says that his wife just went crazy and jumped out. He jumped in after her and tried to save her, but he can’t swim so he had to keep a hand on the boat and thus couldn’t reach her. In answer to a question, he says that not only could Caroline swim but she had actually won medals for it in school.

Jessica and Sheriff Tupper confer, and Jessica thinks that Howard’s version makes more sense than the idea that he tried to kill his wife. Inspiration strikes and Jessica goes to look at the boat. In the boat room she finds Betty Jordan and Jack Turney kissing. Betty is bold, saying that her husband doesn’t mind how she amuses herself so long as she doesn’t disturb his fishing, but Jack hopes that Jessica won’t mention it to Betty’s husband. Jessica assures him that she has no intention of telling anyone, anything. She then examines the boat and finds a hook on the bottom of it.

Jack has no idea what that’s doing there, nor when it got there. Some time passes and Sheriff Tupper and Jessica confer. Sheriff Tupper’s research confirms that Carolyn was a champion swimmer, which he takes to mean that Howard must have held her under the water.

Jessica points out that it’s implausible that a non-swimmer would try to kill a champion swimmer by drowning her in a lake. It occurs to Jessica that another explanation would be that Carolyn had made the thing up, to pretend that her husband tried to kill her in order to get a big divorce settlement. This tête-a-tête is broken up by the discovery of Carolyn’s body. It was on the north side of the lake, which apparently is pretty far away from where the resort is (they never say that they’re on the south side of the lake, nor how big the lake is). Sheriff Tupper says that this blows Jessica’s theory out of the water and clearly Howard killed as Tupper had been saying all along. Jessica asks him how the body got to the other side of the lake so quickly, to which Sheriff Tupper has no answer.

Some time later, Jessica is investigating something in a bird book.

What she is looking up we are almost conspicuously not told. This leads to a conversation with the owner of the hotel, who we find out is also a widow. Jessica asks to look at the reservation book, and makes an interesting discovery: Joanna and the Cranes both made their reservation from the same telephone number. Jessica goes and confronts Joanna.

It turns out that Joanna was Howard’s mistress. Howard had been talking like he was going to divorce his wife and marry Joanna, but then this trip came along. It turns out that the trip was actually Carolyn’s idea, and Joanna made the reservations for Howard to prove that there were no hard feelings. She did, however, make reservations for herself and come up early, to disguise her connection to Howard.

Jessica surprises Burton, who was taking (poloroid) pictures of birds, and asks to borrow one that also has a picture of Jack Turney in it. They then see the Sheriff arresting Howard, and Burton says that Howard won’t like jail, as he can’t stand to be cooped up.

Jessica accompanies the Sheriff and Howard Crane back to Cabot Cove. On the car ride it comes out that Howard is claustrophobic, and he accuses Jessica of having talked to his psychiatrist.

It also comes out that Howard is indeed rich, but has no living relatives. He was an only child and his parents are dead. His only uncle and aunt are dead. Even his cousin Arthur died a few years ago, or at least so he’d heard.

Back in Cabot Cove, Jessica, Dr. Halzet, and Sheriff Tupper confer over the autopsy report.

It turns out that Carolyn Crane did indeed drown, but she hand mud in her lungs. Further, she had bits of glass embedded in the skin of her skull. Also, she was wearing a bathing suit under her dress.

At this point a deputy comes in with the information that Jack Turney is a wanted man, for blackmailing married women with whom he’d had affairs and even for assaulting one of them.

We then jump to a scene between the Jordans.

It turns out that Mr. Jordan tried to surprise Mrs. Jordan on her bike ride, only to find out that no bicycles had been taken out that day. He asks her what is going on, then figures out that she’s having an affair with Jack Turney. Apparently, he does actually care how his wife amuses herself while he’s fishing.

There’s some very unimportant events that happen where Jessica and Sheriff Tupper talk to the owner of the inn, where it turns out that Jack Turney is her brother and she’s been protecting him, but didn’t know the extent of his crimes. We then move to the boat house where Mr. Jordan is threatening to kill Jack Turney.

Sheriff Tupper and Jessica arrive, and we have the denouement. Jessica explains the whole thing, though only after a series of misunderstandings and jumped conclusions by Sheriff Tupper.

It turns out that scuba equipment was missing, which Jack Turney had forgotten to mention. Carolyn Crane had a lover, with whom she had planned to fake an attempt on her life by her husband. She had attached the stolen scuba gear to the bottom of the boat via the hook she had installed, then when she was sure of her witness she wrestled with her husband and jumped out of the boat. She put on the scuba gear under water and leisurely swam, under water, to the north shore of the lake. There, her lover met her, but instead of love and support he killed her. He hit her with a pair of binoculars, the only weapon he had to hand.

It turns out that Burton is actually cousin Arthur—that’s how he knew that Howard was claustrophobic—and had planned the whole thing from the start, including killing Carolyn. Howard’s father had accused Burton’s father of embezzling money and had stolen the family business from him. Burton went through the whole elaborate murder scheme in order to get the money he was owed back.

Later on Jessica is asked what made her suspect Burton was not just an innocent birdwatcher, and she replies that he said that he would look for the nest of the yellow bellied flycatcher in a tree. They nest on the ground, she confirmed in the book on birds in that scene where she conspicuously didn’t say what she found.


This is a very fun episode, and takes advantage of what may be one of the cardinal rules of murder mysteries: have a beautiful setting that the reader (or viewer) would love to visit. It’s also got a great setup, and takes a number of well-paced twists and turns on its way to the ending. Something is clearly up with Jack Turney, and they play out the discovery of this at a fairly good pace to distract from the main murder investigation. The reveals on Jack Turney with Betty Jordan work especially well in this regard, as it does hint at the possibility he might have been involved with Carolyn, too. Additionally, the simple human drama of it is distracting.

Speaking of human drama, I didn’t hit on it much in my plot summary, since I was focusing on the murder, but there was a sub-plot in which the widow who is renting the hotel is trying to figure out what to do with her life and whether she wants to run the inn. It’s done sparingly, but comes up often enough to introduce a thread of human interest which pretty clearly as nothing to do with the murder. This is a good move, I think, because it helps to leaven the murder story. It keeps the story more anchored; murder mysteries tend to be better when real life goes on during the murder investigation.

The big problem is the ending. It doesn’t make sense, and ignoring that, it has a significant plot hole in the murder. Ignoring that, a key piece of evidence is very contrived.

I’ll start with the contrived evidence, which is Burton saying, as he and Jessica watched Sheriff Tupper taking Howard into custody, “Howard is not going to like jail. He can’t stand to be cooped up.” There was no earthly reason for him to say this. No one likes jail. It was just volunteering information, that he shouldn’t have had, for no reason whatever. It’s almost on par with the bad guy in Encyclopedia Brown saying, “I never looked inside the kid’s box. I certainly didn’t eat the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies with just a hint of cinnamon that were in it!” It’s one thing when the murderer reveals something he should have known to further his own ends, such as telling a fact he shouldn’t know that implicates someone else in the murder. The distraction of framing the other person can cover for the fact that he shouldn’t have known it. At the very least, there was some temptation for him to do it. Here, there was no reason for Burton to have said anything.

Let’s move on to the plot hole. According to Jessica’s theory of the murder, Cousin Arthur, that is, Burton, planned the whole thing before any of them ever got to the inn. He was, therefore, fulfilling his plan to murder Carolyn when he met her at the shore. Why on earth were his binoculars the only weapon to hand? Had he only put a single minute into the planning, he could have picked up a rock or a stick. Several minutes of planning might have yielded a better weapon still. When it comes to murder weapons, one’s own pair of binoculars, which one not only has been seen with but even drew attention to, is a terrible choice. And without the binocular glass embedded in Carolyn’s skin, there would have been no physical evidence linking him to the murder.

The other problem with the ending is even harder to get over—why on earth did Cousin Arthur kill Carolyn? Both Jessica and Burton seemed to talk as if he would inherit Howard’s money, now that the only other possible heir was dead. The problem, however, is that Howard Crane was still alive, and would presumably remain so for decades. The worst that would happen to him would be that he would be convicted for murder and go to prison for a long time. A person going to prison keeps their money. It does not get disbursed to heirs. (For those curious, the state of Maine abolished the death penalty—for the final time—in 1887.)

In Maine in the 1980s, framing Howard for the murder of Carolyn would mean that Cousin Arthur would never see a penny of the money he believed to be rightfully his. In fact—assuming he didn’t murder Howard—the only way for Cousin Arthur to have gotten his hands on any of Howard’s money would be to keep Carolyn very much alive and marry her after she got a large divorce settlement.

This feels almost like someone ripped the plot off from a British golden age detective story in which a man being convicted of murder would mean that he was hanged within a few weeks and thus framing a man for murder was an effective means of inheriting money from him. In that context, this ending—apart from volunteering private information about Howard and using binoculars as a murder weapon—would make sense. In Maine in the 1980s, it’s quite a head scratcher.