“Murder,” She Spelled Out Real Plain

Of the large number of TV detective shows that longtime friends and collaborators William Link and Richard Levinson created, Ellery Queen (1975-1976) and Columbo (1968-1978; 1989-2003) seem (to me) to be the best. Columbo, of course, is the (far) longer running and the better known–and, I think I may say with impunity, the best of the lot. Fiendishly clever, ably twisting detective-story conventions to go with an R. Austin Freeman-style “howcatchem” rather than an Agatha Christie-style “whodunit,” and anchored by a brilliant performance from the late, great Peter Falk, Columbo is probably the greatest detective show ever to hit the airways. Best episodes? Oh, there are so many… “Death Lends a Hand,” “Double Shock,” “By Dawn’s Early Light,” “Forgotten Lady,” “Now You See Him…,” “Last Salute to the Commodore” (if only for the change in formula), “Murder under Glass,” the much later “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine,” and especially Season 2’s brilliant “A Stitch in Crime” all stand out in my mind. If the viewer insisted on watching an old-fashioned whodunit, however, I would recommend Ellery Queen, starring Jim Hutton (Timothy’s father) as Ellery and David Wayne as Insp. Richard Queen. It doesn’t possess the deeper characterization or a singularly exemplary performance like Columbo has, but it’s a fun, likeable show with clever plots and good acting. It’s probably the best whodunit we’ve seen on screen, probably because Messrs. Levinson and Link, and all of the writers who worked on Ellery Queen, knew how to write whodunits, whereas most TV detective writers know how to write dramas. Best episodes? Hm… Most of the episodes starring rival sleuth Simon Brimmer, played as a Philo Vance-esque know-it-all by the inimitable John Hillerman, are good and double-solutioned, as Simon produces an inevitably incorrect answer before Ellery reveals the real story–an old Queenian trope. But I would say the following are the best episodes: “The Adventure of the Lover’s Leap,” “The Adventure of the Chinese Dog” (set in Wrightsville, even if it’s nothing close to the small town of the novels), “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party” (only episode based on an original EQ story), “The Adventure of the Sinister Scenario,” “The Adventure of the Two-Faced Woman,” and, perhaps cleverest, “The Adventure of Caesar’s Last Sleep.”

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Columbo                                                                                                      Ellery and Insp. Queen

Conspicuously missing from the above is Levinson and Link’s most famous detective show–the long-running, much-parodied, and very well-known Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996), which they co-created with Columbo writer Peter S. Fischer. Starring stage and screen actress Angela Lansbury, excellent in just about everything she has ever done, Murder, She Wrote is what more than one critic has disparagingly called “a grandma show.” Perhaps the nomenclature is not entirely inappropriate: it’s a program about a middle-aged mystery writer, Jessica Fletcher (Lansbury), who ends up solving real-life murders wherever she goes. Levinson and Link obviously based the concept on Ellery Queen, as Ellery is also a mystery writer who goes around solving real-life mysteries, though EQ always had more verisimilitude in this respect, as his father was a police inspector, whereas Mrs. Fletcher is a total amateur!

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Why do people love Murder, She Wrote so much? And love, too, is the right word, something quite different from mere like. Much of it, I suppose, is due to the charm of Lansbury’s personality. She is indeed charming as Mrs. Fletcher, and she prevents the character from being the weird, prying busybody that she would otherwise become. In fact, Fletcher is a thinly-sketched character, but Lansbury’s playing suggests untold depths and layers, making Mrs. F into a real person that you or I could very well know. Lansbury, like Peter Falk above, shines above an otherwise lousy episode by the sheer force of her personality. Also, there’s a quaintness to the little Maine village of Cabot Cove, whence Fletcher hails, and which is peopled by such typical New Englanders as friendly sheriff Amos Tupper (Tom Bosley) and cranky doctor Seth Hazlitt (William Windom). We genuinely like these people. And yet…

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Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher

Sorry, MSW fans, but on the whole I’ll have to agree with the show’s critics. So many episodes tend to be weakly scripted, weakly directed, and weakly plotted. Compared to the great writing of Columbo or the great plotting and authentic 40s atmosphere of Ellery QueenMSW just seems to fall flat. People just seem to like the idea of “little old lady gets involved in solving murders–go women!” Sorry, but that ain’t exactly my ideal type of entertainment. When I do enjoy an episode, I feel like it’s a “guilty pleasure”–not a feeling I get from either Columbo or EQ. And, all too often, I don’t enjoy an episode even if I do enjoy Lansbury’s performance. It seems far too frequently like this delightful parody:

Despite the above, there are several Murder, She Wrote episodes that are a cut above the rest. In some of the below cases, several critics believe that old, un-produced Ellery Queen scripts were rewritten to work for MSW. Certainly such excellent episodes as “Murder Takes the Bus” and “We’re Off to Kill the Wizard” seem like they could have been EQs. And then I shall point out the obvious EQ take-off. So, without further ado, and in no especial order, here is my list of best Murder, She Wrote episodes:

N.B.: Caveat lector. I have not seen all Murder, She Wrote episodes and, in fact, have no desire to do so. It was a long running show, and I do have better things to do with my time. So the reader may have his own favorites that I haven’t yet seen; these are just the best, in my opinion, of what I have seen thus far. Also, MSW fans should remember that I am judging on mystery-related criteria, as this is a mystery blog. OK? Good? Let’s proceed.

*”We’re Off to Kill the Wizard,” directed by Walter Grauman, written by Peter S. Fischer and Gerald K. Siegal–Season 1, Episode 7: Absolutely the show’s first classic, and one of its best. It’s a locked-room mystery, endearing itself to mystery buffs already, with a very unlikeable suspect in theme park owner James Coco. While the identity of the killer is easy to guess, the locked-room is a humdinger, though the same application previously appeared in Christianna Brand’s “Murder Game” (a.k.a. “The Gemminy Cricket Case,” 1968), and something like it was, I believe, mentioned in Dr. Fell’s locked-room lecture. No matter. It’s an ingenious and eminently believable locked room puzzle, equally ingeniously unravelled by Mrs. Fletcher. A good, solid job.

*”Murder Takes the Bus,” directed by Walter Grauman, written by Mary Ann Kasica and Michael Scheff–Season 1, Episode 18: A delight of an episode, despite the awful and cliched title, and probably the highlight of the series, mystery-wise. If Mrs. F were like this all the time, there’d be no reason to carp, for she brilliantly unravels the tangled skein behind the murder of a bus passenger, possibly by the driver, and uncovers the truth with the (limited) help of Sheriff Tupper (“out of my jurisdiction,” indeed!) as well as of several clues (of which, unfortunately, this show generally tends to have a dearth). The (SPOILER) double bluff (END SPOILER), while old hat to mystery fans, is brilliantly used and shows once again why this Christiean gimmick is so good. Even better is the supporting cast of suspects, including Insp. Queen himself, David Wayne, and the multiple solutions they draw up against themselves–someone has obviously been reading either Ellery Queen or Christianna Brand!

*”Trial by Error,” directed by Seymour Robbie, written by Paul Savage and Scott Shepherd–Season 2, Episode 13: Wow! I wrote “…the highlight of the series, mystery-wise” for “Murder Takes the Bus” because that episode seemed like an otherwise typical MSW episode. “Trial by Error,” on the other hand, is so different that I would be completely unsurprised if it were written for another show and the writers just shoehorned Mrs. F in for this one. It’s a Twelve Angry Men parody, with Jessica Fletcher as the foreman (or forewoman) of a jury hearing the case of a man who claims he shot his lover’s husband in self-defense. Brilliantly done, with flashbacks within flashbacks, and a jaw-dropping revelation, excelling Agatha Christie (“Witness for the Prosecution”) at her own game by using her twist, bettering it, and then throwing another twist on top of it. The solution is deduced using psychological and verbal clues, though the format is far from “detective-story-like.” It says much for Jessica Fletcher that she can solve this imbroglio, with its Chinese boxes within Chinese boxes. Brava.

*”Snow White, Blood Red,” directed by Vincent McEveety, written by Peter S. Fischer, Season 5, Episode 4: Not quite up to the level of the above three, as it breaks no new ground but rather goes through the old Agatha Christie device of isolating suspects in a remote location and then killing someone off (shocker), but it’s a fun episode, with–in a change of pace from most MSW episodes–some clues pointing to the killer! A blessing for which we may be very thankful in this program.

*”Night of the Tarantula,” directed by Vincent McEveety, written by Chris Manheim, Season 6, Episode 7: Gee whiz, this is a fun one, with some scenery-chewing from John Rhys-Davies. While the solution to the locked-room problem is disappointing (SPOILER)–a secret passageway (SPOILER ENDS)–the episode more than makes up for that, with genuinely creepy atmosphere and backstory, recalling John Dickson Carr at times. Note similarities, in atmosphere, character, and plot, with Death in Paradise‘s excellent “Stab in the Dark.”

*”The Legend of Borbey House,” directed by Walter Grauman, written by Danna Doyle and Debbie Smith, Season 10, Episode 3: Another fun one, involving another (SPOILER) secret passage (SPOILER ENDS). Why couldn’t MSW have more apparently supernatural culprits? Either way, fun take on the haunted house/vampire mythos.

*”Unwilling Witness,” directed by Anthony Shaw, written by Robert Van Scoyk, Season 12, Episode 11: When I first caught Murder, She Wrote on television with a friend, also a mystery buff, I said, “Don’t be annoyed if you don’t like it; it never bothers with cluing, so the mysteries are usually bad.” Much to my surprise, “Unwilling Witness” concludes both with a clue (only one, but still) and a twist ending that I suspected but threw out (“Murder, She Wrote wouldn’t do that…”). An excellent episode, especially for one so late, and a real surprise ending, even if it can’t top the shenanigans of another court episode, “Trial by Error.”

*”The Grand Old Lady,” directed by Vincent McEveety, written by Peter S. Fischer, Season 6, Episode 3: “Unfair?” you say. Yes, probably. This is a “bookend episode,” one of those cooked up by the producers so that Lansbury didn’t have to appear all season and yet still manage to complete the terms of her contract. So she appears at the beginning to introduce the story and at the end to wrap it up, but the rest of the case is aboard the Queen Mary in the 40s, and what a delightful trip it is too. Not only has Fischer returned us to Ellery Queen‘s authentic, convincing 40s atmosphere, he has also given us two clones of Queen and his father, respectively, in Christy McGinn (Gary Kroeger) and his father, Lt. Martin McGinn (John Karlen). While Kroeger and Karlen are nowhere near as immediately lovable and do not have the same unique chemistry as Jim Hutton and David Wayne, they are more than serviceable, and Christy is a fun Ellery doppelgänger. There are war secrets, clues based on the German language, and a scenery-chewing performance from Robert Vaughn as the Simon Brimmer-duplicate, Edwin Chancellor (great name). In addition, this is a case for three detective, as we have Chancellor, Agatha Christie expy Lady Abigail Austin (June Havoc), and Christy McGinn all giving us alternate solutions, each of which builds on the one before, in the manner of Ellery Queen’s brilliant The Greek Coffin Mystery. If the final solution is not as immediately ingenious as the deduction, so be it–it is fine time that we see this kind of deduction back on TV. The solutions are wonderful, and the identity of the killer is deducible and clever. Probably the best of all Murder, She Wrote episodes, as Fischer has obviously resurrected the ghost of Ellery Queen. All the more unfortunate for this being Christy McGinn’s first, last, and only appearance. McGinn, we hardly knew ya.

 

So, there are some of the best Murder, She Wrote episodes! What say you? MSW fans, I apologize for criticizing your beloved show so harshly, but, as you see, there are many episodes that I very much enjoyed. So I ask all of you out there: what are some other great episodes that you think I would like, with good puzzle plots, mysteries, and surprise solutions? Please do comment below, and thank you for reading!

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Until next time…

 

 

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