It’s fun enough, though I kind of see it as a guilty pleasure (don’t tell detour!). Angela Lansbury’s always great, though. Elsewhere I once posted about episodes that I thought were hidden gems:
“Murder Takes the Bus” has Mrs. Fletcher and dumb-as-a-block-of-wood Sheriff Tupper taking a bus from Cabot Cove to Boston in the middle of a storm; the bus pulls over at a roadside diner to wait the storm out, and the whole thing plays out as The Twilight Zone’s “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up” without the aliens. Great array of suspicion, several interesting suspects (including David Wayne, the Mad Hatter in Batman and Insp. Queen in Ellery Queen), and a surprisingly clever plot. The murderer is guessable, but unusually for this show there’s a complex-but-comprehensible chain of clues that points definitively (or close to it) to this person. Really good.
Plot-wise, “Trial by Error” may actually be my favorite courtroom mystery—beating out, for example, just about all of Perry Mason and Christie’s “The Witness for the Prosecution” (and the movie version, great though it is). Where did this burst of ingenuity come from, and why on MSW? Mrs. F is the forewoman of a jury trying to decide if the defendant murdered his mistress’s husband or shot him in self-defense. Simple scenario, but the writer found so many twists on it, and we bounce back and forth on the guy’s guilt or innocence—until our Jessica figures out the imbroglio (and seems proud of herself for it—deservedly so), the solution to which comes as a complete surprise. The writer brilliantly uses our familiarity with Christie’s “Witness,” even using it as a clue. Sheer entertainment. Also: Mama Harper and the Skipper are in it. Who could ask for anything more?
“The Grand Old Lady” shouldn’t really count as an MSW episode: it was intended for Ellery Queen’s second season, and Jessica Fletcher only introduces the story. (Lansbury was bored by the part at this point but contractually obligated to appear.) It’s set, like EQ, in the late ’40s, aboard the Queen Mary, and has a thinly-veiled Ellery expy in Gary Kroeger’s Christy McGinn. The plot is complex: three different solutions, each building on the one coming before it, each offered by a different sleuth. Robert Vaughn shines as Simon Brimmer clone Edwin Chancellor, who in Brimmer-esque style gives a brilliant solution that’s completely wrong, and June Havoc has fun as an Agatha Christie-like mystery writer who outwits him—but the third (and correct) solution is from Christy, a complicated business involving war secrets, codes, German army ranks, and more red herrings than a Communist fish market. The ultimate answer is not as clever as the problem, but the deductions are excellent, and the ’40s, shipboard atmosphere is even better.
I’ve been on an MSW kick recently, and last night I rewatched an old favorite, “Witness for the Defense” (S4:E3).
Its mystery plot isn’t particularly surprising or complex, its Canada setting is kind of wondrously ridiculous (everyone in Quebec speaks the Queen’s English, lawyers are basically allowed to do anything they want in court, and the city of Montreal is filled with palm trees), and it isn’t a showcase for Angela Lansbury’s talents.
So why do I love it nonetheless?
Easy. Because the bearded guy in the photo above, and the episode’s guest star, is Patrick McGoohan, a.k.a. John Drake, a.k.a. No. 6, a.k.a. my avatar, a.k.a. one of the coolest actors ever.
And while this episode isn’t a Lansbury showcase, it’s a McGoohan showcase all the way. He’s a brilliant, flamboyant, hilarious, conniving Canadian barrister who is the only person in the whole show to call out Mrs. Fletcher for being a murder magnet. In other words, he’s amazing. It’s too bad this is his only Murder, She Wrote performance because he actually outacts Lansbury here (and I’m a huge Angie fan, so that’s saying something!). That said, he and Lansbury have great chemistry and are loads of fun together.
I’d love to know the background behind the episode, because the character and dialogue seem especially tailored to McGoohan. Like Orson Welles (for whom he acted in Welles’ play Moby Dick—Rehearsed), McGoohan had a penchant for rewriting his character’s dialogue and directing the directors, and I wonder if that’s what happened here.
My encomia to Patty McG aside, the episode has a good, quick pace and a solid script. But McGoohan is just plain inimitable.
So, yeah, one of the greatest MSW episodes—for McGoohan, and also for the sheer fun of the thing. Highly recommended.
I started watching the show on Netflix a few years ago (more like 5, I think). I made it through 2 seasons before they removed it, so I ended up buying the complete series. As a writer myself, I was amazed that her first book was published in the pilot episode and a few episodes later, she already had 5 or 6 more books completed and published. I realize there's often a long stretch of time between the pilot episode and the rest of the first season, but that seems to be pushing it.