Almost two years ago, the first Crossword Mysteries movie debuted. A Puzzle to Die For introduced the puzzle world (and the mystery world) to crossword editor Tess Harper and NYPD detective Logan O’Connor, as the unlikely duo unraveled the murder of an art dealer with a crossword puzzle in his pocket.
During the final commercial break, three more Crossword Mysteries films were announced for the fall of 2019. The second Crossword Mysteries film — Proposing Murder — debuted on schedule on October 13th.
The third film — Abracadaver — was originally scheduled to air one week later, but was suddenly pushed to January of 2020 to make room for more Christmas movies. In October. At some point, any mention of the promised fourth film simply vanished.
Naturally, folks couldn’t help but wonder what happened. I even pitched ideas for a fourth movie! Fans waited the whole year to find out.
Finally, I heard from a fellow puzzler that the fourth film would be debuting on Valentine’s Day.
Our first taste of Crossword Mysteries in over a year? Marvelous! Let’s get to it, shall we?
But first, a heads-up. I’ll recap the story below, and then give my thoughts on the whole endeavor. If you’d like to read my conclusions but skip the full recap, scroll down to the next solid black line.
Ready? Okay, let’s dig in!
The film opens on a Wednesday at 3:30 PM.
Businessman Morgan Daniels disconnects a hard drive from a laptop, then tucks it into his pocket as he leaves the conference room. He awkwardly bumps into a staffer, and by bumps into, I mean full-on chest-to-chest sumo-collides with her. Morgan apologizes and continues on, stopping to say goodbye to crossword editor Tess Harper and head for the elevator.
He speaks to the elevator, asking for the parking garage, and the elevator actually answers him. But instead of going down, it starts ascending. It suddenly stops, then plummets downward. In a panic, Daniels cries out to the interactive computer programming that runs the elevator, BB, as he falls.
Everyone, including Tess, hears the crash. Once again, Tess simply being in the vicinity has caused another death. We are approaching Jessica Fletcher levels of coincidence here.
Also, if we’re getting a murderous crossword-obsessed supercomputer villain in this Crossword Mysteries movie, I am totally on board.
Cue a very brief intro with the Crossword Mysteries logo, but none of the usual main character introductions or trappings. We get right down to business.
The story starts six hours earlier.
Tess speed-solves a puzzle in 2 minutes, 13 seconds. She’s prepping for a showdown with BB, the XCAL Communications supercomputer. New crime desk reporter Frank, who shares a workspace with crossword editor Tess, comments on how the chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue and the Jeopardy!-quizzed Watson both defeated humans. We know, Frank. We’ve tried to warn people about this.
Tess’s new assistant Sonia highlights that Tess is a woman and all the previous human vs. computer showdowns have featured men, which is an interesting point.
Tess asks Sonia to cook up a list of “computer and tech jargon” to do a series of tie-in puzzles for the week of the exhibition. (We later see Tess working on one of these puzzles, and the jargon includes TERABYTE. Which, if she is symmetrically placing themed answer words, is opposite either PRIME RIB or SPARE RIB for some reason.)
Tess then leaves to meet the competition.
We jump to the police station, where Detective Logan O’Connor is chatting with new detective Amrita Kapoor. He’s then called into the chief’s office where his father (the chief) is having tech trouble with the new filing system. We’re only a few minutes in, and we’re already getting John Kapelos, because Hallmark knows what the audience wants. The chief talks about possible retirement. NOOOO, don’t you dare, Hallmark.
We then jump to Tess and Aunt Candace, walking and talking. Tess mentions being slightly overwhelmed with her deadlines and her Crossword Club newsletter — I think Patti Varol and Penny Press might have something to say about that — and a singles charity event that she’s helping with that never gets brought up again.
At the XCAL building, Tess chats to old friend Viv Banks, who helped put together this woman vs. machine promotional showdown. Viv shows Tess how they can talk to BB to use the elevator, which is totally not faster than just pushing a button yourself. INNOVATION.
They meet the XCAL VP Paul Redford and talk about XCAL and the upcoming exhibition.
They introduce Tess to a giant interactive monolithic version of BB, and she’s invited to ask it a few puzzle clues to test it out. (BB is very loud. Is everyone in the building hearing this demonstration?)
BB answers two simple clues, and Tess immediately has doubts about her performance. She seems to be half-joking, although she mentions potentially getting replaced at The Sentinel by BB.
Tess has a meet-awkward with a maintenance worker over a nearby plant that Tess seems to know more about than him. Tess and the audience are immediately suspicious.
She meets CEO Morgan Daniels, and asks him why he decided to test BB’s programming with crosswords. He tells a charming story about his father’s contentment sitting at home solving crosswords. In pen, of course. This pleasant moment is immediately ruined when plot intervenes in the form of Jesse Alexander, a woman who warns Morgan against taking a government contract, fearing the obvious Big Brother implications.
Morgan goes off with Jesse, and Tess shrugs this off, continuing to chat with VP Paul, who mentions that her voice is in the system. This means BB will respond to her elevator commands, and would even set off the alarm if she chose. This will definitely not come into play later in the movie. This is absolutely not foreshadowing.
At this point, time has caught up to the opening scene where Morgan enters the elevator. It’s only a brief distraction by Viv that prevents Tess from entering the same elevator as Morgan and plummeting to certain doom.
Also, Tess mentions to Viv that tomorrow’s crossword waits for no one. SHE HASN’T FINISHED THE PUZZLE FOR TOMORROW YET?!
There’s a brief jump in time, and we’re looking through the broken elevator doors at Logan and Amrita, who have arrived at the behest of the Mayor, who is demanding action. It turns out the elevator’s safety protocols were overridden. The NYPD’s Computer Crimes department are investigating how this could have happened.
Tess and Logan meet up, asking why each other are there. I would think Logan’s reason for being there is obvious, Tess.
She mentions the maintenance man, and then tries to shrug it off as irrelevant. (We know it’s not.) Logan awkwardly compliments her hair. What a charmer.
Amrita starts interviewing nearby staff members, and Logan talks to VP Paul. VP Paul claims that Morgan is the only one who could have disabled the safeties. And in fact, Morgan is the only person who can modify BB and her impressive data-mining and searching abilities. WHAT?!
They do bring up the possibility of hacking, and VP Paul mentions that someone would have to be in the office to make any system changes to BB. They claim Morgan’s firewall is impenetrable, so the tampering could only be internal.
Tess finally connects the very large dots regarding the maintenance man, and confirms with building security that he was an impostor. There’s only one plant guy for this entire building. That must be one busy dude. She tells Logan when they bump into each other again, and they check the plant.
Logan unearths something metallic from the soil, which Tess immediately recognizes as a listening device. (How? Has this come up previously at her shared crime/crossword desk at work?)
Logan receives confirmation from Computer Crimes that the elevator was, in fact, tampered with. This was a murder.
Logan meets with VP Paul and Viv, and asks about potential threats made and enemies accumulated by the company. A rival company, Eisner Industries, immediately comes up, as they’ve been behind corporate espionage, hiring ex-employees, the works.
Amrita shows up with a picture of the fake maintenance guy, which from the angle and resolution, appears to have been taken from the cameras filming this movie.
While waiting in line near a food cart, Tess chats with Frank, mentions the woman vs. machine exhibition has been cancelled, and then immediately starts sharing crucial information about the case and the maintenance man in public. She remembers a tattoo the man had on his forearm. Frank says he might be ex-military, and runs a few potential images past her, but no luck.
[I love the subtle grid patterning on Tess’s clothes.
It’s one of my favorite stylistic touches in the series.]
Back at the office, Tess searches for the image and gets it on her very first click. It’s a motorcycle club. Tess goes to investigate.
Meanwhile, Logan and Amrita have turned up nothing on fingerprints and gotten no hits on facial recognition. Thankfully, Tess calls to inform him she’s putting herself in wildly stupid danger by heading to the motorcycle clubhouse herself.
She walks into the club, gets called “honey,” and drops some motorcycle knowledge, impressing the bartender. Then she immediately blows it by asking for details on a club member in the narc-iest manner possible. She looks around, sees a polaroid of the man from XCAL, and the bartender says his name is Eric. We get a swell of music to tell us a tense moment is approaching.
Logan arrives to find Tess charming the bikers with a story. Oh movie, you tricked us. She shares what she learned with Logan and he calls it in. Logan again warns Tess about putting herself in dangerous situations, then informs her that her new bartender friend is called Hammer because he committed felony assault with a hammer. Tess shrugs it off.
The film cuts to Logan meeting Eric Ogden as he drives a van into an alley. He tries to bolt, but Amrita magically teleports into his path and stops him.
Logan is interrogating Eric. Eric stays silent until Logan accuses him of conspiracy to commit Morgan’s murder. Eric then confirms that Eisner Industries hired him, but claims he knows nothing about the murder. He has a hard drive in his apartment with all the audio he recorded from XCAL.
At The Sentinel, Frank thanks Tess for offering to introduce him to Viv, getting him a crucial in at XCAL. Frank offers some exposition on XCAL’s early days, including a partner named Gregory Sackett that Morgan booted from the company before they went public and became a cash cow.
At the police station, surveillance footage confirms Eric was never near a computer, so he couldn’t have been the one who reprogrammed BB and killed Morgan. He and Amrita talk suspects, and rule out Viv, but mention Jesse, who turns out to be lead programmer. They also mention the insane idea that Daniels was the only person who could make changes or maintain BB, and how that doesn’t make sense. Good call, movie. We were all thinking it.
Logan sees the police commissioner is talking to the chief. I swear, movie, if you are writing out John Kapelos, I will fight you.
One visit to Jesse’s apartment yields no Jesse, but a neighbor confirms she left a few hours ago with a duffel bag.
Meanwhile, Tess is finally crosswording, in the lobby of XCAL for some reason. She better have finished Tuesday’s puzzle by now. Logan bumps into her there. SHE MENTIONS HER PUZZLE IS DUE IN TWO HOURS. Tess, seriously?!
They banter back and forth about people skills. It’s pretty cute, honestly.
Logan crosses paths with reporter Frank and fires off a friendly “no comment” before talking to Viv. They observe VP Paul having a heated phone call with the board of directors. Eisner has put in a bid on XCAL, swooping in during the chaos. It turns out XCAL didn’t get the government contract because all the programming for it was on a personal hard drive Daniels was carrying, which Viv presumes was destroyed.
Yeah, it surely wasn’t nabbed from his pocket during the incredibly awkward bump-into earlier in the movie. I SEE YOU, MOVIE. I SEE YOU.
Frank and Tess are in the parking garage, and it turns out Tess’s vehicle knowledge also includes cars, as she correctly identifies the problem Viv is having with Morgan’s car. Viv is trying to return it to his wife. Tess volunteers to drive it back with her.
At the police station, the chief talks retirement with Logan after finding out from the commissioner that a colleague died at his desk. Amrita arrives to inform them that the audio files weren’t on the hard drive from Eric’s apartment. Someone erased them. The chief deduces that the killer is mopping up after their crime.
Eric confirms that Keith Eisner, the CEO of the rival company, was the one who hired him. Eric offers up that he overheard a heated argument Morgan had with someone named Patricia about a government contract and that “he’d sign the papers over his dead body.” Logan begins forming a theory connecting the missing Jesse with Patricia, and heads out to talk to the latter, who it turns out is Morgan’s wife.
But guess who is already on the way…
Tess and Viv chat en route. In Morgan’s messy car, she finds evidence that he was spending a lot of time at New York General Hospital. They talk about Jesse and Viv mentions how much Morgan trusted her input.
Logan has somehow beaten Tess and Viv to Patricia’s house, and it turns out the papers he wouldn’t sign were divorce papers. Patricia had fallen in love with someone else: Keith Eisner.
Tess and Viv arrive in Morgan’s car. She mentions the hospital to Logan, who is baffled by their increasingly unlikely meet-ups across New York. She cons a ride home with Logan. WAIT, HOW WAS SHE PLANNING TO GET BACK TO THE CITY? THAT CAB FARE WOULD BE OUTRAGEOUS.
[Tess adds “grand theft french fry” to her long list of previous crimes and indiscretions.]
Over lunch, Logan and Tess talk about Patricia and Eisner possibly orchestrating Morgan’s demise. Logan conspires with Tess to have socialite extraordinaire Aunt Candace test the chief’s interest in actually retiring.
Amidst their chatting, Tess reveals she was once engaged, but called off the wedding. Logan is about to share something, but is interrupted by a call. Turns out there’s no link the police can find between Patricia and Jesse.
Tess and Logan visit the hospital. But the nurse, a true professional, won’t divulge who Morgan was visiting. Tess doesn’t get a chance to try out her biker-soothing charms, because Logan gets a call, and there’s no sign of a hard drive in the elevator wreckage. Audience suspicions of pickpocketing confirmed.
Tess herself confirms this when Logan asks if she remembers anything, and she mentions the pre-elevator bumping-into. They go looking for the bumpee at XCAL, and it turns out she was a temp, so she wouldn’t have been on the employee list Viv gave the police.
[The temp, right after bumping into Morgan.]
Amrita looks up the temp, Layla Barnes, and she’s got a record. Apparently Jesse recommended her for the job.
In a coffeeshop, Aunt Candace and Tess chat about Logan and the chief, and Candace agrees to help Logan find out his dad’s thoughts on retiring. Tess gets a call. Frank has located former XCAL founder Gregory Sackett. He offers to bring Tess with him to talk to Sackett.
Logan arrives at Layla’s apartment building and hears a scream. Behind the building, he finds Layla on the ground, checks her pulse, and gets struck from behind by an unknown black-clad assailant.
Lots of flashing lights as we return to the alley behind Layla’s apartment. Amrita and the chief are there to check on Logan. He has a headache and a serious bump on the noggin, but otherwise he’s alright.
Amrita reports that Layla was killed by a single gunshot. Her laptop is there, along with a bunch of burner cellphones, but there’s no sign of Morgan’s missing hard drive.
Meanwhile, Frank and Tess chat, theorizing that Morgan and Sackett patched things up, and Sackett was the person Morgan was visiting at the hospital. It turns out that Morgan found out about Sackett’s illness through BB’s search algorithm, and that’s what made him reach out and mend fences.
At Sackett’s home, the ailing man mentions there was a third founding member of XCAL, Guinevere Rice. Tess puzzles out that XCAL is a reference to the sword Excalibur from Arthurian legend, and Sackett confirms the company was named in her honor. He also mentions that Guinevere and Morgan had been dating, and split at some point around the same time Sackett got booted.
At the police station, a phone call between Aunt Candace and the chief wraps up just as Logan and Amrita arrive. One of the burner phones they found at Layla’s apartment had call listings to all the biggest tech companies. She was trying to sell Morgan’s hard drive. Most of the phone calls were a minute or less, indicating no luck. The only long phone call — eight minutes long — was with Eisner Industries.
As soon as Logan arrives at Eisner, all of the computers in the lobby — because employees work in the lobby for some reason? — are hacked and start displaying the word CONFESS with seven exclamation points.
Now, we all know that three exclamation marks or more are the sign of true insanity, so seven is incredibly dangerous territory.
Logan meets with Keith Eisner upstairs as the hacking chaos continues. Eisner claims that the bugs were the result of an overzealous employee and that he only listened to Layla’s call for eight minutes to get details to report to the police. He admits that he and Morgan were rivals, but claims that their rivalry pushed each other to greater heights.
I really liked this touch. So often, antagonists — either actual bad guys or just red herring suspects — are cartoonishly mean or evil. To have their rivalry painted as a positive is a nice take that adds much-needed depth to what could have been a bland boilerplate suspect.
At dinner, Aunt Candace and the chief chat about retirement and making changes when you’re older. He takes an interest in the cooking class she mentions.
At The Sentinel, Frank has no luck locating Guinevere Rice. Tess suggests reaching out to the alumni organization at the college Morgan, Guinevere, and Sackett all attended. Tess spins an obvious lie to the alumni office, but manages to find out Guinevere died in 1993 in a car accident. She is given contact information for Guinevere’s daughter. It leads to the voicemail of Jesse Alexander.
Jesse is Guinevere’s daughter. GASP.
At the police station, Logan confirms that Eisner filed a report with the NYPD, and the chief reveals that Layla and Jesse were in the same work-release program. Jesse used to be known as Stephanie Rice, and got in trouble after some major hacking she did back in the day.
And in the saddest of the three revelations, the chief confirms that he’s retiring. YOU EVIL MOVIE. IF WE DON’T GET A CRIME-SOLVING RETIRED JOHN KAPELOS SPINOFF, I WILL RIOT.
We cut to a random sidewalk, where a black-clad individual is shadowing Tess. (We can see it’s Jesse, but Tess cannot.)
Tess, showing much greater awareness than in previous movies, notices she’s being followed and ducks into a store. Jesse stares through the front door, unsure of what to do next.
Tess then somehow emerges from the subway stairwell behind her pursuer, reveals herself, and is stunned to discover that Jesse was the person following her.
While this is going on, Amrita and Logan are searching Jesse’s apartment, and Amrita finds a hard drive. They assume it’s Morgan’s. Logan gets a call from computer crimes that confirms Morgan gave access to XCAL’s systems to Jesse a week ago. The net around Jesse tightens.
Meanwhile, Jesse and Tess talk in the park. Jesse reveals that Morgan was her father but he didn’t know that when he hired her. She disappeared because she’s been trying to find his killer through less-than-legal means. But before he died, Morgan found out her true identity when he searched her name in the increasingly unsettling and hyper-efficient BB search program.
Logan finds out Jesse has been spotted in the park talking to an unidentified woman. It’s surprising the entire police force doesn’t know Tess by now. She’s the famous crossword lady who interferes in all the best and puzzliest investigations!
He shows up and arrests Jesse for the murder of Layla Barnes. He also quite testily shuts down Tess’s attempts to explain, reminding her how dangerous it is to interfere in a police investigation, and leaves with Jesse in tow.
In interrogation, Jesse claims she didn’t know Layla took the hard drive from Morgan and she’s shocked that it was found at her apartment. She believes she’s being framed. When Logan asks about her hacking Eisner Industries and posting the Confess!!!!!!! message, she lawyers up.
Tess shows up at the station to explain, and the chief gives her a kinder version of the dressing down Logan offered earlier. He mentions that if anything happened to Tess, Logan would never forgive himself. He alludes to Logan being attacked at Layla’s apartment — to highlight how dangerous this case is — and Tess is concerned, only just now hearing about the attack. Still, she presses on, making a case for Jesse’s innocence to Logan and the chief.
The trio soon joins Amrita at her desk. Computer Crimes can’t get into Layla’s laptop, but has determined there’s a seven-digit password. Tess suggests “1234567” because it is insanely common. She also casually mentions that there are 33,000 possible seven-letter words that could also be the password.
The chief suggests Layla might’ve kept a list of passwords nearby (because he does), and Logan finds some 7-digit numbers in a notepad she kept on her desk. One of the numbers works, and they’re in. Logan tries to use this success to convince his father not to retire.
The detective offers to give Tess a ride home en route to returning the hard drive to XCAL. Tess rightly points out it’s evidence, but apparently Viv made a call to the Mayor’s office. This is very sus, as the kids would say.
Our dynamic duo arrives at XCAL, and plot intervenes to separate them in the form of a phone call from Tess’s editor. SHE HAS NOT SUBMITTED TOMORROW’S PUZZLE YET. COME ON TESS, WHAT THE HELL?!
Logan turns over the hard drive to VP Paul, who asks about Jesse, confirming that she’s been apprehended. Logan gets a call from Amrita, who finds copies of Eric’s audio files on Layla’s computer. She listened to some of them, and it turns out that Morgan and VP Paul disagreed about the government contract in the days leading up to Morgan’s death. Morgan sided with Jesse.
(This seems out of the blue, given Jesse publicly chiding Morgan for the contract right before he died, but it’s possible when he pulled her aside, it was to appease her before breaking the bad news to everyone. Jesse clearly didn’t know in interrogation, so he couldn’t have told her then. Anyway, I digress.)
Logan, now realizing that VP Paul has been playing him this whole time, baits Paul with references to Layla and the hard drive. We see Paul has a gun concealed behind him, and he draws on Logan when Logan confirms that Paul murdered Layla.
FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!
Tess finishes her call, and considers going to look for Logan, but then mumbles to herself, “Stay out of it, Tess,” and sits back down. Oh movie, look at you, making us disregard otherwise prudent advice for the sake of drama. I see you, movie.
Paul gets Logan to put down his gun, then starts monologuing about selling the hard drive on the black market and leaving for a country without an extradition treaty. Classic villain stuff.
Then the elevator opens and Tess emerges, ignoring the prudent advice. She sees Logan being held at gunpoint.
Remembering the alarm thing from her earlier visit to XCAL, she yells, “BB, activate the alarm!” and Logan manages to put some distance between himself and VP Paul after a shameful scuffle where he fails to disarm the bad guy.
VP Paul orders BB to shut down the alarm, but this gives Tess time to slide Logan his gun. Paul fires toward Tess, and Logan puts a bullet in Paul’s shoulder.
Later, we see Tess, Logan, and the Chief for the loose-ends wrap-up.
Morgan’s hard drive was empty. Presumably Morgan erased it before he died. And apparently Paul saw Morgan enter his password one time and that’s how he gained access to the system. (So the impenetrable system only Morgan could operate was foiled by something someone could memorize after seeing it once. Huh.)
Logan and the chief thank Tess for saving Logan’s life. She is humble about the whole thing. Is that the end?
No! We cut to the police station, where Logan needs to grab his wallet before taking his dad out to dinner. The chief deduces that Logan has lured him here for a retirement party, but Logan claims that’s wrong.
The chief reveals he’s not ready to retire yet. The people rejoice!
As it turns out, Logan has organized an UNretirement party for the chief, because he knew the chief wasn’t ready yet. Good job, Logan.
During the festivities, Logan and Tess share a quiet moment, and Logan reveals that he was married before and it ended because of his job. (This was what he wanted to tell her during their lunch.)
He thanks Tess for helping him realize that he shouldn’t keep people at arms length. They clink glasses. And the camera drifts away from the couple.
[SORRY, ROMANCE LOVERS. YOU’LL HAVE TO WAIT AT LEAST ONE MORE CROSSWORD MYSTERIES FILM FOR THE GOOD STUFF.]
I confess, I’m torn on Terminal Descent. The mystery is interesting and well-constructed, and the twin reveals of a third founding member and her secret daughter actually worked quite nicely. (It does tend dangerously close to “secret twin” territory, but overall, I enjoyed the twist and how the characters played off each other.)
But then again, these are the Crossword Mysteries, and this was the least puzzly entry in the series yet! The first had an actual crossword at the center of the story, the second a cipher, and the third had a riddle and all sorts of twisty magic happenings that encouraged some brain teaser-like deduction.
But this one had no puzzle element at all. We lose the woman vs. machine bit about ten minutes into the movie; it would’ve been nice to close with that, just to give Tess a chance to prove her puzzly mettle.
Yes, I obviously had some fun joking about the plot elements in my review, but any criticisms were made with tongue placed firmly in cheek. I quite liked the cast of potential suspects — Eisner in particular was a nice reinvention of a tired trope — and would have enjoyed spending more time with these characters.
Tess and Logan remain immensely likable, and I enjoyed that moments of tension between them moved from the “Tess, you’re interfering AGAIN?!” gimmick of the earlier movies to Logan’s genuine concern that Tess not be harmed and sincere appreciation for what she brings to the investigation. It feels like movement forward, which is always welcome in any relationship. Sure, it was borderline ridiculous how many times they bumped into each other during the movie, but at this point, it’s practically a trope of the series.
And, of course, John Kapelos shined as the police chief and father figure of the film, funny and distracting in equal measure. He is just the best.
In sort, the movie is light, frothy, slightly murdery fun. You can’t go wrong with that.
Fair warning, though: the film did lack a Will Shortz cameo as far as I could tell, but given that it was filmed in late 2020, it’s totally understandable while filming under COVID-safe conditions. Still, we potentially missed out on Biker Will Shortz, which would have been fantastic.
Plus, there’s more to come!
There is at least one more Crossword Mysteries movie scheduled for 2021. The fifth entry in the series is entitled Riddle Me Dead and has a scheduled release date of April 11th, 2021.
So do not fret, puzzle fans. There’s more of Tess and Logan to come!
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There was a framed picture of policeman Will Shortz on the wall above Logan’s desk in one of the scenes. They managed to somehow include his image, at least, in the movie.
Oh wow, I missed that! Thank you for letting me know!