PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: Terminal Descent

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.

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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!


FILM RECAP

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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?!

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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.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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.

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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.

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[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.

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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.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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.

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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.

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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.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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.

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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.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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.

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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.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

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.

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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!

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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.

The End.

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[SORRY, ROMANCE LOVERS. YOU’LL HAVE TO WAIT AT LEAST ONE MORE CROSSWORD MYSTERIES FILM FOR THE GOOD STUFF.]


CONCLUSION

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.


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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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The PN Blog 2020 Countdown!

It’s the final blog post of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2020 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


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#10 Farewell, Keith

I don’t mean to start off this countdown on a sad note by mentioning the loss of fellow puzzler and Penny Dell colleague Keith Yarbrough. Writing this post was incredibly difficult, but I am proud of how it turned out. It served as a valuable part of my healing process, allowing me to immerse myself in nothing but good memories of my friend. Giving other people the opportunity to know Keith like I did was a worthwhile experience.

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#9 Tap Code

Exploring the different ways puzzles have been involved in historical moments, either as anecdotes or key aspects, is one of my favorite parts of writing for PuzzleNation Blog. But it’s rare to have a historical story about puzzles that tugs on your heartstrings like this one. The way the Tap code served to keep the spirits of POWs high — and the way that codes and spycraft helped a husband and wife endure the hardships of separation — made this a post with a lot of depth and humanity.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Crossword Commentary

There’s more to writing about crosswords than simply solving puzzles and unraveling clues, and that was especially true this year. The social and cultural aspect of crosswords came up several times, and it’s important to discuss these issues in an open, honest way, even if that means calling out a toxic presence like Timothy Parker, or even questioning the choices of the biggest crossword in the world to hold them accountable.

Whether it was exploring representation in crossword entries and cluing or continuing to debate cultural sensitivity in crossword answers in the major outlets, we took up the torch more than once this year because it was the right thing to do.

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#6 Best Puzzle Solvers

Last year, we began a series of posts examining the best puzzle solvers in various realms of pop culture, and I very much enjoyed combing through the worlds of horror movies and television for the sharpest minds and most clever problem solvers.

This series continued in 2020, as we delved into literature (for adult readers, young adult readers, AND younger readers, respectively), as well as compiling a list of the worst puzzle solvers in pop culture. We even graded the skills of different fictional crossword constructors to see who was representing the best and worst in puzzle construction in media!

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#5 Crossword Bingo

One of the most clever deconstructions of the medium of crosswords I came across this year was a bingo card a solver made, highlighting words and tropes that frequently appear in modern crosswords. It was a smartly visual way of discussing repetition and pet peeves, but also a sly bit of commentary. So naturally, we couldn’t resist making our own Crossword Bingo card and getting in on the fun.

#4 Pitches for Crossword Mysteries

Hallmark’s Crossword Mysteries series was one of the most noteworthy crossovers between puzzles and popular media last year, and that continued into this year with the third Crossword Mysteries film, Abracadaver. But we couldn’t get the idea of a fourth film — still promised on IMDb and other outlets — out of our heads, so we ended up pitching our own ideas for the fourth installment in the franchise. Writing this, no joke, was one of my favorite silly brainstorming sessions of the entire year.

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#3 The World of Puzzles Adapts

Even in a post celebrating the best, the most satisfying, the most rewarding, and the most enjoyable entries from 2020, you cannot help but at least mention the prevailing circumstances that shaped the entire year. 2020 will forever be the pandemic year in our memories, but it will also be the year that I remember puzzlers and constructors adapting and creating some of the most memorable puzzle experiences I’ve ever had.

From the initial experiment of Crossword Tournament From Your Couch to the creation of the Boswords Fall Themeless League, from tournaments like Boswords and Lollapuzzoola going virtual to the crew at Club Drosselmeyer creating an interactive puzzly radio show for the ages, I was blown away by the wit, ambition, determination, and puzzle-fueled innovation brought to the fore this year.

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#2 Eyes Open

Earlier this year, we made a promise to all of the people standing up for underrepresented and mistreated groups to do our part in helping make the world better for women, for people of color, and for the LGBTQIA+ community. We launched Eyes Open, a puzzle series designed to better educate ourselves and our fellow solvers about important social topics. And that is a promise we will carry into 2021. We hope that, in some small way, we are contributing to a better, more inclusive world.

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#1 Fairness

Part of the prevailing mindset of PuzzleNation Blog is that puzzles can and should be for everyone. They should be fun. And they should be fair.

So this year, two posts stood out to me as epitomizing that spirit. The first was a discussion of intuitive vs non-intuitive puzzles, which I feel is very relevant these days, given the proliferation of different puzzle experiences like escape rooms out there.

The second, quite simply, was a response to a friend’s Facebook post where she felt guilty for looking up answers she didn’t know in a crossword, calling it “cheating.” I tried to reassure her there was no such thing as cheating in crosswords.

And since I couldn’t decide between these two posts for the top spot in our countdown, I’m putting them both here, because I feel like they represent a similar spirit. I hope you feel the same.


Thanks for spending 2020 with us, through brain teasers and big ideas, through Hallmark mysteries and Halloween puns, through puzzle launches and landmark moments. We’ll see you in 2021.

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New Puzzly Mystery Series? Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady Headed to TV!

parnell-hall-puzzle-lady

Some exciting news broke recently if you’re a fan of puzzle-fueled mysteries on television.

A few days ago, it was announced that a team of production companies have acquired the rights to Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady mystery series and are looking to develop it into a new mystery drama series.

The series centers around the grumpy Cora Felton, a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle editor who prefers to spend her time investigating crimes and nosing around police investigations than worrying about grid fill or witty cluing.

And, of course, each novel includes crosswords from Will Shortz that are woven into the narrative.

Although there are a host of colorful supporting characters to fill out the cast — one that will adapt nicely to the screen, in fact — the other major player worth noting is Cora’s long-suffering niece Sherry, a clever young woman who both handles the crossword side of things and tries to keep her aunt’s detective shenanigans in line.

Most of the press releases refer to Cora as “Miss Marple on steroids.” Personally, I don’t see it, unless they’re referring to Cora’s penchant to ignore social niceties in order to solve the case. I suspect that her combination of hardheadedness, determination, and keen observation skills will make her a favorite of mystery fans.

After all, who can’t get behind a sharp-tongued older woman who tolerates no guff and happily sidesteps the authorities in order to make sure justice is done?

two more options

As for the production side of things, they’ve assembled a solid team. ZDF Enterprises, which is headlining the project, recently sold crime drama The Bridge to the BBC. (One production company involved, Canada’s December Films, is a relatively new entity.)

The other production company, North Yorkshire’s Factual Fiction, already has several successful projects to their credit, producing The Curse of Ishtar and Agatha and the Midnight Murders. (Another entry in the Agatha series, Agatha and the Truth of Murder, was produced by the founding members of Factual Fiction for Channel 5 in the UK.)

Although they have acquired the rights to all twenty books in the series, the plan right now is for a six-episode run, and members of the production staff, including top execs and screenwriter Dominique Moloney, are already in place.

There’s no word yet on casting or when production will start, but we’ll keep you posted as soon as we know more.

Naturally, this makes one wonder about the OTHER crossword mystery series we’ve come to enjoy over the last year or two: the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries’ series The Crossword Mysteries.

A fourth film is still listed as forthcoming on IMDb, but the latest updates (posted back in June, as far as I can tell) show no movement on that front.

Astonishingly, the last one (Abracadaver) aired only back in January. It feels like it was a hundred years ago in 2020 time, doesn’t it?

Well, it sounds like cruciverbalist Tess Harper and detective Logan O’Connor might soon have some stiff competition in the puzzly sleuthing market.

Are you excited about the Puzzle Lady mystery series announcement, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Who would you like to see cast in the series? And can we expect some Will Shortz cameos? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Fictional Crossword Constructors: The Good, The Bad, and The In-Between

For months now, I’ve been assembling lists of the best puzzle solvers from fiction, be it horror films, television shows, Young Adult novels, or literature in general.

So it’s only fair that I turn the tables and take a look at fictional constructors as well.

There are plenty of crossword constructors that test the skills of puzzlers all across fiction, and today, I’m going to rank some of the most famous, most obscure, and most interesting among them into three categories: The Across (aka the Good), The Down (aka the Not-So-Good), and The Fill (aka those who fall in between).

How am I ranking them, you ask? Excellent question, fellow puzzler.

I’ll be taking the following questions into consideration:

  • How much do we know about them and their puzzles?
  • How do puzzlers in their fictional universe regard them and their puzzles?
  • How do puzzlers in our world regard them and their puzzles?
  • What are their extracurriculars like? (For instance, are they also solving crimes or are they committing them?)

So, without further ado, let’s look at the array of fictional cruciverbalist talent we’ve assembled for you today.


The Across

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[Image courtesy of The Guardian.]

Daedalus, Inspector Morse series
(novels by Colin Dexter)

Our first constructor (or setter, in this case) comes from Julian Mitchell’s adaptation of Dexter’s famous character for ITV in “The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn.”

Taking the name of the famous maze-builder of legend, Daedalus is cited by Morse as “a right sod” for his devious puzzles. Morse confesses, “I once spent a whole day on one of your five downs.” 5 Down, in Morse’s universe, is apparently much like Puzzle 5 at ACPT. And Morse is hardly a stranger to puzzles, either in crossword or crime form, so this is high praise indeed.

Although the production makes a mistake — showing Daedalus pointing to a 13x grid when 15x grids are standard in Morse’s world — as far as we can tell, Daedalus is a top-notch setter worthy of his reputation.

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[Image courtesy of The Daily Star.]

Puzzler, various DiscWorld novels (Terry Pratchett)

Another setter, Puzzler serves as the puzzlemaster for The Ankh-Morpork Times. Celebrated as a skilled constructor by no less than Lord Vetinari himself (ruler of the city of Ankh-Morpork), Puzzler is known for employing fiendish and obscure vocabulary, once flummoxing Vetinari with the entry “snarkenfaugister.” (Just imagine what that cryptic clue looked like.)

In real life, Puzzler is later revealed by Vetinari’s dogged investigation to be pet-food shop owner and trivia hound Grace Speaker, who accidentally hinted toward her puzzly alter ego by answering a trivia question “only five people in the city could answer.”

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Stanley and Vera, Two Across (Jeff Bartsch)

We never actually see one of Stanley or Vera’s puzzles, but based on what we hear in this romantic journey, they must be pretty impressive constructors. In one instance, Stanley creates a New York-themed puzzle where the boroughs are located geographically in the grid. (To be fair, there is a reference to having the 8-letter word RIFFRAFF as a center entry, which makes me wary.)

In the later sections of the book, it’s Vera’s puzzles that drive the narrative. Her puzzles are crisp, interesting, and Stanley is so desperate not to miss them that he solves puzzles obsessively to ensure he sees her next creation.

The characters are drawn as honest, flawed people who both find joy in puzzles. They’re an easy shoe-in for the Across rank.

Lawrence Brooks, Bones

In one episode of the TV crime procedural Bones, the team tries to explain the death of Lawrence Brooks, a reclusive syndicated crossword constructor. Lawrence is considered by some to be a master in his field, one whose reputation is bolstered by the attention of an ambitious assistant, but also dogged by accusations of stealing puzzles by former colleagues.

Although the twists and turns do cast doubt on his assistant Alexis, it turns out that much of the trouble uncovered throughout the episode is due to ongoing issues with Alzheimer’s. (For instance, it’s believed that he mistakenly published the work of others, confusing them with his own work, while his wife tried to cover for him by publishing puzzles he’d previously rejected for falling below his standards.)

By episode’s end, Lawrence’s reputation is restored, and this fictional Will Shortzian figure remains a benchmark for puzzly skill.


The Fill

the-crossword-mysteries-holiday-collection

[Image courtesy of Kobo.]

Belle Graham, Crossword Mystery series (Nero Blanc)

Belle is a crossword constructor who helps her husband, a private investigator, unravel mysteries that often intrude on the couple’s vacations. Solving crosswords inevitably proves helpful to cracking the myriad cases that cross Belle’s path.

Belle spends much more time solving than constructing, so despite appearing in more than a dozen books, we don’t know a lot about her constructing. We do know it’s compelling enough to inspire a TV crime series she constructs puzzles for; we also know there was a fierce rivalry between her and another constructor, Thompson C. Briephs, a flamboyant playboy (as many constructors are).

But given the clues and references to constructing that pepper the books, I think The Fill is a fair place to rank Belle.

Olivers-Travels-008

[Image courtesy of The Guardian.]

Aristotle, Oliver’s Travels

Mixing elements of a road trip, a midlife crisis, and a romance, Oliver’s Travels is all about an enthusiastic puzzler seeking out his favorite constructor/setter, only to stumble upon a mystery.

We’re told over and over again that Aristotle is “the best in the business,” publishing in the Times, the Guardian, and the Listener, keeping Oliver both entertained and inspired through his inventive wordplay.

As viewers, we don’t spend a huge amount of time with Aristotle, but by the time we do meet him, we’re nearly as excited as Oliver. He remains something of a mystery, so I think The Fill is a fine rank for him.

abracadaver7

[Image courtesy of Hallmark.]

Tess Harper, Crossword Mysteries (TV movies)

Tess is a famous constructor with her own puzzle appearing in The Sentinel, one of New York’s biggest newspapers. But, like many constructors, she also spends an inordinate amount of time trying to solve murders. This cannot help but cut into your editing time. (In fact, it was a plot point in the first film that Tess was ignoring her duties as organizer of a crossword tournament to play crime-solver.)

As for Tess’s puzzles, we’ve only seen a few of her works in action, and when she’s not trying to fit an 8-letter word into a mostly-filled grid (literally, it’s the only word left to fill), she’s making wedding proposal puzzles where the theme word placement makes no sense whatsoever.

We know she has some cluing skills, and a penchant for applying puzzle knowledge to the real world, but she also doesn’t seem to take the job seriously. (I mean, she supposedly takes weeks of magic classes as “research” for a puzzle. Is she a con artist?)

I can’t place her in the Down, but I can’t place her in the Across either.


The Down

puzzle lady

[Image courtesy of Parnell Hall.]

Cora Felton, The Puzzle Lady mysteries (Parnell Hall)

This one is an odd one, because Cora Felton is a syndicated crossword constructor and known as The Puzzle Lady, but is actually conning people. She has no crossword chops, and her niece Sherry is actually the puzzly brain in the operation.

Cora, however, does have a knack for solving crimes, and her nosy nature ensures there’s no shortage of those to solve. Unfortunately, given her reputation, those crimes often have some sort of puzzle element, which causes no end of shenanigans.

No matter her crime-solving skills, though, I can’t help but place her here, because she’s the Puzzle Lady in name only. (Sherry, meanwhile, clearly belongs higher up on the list.)

'All About Steve'

[Image courtesy of The Grand Forks Herald.]

Mary Horowitz, All About Steve

This was actually the hardest entry to place, if you can believe it. Sandra Bullock’s Mary is a word-obsessed quirky person who makes her living as a crossword constructor. If she was at the ACPT, she wouldn’t stick out a bit.

But since this is a Hollywood movie, it means she’s a borderline disaster who is a burden on everyone around her and must be set up on blind dates to free her parents from her very presence.

But what about her crossword skills?

This was actually the hardest entry to place, because Mary’s apparently competent enough at crosswords that she can afford her own place on a cruciverbalist’s salary, which is impressive. But apparently she’s not competent enough to know that dedicating an entire puzzle to a man she went on one date with would get her canned from said cushy crossword gig.

So, she must be good at crosswords, but she’s also demonstrably bad at them.

But for giving constructors everywhere a bad name — and earning a Razzie award while doing so — she ends up in The Down.


Did I miss any fictional constructors that are favorites of yours, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let me know in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!

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Looking Forward to More Crossword Mysteries

There are always puzzly events to look forward to, big and small.

Maybe yours is solving the Sunday Times puzzle with a cup of coffee in hand, or starting a new jigsaw puzzle with coworkers over lunch. Maybe yours is reuniting with fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, or Lollapuzzoola, or a yearly puzzle hunt.

Hallmark Mysteries and Movies has added to the list of eagerly anticipated puzzly events with their Crossword Mysteries films over the last year or so.

Featuring the unlikely duo of detective Logan O’Connor and crossword editor Tess Harper, these films have struck a chord with puzzle- and mystery-loving fans of Hallmark Channel.

So far, there have been three Crossword Mysteries films:

That last one stung a bit for enthusiastic fans, of course, after the film was pushed back from its original debut date of October 20, so Hallmark could start showing Christmas movies.

abracadaver1

But there’s still a question floating around regarding these films… what happened to the fourth one?

After the success of A Puzzle to Die For, three additional films were announced for the series, but at some point, the order was cut down to two.

IMDB still lists a fourth film in the series, but with scant details.

Naturally, that hasn’t stopped me from pondering what the plot could be.

And so, today, I give you three pitches for the fourth Crossword Mysteries film.

Enjoy!


#1: The Jigsaw Is Up!

Tess’s beloved aunt Candace is framed for murder — puzzly murder, of course, as jigsaw puzzle pieces are found in the victim’s mouth — and Tess has to try to exonerate her socialite aunt.

And it’ll be tough. There are dozens of witnesses placing her at the scene of the crime — a party — and many of them observed an altercation between her and the victim mere moments before the body is found.

Tess realizes the jigsaw puzzle pieces in the victim’s mouth don’t match the puzzle he was working on, and it turns out the puzzle was swapped? Why?

It was a favorite of the murderer, who used to solve jigsaws with the victim before he took a shine to Aunt Candace. Once the original puzzle is found, it turns out to a picture of the victim and the murderer in happier times.


proposingmurder3

#2: A Boy Named Sudoku

Tess is completely baffled when Sudoku puzzles are left behind at a series of break-ins, each with seemingly random numbers filled in.

Frustrated, Tess is forced to turn to her hated puzzly rival — the Sudoku editor at a competing newspaper — to help her solve the puzzles.

It turns out the numbers aren’t random after all, and the break-ins are all tied to bank account numbers for the same individual: a ruthless millionaire. The break-ins are all to businesses owned by him.

In the end, a promising puzzle whiz turns out to be behind it all, taking revenge on the man who ruined his father’s business. When Tess offers him an internship at her paper, she’s appalled when he says he prefers Sudoku, and ends up working for her rival.


proposingmurder13

#3: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Okay, this one centers around Will Shortz’s cameos in each of the previous films. In the first, we encounter him playing table tennis. In the second, he’s a cop at Logan’s station. In the third, he’s one of the folks at the dance studio.

Each time, the protagonists interact with him but don’t recognize him, meaning each of these three characters are different people. And yet, the fact that they’ve encountered mustachioed triplets doesn’t register with Logan and Tess.

Apparently New York City is loaded with Will Shortz lookalikes. My pitch is for the fourth movie to involve two dozen or more Will Shortz characters as suspects. Maybe one is also the victim. I don’t know. But I want there to be a boatload of Will Shortzes and a serious case of “Man, all these suspects look similar.”


Did you enjoy the potential pitches for a fourth Crossword Mysteries movie, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

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PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: Abracadaver

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 the fall. The second Crossword Mysteries film — Proposing Murder — debuted on October 13th. But the third film, originally scheduled to air one week later, was suddenly pushed to January of this year to make room for more Christmas movies.

In October.

But I digress.

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

Its title? Abracadaver.

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 do this!


FILM RECAP

The show opens at the Magic Manor, a combination magic school and performance space. We see a gun being prepared for a performance. A woman aims it through a sheet of glass at the magician, who stands with his arms spread wide and his mouth open.

While crossword editor Tess wanders around the mansion, admiring old posters, she hears the gunshot.

Cue the credits, introducing the main characters and framing them with crossword grids and clues, setting the aesthetic for the film.

Tess peeks in on the rehearsal in time to see the magician — the Amazing Alisdair — remove the bullet from his mouth, no worse for wear. Tess is then chastised for sneaking a look at another magician’s rehearsal. Apparently Tess is a student of magic in her voluminous free time.

abracadaver7

The next day, Tess is hard at work on a puzzle with random theme-appropriate words strewn throughout the grid: MAGIC, WAND, etc. She writes an incredibly bland clue for FRENCH DROP, a classic sleight of hand technique.

We then meet Reed, the new crime reporter for The Sentinel, who will be sharing a desk with Tess. (Apparently, he’s been hired to replace the crime reporter murdered in the first Crossword Mysteries film, which was months ago at this point. Has no one been covering the crime beat in New York City since then?)

Naturally, he is instantly charmed by our friendly neighborhood crossword editor, as all people are everywhere. Ask any puzzle editor. We are beloved figures.

Tess’s assistant, Josephine, mentions Tess’s upcoming birthday dinner at the Magic Manor. As it turns out, she’s taking magic classes as research for a puzzle she’s working on. (This checks out. I once disappeared for five years in the mountains of Tibet while doing research for a puzzle on sasquatches.)

Tess invites Reed to join in the magical birthday festivities. Reed seems nice, in that his jerkier tendencies appear unintentional.

We cut to the Magic Manor, where Tess arrives for class. They do sleight of hand practice and play with disappearing foam balls. The instructor talks to a testy Amazing Alisdair, and the words “no more favors” can be overheard. By Tess. Nosy nosy Tess.

Later, Alisdair is testy with his assistant Bianca before the show. A large steamer trunk is delivered.

At dinner in the performance area of the Magic Manor, Tess chats with her Aunt Candace and her assistant Josephine, and they mention fundraising efforts for the Manor’s upcoming museum of magic. Detective Logan O’Connor shows up, and Tess is surprised. Aunt Candace is playing matchmaker. He gives her a charm bracelet with a little crossword charm on it.

abracadaver1

Reed arrives with flowers for Tess, and there is instantly dude tension between Reed and Logan over the pretty girl. Thankfully, the performance is starting soon and we can leave the forced love triangle behind for a bit.

Backstage, Bianca brings a drink to Amazing Alisdair. Onstage, the emcee mentions the Magic Manor used to be a speakeasy. (I am instantly on alert for secret passages from here on out.)

As Amazing Alisdair does his introduction, the camera lingers on a nearby table, where Suspicious Man and Dude Wearing Sunglasses Inside are sitting. Amazing Alisdair asks for a volunteer, pointedly ignoring Suspicious Man’s raised hand and choosing Josephine instead.

He does some sleight of hand with her watch. Tess, the magic student, asks how they do that. She is clearly a bad magic student.

Amazing Alisdair leans over in a worrying manner after helping Josephine down from the stage, as if winded or fatigued. He then grabs the gun, and prepares for the big illusion: the Bullet Catch. Tess is invited onstage to mark the bullet, which she labels with her initials.

abracadaver3

Bianca and Amazing Alisdair prepare for the Bullet Catch. His hand shakes while he loads the gun. Bianca fires, the glass shatters, and Alisdair is left laying on the ground. Suspicious Man and Dude Wearing Sunglasses Inside immediately bolt for the exit, as innocent people are wont to do. Logan then stands up, calls in the crime, identifies himself as a cop, and gets everyone to wait outside while he secures the scene.

A Good Samaritan doctor checks on Alisdair, but he’s dead. Logan and the doctor can’t find a bullet wound.

Suddenly, the lights go out as Logan finds a bullet on the ground nearby.

abracadaver2

The assembled guests loiter around the Magic Manor. Aunt Candace tries to comfort the shaken Bianca. Logan’s partner Winston shows up to investigate the murder.

Logan talks to Bianca, and she mentions the drink before the show, as well as Alisdair’s hand shaking. Bianca asks to go to her dressing room, and when she and Winston arrive, the room has been broken into and ransacked. Keen-eyed viewers notice there’s no sign of the steamer trunk.

The doctor walks around looking suspicious. The emcee, Rocco, also paces about nervously.

Logan talks to Tess about her time at the Magic Manor. She’s been taking classes for a few weeks, and mentions the exchange between Cormac (her instructor) and Amazing Alisdair. Alisdair wanted a favor. Cormac agreed, but said it was the last time. Tess mentions Alisdair’s weird lean and sweatiness. Logan sends her home, and asks her not to investigate, then wishes her a happy birthday.

Naturally, Tess ignores his wishes immediately and for no apparent reason follows a woman in a sparkly dress upstairs. And all around the manor. But then loses her in a corridor with no exit.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At the police station, Logan and his father (the Chief) discuss the trick, explaining the bullet Logan on the floor and the lack of a bullet wound; the trick didn’t kill Amazing Alisdair. They’re waiting on autopsy to report on heart attack or other possible explanations. Logan gets a call from forensics that there was residue on the bullet from Alisdair’s mouth. He might’ve been poisoned.

At The Sentinel, Reed and Tess chat about the long night. Reed considers taking magic classes at the Manor to get a different angle on the story. Tess dissuades him, but offers to share anything she learns during her classes. He tries to dissuade her in return. Mutual dissuading continues for a bit.

abracadaver8

[Tess in her subtle crossword-pattern jacket.]

Back at the police station, Logan gets details. A fish poison, tetrodotoxin, was found on the bullet. Forensics also found traces of it on Amazing Alisdair’s scotch glass.

At the Magic Manor, Tess and Bianca talk while they clean up the dressing room. Tess discovers that Bianca and Amazing Alisdair used to date. Bianca mentions their bad breakup and namedrops Sinclair, the person who convinced Alisdair to do the Bullet Catch trick.

Logan arrives, and is immediately mad at Tess for investigating. She compares him to “a paper that keeps printing the same puzzle day after day after day.” She comes off as quite a jerk here, but mentions the woman in the sparkly gold dress before she leaves.

Logan talks to Bianca. Turns out Amazing Alisdair brought the scotch with him. Bianca swears no one would want to harm the magician. When the detective checks out Alisdair’s place later, Winston mentions that the lock may have been picked. The repair guy, who has apparently read the script, asks if Alisdair had a secret life.

Logan finds a note being used as a bookmark, callously disregards Alisdair’s efforts to mark said page, and takes the note, which reads “Meet me beyond the stars. XO”

abracadaver9

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At the police station, we meet Amazing Alisdair’s aunt. They discuss Alisdair’s sister Claire, an anthropologist whom rarely visits. The aunt was surprised to hear Claire was in town. She also mentions that Rocco was threatening to take away Alisdair’s headliner status in exchange for a bigger cut of the profits of his performances at the Magic Manor.

Conveniently, Tess is at the Magic Manor, learning the ball and cup trick from Alisdair’s former partner Cormac. Logan talks to Rocco and gets the list of people with reservations the night of the murder. Tess and Cormac discuss Alisdair’s relationship with the mysterious Sinclair.

She and Logan meet again, and after the appropriate scolding for her constant interference in the investigation, she spills the details about Bianca and Alisdair.

Later, Tess investigates Sinclair through his incredibly annoying website, which employs cryptic clues instead of helpful directions to Sinclair’s workshop. A white rabbit tells Tess to “travel by rail through the looking glass.” Another clue instructs her to “find a good friend. Stop just past where the spirit catches you.”

Tess and Josephine ponder these instructions and come up with Carroll Street subway station as a starting point, and Delavan Street as a destination. (Delavan is apparently an Old English word for friend.)

Tess, wandering alone of course, spots a distillery, “where the spirit catches you” and keeps going, heading down an incredibly sketchy back alley and into a warehouse full of magical claptrap.

abracadaver10

She meets a strange woman who offers to let Tess play with a giant saw blade. Sinclair mentions designing Alisdair’s Bullet Catch mechanism.

At the police station, Logan and Winston try to track down Ann Morrison, who wasn’t on the reservation list, but was present for Alisdair’s death (given that they found her fingerprints at the scene). Her name is in the system because she was present for the explosive death of another magician in Vegas.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan is suspicious of both Ann Morrison and Alisdair’s sister Claire, both of whom are difficult to locale. While verifying the statements of the Manor’s guests after the murder, Drexler (our Suspicious Man) apparently had a good reason for leaving, and the only curious name left is the Good Samaritan doctor, who hasn’t responded to their inquiries because he’s at a conference.

Logan then talks to Cormac, who is getting Alisdair’s spot now that he’s dead. Cormac claims he was working nightclub security during Alisdair’s performance.

Tess arrives at the Manor and sees Cormac’s poster has replaced Alisdair’s. While talking to Tess, Bianca realizes the giant steamer trunk that was delivered the night of Alisdair’s murder is missing. This has somehow slipped her mind for days now. Tess and Bianca talk about Alisdair’s love for ballroom dance, before Bianca discusses being nervous about performing Cormac’s sword cabinet trick tonight. She will be assisting the new headliner.

Logan and Tess literally collide at The Sentinel and she mentions the missing steamer trunk. They talk about misdirection and seeing what someone wants you to see. (I suspect at this point, Tess’s boss would want to see a finished crossword.)

abracadaver6

Logan confirms the trunk delivery with security footage and asks Winston to see if he can find when the trunk leaves the building. They also see footage of Drexler (who is some sort of tech billionaire) as he leaves the Magic Manor. Winston is suspicious of Drexler’s excuse for his quick exit. Logan notices that Drexler left the theater, but hung around the Manor for ten minutes before leaving. What was he up to for that ten minutes?

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

A figure dressed in all black, complete with gloved hands, replaces Bianca’s trick handcuffs before the show. DASTARDLY. (It looks like a woman’s walk as the saboteur exits.) Bianca overhears footsteps and investigates, finding a broken vase, then calls Tess. Tess misses the call because she keeps dropping the bracelet Logan gave her. (This will in no way become a plot point later on.)

Bianca leaves a message for Tess and asks her to meet up at intermission. We then cut to Bianca and Cormac performing the sword cabinet illusion as Tess searches the Magic Manor for her. Tess finds the broken vase and the trick handcuffs as Cormac slides the first sword into the cabinet.

Cormac inserts a second sword into the box, and there is an unpleasant sound when he does so. Tess runs onstage and stops him from adding the final sword (which would have gone through Bianca’s heart!) and we hear her screaming for help from inside the box.

abracadaver14

Logan arrests Cormac and talks to Bianca, who confirms that the assailant was wearing high heels. Regarding Cormac’s arrest, I’m kind of with Logan on this one. HOW DOES YOUR CRAPPY TRICK USE REAL SWORDS AND SOMEHOW HINGE SOLELY ON A PAIR OF TRICK HANDCUFFS FOR THE WOMAN’S SURVIVAL?!

Tess and Aunt Candace talk, and Candace mentions a friend of hers had an antique snuffbox stolen during the fundraiser at the Magic Manor. Amazing Alisdair was in attendance, alongside a blonde woman — possibly the woman Tess followed for no reason — and Tess asks her aunt for the guest list from the fundraiser.

Logan stops Drexler and his lackeys, including Dude Wearing Sunglasses, discussing the missing ten minutes from the night of Alisdair’s murder. We also find out a jade bowl of Drexler’s was stolen during a party. Drexler is a smug jerk the whole time, because each Crossword Mysteries film needs an insanely unlikable red herring.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess is charming a gaggle of police officers at the station when Logan arrives. She mentions the missing snuffbox and ponders whether Alisdair and an accomplice were stealing from the fundraiser during his performance. (She also demonstrates misdirection and sleight of hand for Logan. Logan is charmingly befuddled.)

Tess sees a photocopy of the “beyond the stars” note, and Logan mentions the handwriting isn’t Bianca’s. Tess then looks at Logan’s Pinterest wall of Alisdair Case Details and recognizes Ann Morrison as Sinclair, the woman she met in Red Hook.

Logan visits Sinclair’s workspace, and she says Alisdair had everything he needed for the Bullet Catch trick weeks ago; she seems genuinely surprised that someone tried to kill Bianca. Logan then confirms that Sinclair didn’t send the trunk.

Tess tries to track down the dance studio where Amazing Alisdair and the blonde woman would dance on Sunday nights, and makes a specious connection between the Galaxy Dance Studio and the “beyond the stars” note.

She calls Logan, and they head to the dance studio. AND IT’S TIME FOR WILL SHORTZ’S CAMEO.

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(Logan doesn’t recognize him as the cop from the second film or the table tennis player from the first, so this is meant to be a different character. Perhaps New York City is loaded with Will Shortz lookalikes, and the fourth movie will involve two dozen or more Will Shortz characters as suspects.)

Tess recognizes a painting on the wall from the background of Alisdair’s trophy photo. This is definitely the place.

Logan and Tess dance the tango, and he dips her twice while they banter. The second one is full of swoony romance. He stares at her while she notices a clue: a photo of Alisdair and the blonde woman. Tamara, the owner of the studio — who was dancing with Will — comes over and helps identify the woman. It turns out, she lives upstairs. Convenient!

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Upstairs, Logan and Tess meet Julia, and Tess pretends to return Julia’s earrings to her as a reason for the meet-cute. Tess spots that Julia has a bag packed and is generally anxious to get rid of them.

The next day at the police station, the Chief is back to his pastry-thieving ways, and we love him for it. John Kapelos is the best.

Logan gives him details on Julia, who is a married pharmacist (and therefore would have access to tetrodotoxin). The Chief asks the very reasonable question of why the married woman would kill Alisdair. Logan suggests that maybe it was her husband instead.

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The Chief mentions that there’s no sign that the trunk left the Magic Manor on the night of the murder, and no sign of it inside the Manor. He suggests they get blueprints of the building. (The Chief, like me, suspects secret passages are afoot!)

At the Manor, Tess is at another class — good lord, are magic classes every single day? — and she asks Rocco about Julia, but he claims not to have seen her on the night of the murder. He then quotes Houdini and says nothing ever vanishes.

At the police station, father and son compare blueprints and discover that the entire basement has been covered up, along with several closets and the exit for that strange hallway Tess saw.

AND SPEAKING OF THAT HALLWAY, Tess is there now, sneaking around and looking for a secret exit by loudly knocking on the walls. Tess is not a subtle human being. Her bracelet falls off — plot point confirmed! — and we await her imminent peril/kidnapping, because why else would the dropped bracelet be a thing?

Tess finds the secret exit, complete with a ladder to the basement. As Logan arrives at the Manor, Tess wanders around the basement, then hides when she sees someone with a flashlight behind her.

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In the hallway, Logan finds Tess’s bracelet just as Tess is grabbed by an armed thug. He ineffectively covers her mouth and her screams can be heard TWO FLOORS ABOVE, THROUGH A WALL, BY LOGAN.

Tess tags the goon in the gut with an elbow as Logan arrives, and he chases the man through the basement, though the thug manages to escape. In the meantime, Tess has found the missing trunk in the basement, empty.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess arrives at The Sentinel, and Reed mentions that Amazing Alisdair was at the party where Drexler’s jade bowl went missing. Following a tip from Reed, Tess goes to an antiques dealer looking for the jade bowl. He mentions he already sold it. And naturally, she bumps into Logan there. (At this point, he should just LoJack her and follow her around for case-solving convenience.)

They confirm that the goon who attacked her was the one who sold the jade bowl to the dealer. (The dealer, realizing Logan’s a cop, claims he didn’t know the bowl was stolen when he sold it.) Tess and Logan posit that Drexler was at Alisdair’s show because of the theft, and perhaps he spent that missing ten minutes ransacking Bianca’s dressing room looking for it.

At the police station, they review the footage of the trunk delivery and confirm the deliveryman was the same goon who attacked Tess and sold the jade bowl. Cormac’s alibi for the murder checks out. So does Julia’s. Oddly, the Good Samaritan doctor has an alibi as well. Apparently, he was in Seattle the night of the murder. Say what?

Amidst the confusion, the morgue attendant arrives, and he mistakes Julia for Alisdair’s sister Claire, who IDed the body. Logan checks the morgue, and the body labeled Alisdair isn’t actually Alisdair’s body. (Dental records confirm the body is Julia’s husband.)

As Logan gets a warrant to search Julia’s properties, Tess meets with Bianca at the Magic Manor to warn her that Alisdair is still alive. Bianca confesses that she followed Alisdair one night to a place in the Bowery where he met a woman.

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Logan arrives at Julia’s place and Tamara tells him she already left. She mentions she hasn’t seen Julia’s husband since “the fight,” and Logan finds a piece of jade from Drexler’s bowl under the chair.

At the Magic Manor, Tess has another encounter with creepy flickering lights — they must have the same electrician as the college library from Proposing Murder — and gets a jump-scare from Rocco. He gives her a key to pass along to Logan; it’s the key to the trapdoor in the stage floor, which he claims they haven’t used in years.

Tess tries the key, and the trapdoor works perfectly.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess explores the secret room, then hides when she hears someone. Only it turns out to be Logan, because of course, they bump into each other forty-nine times a day.

There’s a conveyor belt up to the stage, which they think was used to sneak Alisdair from the stage and swap the body of Julia’s husband onstage in its place while the lights were out.

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While they figure out the plan and how Julia was involved — the steamer trunk most likely contained the body of Julia’s husband — the trapdoor closes and they’re locked in the room. Logan immediately gets frustrated, while Tess smartly realizes that VERY RECENTLY other people got in and out of this room without using the trapdoor, so she goes hunting for secret passages.

She finds marks on the floor where a bookcase has recently moved. The goon from earlier opens the trapdoor again and tries to shoot them, but they’ve already figured out how to open the secret door and escape. He pursues them through the secret passage, but ha-ha! They fooled him by hiding under the conveyor belt, and they head back up through the trapdoor. Looney Tunes-style trickery wins out again!

Back onstage, Logan gets a message that Julia’s phone was last used in the Bowery. With Tess’s help, Logan stops Julia from escaping. A very much alive Amazing Alisdair arrives just as Winston puts Julia in the back of a squad car. Logan uses a completely unnecessary bit of subterfuge to sneak up on Alisdair and pull a gun on him. Alisdair is captured, but not before Logan fires off a few one-liners.

In an interrogation room, Logan interviews the hired goon (Julia’s cousin), Julia, and Alisdair, filling in the little bits of pieces of how they all met.

Tess arrives at the Magic Manor, bringing flowers to Bianca, who is headlining tonight’s show. A happy ending for the nearly-sworded former assistant!

Cormac and Sinclair attend the show, along with Logan, Tess, Reed, and Aunt Candace.

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After the show, Logan quotes Reed’s article about Tess cracking the case. Reed conveniently vanishes so Tess and Logan can flirt and grab a late bite to eat together. Awww.

The End.


CONCLUSION

Abracadaver is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s easily the twistiest edition of the Crossword Mysteries yet, with fake deaths, secret rooms, and all sorts of chicanery involved. The plot moves briskly and all the magical accoutrements are great window dressing for the film.

There are a few glaring plot holes, like the fake doctor, who is never explained. How did Tess know to follow one random well-dressed woman? Why the attempt on Bianca’s life? Were they trying to frame Cormac for both Bianca and Alisdair? Why is Bianca headlining? Cormac was in the crowd, so he’s not still in jail. Did he feel bad for nearly killing her and that’s how she ended up headliner?

These detracted ever-so-slightly from my enjoyment of the film, simply because I enjoy a tightly-crafted mystery, and this one had more than a few lingering threads.

But the movie is harmless fun, a ridiculous and cheesy romp that will no doubt satisfy Hallmark’s many mystery fans.

But it’s also the least puzzly of the three films. I mean, other than the brief glimpse of Tess’s magic puzzle in progress — oof — the only puzzly endeavor is Tess and Josephine unraveling Sinclair’s peculiar directional riddle. Other than that, there’s no puzzling to be had.

Tess didn’t even get to employ her sleight of hand to steal a clue or something. That’s a real missed opportunity, given the subject matter.

Three episodes in, Tess remains very likable, despite her lackadaisical approach to puzzling. And Logan shined here as both love interest and detective. He was charming, protective of Tess, and generally effective as a crimefighter. Very little of the smug condescending character from the first film remains. Instead, we root for him to get the bad guy and the girl.

And, of course, John Kapelos shined as the police chief and father figure of the film, funny and distracting in equal measure.

It’s light, frothy, slightly murdery fun. Plus dancing Will Shortz. How can you go wrong?


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

And hey, if you missed Sunday’s airing of Abracadaver, worry not. It’s airing again tonight at 9 PM Eastern, and there will be a Crossword Mysteries mini-marathon on Sunday, January 12th, with A Puzzle to Die For at 2 PM, Proposing Murder at 4 PM, and Abracadaver at 6 PM.


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