The Mystery of the Missing Crossword Mysteries Movie

On Sunday, I was sincerely looking forward to watching the latest edition of Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott’s Crossword Mysteries series — entitled Abracadaver — so you can imagine my surprise when I set the DVR to record the film, but found Christmas movies in that time slot instead of my expected puzzly entertainment for the evening.

It was a mystery about a mystery. Layers upon layers, my friends and fellow PuzzleNationers.

I hit the internet to find out just what happened to Abracadaver.

As it turns out, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, which originally had Friday, October 25th as the scheduled start date for their round-the-clock parade of Christmas content, opted to start it a week early. And since the newest edition of the Crossword Mysteries isn’t holiday-themed, it got the boot.

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But wait? Abracadaver was all finished and ready for prime time. So when WILL we get to see the third edition of Crossword Mysteries?

Well, according to star of the film Lacey Chabert, it won’t be until next year. On her Instagram, she posted:

“Hi friends! ‘Crossword Mysteries: Abracadaver’ will now air in January instead of Sunday. Miracles of Christmas starting today on @hallmarkmovie is an early Christmas present for the millions of fans who love the holiday season. We are very proud of ‘Abracadaver’ and excited to share it with you in the new year!”

That’s all very well and good, but this was clearly a sudden rescheduling decision, since they’ve been promoting these back-to-back weeks of Crossword Mysteries for months. As of Thursday last week, it was still on the schedule.

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So, I decided to do a little digging. Perhaps ratings were the reason for rescheduling, I thought.

Well, according to the cable ratings on October 13th — the night Proposing Murder debuted on the channel — the movie was 78th for the night, pulling in a 0.10 rating for viewers 18-49.

For comparison, the #1 program that night was the New York/Houston baseball game on Fox Sports 1, which had a 1.49 rating for viewers 18-49. (AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead was #2 with a 1.29 rating.)

Okay, so Proposing Murder didn’t exactly dominate the night. But it was still a vast improvement on the previous week for Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. In the same time period on October 6th, their rating was 0.07 in viewers 18-49, making them 102nd for the night.

102 to 78 is a pretty solid jump from one week to the next. But maybe the Christmas-centric programming would match crossword-centric viewing numbers?

The cable ratings for October 20th went live this morning, but unfortunately, I can’t give you definitive numbers, because Hallmark Movies & Mysteries failed to make the top 150 cable programs for the night. (Since it wasn’t airing any new/original content that night.)

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And it seems like the Hallmark audience is not particularly pleased with the decision.

On the HMM Facebook page — which is all decked out for Christmas already — numerous people asked why Crossword Mysteries wasn’t airing as scheduled.

The channel replied: “We decided to start Christmas programming a week early. A Christmas present to the millions of fans excited for the start of Miracles of Christmas. We regret any inconvenience it may have caused.”

As you might expect, that answer didn’t really fly with disappointed puzzlers. One commented, “I was looking forward to this premiere for weeks. I don’t celebrate Christmas and it’s OCTOBER. I don’t see why the Christmas movies couldn’t have waited a week until crossword mysteries premiered. I’m really disappointed.”

It’s been a tumultuous journey for the Crossword Mysteries this year. From the announcement in March of three follow-ups to the original film, the number was cut down to two in the intervening months (though Crossword Mysteries 4 is still listed on IMDB), and then the back-to-back premieres being scuttled and the third film pushed to January.

Here’s hoping it’s worth the wait. Abracadaver indeed.


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PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: Proposing Murder

In January of 2018, it was announced that Hallmark Movies and Mysteries would be teaming up with Will Shortz of The New York Times Crossword to produce a mystery film with crosswords at the heart of the story.

On March 10th, 2019, Crossword Mysteries: A Puzzle to Die For debuted, introducing the puzzle world (and the mystery world) to crossword editor Tess Harper and 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 October. (For reasons yet unexplained, that number has shrunk to two over the intervening months.)

This past Sunday, the second Crossword Mysteries film debuted on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries.

Its title? Proposing Murder.

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 spoilers, scroll down to the next solid black line.

Ready? Okay, let’s do this!


FILM RECAP

The show opens with a lovely little introductory montage with the characters framed by crossword clues and grids. It’s a nice touch (and a sign that the network expects to continue with these).

An apartment door opens, and a young man picks up his newspaper, smiling at the crossword inside. He carefully sets it down with an elegant table setting for brunch, then answers a knock at the door. Everything goes white.

We cut to detective Logan O’Connor standing over the body.

A title card flashes on the screen:

FIVE DAYS EARLIER

Tess chats with her assistant Josephine about Josephine’s cousin, a new intern at the paper. She then bumps into Detective O’Connor for a lovely little meet-awkward. It’s been two months since they’ve seen each other.

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Logan is running around doing errands for his sister’s wedding. The sister, Angela, is also there, immediately making things more awkward, and asking if Tess can get a photo of the couple into the paper (alongside the usual wedding announcement). Tess makes no promises, but says she’ll see what she can do.

She then shares weird wedding trivia with Logan, and he and his sister leave. Oh, puzzle people and their trivia. (That part’s actually true.)

Tess meets the intern, who is (of course) a huge fan of her puzzle. He will be helping with research, apparently. Tess then solicits help for her puzzle, looking for a romantic 9-letter word, second letter H. Her assistant suggests CHRISTMAS (which simply has to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Hallmark’s never-ending barrage of Christmas programming).

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Also, it must be stated, nobody actually constructs puzzles this way.

Tess’s puzzlesmithing is then interrupted by a call from a Professor Clark.

We cut to her and Professor Lyle Clark, who it turns out is the victim we saw in the opening sequence. Oh Tess, is every casual acquaintance of yours bound to be murdered? We can only hope.

He’s using one of her crosswords as a bookmark. She comments on that. This is in no way an important detail for later.

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Lyle brings Tess (and the audience up to speed): he’s a college professor, he’s got tenure now, and he has a knack for codes. (Tess namedrops Navajo codetalkers and World War II ciphers.) He’s also reading a book on the Beale papers.

Lyle talks about the big distraction in his life — his girlfriend Abby — and it turns out Tess’s crossword is not only solved by every human being on the planet, but it’s also a romantic talisman. You see, Lyle and Abby were both solving Tess’s puzzle, and that’s how they met. They do her puzzle together over brunch every Sunday. Awww.

He’s going to propose to Abby, showing off a massive diamond ring, and he asks Tess to hide his marriage proposal to Abby in her upcoming puzzle. Tess happily agrees.

We cut back to her working on the puzzle and explaining the concept to the new intern. She clues ABBY “Free with her advice” (which is terrible cluing) and the word WILL “Shakespeare, to friends,” and “Words that have a nice ring to them” for MARRY ME. The idea is to spell out ABBY, WILL YOU MARRY ME?

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[It’s so romantic. “LOAM ABBY WILL YOU VINYL CONTENTMENT.”]

FIVE DAYS LATER

Back at the murder scene, the Chief arrives, avoiding wedding planning with a convenient murder. (The Chief is also Logan’s father, for those who didn’t see the first Crossword Mysteries film.)

The victim has been stabbed. There’s no surveillance footage, no sign of the murder weapon, and no sign of forced entry. His girlfriend Abby found him, unfortunately.

We also meet Logan’s new partner, detective Winston Sams. He calls him “Rookie” and “Rook” because he’s charmingly condescending, I suppose. Winston notices one of the chef’s knives from the block is missing. Logan has him check the victim’s financials while he heads down to the hospital to question Abby.

At the hospital, Logan chats with the obviously upset Abby.

She hadn’t seen Lyle since the night before at a faculty party. She was going to meet him for brunch to solve the crossword. She found the door open and his body on the floor. Abby mentions that Lyle has been getting threats in the mail for months. (He said they were from his ex-girlfriend Bethany.) He always threw them the threatening notes away, but Abby kept one, which she promises to give Logan.

She also mentions a Professor Emory who was arguing with Lyle at the faculty party the night before. Lyle beat him out for tenure the previous month.

Back at the police station, the plot… well, doesn’t thicken. Simmers? Let’s go with the plot simmers.

The girlfriend’s alibi checked out. There was apparently a struggle between the victim and the killer, but the tip of the knife was embedded in his body. They’re waiting on more details from forensics.

Logan’s partner finds a note with the initials TH and a phone number in the victim’s wallet. He calls it, and surprise surprise, it’s Tess who answers.

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She mentions the ring, but Logan says they didn’t find the ring at the crime scene. They all note how expensive the ring would’ve been for a college professor. Logan also recalls that Abby said the victim had been looking at property in Connecticut, which would be costly. But the victim’s record seems clean, save for a single parking ticket.

Tess confirms his sister’s photo will be in the paper before she hangs up. Logan and Winston discuss the ex-girlfriend, a surgeon, who is on the suspect list.

Cut to Tess and Aunt Candace (who knows simply EVERYBODY who’s ANYBODY) walking the streets of New York. Tess mentions that Lyle told her he hadn’t been researching anything lately, and ponders whether Lyle had a secret that cost him his life.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

We get an ad for next week’s new edition of Crossword Mysteries. It’s titled Abracadaver. We cross our fingers for a David Kwong cameo.

COMMERCIAL BREAK CONTINUES!

Logan is talking to the victim’s mother. She talks about her childhood in Connecticut and how she wanted that idyllic life for Lyle. His grandfather was a World War II codebreaker, which sparked Lyle’s interest in the field of codes and ciphers. After she mentions Lyle always rooting around in the basement, Logan heads down there himself. He shines the light at the camera A LOT, which is atmospheric, yet annoying. He takes a picture of a military uniform hanging up in the corner.

Tess, meanwhile, is reading an article Lyle wrote about WWII operational codenames like Neptune. (Surprisingly, she doesn’t make the crossword connection there.) Her assistant reminds her that the Sunday puzzle is due, because Tess always has to be reminded to do her job. She decides to make it World War II-themed as a tribute to her friend, then heads off to do some research.

Tess heads to the library at Lyle’s college to look up his research on codebreaking. Along the way, she meets Clayton, who worked with him and helped with his research. He immediately identifies her as the famous crossword editor, because in this universe, “crossword editor” is just below “rock star” in terms of familiarity and name-recognition.

The assistant mentions that Lyle had just driven back from Connecticut before the faculty party. He had gone up there a lot recently, interviewing WWII vets. (He was also lying about his teaching schedule, only teaching one class instead of the many Tess thought.) The dude acts suspiciously, and the lights ominously click on and off behind them, thanks to motion sensors.

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Logan and his plot-exposition-device of a partner talk, confirming that there’s no record of a ring purchase in the victim’s bank account. No unexpected DNA or prints at the murder scene either.

Logan and Tess then have one of their classic meet-randomly-in-the-same-place run-ins. He asks her for a 7-letter word for “going where one shouldn’t”. She offers INTRUDE — which is not the same verb tense, COME ON, TESS — and they banter about his crossword skills. He tries to usher her off-campus, but she dangles the information she got from Lyle’s TA, and Logan folds like a pamphlet.

Tess mentions Lyle’s secret trip to Connecticut, and explains that he had a form of night blindness that made driving at night dangerous. He then shares that Abby said Lyle had been going to Connecticut on house-hunting excursions. She also mentions the scheduling lie.

Finally managing to send Tess on her way, Logan then gives her the exasperated “oh, her” double take as she walks off.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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On campus, Logan sits in on a college class. Christina Blake is the guest lecturer, an expert on antique books, and Logan talks to Professor Emory Nelson, who acts like the argument he and Lyle had at the faculty party was just animated debate. He offers an alibi for the time of the murder, a pancake breakfast covered in the school newspaper.

Logan then returns to the crime scene, noticing a can of beef stew in the cabinet and realizing that Lyle claimed he was a vegan. (Though he said that to Tess. I don’t recall her telling Logan this.) Inside the can is the wedding ring and a folded note, containing a series of numbers and dashes. It is quite obviously an encoded message.

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(Naturally, if I was trying to hide something from my vegan girlfriend, the fake can of beef stew in the front of the kitchen cabinet would be my first choice for a hiding spot.)

Back at the police station, Logan has Tess confirm that the ring is the same one Lyle showed her. The chief then suggests Logan show her the mysterious page of numbers. Logan thinks they’re bank account numbers, but Tess thinks it’s a code, because she’s not an idiot. When Logan tells her she can’t have a copy of the numbers, she tries to memorize them in front of him, before he folds like a lawn chair and gets her a copy of the codes.

At the hospital, Logan tries to talk to Bethany, the surgeon ex-girlfriend. She’s abrupt and bitter about moving to NY for Lyle, then getting dumped, and casually, bitterly mentions that Lyle was engaged just a year later. Logan points out that the proposal-to-be wasn’t common knowledge, and she replies that he proposed in the crossword. (You know, the crossword everyone knows about. Duh.)

The farm in Connecticut comes up again before she leaves. After she walks off, Logan manages to nab her water bottle. Detective work.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess has the intern researching high-end ceramic knives (like the one Logan’s partner accidentally mentioned), and he points out they’re used by chefs and scuba divers.

I immediately get my hopes up for an underwater knife fight scene.

I will be disappointed.

Logan and Tess bump into each other again at the jeweler’s. She drops more wedding trivia on him and then pretends they’re an item as they talk to a store employee. Logan confirms Lyle’s ring wasn’t purchased there. The jewelry store employee says that the diamond in Lyle’s ring is older, probably a museum piece. Then Tess tries to extort a diamond stickpin out of Logan. Hilarity!

Back at the paper, Tess has the intern working on the page of codes — though he’s comparing them to social security numbers and other numbers, instead of looking at them as an encoded message — and Tess remembers that Lyle was carrying a book about the Beale papers. They quickly namedrop the concept of book ciphers.

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At the police station, Tess explains book ciphers to Logan and the chief (and the audience). Angela, the sister, shows up (she and the chief have to practice for the father-daughter dance) and the sister not-so-subtly mentions Logan is dateless for the wedding.

At the college library, Tess tries to get the librarian to tell her what books Lyle had been taking out, but the librarian rightly points out that such information is private. Tess responds by stealing a staff member access card and sneaking into a restricted area, getting a look at Lyle’s last three checkouts, all books on Enigma and WWII codes.

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Back in the ominous stacks, Tess is book-hunting, looking for a clue by rifling through pages, and finds a receipt pointing to Heirloom Books for a book costing $300. (Ah, the “anything as a bookmark” comment from earlier comes home to roost.)

She calls Logan and leaves a voicemail explaining what she’s found, then spots Lyle’s TA and his girlfriend Abby together at a picnic table. She takes a picture before leaving.

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COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At Heirloom Books, Tess tries to find another copy of the book Lyle purchased, a collection of children’s stories. Christina, the guest lecturer from earlier, also owns the bookstore; Tess gives her a business card, asking to be contacted when Christina finds a copy of the book, and then she mentions how much work doing the crossword for The Sentinel is.

Seriously, Tess? You are NEVER there. I’m going to ask Will Shortz, Evan Birnholz, Mike Shenk, David Steinberg, Patti Varol, and Rich Norris how much free time they have to solve murders.

At the police station, Logan discusses the photo of Abby and Clayton that Tess sent him, and Detective Winston says Bethany called Lyle five times the day of the murder. He also mentions that Lyle’s mother, who had been facing foreclosure, suddenly had her mortgage paid off.

Tess arrives, having partially decoded the page of numbers using pages of the children’s book she was able to find online. (Conveniently, she gets words like JEWELS and BURIED, instead of lots of THE, AND, and -ING suffixes.)

It’s a letter from Lyle’s grandfather about caches of jewelry buried around the old farm in Connecticut. Logan sincerely tells her she did a good job on the codebreaking, then they have another petty back-and-forth about her taking a picture of Lyle’s grandfather’s uniform before Logan folds like a cheap suit.

Tess walks with Aunt Candace, who of course is attending Angela’s wedding (because she knows EVERYBODY) and mentions Logan’s datelessness. Tess doubts Lyle’s girlfriend, and makes a plan to surveil Abby. Aunt Candace points out she’s putting herself in harm’s way. So Tess ropes Aunt Candace into joining her.

I was right. Tess will be the death of everyone around her.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At Heirloom Books, Christina explains that Lyle had been throwing her odd jobs over the years, helping her cover the costs of maintaining the bookstore. She mentions that Lyle told her about the threatening notes he believed were from his ex, and then says she was working at the bookstore at the time of the murder.

Tess and the intern determine that the Fighting Badgers — the group represented by the patch on the grandfather’s uniform — were stationed near a castle in Europe where a bunch of jewels went missing. Logan is planning to go up there, and Tess wants to go. Logan rightly asks if she has work to do, and she promises to do it in the car during the ride up to Connecticut. Logan folds like an origami swan.

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We then get our Will Shortz sighting, as Tess asks for a clue for GOLD, and policeman Will offers “what some hearts are made of”.

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(She apparently doesn’t recognize him from their table tennis-centric meeting in the first film. This raises the question of whether he’s the same character or not. If not, then I look forward to another random Stan Lee-like cameo next week. If he is the same character, why didn’t Logan recognize him as another cop from the same precinct in the first film?)

During the ride up to CT, she helps Logan with his toast. They talk weddings and Tess’s farmgirl past. It’s a nice moment in a series where cutesy antagonism usually runs roughshod over the character beats.

At the old farmhouse, the current owner mentions chasing off two men who were digging a hole. He mentions the barley in the field, which sticks tenaciously to Logan’s clothes. (Hello, second bit of important detail!) When Logan shows him pictures of suspects, he confirms that it was Lyle and his TA Clayton digging the hole, but mentions that someone else had been snooping around the farm as well.

Back in NY, as Logan is dropping Tess off, she gets a call from someone about the children’s book. At the police station, the chief tells Logan that forensics found DNA on the envelope the threat was sent in.

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The chief notices that Logan didn’t go to Connecticut alone, and then mentions Logan’s datelessness for the wedding. Logan and his partner ponder how Lyle would’ve fenced the jewels if he found them.

Tess is back on the college campus, passing a film crew as she heads for the library. But the librarian can’t find the book; she clearly wasn’t the one who called Tess.

Tess goes hunting in the stacks for the book anyway, because we were promised ominous stacks and they are going to give us ominous stacks.

As Tess book-hunts, she hears someone stalking around, and the assailant keeps pushing books at her from the other side of the shelves. Panicked, she runs around the shelves lost, and narrowly avoids getting an entire bookcase dumped on her.

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COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan is with Tess at the university, admonishing her for getting involved in the murder case, before begrudgingly confirming that a burner phone was used to call her. They don’t know who tried to scare/hurt her.

At the station, Winston has an idea about how Lyle fenced some of the jewels. A parking ticket points toward a jeweler in Long Island, but the obviously shifty fellow claims he didn’t buy anything from Lyle.

At one of Abby’s cooking classes, Tess and Aunt Candace are taking notes. As Tess and Abby chat — and the crossword comes up, of course — Abby mentions she hadn’t left the house since Lyle’s death (which is a lie, the photo Tess took of Abby and Clayton proves that). Tess uses her aunt as a distraction to bag one of Abby’s knives and hide it in her purse. Given that it was the knife Abby had JUST been using, there’s obviously no way she’d notice it was missing. Tess is a mastermind.

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Tess brings the knife to Logan, who is understandably furious that Tess endangered herself AND potentially contaminated evidence. Winston interrupts, mentioning wire transfers involving an account that traces to Abby AND Clayton, as well as the suspicious jeweler Logan talked to. The wire transfer that paid off Lyle’s mom’s house was probably made in exchange for the jewels. (Meaning that the jeweler technically didn’t lie to Logan about buying the jewels.)

At Lyle’s campus office, Tess adds flowers to an ever-growing pile of notes and offerings, before bumping into Bethany. They talk about Lyle’s love of puzzles. Bethany’s first likable moment as a character is immediately undercut by her assertion that puzzles are for kids and triathlons are for adults.

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Logan talks to Clayton at Lyle’s mom’s house, where the TA is helping load boxes into the moving truck. Logan mentions that Clayton was working during Tess’s attack, but he claims he snuck off for a workout. Logan points out how the meeting with Abby and the trips to CT with Lyle make him look pretty guilty, but Clayton claims he owes his life to Lyle, because Lyle gave him a chance after Clayton made some youthful mistakes.

Clayton mentions the book cipher and the diamonds they dug up, but that there’s a larger cache out there worth millions. He swears that Lyle only wanted a small cut of the jewels, and made Clayton promise to return the rest to the original owners, a European family.

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Clayton explains that he set up the Cayman Islands account with the first cache of jewels they found, and he was meeting with Abby after Lyle’s death to tell her about the money, but she didn’t want it. Lyle thought something might happen to him, because he spotted someone else up at the farm, looking for the jewels.

As he leaves Clayton at the house, he gets a call from Winston, confirming that Bethany’s DNA was on the envelope containing the threats to Lyle.

Back in the city, Logan and Tess talk about Clayton. He also mentions that Abby’s knife doesn’t match the murder weapon. He then runs off after a call, saying there’s been a break in the case.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

The murder weapon has been found by a jogger, on a jogging trail that Bethany favors. All the evidence points to her.

Logan then makes a stop at the university, asking about film crew permits. Tess, meanwhile, talks to Lyle’s mom. She gets a text that Christina finally has a copy of the children’s book at Heirloom Books, and Tess asks about it. The book, it turns out, was her favorite. That’s why Lyle’s grandfather chose it.

At the police station, Logan tells Winston that Bethany confessed to sending the threats, but not to the murder. He also has the film crew’s footage from that night, and as Tess passes through the frame, she’s being closely followed… by Professor Emory.

Logan meets with Emory, who brushes off Logan’s conjecture and lack of hard evidence, and as Logan leaves, he sees a picture of Emory with Bethany and Christina. Meanwhile, Tess meets with Christina to pick up her book, and Christina shows her a copy of the first crossword puzzle, the word-cross created by Arthur Wynne. It looks like a pristine page copy of the actual printing of The New York World from December 21, 1913.

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As Christina heads off to grab her book, Tess notices barley stuck to a coat on Christina’s coat rack. GASP! She’s been at the farm.

Tess heads toward the door of the shop, and finds it locked. Christina pulls a box cutter on her. Logan has Winston looking up info on Christina, while Tess confirms that Christina has had the book all along.

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Christina is furious that she’d known Lyle all these years, but he didn’t let her in on the secret of the jewels. Between Lyle getting the book from her and asking Emory about unsolved crimes from World War II, she put it together pretty quickly. On the day of the murder, she confronted Lyle about the jewels, but he claimed he was just trying to return them to the rightful owners.

As she backs Tess away from the door with the box cutter, she talks about killing him with one of Abby’s knives and then searching the apartment. But she only found the book, not the cipher. (She took the knife with her in order to frame Bethany.)

She saw the cipher in Tess’s purse earlier and demands it from her, taking her purse and dumping its contents on the floor. She grabs the cipher and locks Tess in the freezer.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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Trapped in the freezer, Tess tries in vain to break the glass with one of the books on the shelves.

Winston confirms that Bethany and Christina were roommates in college, and Logan realizes that Tess was probably on her way to Christina’s bookstore. He heads there himself.

Tess tries her keys on the glass and fails, before remembering the diamond stickpin that she conned Logan into buying for her aunt. She breaks the glass with the diamond and escapes the freezer, just in time for Logan to arrive. Yes, Tess has saved herself, which is a nice change from the previous mystery.

Christina has a 20-minute head start on them, and Logan heads off to catch her. Winston finds out details about her car, and they put out an APB. She’s nabbed fairly quickly. Once Logan arrives, he charges her with the crime, and he asks why she attacked Tess in the library. She says it was Emory’s idea.

Back at the station, Tess and Logan talk about Christina and Emory’s plot. And he finally asks her to be his date to his sister’s wedding.

Cut to the wedding, for much clapping and frivolity, and the chief dancing with Aunt Candace. You sly dog, chief. Logan dances with Tess and there is lots of twirling. He asks if she knows the foxtrot, and she says it’s just like a crossword, “2 down, 1 across.”

And, naturally, the camera drifts upward to reveal the dance floor is a checkerboard… very reminiscent of a crossword grid.

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The end.


CONCLUSION

I know, I know, we never find out if the rest of the jewels are dug up or if that castle-dwelling European family got their jewelry back. We also don’t find out why a book of children’s stories is 440 pages long (according to one of the codes). But other than that, how was the movie?

All in all, I thought the plot was a slight step down from the previous entry in the series. The crime (and how the main puzzle tied into it) was certainly more realistic than the robbery-plans-through-crosswords plot of the first installment.

Both were competently assembled mysteries with lots of small, important details that get followed up on, but the relative dearth of suspects and the nature of the puzzle as the heart of the mystery just felt a little lacking.

And I don’t mean Tess’s proposal puzzle. Which… oof.

I mean, we’re beaten over the head with the fact that the guy was a codebreaking expert. So why is Tess’s intern not researching types of codes? (Also, does he know what a social security number is? They follow a pretty specific pattern that does NOT match the list of codes on the paper.)

I did enjoy that one crime — the murder of Lyle — leads to Tess committing seemingly dozens of crimes. Trespassing, stealing, breaking and entering, coercing a police officer, damaging private property, whatever it’s called when you damage antique books… not to mention neglecting her duties as crossword editor.

Nonetheless, this was a fun watch. It’s ridiculous and cheesy in all the best ways, jam-packed with over-the-top generalizations, and coincidences pile up like unfinished puzzles on Tess’s desk. (Yes, there was the obsessive ex-girlfriend, which is a trope we could all do without, but that filled our Crossword Mysteries quota of cartoonishly obvious red herring suspects.)

Tess remains immensely likable, despite her criminal nature. The detective, meanwhile, grew on me quite a bit. Yes, his constant efforts to keep Tess away from the case seem more and more labored over time, but hopefully that’s all over. Also, I think he laughed more in the last five or ten minutes of the episode than he did in the entire previous installment.

And, of course, John Kapelos shined as the police chief and father figure of the film, funny and distracting in equal measure. Though, sadly, there were no baked goods to be stolen in this one.

It’s light, frothy, slightly murdery fun. No harm in that. (Unless you’re one of Tess’s friends, that is.)

Did you watch the film? What did you think? Will you be watching Abracadaver next weekend? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: A Puzzle to Die For

In January of 2018, it was announced that Hallmark Movies and Mysteries would be teaming up with Will Shortz of The New York Times Crossword fame to produce a mystery film with crosswords at the heart of the story.

This past Sunday, the film finally made its debut on cable television, starring Hallmark Mysteries stalwarts Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott in their fourth outing together, but the first under the Crossword Mysteries brand, collaborating to solve a twisty mystery worthy of the channel.

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 spoilers, scroll down to the next solid black line.

Ready? Okay, let’s do this!


FILM RECAP

The film opens with a stealthy thief sneaking into an art gallery via the skylight, then focusing on one particular painting. A man walks into the room, interrupting the robbery in progress, and smiles, seemingly recognizing his attacker. He then gets shot for his trouble.

Cut to Tess Harper (Lacey Chabert), a crossword editor strolling through New York City on her way to work at The New York Sentinel newspaper. She is accosted by no less than three people en route to her desk, which is obviously routine. (Ask any constructor. They’re practically mobbed in the streets by eager solvers looking for hints.)

Tess, our intrepid puzzler, meets her mentor Pierre at the elevator, and they discuss the Sentinel’s upcoming crossword puzzle tournament.

We then return to the scene of the crime, where detective Logan O’Connor (Brennan Elliott), briefs the police chief on the scene. The only clues are a single shell casing (whereas the victim was shot three times) and an unfinished crossword in the victim’s back pocket.

Tess looks around the room for ideas in order to complete her crossword, as she’s one 8-letter word shy of finishing. In a quick chat with the newspaper’s editor, Tess is credited with an uptick in online readers thanks to her puzzle editing.

She shares a desk with the paper’s crime beat reporter, Harris, and he briefs her on the murder at the art gallery. It turns out the victim was friends with Tess’s aunt, and she’s about to have lunch with her. Quel coincidence!

Our two protagonists have a meet-awkward while waiting in line for coffee. And then cross paths again when Logan talks to Harris. Tess is peppy and interested, while Logan is dismissive. He’s polite enough to ask what a crossword editor does, then proceeds to be a mild jerk about her explanation.

He does mention the crossword in the victim’s pocket, which has only sporadic across clues filled in. In pen. In cursive writing. She explains that the crossword clue he has is weird, because no one solves puzzles like that.

After their less-than-pleasant exchange, Tess classifies Logan as a Monday puzzle, “the simplest one of the week.” Ouch.

Back at the police station, Logan comes up with footage of the suspect, but there’s a discrepancy between the footage of the intruder and the coroner’s estimated time of death.

Tess, preoccupied with the crime, looks over a crossword puzzle from a week before, and thinks she sees clues pointing toward the murder.

COMMERCIAL!

Tess brings her theory to the detective, and gets brushed off rather abruptly. To be fair, her “clues” are very specious. (She points out that the word BIRD could mean Nightingale, the last name of the victim, and CINDERELLA could point toward midnight, when the crime occurred.)

We learn that the puzzle wasn’t one of Tess’s. Instead, it was a submitted puzzle from a regular constructor named Abigail Krebs. But when she tries to contact the constructor, the phone number traces back to a bar, and nobody there had ever heard of hers. When she and Harris visit the constructor’s address on file, it’s a funeral home. Another suspicious dead end.

That night, Tess attends a memorial service for the victim at his art gallery. She and her aunt meet an art dealer who worked with Alan, who is brutally rude and says Alan got his just desserts. Not the usual sort of talk at a memorial service.

Logan shows up, continuing his investigation, and continues to be kind of a jerk to Tess.

As we follow both his and Tess’s conversations with various characters, the suspects begin piling up. We have the art dealer, the person in charge of security at the art gallery (who was conveniently on vacation the night of the murder), the victim’s ex-wife who is constantly mentioned, and Tess’s two odd helpers for the tournament, Elizabeth and Alexander, who flub the name of a beach near their supposed Newport abode.

COMMERCIAL!

Logan talks to Carmichael, the security guy, who mentions how cheap the victim was, skimping on everything from employee pay to the security system. Tess continues to push her theory about the crossword constructor, but gets nowhere with the detective.

She does, however, upgrade him from a Monday puzzle to a Thursday puzzle: “difficult, but full of surprises.”

Later, in her apartment, Tess looks over more of the mysterious constructor’s previously published puzzles, and spots a pattern. She calls Logan, but gets no response. (Though she does get encouragement from Harris, who thinks she’s onto something.)

Tess and the detective cross paths AGAIN at the ex-wife’s bakery, and he accuses her of interfering with the investigation. Tess rebuffs his argument by continuing to point out specious clues (like boxes of frozen pies suggesting that the ex-wife lied about her alibi, which was working late baking fresh pies for the morning rush).

When Tess mentions something shady going on with Alan (he’s only half the story, according to something Veronica, the ex-wife, said to Tess), for the first time, the detective seems receptive to her help.

COMMERCIAL!

In a meeting with Logan and his police chief father, Tess presents her theory, revealing a pattern of puzzles and art heists she believes are connected. (As she explains, the chief hilariously pilfers several treats Tess brought back from the bakery.)

According to Tess, the constructor always places certain keywords in the same parts of the grid. The location is always 1 across, the point of entry is always 22 across, the time to strike is always 44 across, and the target is always 53 across. If you know what you’re looking for, you’d have everything a thief would need to know.

Although skeptical, the two cops agree to pursue the theory, and all three begin referring to the mysterious constructor as the Phantom. Which is very silly. (Unless it’s your pseudonym for cryptic crosswords in the UK, that is.)

Tess claims she can profile any constructor through their puzzles, since someone’s word choices are distinct, a personal fingerprint. She also mentions that, if the pattern is correct, there will be a robbery tomorrow, since the Phantom had a puzzle published last week.

She gets a call from Pierre that Channel 4 is waiting to interview her about the tournament, and leaves the two detectives to their work.

After an interview at the hotel, she gets a call from Harris, who has turned up something in his background research on the victim, Nightingale, and he warns Tess to be careful. As soon as she’s done with tournament stuff, she plans to meet up with him. But before photos can be taken with the interviewer, Elizabeth and Alexander find an excuse not to be photographed, which is very suspicious. Pierre offhandedly mentions to Tess that the pair have a nice collection of antiques.

Returning to the office later that night, Tess finds Harris lying on the floor, bloody and non-responsive. He’s been shot.

COMMERCIAL!

Unfortunately, Tess was too late, and Harris is gone. Logan meets her at the scene, and she mentions the possible connection between Harris’s murder and the Nightingale case. The detective is interested enough about the crossword connection to join Tess at the tournament, asking for a list of attendees and volunteers, which Pierre helpfully provides.

In the meantime, Logan corners one of the sketchy art dealer’s employees, who explains that she brokered a deal for one of Nightingale’s paintings, but it turned out to be stolen. He also claims she “got even” with Nightingale.

Tess badgers Logan into posting someone at the gallery she suspects will be the next crime scene, and explains that a work by an artist with two S’s will be stolen. Tess believes the next crime will be a stolen Picasso.

COMMERCIAL!

Tess and Logan meet for dinner across the street from the potential robbery site. Tess talks about her crossword profile of the constructor, mentioning a penchant for sailing terms and British slang. It is revealed that Tess’s love of puzzles comes from her dad and how they would solve crosswords together. She likes that crosswords, no matter how tricky, always have one answer.

Well, almost always. She namedrops the famous 1996 Election Day puzzle where both “BOB DOLE ELECTED” and “CLINTON ELECTED” were possible solutions, then realizes last week’s puzzle — the one that led to this stakeout — could also have two answers. After all, MATISSE is another 7-letter painter with two S’s.

Logan and Tess race to the Matisse gallery in time to see two suspects fleeing. Logan catches one, who turns out to be the security guy Carmichael from Nightingale’s place. He confesses to disabling the security for both the Matisse gallery and Nightingale’s gallery.

Carmichael’s accomplice — who he only met twice and knows nothing about — had chalk on his hands. Logan connects that to the rope left behind at the Nightingale murder scene, which leads them to the climbing gear store that sold the rope. The only person who bought that kind of rope recently AND has a criminal record becomes their prime suspect.

As Logan interrogates the suspect, he confirms Tess’s theory about the crosswords, claiming he doesn’t know who hired him or about the murders of Harris and Nightingale. His job was to complete the theft, then drop off the stolen goods at a secure location. That’s all.

Logan realizes that, if the murderer and the thief are two different people, that would explain the two-hour discrepancy in the video footage mentioned earlier.

COMMERCIAL!

With the tournament starting the next day and a killer still on the loose, tensions are high. Logan meets Tess at ping-pong, where she plays to de-stress. As she and Logan go over some of the constructor’s other puzzles, Tess points out that two of the answer words point toward the shady art dealer.

We also get a Will Shortz sighting in the background, followed by a Will Shortz cameo, as he banters with Tess about vocabulary and retrieves a wayward ping-pong ball from under their table.

Leaning on Tess’s constructor profile, the duo set a trap for the Phantom: a practice puzzle for the tournament loaded with Phantom-friendly words. Whoever does well on the puzzle is a likely suspect. But then Tess is nearly run down by an SUV that races out of the alley!

Logan calls in a description of the vehicle and a partial license plate number, then offers Tess a ride to her aunt’s apartment, where she’s spending the night. Along the way, we get a little backstory on Logan, humanizing him a bit. (His jerkiness, by this point, has mostly tapered off, thankfully.)

Later on that night, Tess laments to her aunt that she can’t solve this particular puzzle, and lives hang in the balance. Man, is she earnest or what?

The next day, Logan adds a few more wrinkles to the story. A background check on volunteers Elizabeth and Alexander turns up nothing, absolutely nothing, which is peculiar. Also, Harris’s Fitbit was GPS-enabled, so he’ll be able to track Harris’s movements from the day he died, which will hopefully point to a suspect.

COMMERCIAL!

It’s tournament time in the grand ballroom of some fancy schmancy hotel, and man, ACPT contenders would be jealous of the elbow room afforded to competitors at The NY Sentinel’s 17th annual crossword tournament, because they’ve got plenty of personal space.

Tess hands out the practice puzzle, and the solvers begin. (Side note: it’s weird that the volunteers Elizabeth and Alexander are solving the practice puzzle. Shouldn’t they be working?)

Complications start piling up at a record pace. The art dealer’s SUV is a match to the one that tried to run Tess down. Harris’s Fitbit had him at Veronica’s bakery on the day of the murder. And Pierre excels at the practice puzzle, while Elizabeth and Alexander struggle.

As Logan departs to pursue the bakery angle, Tess’s assistant stumbles upon some of Harris’s background research on Nightingale, which was left behind on the photocopier and mixed in with copies of the tournament puzzles.

It’s a photocopy of an article about the Nightingales, complete with a photo and a caption mentioning Alan and Chesley Nightingale.

As Tess gives her opening speech before the tournament begins, Logan confronts Veronica about Harris’s visit on the day of his murder. She says that someone wants her to keep quiet, and by doing so, she’s preventing a third murder from happening.

As round one of the tournament wraps up and the contestants file out, Tess checks out Pierre’s bag, and finds something inside a small plastic owl trinket that alarms her.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Two shell casings tumble into Tess’s hands, the contents of the plastic owl. She puts them back, but not before Pierre spots her near his bag. She conjures up a quick excuse for why she was handling his things, then grabs her phone, saying she’ll be right back.

She calls Logan and tells him what she found, which confirms what he learned from Veronica: that Pierre is secretly Alan’s brother AND the constructor of the puzzles.

Logan says he’s on the way with backup and he’ll be there soon. But when Tess hangs up, Pierre has her cornered, pistol in hand!

He confirms the clues about the art dealer were a red herring, an insurance policy. And all his distractions (as well as the attempt on her life with the SUV) were intended to scare her away from investigating. [Side note: Most of his distractions were simply requests for Tess to fulfill her tournament responsibilities. But she was too busy playing detective. If I was Pierre, I’d be mildly miffed myself.]

Pierre escorts Tess to the roof to kill her, but she manages to keep him talking until Logan arrives, saving her life.

As it turns out, Elizabeth and Alexander are in witness protection, explaining their secretive nature and camera-shy ways. They also explain away the art dealer’s suspicious dealings, wrapping up the loose ends nicely.

Now that the case is closed, Tess upgrades Logan once more, now to a Saturday puzzle: “sometimes so exasperating, but the smartest one of the week.”

And the story ends as they part ways, both turning back to look at the other at different times, something left unfinished between them.

THE END!


ONE FINAL SPOILER-Y NOTE

We never find out why Alan was carrying the crossword in his pocket in the first place, though I have a theory.

I suspect Alan was a willing participant in Pierre’s thefts and schemes, but didn’t know exactly how Pierre contacted the thieves he employed. The small smile Alan gives before he’s murdered, after noticing the painting is missing, makes me think Alan had just recently figured out the crossword angle, and the missing painting confirmed it. (The brief glimpse of the crossword we get shows that he filled out all of the relevant across entries in the pattern Tess reveals later.)

Of course, that satisfaction turns to shock when he sees the gun and is murdered. Pierre said that Alan’s incompetence endangered their enterprise, and it turns out, he’s right. Because without Alan having that crossword in his pocket, Tess would never have gotten involved and cracked the code.

That’s my theory anyway.


CONCLUSION

I know, I know, we never actually get to see any puzzles, and we don’t know who won the tournament. But other than that, how was the movie?

All in all, it’s a very competently put together mystery. Lots of small details are important, and nothing feels terribly extraneous. The plot builds nicely, the stakes increasing as both Tess and Logan delve deeper into the mystery of Nightingale’s murder. The commercial breaks are also exquisitely timed to maximize the dramatic effect of several plot reveals and tense moments.

As for the characters, Tess is immensely likable. The detective starts off a little dry for my tastes, but is slowly worn down by the earnest charm of Lacey Chabert’s character. Not that I was surprised. After all, who can resist an intelligent woman with mad puzzle skills, I ask you?

A few of the characters are cartoonish — the art dealer, in particular, was a little too gleeful in her pseudo-villainy — but for the most part, everyone plays their parts well. John Kapelos as the police chief was a delight, stealing many of his scenes with loving fatherly regard, playful chiding, and a knack for sneaking extra baked goods when he thought no one was looking.

In the end, it’s all a bit of harmless fun, a cozy mystery with some puzzly trappings.

During the final commercial break, the network confirmed that three more Crossword Mysteries will be aired in October. (IMDb has the 6th, the 13th, and 20th listed as potential air dates for these three follow-ups.)

I’m definitely curious to see where they take the series from here, and how crosswords and criminal mischief will cross paths again. Now that the initial pairing obstacles are gone, I look forward to seeing how Logan and Tess work as a team in future investigations.

Did you watch the film? What did you think? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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A Crossword Mystery Movie?

It’s 2018, and these days, it seems like crosswords are everywhere. They’re in the paper, on the newsstands, and even in your pocket.

And now, they’re making it onto TV with a Hallmark Channel original movie!

Oh yes, check out this snippet from the recent press release:

Hallmark Movies & Mysteries has greenlit development for new mystery movie, The Crossword Mystery starring Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott. The movie is co-created by Will Shortz, crossword editor of The New York Times, puzzle master for NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” editor of Games magazine and founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott are no strangers to Hallmark themselves, having starred in three movies together since 2015: All of My Heart, A Christmas Melody, and All of My Heart: Inn Love.

Now, they’ll reunite for a new puzzly mystery.

Here’s a sneak peek of what you can expect from the film:

A brilliant crossword puzzle editor (Chabert) finds her life turned upside-down when she is pulled into a police investigation after several of the clues in her recent puzzles are linked to unsolved crimes. Proving her innocence means leaving the comfort of her sheltered world and working with a tough police detective (Elliott), puzzling through clues together in order to crack the case, as the two are fish out of water in each other’s worlds.

As far as we know, there’s no airdate scheduled yet for the film, but we’ll keep you posted when we know more.

Perhaps Will himself will have more details for us by the time the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament rolls around in March.

Still, what an unexpected bit of news for puzzlers everywhere. 2018, what other surprises are lurking up your sleeve?


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