If I told you that I spend last night watching Murder She Wrote, would you still respect me in the morning?
The premiere of a two-hour telemovie featuring Angela Lansbury in the role that kept her away from musical theatre for way too many years, Murder She Wrote: The Celtic Riddle provided a low-key reintroduction to everybody's favorite Old-Lady-Snoop-Who's-Not-Miz-Marple. The tactic of taking a series character and placing 'em in occasional TV-movies is a long established one, and theoretically it should work. Removed from the rigors of weekly series production, you'd think that the writers, at least, would be able to craft a solid piece of genre work. But in practice, it seldom seems to come out that way: I don't know of anyone, for instance, who would seriously assert that the seventies Perry Mason teleflicks were equal to the older one-hour black-and-white series eps. Some series characters just seem to flourish better under the weekly pressure of production.
In Jessica Fletcher's case, though, I had some small hope that this first TV-movie would rekindle my interest in the character: her series had lost its punch years before it'd gone off the air. Originally, a tidy classic mystery series (creators Richard Levinson & William Link, plus Peter S. Fischer had cut their teeth on early Columbo and the Jim Hutton version of Ellery Queen), the series had steadily grown less puzzling under a procession of writers whose idea of a telling clue was to have a character state something totally unrelated to anything else we've heard come out of 'em ("I'm color-blind, you know.") - only to have that out-of-context line be the one thing that tips off Jessica ("Only someone who's color-blind would've dressed the victim in two different toned socks!") To an old-fashioned mystery fan, nothing can be more maddening than recognizing that a guilty party has given us the big clue, often before the actual crime has been committed.
So I had hopes that time away from the show would help Murder's writers: watching the opening credits, I found my hopes rising even further. Scriptwriters Rosemary Ann Sisson & Bruce Lansbury were adapting the story from a for-real mystery novel set in Ireland and entitled The Celtic Riddle. Perhaps we'd get to see ol' J.B. displaying some real ratiocination?
Nope. Sorry. I haven't read the Lyn Hamilton source novel, but I bet it's more complex than the by-the-numbers whodunnit we got here. The most intriguing aspect of the mystery, the titular Riddle, is so perfunctorily handled that we don't even get to see our heroine work through it in any detail; the plot has not one, but two, different characters who resort to anagrams; and, yes, there's an out-of-context conversation a half hour into the two-hour movie that pretty much keys you into who the killer's gonna be.
Angela Lansbury remains appealing as J.B. Fletcher, though she's definitely starting to look a bit frail to be wandering around dry-iced cemeteries in the middle of the night. She remains her usual all-too-observant self with an uncanny ability to pop up in the background just as some distressed twosome are involved in an argument that'll advance the plot. At one point, a character calls her a "Nosy Parker," and Jessica cheerfully owns up to it.
Still, at this stage in her career, you've gotta wonder why anyone would invite the old gal to their house. Don't they realize that having her on the premises is practically a guarantee somebody's gonna get their head bashed in tonight? Maybe that was intentional this time. The one who brings her on the scene, after all, is a late businessman who'd made Jessica one of his beneficiaries. Considering how nasty his widow and eldest daughter are played, perhaps he was counting on the Fletcher Curse to get 'em. . .