Thursday, March 15, 2018

The 10 Best "Murder, She Wrote" Mysteries

This is a post I've been wanting to do for a while, as a fan of Murder, She Wrote for all twelve seasons. In my write-up of Cold Case Season 4, I noted my love of classic detective novels; I included the short-lived TV series Ellery Queen in My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders because, despite any reservations I had about the production design and acting style, the mysteries were mostly top-notch. So I thought I'd take a look at Murder, She Wrote and figure out which were the best fair-play whodunnits. Not (necessarily) the best episodes -- the strongest showcases for Angela Lansbury, or the scripts that allowed for the most star-studded casts, or even the episodes that were most engaging in their own right -- but the ones that best upheld the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction as put forth by Ronald Knox in 1929. Mysteries where clues are dropped regularly (although frequently in such a clever manner that the untrained eye might miss or misinterpret them), permitting the sharp reader (or in this case, viewer) to potentially solve the crime ahead of the detective. And although I'm focusing on the puzzle design, I'm also considering its execution -- in particular, how well the characters are delineated and portrayed; after all, if the blueprint is impressive, but it's never properly fleshed out and brought to life, how engrossing is the mystery going to be?

Peter S. Fischer was Murder, She Wrote's co-creator and initial showrunner; he adored whodunnits, having penned not only Ellery Queen, but also The Eddie Capra Mysteries and Columbo. And in staffing Murder, She Wrote, he brought along two of his Ellery Queen writers, Robert E. Swanson and Robert Van Scoyk. It was no secret that Fisher and Lansbury never got along. She wanted her character, amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher, to become stronger, more worldly and independent; for him, Jessica represented (in his words) "all that was good about middle America and its traditional values." He departed after seven seasons, and Lansbury took over running the show. A lot of wonderful things happened in those final five years: Lansbury's newfound enthusiasm was evident onscreen, and it buoyed the proceedings; her insistence on fresh acting blood resulted in a more naturalistic (and frequently more palatable) style of playing. What was lost were the great mysteries; it simply wasn't a priority of the new creative team. (They included Lansbury's son Anthony Shaw directing and her brother Bruce scripting.) By the final few seasons, it felt like every crime was solved when one of the suspects, midway through, revealed something "only the killer would know," and Jessica, ten minutes to the end, pointed it out. Sometimes that was the only clue. Although you lamented that you were no longer watching Murder, She Wrote for the complex puzzles it had once provided, you continued to prize the series for its other pleasures -- most especially, an hour in Lansbury's company.

Below, my top-ten Murder, She Wrote mysteries -- all of them, notably, from the first seven seasons. Mind you, there are episodes from the later years I quite enjoy: "Nan's Ghost" for its haunting atmosphere; "The Petrified Florist" for its surprise ending; a lot of the Season 8 episodes (as Jessica forces a new career teaching criminology in New York City) for their sharp confrontations and edgier pacing. But for the best mysteries, expertly devised and cunningly sustained, none beat these ten. In chronological order:

"Sticks and Stones"
(Season 2, written by Jackson Gillis, Linda Shank & Mark Giles)
John Astin, who'd been recurring as Cabot Cove's resident real estate agent Harry Pierce since Season 1, had accepted a featured role on Mary Tyler Moore's 1985 comeback vehicle. Gillis, one of TV's most accomplished writers (with credits ranging from Perry Mason to Columbo), uses Astin's imminent departure to augment his airtime, and in doing so, produces the series' first unforgettable mystery. "Sticks and Stone" eschews the already well-trod formula of introducing the guest cast slowly, through the first two segments, then having the victim discovered at the midway mark; here, the murder takes place straight away, while the guest credits are still rolling. (It's a complicated killing -- a bathtub electrocution -- and we see exactly how it's done.) And from there, the pacing picks up considerably, as anonymous letters flood Cabot Cove, incriminating its residents and pitting neighbor against neighbor. Add in a consortium hellbent on building high-rises along the coast, and the unexpected arrival of a travel writer, played by Parker Stevenson ("I'm going to put Cabot Cove on the map," he announces to Jessica, to which she counters, "If I'm not mistaken, it already is" -- in that sweet but curt manner at which Lansbury was a master), and you suddenly have several seemingly unrelated story-lines intersecting and colliding. But that sense of mayhem, it turns out, is by design. It's all part of the killer's plan, to better disguise his identity -- and it falls to us to distinguish what is true from what is not. Gillis relies on just a handful of clues, but they're solid and shrewd. In particular, in the first ten minutes, two characters offer up differing accounts of the wiring in the victim's bathroom; they can't both be correct, so presuming one of them is telling the truth, what reason would the other have to lie? The reveal at the end is one of Lansbury's most emotional summations; she chokes up as she recounts how the crime was committed. Of course she does: this Cabot Cove mystery hits close to home.

"Trial by Error"
(Season 2, written by Paul Savage and Scott Shepherd)
At the start, a couple gets into a car accident, and we watch as the wife is taken away by ambulance. The husband goes to drown his sorrows at a local bar, where he strikes up a conversation with a woman; a snitch picks up the phone and lets the lady's husband know she's stepping out on him. The husband screams, "I'm gonna kill that broad" -- and we dissolve to a courtroom. But the lady in question hasn't been killed at all; it's her husband who's dead, and the accident victim who's on trial for murder. What happened that night, after they left the bar? Before we can get our bearings, we fast-forward to the jury room, where the twelve members are already in deliberation, and where Jessica, as foreperson, is reviewing the evidence. We relive the trial in flashback, and often, as the witnesses and defendant give testimony, in flashback within flashback. The jurors are mostly reduced to single traits -- the optimist (Vicki Lawrence), the antagonist (Allan Miller), the pragmatist (Virginia Capers) -- but they never deteriorate into caricature. The actors are too smart, and the direction (by Seymour Robbie) too even-handed. This is a mystery in which the facts, by design, are laid bare; it's Jessica's responsibility to review the timeline, the statements, and the discrepancies in both. Which scenario seems most plausible? Did the man whose wife was hospitalized really just go out for some fresh air? Or had he and the other woman intended to meet that night, knowing someone would tip off her husband, and they could dispose of him? The bartender insists it was a chance meeting, but what about that motel owner who thinks he'd seen the couple together before? As judge and jury keep reminding us, there are only two possible verdicts: innocent or guilty. Either the defendant intended to strike the husband with the fireplace poker, or it was self-defense. But in a cunning turnabout, Jessica announces "a third possibility, that none of us have yet considered" --- and in fact, it's the only answer that supports all the evidence. It's one of the series' most ingenious conceits; the entire episode -- the jury format in particular -- was a trap that we willingly fell into. We got so focused on debating the verdict, we forgot to solve the crime.

"Keep the Home Fries Burning"
(Season 2, written by Philip Gerson)
It's breakfast time in Cabot Cove, and locals and tourists alike have gathered at the town's newest eatery, the Joshua Peabody Inn. But as the breakfast rush ends, customers clutch their stomachs and collapse to the ground, and it appears a jar of tainted strawberry preserves is the culprit. When the jar is found to contain atropine, it's no longer a case for the health department; it's a case of murder. But before the killer can be fingered, Jessica first has to figure out: what was the motive? Were the victims random or targeted? Was this a move to put the diner out of business, and the roster of those affected is irrelevant? Or was one specific person the target, and the jar of preserves, as it made it way from table to table, simply got away from the culprit? "Home Fries" boasts a host of reasonable suspects -- the feuding businessmen, the rival diner owner, the chef who wants out of his contract, the husband whose affair is about to be exposed -- and a slew of misdirects along the way, several of them provided by Jessica herself, who voices every possibility before committing to the most likely scenario. In some ways, "Home Fries" is like one of those Agatha Christie paperbacks that supplies a diagram at the top -- of the seating assignments on the plane (Death in the Clouds) or the layout of the mansion (They Do It With Mirrors). Everything stems from how the customers were positioned, and the route that that jar of preserves took as it made its way from table to table -- and if you're looking to solve the crime before Jessica does, that's a fine place to start. But don't overlook Jessica's remarks on the high-class clientele the new eatery is attracting, and the way a couple of customers choose to order and pay their bills; the design is in the details. And as Murder, She Wrote reminds us more than once, don't trust any husband to know what's really going on in his own marriage.

"Night of the Headless Horseman"
(Season 3, written by R. Barker Price)
TV Guide was permitted to follow the cast and crew around for the seven days of preproduction and eight days of shooting. In the resulting article, the writer noted that "this script is not one of [Lansbury's] favorites" -- probably not what Price, the 36-year-old freelancer enjoying his first Hollywood sale, hoped to hear. Lansbury complained, "There's a fine line in a farcical drama, and it has to be understood by every actor. There isn't time, so we fly by the seat of our pants." The thing is, none of Lansbury's reservations register onscreen. There's an exquisite consistency of tone; Lansbury in particular offers up one of her most delicately comic performances, when Jessica's protege Dorian Beecher, a poetry instructor at a boys' academy, asks her to pose as his mother, to impress the father of the young woman he's courting. (As the young lovers, Thom Bray and Karlene Crockett play the most overzealous and literarily inclined pair since Ah, Wilderness!) Price devised his script with story editor Swanson, and his final draft was rewritten by Fischer himself. (No doubt most of the freelance scripts I speak of here were equally collaborative.) There's some fussiness in the second half, and at least one plot thread seems a distraction. But the mystery is taut and atmospheric. Given that the premise riffs on the Legend of Sleepy Hollow (in this variation, the horsemen is found dead and beheaded), the reason for his decapitation has to be plausible and persuasive -- and the script plays it scrupulously fair. Jessica herself, upon getting her first glimpse of the corpse, asks "why cut off his head" and "why are his boots on the wrong feet," and when we finally learn the answers, we recognize how reasonable and right it all seems, and how carefully the clues were scattered, in seemingly generic greetings and apparent throwaway lines. There's even a cold case referenced early on that gets wrapped up as well. "Horseman" may boast one of Murder, She Wrote's bloodier crimes, but few solutions were ever quite so tidy.

"A Fashionable Way to Die"
(Season 4, written by Donald Ross)
Jessica is in Paris visiting an old chum (Barbara Rush) who's trying to jumpstart her failing clothing line with a new collection; she's at the mercy of a loan shark who's also juggling a wife (Taina Elg) and a mistress (Juliet Prowse). Although the second unit grabs some lovely footage of Paris (and some questionable match shots of Lansbury's stand-in getting in and out of taxi cabs), most of it was filmed on the lot at Universal, with the American actors serving up all manner of French accents. (Fritz Weaver's is about as authentic as Pepé Le Pew's.) But what the episode lacks in atmosphere, it more than makes up for in mystery. Fittingly for a script about the fashion industry, most of the clues are visual, starting with a pair of models being sent down the runway in the wrong outfits. "A Fashionable Way to Die" is only the second Murder, She Wrote effort by Ross, who'd become one of the series' most prolific writers (with sixteen scripts to his credit, including the last, "Death by Demographics," which exposed how advertisers catering to a young-adult audience were sabotaging many a hit series, including Murder, She Wrote itself), but his is already a crafty and assured hand. "Fashionable" is one of the most extravagantly clued scripts in the Murder, She Wrote canon; unlike other episodes, in which the writers strive to conceal the evidence, Ross lays his bare: the button found beside the victim; the chambermaids with differing accounts of the shots fired; the two towels missing from the crime scene. Pay particular attention to the significance of a pair of airline tickets, and to a red purse that darts in and out of the action (and ultimately proves the killer's undoing). And although there's only one victim, be certain you're banking on the right number of shooters. A stylish mystery, capped by a freeze frame on one of Lansbury's best withering looks.

"If It's Thursday, It Must Be Beverly"
(Season 4, written by Wendy Graf & Lisa Stotsky)
It's the best -- and best sustained -- red herring in the show's history. When the wife of Sheriff Tupper's night deputy is found murdered, a sordid secret comes to light: that, during his nightly rounds, he was providing the local widows and divorcees with, as guest star Dody Goodman so memorably puts it, "good clean sex once a week." The women whom he'd found time to comfort --- most of them regulars at Loretta's Beauty Salon (a setting that proved so popular, it was rewarded a return visit the following season) -- are played by a formidable crew, including screen legends Ruth Roman, Kathryn Grayson and Gloria DeHaven. This is Murder, She Wrote reimagined as bedroom farce; as each of the deputy's dalliances comes to light, they're met with increasingly broad double-takes by Angela Lansbury, William Windom and Tom Bosley. (Lansbury does some marvelous mugging when the deputy gives her a shoulder rub that turns into a seduction.) But mostly, the episode is distinguished by its facile use of sex as a misdirect; as more and more women come forward with tales of weekly rendezvous, we become convinced that deciphering the deputy's extracurricular activities is crucial to catching his wife's killer -- when nothing could be further from the truth. As Murder, She Wrote was wont to do, a key clue is served up during the opening scene, while the credits are distracting us, and while we're still getting our bearings. And the others -- Seth's irritation at not being able to finish his weekly crossword puzzle; Jessica's sad reflections on the dead woman's lonely life, which she gleans from the items pinned to her refrigerator -- are so carefully disguised as character beats that we're unlikely to give them much thought. A total triumph, and the best bluff this seaside town ever saw.

"Snow White, Blood Red"
(Season 5, written by Peter S. Fischer)
Even if you're familiar with the murder-mystery trope where a specific target is hidden among a string of victims, you're unlikely to stay one step ahead of Fischer here, because of the shrewd ways he inverts and subverts this time-honored tradition. A massive storm strands Jessica at a ski lodge where members of the U.S. World Cup ski team are being taken out, one by one. But does someone have a grudge against the entire team, or is one victim the intended target, and the others mere decoys? As in so many Murder, She Wrote episodes, the death of the first victim is telegraphed -- here, the womanizing Gunner Tillstrom is universally despised: by the husband whose wife he's seduced, by the agent whose deal he's jeopardizing, by the coach who's fed up with his antics. It's only a matter of time before he's found dead -- and so he is. And although a clear motive is handed to us a good three or four times in the first fifteen minutes, it's muddied the moment a second corpse is discovered -- and then a third. "Snow White" features a sterling cast, with especially fine turns by Barry Newman and Ronnie Claire Edwards, as a New York detective and his wife, whom Jessica befriends and entreaties to help her solve the crime; and George Wyner as a gynecologist pressed into service as a coroner. (And although Emma Samms doesn't have much to do, she lets loose with one of the great sustained screams in Murder, She Wrote history.) But mostly it's a mystery elevated by Fischer's impeccable cluing, which is wonderfully varied: something aural, something visual, and most damning, a decision by the killer that defies common sense, that we ourselves should have questioned even without Jessica's prompting. In most Murder She Wrotes, the murderer has to hang around for the interrogations: they're a relative or colleague of the deceased, or they live or work at the setting of the crime. But if you're a guest at a ski lodge, and commit murder, why don't you just leave before the police arrive?

"The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel"
(Season 5, written by Peter S. Fischer)
It's the episode where Fischer's vision and Lansbury's seem most compatible, and it probably served as her Emmy reel for Season 5. A plot device that, over the previous four seasons, had become almost comical -- that any friend or relative that Jessica came to visit would be falsely accused of murder within minutes of her arrival -- is taken to its most unsettling extreme, allowing Lansbury to exhibit some of the fire and outrage that would distinguish her later performances. In "Dixie Damsel," Jessica is summoned to Crawford Air Force Base in California, to greet the arrival of a newly discovered USAF Cargo Transport plane, which had been abandoned during a 1952 blizzard by its five crew members, one of them Jessica's late husband Frank. When the body of one of the crew members is discovered on board, shot dead, and when the other three veterans pass a polygraph, the Major heading up the investigation is all too eager to pin the murder on Jessica's late husband. At once a murder-in-retrospect, a locked-room mystery, and a tour-de-force for its leading lady, "Dixie Damsel" is more leisurely than most of Fisher's scripts: at times almost elegiac, as the young officers who populate the base prompt Jessica to recall her early years with Frank. There seem only two possible solutions, which Jessica spells out early on: that one of the crew members fooled the lie-detector test, or that there was a sixth party on board the plane in 1952, identity unknown. The latter theory flies in the face of fair-play mysteries, which insist on a fixed set of suspects who are familiar to the audience. But Fischer's canny denouement plays us for fools. And his best clue? A greeting between two characters so seemingly innocuous that we overlook its significance.

"Prediction: Murder"
(Season 5, written by Richard Stanley & Ralph Meyerling, Jr.)
It picks up where the previous episode, "The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel," left off, with Dale Robertson (as real estate mogul Lee Goddard, who served in the same platoon as Jessica's late husband) spiriting her away to his ranch outside Tucson. Once arrived, Jessica learns that Lee's daughter-in-law Jill is obsessed with astrology, and to keep her happy, her husband Michael has invited a well-known clairvoyant, The Great Francesco (David Birney in a sly and entertaining turn), to perform at a family gathering. But when his visions grow ominous, and start coming true, a case of kidnapping and extortion turns deadly. After an episode more ruminative than the norm, this is a return to the sort of event-filled mystery that was the series' bread-and-butter -- full of sex, violence, and a hint of the paranormal, where seemingly everyone has something to conceal. The clues are hidden in plain sight, including our introduction to Lee's household at the top, in particular their various comings and goings, which -- on the face of it -- merely suggests the steady turnover of staff at a working ranch. As in "Sticks and Stones" and "Snow White, Blood Red," part of deciphering the puzzle involves no more than common sense on the part of the viewer. (Once Francesco is unmasked as a fraud, what spin does that put on everything we've seen up to that point -- in particular, all the premonitions that came true?) And as in the Miss Marple classic A Murder is Announced, the best clue is a typographical one -- here, a misdirect that's made for television. Instead of adhering to the series' standard wrap-up, where Jessica arranges to meet the killer in private and shares her evidence (often with the police waiting nearby), this arrest comes in a public place, with the suspects on the run, and without one of Jessica's typically methodical recaps. But once she sits down with Lee in the final scene, to detail how the crime was committed, and why, all the pieces click into place, and you realize you've been witness to a sleight of hand as impressive as anything cooked up by The Great Francesco himself.

"Trials and Tribulations"
(Season 7, written by Peter S. Fischer)
It starts with a full-on action sequence, rare for Murder, She Wrote: a prison break from a New York penitentiary, with law enforcement in hot pursuit. As police close in, the van overturns, and the fugitive -- one Eddie Stone -- is pronounced dead. Cut to Jessica dining in New York City, where she's served a subpoena; it turns out that she assisted the NYPD in capturing Stone, years back, and now his daughter -- believing her father innocent of the crime -- has brought a wrongful death suit against the police, naming Jessica as corespondent (to the tune of $500,000). Jessica gets a hard look at how easy the system makes it for those with a litigious streak -- whether or not they have the evidence to back it up; it's another of Fischer's knockout showcases for Lansbury. And the murder? Well, the prosecution's key witness when Stone was first convicted is now claiming that Jessica bribed him to give false evidence -- but before she can reason with him, he's found dead, injected with a lethal dose of insulin. Who has the most to gain from the witness's sudden demise? The rising DA who first tried the case, for whom any setback or reversal could put an end to her political ambitions? Or perhaps the daughter bringing suit against Jessica, who fears the witness will recant his written testimony under oath? And all along, we're left with a set of puzzling questions. Why was the syringe left in the backyard? Why wasn't it disposed of far from the crime scene? And if the witness was bribed to recant his original testimony, what happened to the money? Ultimately, Jessica arrives at the only solution that adds up, and one that perhaps we never would have guessed -- because nothing like it had been attempted on the series before. It's a stellar cast, with George Maharis as the shyster lawyer, resisting all urge to chew the scenery, and the great Kim Hunter (as the witness's widow) in the kind of performance that, on film or on stage, wins awards. "Trials and Tribulations" is a sensational start to the seventh season: Fischer's last, and the end of Murder, She Wrote's golden age of mysteries.


Do you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows? If so, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Judging Amy Season 6, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), plus a dozen essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; I also pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

26 comments:

  1. LOVED the music - one of the best themes of the era. Though not that versed in the show, I remember Lansbury being utterly brilliant. That said, I would never invite Jessica to dinner - a guest would be dead in 10 minutes.

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    1. I had the pleasure of working with Angela Lansbury back in 2010, on a cast album of A Little Night Music that I produced. She was, of course, an extraordinary talent, but also so very kind. Lovely in the recording studio, and the kind of pro who nailed everything in one take. And yes, just glorious on Murder She Wrote. Although the show, owing to the limitations of its format, was never able to give her the kind of Emmy-winning showcase that you wished she'd had (at least once), she still offered up any number of phenomenal performances, two of them in episodes that I mention here ("The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel" and "Trials and Tribulations") as being among the show's best mysteries.

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  2. Tommy, this is wonderful to read. (I was embarrassingly gurgling with pleasure all the way through.) I will now have to search out and watch all of these, including your "extras." Very likely I saw some or all of them when the series was new, but memory is hazy at this remove -- and now I have your sharp analysis to guide my watching.

    And how have I known you all this time without knowing that you were as big a devotee of classic mysteries as I am? All of Christie several times over (including, yes, the ones with a map in front; and yes! the orthographic clue in A Murder Is Announced), plus Carr/Dickson, Sayers, et al. At times I felt as if I could have been writing this article... if I were as smart and perceptive as you are.

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    1. I have no doubt that if there were a "smart and perceptive" test we could both take, you would win hands down. (For one thing, your "orthographic" is so much better than my "typographical.") What I think you mean is that this is an article you could have written if you, like me, had way too much time on your hands... :)

      I've adored mysteries since I was a teenager, and like you, devoured the Christies several times. Probably first when I was in college, and the train ride home was just long enough for me to get through a mystery novel; then when I was living in NY and working for the Gershwins, and had to do a cross-country flight every few weeks; and finally when I was living in LA and free-lance producing in NY, and had to do the same trip in reverse. Luckily, enough time always passed between my various excursions into the Christie catalog that I'd have forgotten who the murderer was, so the ending was always a surprise.

      I'm so glad you enjoyed. I had thought about doing this particular post for a while, but had no idea if I could do it in a way that conveyed what I loved about the cluing and the misdirects, without giving away the ending. I actually included, in my first draft, many more references to specific novels by Christie, Sayers, etc., but then I decided that anyone familiar with those mysteries would instantly know the solution I was referring to, so I cut it all back! If you end up rewatching any, do stop back here or drop me an email, and let me know what you thought.

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    2. We'll see how I'd do in the "way too much time on my hands" scenario, as I'm retiring at the end of May....

      The only title you mention (and it's from the "extras") that's come around so far is "The Petrified Florist." At first I was wondering "Why is this more of a surprise ending than any other?", and then it happened.

      One you don't mention that I decided to check out is "Lone Witness" (Season 9, with Neil Patrick Harris as the grocery delivery kid). The twist at the end of that one is a classic Christie ploy (I can think of at least two instances in her works). But I dare say it was used better, earlier in the series.

      The WGN airings of the series are strange. Aside from the aspect-ratio issues, which I know how to handle, they start right out with the first act, including episode-specific credits. Then commercials, THEN the main titles intact. Then more commercials, and on to Act II. I wonder who decided this was better, and why.

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    3. OK, I realize that anytime a cable network picks up a series for syndication, they have to make it seem "fresh" -- and sometimes that means a bit of rejiggering -- but I have *never* heard of anything like what you describe on WGN. I guess they figure a cold open will grab the viewer more than the same-old title sequence, but if you're going to do that, why even bother with the main titles later? Maybe it's contractual -- obviously, by the time you're an act in, you know what show you're watching! I still have a lot of the original episodes on VHS, from when I first taped them, and fortunately, someone has uploaded most of the series to Daily Motion. Some of it's even from the show's original airing, where you hear Lansbury go, "Tonight, on Murder She Wrote," and see a quick preview of the episode.

      That is so funny that you mention "Lone Witness" -- it just missed my top 10. An episode I fondly remember, and that I still quite like. It's inevitable across 264 episodes, of course, that solutions will get repeated; another episode I enjoy, Season 8's "To the Last Will I Grapple With Thee," riffs on the novel solution in "Trials and Tribulations." This list was so hard to whittle down, and I'll look forward to hearing from you as other episodes strike your fancy; I'm sure you'll find a few that you'll think me crazy for omitting (and I'll probably feel crazy for omitting them). I love doing these short-form posts from time to time -- the long essays get exhausting after a while -- but even with these "best of" lists, it's all so subjective; there are certain good mysteries (e.g., Season 4's "Mourning Among the Wisterias") that I eliminated simply because they had one of those "let's force the killer's hand" endings that I'm not particularly fond of -- and I'm uncertain if my souring on that particular convention (mostly because it happened *so* much in the series' later years) tarnished my opinion of earlier, better episodes that actually utilized it well.

      You had talked about retirement a few years ago -- I wondered what you'd decided. I suspect you'll have no problem keeping yourself busy, and I'll look forward to a full report following your first few months of leisure. And if you start to find yourself wanting for projects, and you find another 10 "Murder She Wrote" mysteries that strike your fancy, I hereby invite you to collaborate with me on a follow-up! :)

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    4. I've no objection to the reuse of a solution, as long as it's done with panache and not too often. Even for the masters, there remain a finite number of ways to fool a reader. Take Christie's notorious "Roger Ackroyd" ploy: she had already used it once, and would use it again decades later.

      Forcing the killer's hand, too, is one of those devices I don't mind in itself. But it palls with overuse, and I don't doubt that it was overused later in the series. I suspect that's true of most long-running mystery shows, having to come up with so many "brilliant" crimes that nevertheless must get solved. Even the novelists in the genre, who even if prolific created far fewer stories, have admitted to falling back on it more than they'd like. It's often been commented on, in writing about the history of the genre, and I recall Sayers's novelist Harriet Vane (to some extent her fictionalized voice) saying that she once created a crime so airtight nobody could prove who did it, and she had to fall back on the murderer's confession.

      My DVR is throwing 6 or 8 a day at me, so it shouldn't be long before I get to some on your main list!

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    5. You're quite right, of course: even the masters reused solutions. The problem with the "flush out the killer" climax, as Murder She Wrote came to rely on it (late in the run), was that it was done in place of a decent mystery. Jessica would get a "hunch" who did it, but since there had barely been any clues dropped (and therefore nothing she could use as evidence), she'd have to arrange to let some titillating piece of (false) information drop -- most often, that there was incriminating evidence left at the crime scene -- and then whoever took the bait was the killer. The show became less a mystery and more a hunt.

      BTW, since you mention it in an oblique way (at least I think it's the title you were referencing), "Endless Night" is one of my three favorite Christies. (The other two are "Five Little Pigs" and strangely -- and I say strangely because, unlike the other two, it's not most people's favorite -- "Sad Cypress.") I find all three more emotional involving than most Christies; I guess in the end, I not only like a good puzzle, but enjoy getting drawn into the lives of the characters. ("Endless Night" destroys me, as does the final speech in "Five Little Pigs.") Just curious: what are your favorite Christies?

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    6. Yes, I was referring to "Endless Night" (along with "The Man in the Brown Suit" in the same connection). It's a title that seems to turn up high on most people's lists of her work. I confess that I haven't reread it since it was new; something about it irritated me on that reading (I no longer recall what; maybe the big revelation felt unmotivated or unprepared, or something like that), and I filed it in my thoughtless "late Christie is a disappointment" mental drawer. I think it's high time I read it again. I'll get back to you after I do.

      My own favorites? "Five Little Pigs" for sure (everyone seems to cite that one, and rightly so). I would actually include "Sad Cypress" as you do; it has an atmosphere unlike any of the others. As does "The Hollow," which I've come to regard more and more highly. And then I have to include "And Then There Were None" and "Murder on the Orient Express" because I adore that sort of story -- assemble a lot of suspects and narrow them down -- and they do it wonderfully well.

      I was on the verge of including "A Murder Is Announced," until I remembered some details late in the book that knock it out of the top tier. And I enjoy rereading "Whatever Time It was From Paddington," but really only for the details of how domestic service worked in the 1950s -- I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. So, no Marples among my top favorites.

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  3. My favorite of Murder She Wrote episode was The Sins of Castle Cove.. which painted Cabot Cove as a Peyton Place.. and featured the beauty shop, all the patrons at the beauty shop, and a mystery with a good set up. My favorite of the Cabot Cove episodes.

    And my favorite non Jessica Fletcher episode (during season 6's experiment) was Murder: According to Maggie... could have been a nice spin off.

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    1. I too love "Sins of Castle Cove": the juicy plot and the return of the gang from Loretta's Beauty Parlor and, as always, Jessica's way of telling hard truths (particularly to Sybil, with regard to her motive for writing the book) without being abrasive. Although it's not one of my all-time favorite mysteries -- mostly because it turns on a reveal that "only the killer would know" -- I like that a lot of the other clues are assertions that are disproved elsewhere, that the killer makes specifically because of the mindset that leads him to murder. Meanwhile, I confess that I do not remember "Murder: According to Maggie" at all -- I didn't rewatch the bookend episodes this time around, as I decided I'd restrict my top 10 to episodes that featured Jessica; I suspect I haven't watched it since it first aired. But given that it's a Peter Fischer script, and that I love Diana Canova (I was fortunate to work with her in the 1980's), I'll have to give that one another watch this week. (I see it's airing this Sunday on Hallmark Movie Channel.)

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    2. The Sins of Castle Cove is my favorite episode too! I love the tone not too serious but still a true mystery to figure out . Seth going to get copies of Sybil’s book for him and Jessica and Jessica acting nonchalant about but Seth knows better! Julie Adams and Fran Ryan are a hoot!

      It’s interesting to me once Landsbury had more control Grady seldom appears even when Jessica is staying in New York so much. Maybe they thought the character had run it’s course but he only has a few episode in the later seasons.

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  4. Hallmark is working its way through Season 2, so I've now seen the first two on your list.

    "Sticks and Stones" was both a nicely detailed look at this murder method, and a touchingly personal outcome, for the reason you cite. (I suppose Hallmark must be cutting things to make room for all those commercials; is there any kind of payoff to the Paul Benedict subplot? He reveals that the accent is fake... and then what? I wondered if maybe this was just one bit in a long-running character arc, but IMDb says this was his only appearance.) The whole murder plan reminded me of a Carter Dickson story more than Christie (one of his books even has a bathtub murder).

    But then "Trial by Error." Oh my! -- I'm sure I never saw this one before, I'd have remembered a plot like this, that was (to quote "Daddy Long-Legs") PERFECTLY CORKING. I love the setup just as you described it, I love the structure experiencing it all through flashbacks, I love the jury itself (I'd have to go back to 12 Angry Men to find a feature film with such a well-differentiated and vivid set of jurors), I love all the casting, and I love the glorious surprise of the outcome. This too reminded me of John Dickson Carr / Carter Dickson, as it used his trick of hiding one crime inside another where we'd never think to look for it. It'll take some doing to top this as my favorite mystery of the series.

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  5. And now, "Keep the Home Fries Burning." Outstanding for all the reasons you mentioned. Little things that seemed incongruous (belatedly deciding to leave a tip) turn out to be crucial. One little problem, though: if the chef couldn't really cook, why was the whole town flocking to the new place? (And another: don't give us Marcia Rodd for such a brief role!)

    This one is more specifically Christie-esque. Overtones of "The ABC Murders" (who, out of many victims, is the intended target?) and "Murder in Three Acts" (poisoned food passed around, such that anyone might have tasted it).

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    1. So glad you're enjoying. I'm loathe to say much more about the episodes than I said in the post, because I fear I'm going to give too much away. (You and I will probably end up discussing much more by email or phone.) Obviously "Sticks and Stones" isn't one of the show's tautest mysteries (I don't think the Paul Benedict plot goes anywhere else -- but I was watching a truncated version as well), but it's certainly one of the most shocking endings -- and not in a way that seems far-fetched, but in a way where you marvel at its audacity. It's a perfect example of the creative team understanding how we watch (and read) mysteries, and whom we *won't* suspect -- and using it against us, as Christie obviously did so often, from "Ackroyd" to "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" to "Crooked House" to "Curtain." They must have relished the opportunity to do this kind of ending, and in 1985, I admit I was floored by the identity of the killer. And yes, it doesn't get much better than "Trial by Error" -- a real genius episode, both in structure and payoff. Hope you continue to enjoy. I would say, of the ten, there are maybe three that -- as with "Sticks and Stones" -- I chose more because of the novel solution than the plethora of clues (not that the clues were bad, they just weren't as plentiful as in some others) -- but sometimes, after you've watched and read hundreds upon hundreds of mysteries, it's so nice to be surprised by a solution you hadn't seen before.

      Speaking of which, I don't know where in its syndication cycle the Hallmark Movie Channel currently is, but if it's not too far into Season 3, and you have a spare 45 minutes, check out ep 3, "Unfinished Business," also by Jackson Gillis (who did "Sticks and Stones"). Another attempt by the series to reach for a Christie-esque ending, but one that -- as I recall (and I confess I haven't watched this one in a decade or so) -- doesn't come off. Would be curious to hear your thoughts.

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  6. All your examples just now are deliciously to the point. As I mentioned in email, Christie's genius in plotting at its best went beyond "least likely suspect" or even "the one suspected first, then proven innocent" (though she did use that one, and well) to "the one that we -- even the alert, suspicious ones -- never thought to suspect at all." I think that "Crooked House" was one of the first ones I ever read, and it just blew me away, because I (just as intended) never looked in the right direction at all.

    Carr/Dickson is known as a specialist in the locked-room mystery (or, more generally, "never mind who, how could this murder have been possible at all?"), and he was a virtuoso at it. But he was also brilliant at the incidental plot element we hadn't even related to the crime, which turns out (when the solution suddenly flips inside out) to be absolutely crucial. Just as in "Trial by Error."

    Hallmark is just now getting to Season 3, so I'll look out for "Unfinished Business." (WGN is off in Season 10 somewhere.) I've been keeping an eye out in any case, but interesting-looking episodes even if they're not on your list. I was a pretty faithful viewer when the series was new, but I still missed it sometimes, and have forgotten a lot too.

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  7. I did see "Unfinished Business," and I agree that it doesn't really come off. In order to talk about it, I'm going to have to resort to (and hereby warn about) SPOILERS as I discuss the details.

    It may be that a valuable bit here or there was lost in the Hallmark trimming (people seemed to be greeting each other by first name without having "met" on camera), but the pool of characters seemed small enough that one was virtually invited to consider an out-of-the-ordinary solution; there just weren't that many people to suspect. Further, the Pat Hingle character was written so dislikable from the start that there was none of the usual reluctance to imagine that a law enforcer could be a murderer -- I practically hoped that he was, to get rid of him. And behind it all, the big unanswered (even unstated, and I was waiting for Jessica to bring it up in the final explanation) question: Why, with everyone urging him to retire and stop investigating, did he insist on revisiting his long-ago crime instead of leaving it forgotten and unsolved? I guess it had to do with the timing of the guy getting out of prison, but it still seemed like asking for trouble. Maybe I just wasn't giving it the total attention I should have given.

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  8. Some more have turned up now. SPOILERS:

    "Night of the Headless Horseman" is the sort of mystery often called a "romp." It hit all its marks adroitly, with the clever cluing you mentioned, and certainly Thom Bray was in his element as the overeager center of it all.

    "A Fashionable Way to Die" served up some of my favorite devices: the telltale item left by the wrong person, the switched clothing*, and the person who THOUGHT they delivered the fatal shot but really didn't. (Again Carr comes to mind for that, but I think all the Golden Age writers made use of it.) And you're so right about Fritz Weaver channeling Pepé Le Pew -- it wasn't just the accent, his character was written that way too.

    (*I have to confess that even after the explanation, I don't see the significance of the switched dress. Why did she bother with it?)

    "If It's Thursday...", now that's a classic. For all the reasons you said. The main revelations are so surprising and fun, one automatically expects it to hold the explanation, but all the while all the clues have been presented for the real explanation. Two other points: Jessica's reaction to the neck rub illustrates the delicacy with which the show always walked the line about Jessica "susceptibility": she had a moment here, but shut it right down. And in other episodes she might have a sparkling almost-flirtatious dinner with an old friend. But really we always knew she wasn't looking for a new man in her life. It wouldn't have felt proper. And I was thinking of Rick Lenz only the other day, after being reminded how fun he was as Igor in Cactus Flower. I saw him in a couple of justly forgotten 70s film comedies, and very little else after that, and idly assumed he was one of the many who got out of the business after a while. But no, he did a good bit of TV guest work, and is currently teaching and blogging.

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    1. Regarding "Headless Horseman" (SPOILERS), I love the clues hidden in plain sight: the way the cold case, which will figure so neatly in the solution to the new murder, is first mentioned merely as the event that led to Dorian securing his new position, so we don't focus on it as a "crime," but as an "opportunity"; and the way Nate's "I think something's broken" (the biggest clue), following his bar-fight with Dorian, seems merely to be one of those well-worn, hyperbolic remarks that one makes after a fight, so we don't give it much thought. And I love the clues that are presented twice, the first time innocuously, the second time with purpose -- so the second time, you overlook them, because you think you've already studied and considered them. I'm thinking of how Charles Siebert's character compliments Jessica on her jewelry early on, so that when he does the same with Judy Landers' character later, you think it's just his way of making conversation, and not that there's a point to that particular necklace. And, too, the picture of Siebert's late fiancé, which we see twice: the first time, it's just a pretty headshot; the second time, she's wearing the incriminating necklace -- but you don't notice the necklace the second time around, because you presume it's the same photo as before.

      Regarding "Fashionable" (again, SPOILERS), I think the point was that the model could slip into the blue dress and be runway-ready without anyone helping her -- it didn't have a zipper or clasp -- so it afforded her the most time (when time was definitely going to be tight) to sneak up to the hotel room and make her way back. Had she slipped into the dress she was supposed to wear, she'd have had to wait for someone to zip or clasp her; or had she gone up unzipped, she'd have had to find someone (once she returned) to help her last-minute -- inviting the question, "Why did you wait so long to ask for help?" And of course, from a viewer's perspective, the switched dresses divert our attention from the other clue in that final frame of the fashion show: the missing purse, which Juliet Prowse's daughter had been tossing around rather ostentatiously just a few scenes earlier. Like you, I quite like the "person who thought they delivered the fatal shot but didn't" ruse, and although Murder She Wrote used it a lot, I don't think ever quite as effectively as they did here. One of the problems with that trope, of course, is trying to come up with a convincing reason that the would-be killer doesn't actually wait around to make sure the victim is really dead; here, of course, the explanation is perfect, as Lu has to run back to the fashion show before she misses her entrance. (SPOILER for you, and I apologize: check out Season 6's "Error of Her Ways," if you're so inclined. Novel set-up, and a good mystery, but for me, it suffers precisely in the way it tries to explain why a would-be murderer wouldn't stick around for proof.)

      BTW, to my embarrassment, I have read no Carr. Don't know why I have that gap, having made my way through Tey, Allingham, Sayers and so many others. Clearly, I have some reading to do...

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  9. So true about "Horseman" almost flaunting the clues at us, and still we miss them. That's classic-level technique.

    Thanks for the help with "Fashionable"; I guess I get it now. I have a feeling that some of the nuances to flesh that out may have fallen victim to the Hallmark trims. (I mean, SOMEthing must be missing if they can air those massive commercial blocks....)

    Of your "extra mentions," "Moving Violation" has now appeared. That does indeed give Lansbury material to shine with; some lovely moments from her. Also perhaps (or maybe I'm over-analyzing) a nice example of misdirection-through-casting. I see Philip Baker Hall in what seems a small peripheral part, and I think, Aha! Nobody would get him for a tiny cameo, he must be the perpetrator! (Especially as he initially seems nice and ordinary, and he's never hired except to be the heavy.) And in the end, that's the way it seems to be going... only it's not, quite. Deftly done.

    Carr has his weak points, both between books (avoid the very late ones) and sometimes within (some forced hilarity in the background, etc.). But if you like a real puzzle, he's Dame Agatha's nearest rival. For starters, I might propose He Who Whispers and The Judas Window.

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    1. I'm lucky to have the complete episode of "Fashionable Way to Die" on VHS, from when it first aired. I wonder if a key scene was cut in the Hallmark airing. (As you say, *something* had to go, and with an episode so rich in cluing, it's bound to be something damaging.) There's a rather lengthy scene between Jessica and Barbara Rush's (male) assistant: one of his few scenes. Jessica asks to look at the blue dress and comments; "It's got no zipper, no buttons in the back. Not even a hook to fret with." And he responds, "That, Mrs. Fletcher, is the beauty of it. Even I could get in and out of that gown without any help in the dark in five seconds -- if I were partial to women's clothing." (Not that there's anything wrong with that...) And then they estimate how much time Lu would need to commit the crime, and settle on 10 minutes, and Jessica concludes, "And by wearing the blue dress intended for the other model, Lu Waters would have been able to leave backstage for at least 10 minutes." So it's really in there, setting up Lu as the clear doer (i.e., hammering home the wrong solution). I do wonder if at least part of that scene was missing from the Hallmark airing. Similarly, when we discussed "Unfinished Business" and remarked how the denouement makes no sense, I wonder if you and I have only seen truncated versions. The last time I saw it, it ended with a freeze frame of the killer. I can't think of any other episode that doesn't end on Lansbury, so who knows? -- maybe there's an after-the-fact explanation that clarifies it all, that's been eliminated from most syndication prints.

      Meanwhile, mea culpa. I listed "Moving Violation" as one of the later (e.g., post-Fischer) episodes I quite like; turns out it's not post-Fischer at all. I thought it was Season 8 for some reason, but it's Season 7 -- the season William Windom was off the show for a year doing Parenthood. I should probably fix that faux pas in my essay, but it is an episode I like steering folks towards, so I guess I'll leave it. Windom's absence gives Lansbury and Ron Masak their first real chance to do some two-handers that aren't entirely plot-dictated, and I particularly love her performance in that scene where he's ruminating by the water, and she enters, asking, "Is this a private party -- or is there room for a friend?" They both admit they're awful company, and she shares her troubles first, ruefully: "I'm a little discouraged by the way some people seem to be able to bend the rules -- particularly if they're powerful... and privileged" And when he says that it's no longer his problem, as he's leaving his post, she gets that Fletcher fire back in her voice, but about an octave lower than usual: "You're quitting? I thought you had more *fight* in you than that." Seven seasons in, Lansbury's still hitting fresh notes.

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  10. The whole "Fashionable" conversation about the easy construction of the blue dress was all there. I must just have not been paying proper attention.

    Meanwhile, "Snow White, Blood Red." Oh yes, a classic, and beautifully executed. It's not "And Then There Were None" (one of whose film versions was in fact set at an isolated ski lodge), what with the presence of so many innocent people, but I'm always a sucker for this sort of premise, with the inherently limited field of suspects, and the need to solve it before it starts to be possible for people to leave. And all kinds of little moments to notice, then forget, then see pay off beautifully in the end. Hurray for all of them.

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  11. They've been coming thick and fast on Hallmark now, and I had to get through the current batch before I could commit the time to write about them. ("Nan's Ghost" is waiting on the queue still; it's a two-parter, and the initial 20 minutes haven't grabbed me. I'll be back.)

    "Thursday's Child" did have some great chances for Lansbury to find new colors for her interactions. And there were unique mood moments such as taking a day out just to fly to Seattle just to hear about Frank. We could see her tentatively making her peace with the idea that "IF it's true... OK, I could understand"; some nice delicate work there. But of course we knew it wasn't going to be true.

    "Dixie Damsel" perhaps suffered for me in being watched right after that. It hit some of the same "Could Frank have done such a thing" notes, and this time it seemed certain that he couldn't. The solution didn't satisfy me as much as most of the others in the article; yes, that initial greeting was a deft touch that I ignored just as I was supposed to, and there were other such moments. But for all the foreshadowing about Gagliano's corner-cutting nature, the solution still felt out of left field, introducing a new character in the past (even if he was familiar in the present). I was also distracted by the way nobody could agree on the pronunciation of Gagliano -- even the same character (even Jessica) would change from scene to scene. I kept expecting it to somehow be a clue, but it wasn't. (Also, irrelevant to the story but poor Clifton James: I thought as he entered "Oh, for once he doesn't have to play a bigoted jerk," but there it was all over again.) And -- one more -- the way Dale Robertson coerced her into flying to Arizona with him instead of going home... I don't want to make a huge deal of it, but it didn't sit well with me. Doesn't she have anything to say about it?

    Of course it's just a writer's device to get us to "Prediction: Murder." This was a really clever one, in which I obediently looked in all the wrong places for my villain and solution. Everything you said about it was right on the money. Especially good casting in this one I thought. Everyone made a strong impression in limited time, and David Birney was a hoot.

    (You often seem to be up on behind-the-scenes stuff that went on during the run. Do you know why Dale Robertson chose to be uncredited in both episodes? He was a central character obviously, so it's puzzling.)

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    1. Dale Robertson wouldn't approve the standard alphabetical guest-star billing. He said that if he couldn't be listed first, he'd rather not be listed at all. So that's what they did...

      It's funny -- I suspected "Dixie Damsel" might not be to your liking; it wasn't to mine in 1988. It's grown on me enormously in the ensuing years, with each subsequent rewatch. I find "Snow White" the best traditional mystery Fischer wrote for the series; "Dixie" is mostly a showcase for Lansbury – but as lean as the mystery is, I don't find it so much "slight" as "economical." Each time I rewatch, I become aware how meticulously the points are made, and every single time, the solution (which I have forgotten) knocks me for a loop – because the doer is, ultimately, the only possible suspect: among other things, the only one whose identity is not verified via lie detector or backstory. (And in fact, the way his identity *is* verified becomes the very clue that proves his undoing.) Not something I'd want the show to try every week, but as a one-time event – and particularly leading into a second-parter that's much more in line with the show's standard format – I find it a very successful experiment. I mention somewhere in the comments above that there are two episodes I list here that are more unconventional than the others: one is "Dixie Damsel," and the other is the final one, "Trials and Tribulations." You may well have the same problem with that one. To my mind Fischer really needed 75 minutes to accomplish all that he wanted to, given that he was going for a knockout season opener; although there are lots of clues, there's so much plot that there's barely time for old-fashioned detective work, and you could argue (SPOILER) that Jessica arrives at the solution by divine intervention (as Robert Barnard once said of Miss Marple) – but it's such an original solution for the series, and acted with such conviction, I end up applauding the daring, rather than questioning the execution. You'll see what you think.

      With regard to "Prediction: Murder," that typographical clue at the end has been a running gag in our household for 25 years. Any time one of us has a dentist appointment, the other makes a point of saying "You have to -- GO to dentist."

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  12. As I make my way through, I've found another that I find worthy of inclusion among the best mysteries: "Ever After" from Season 8. You did mention liking episodes from this season, but for other reasons, but this one has a solution worthy of Christie -- in fact, it's one that she used in at least two of her best-known books.

    I suppose its execution is less than classic: it's relatively underpopulated so there aren't many wrong suspects to confuse us, and the physical means of murder isn't the most elegant choice. But I was still enormously tickled to discover that details I found contrived in the opening scenes were deliberately exactly that.

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  13. Here's a historic marker I just happened to bump into: Donald Ross, whom you mention above (and who wrote some other episodes I've been enjoying in my DVR-diving lately, like "A Body To Die For" and "Film Flam"), passed away just last Friday, on June 1.

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