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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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”

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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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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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PuzzleNation Product Review: The Island of Doctor Lucky

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that. And this concludes the disclaimer.]

For over twenty years now, the devious minds of Cheapass Games have pitted players against the intrepid J. Robert Lucky. Whether you’re a guest in his luxurious mansion, a ghost haunting his beloved abode, or an attendee of one of his famous dinner parties, the goal is always the same: kill Doctor Lucky.

In the latest iteration of the game, you’ve been invited to a soiree on Isla Fortuna, Doctor Lucky’s mysterious private island. As you, your fellow guests, and the good doctor explore the island, you’ll encounter hazards, discover weapons, accumulate luck, and (appropriately for the internet age) occasionally get incredibly distracted by a cat.

But the goal, as always, remains the same: kill Doctor Lucky.

Murder is a private matter. You have to eliminate Dr. Lucky without any other player in sight. None of your opponents can be in the same location on the island as you and the Doctor when you make your attempt. Even someone observing the murder from a neighboring location will foil your attempt.

But there’s a further complication; Doctor Lucky’s cat Ragu (the black disc) is so distracting that anyone sharing a space with her cannot see outside that region. So if you’re in the same area as the cat, and someone in a neighboring region is trying to kill Doctor Lucky, you’ll be unable to prevent the murder by observing it.

As you can see, killing Doctor Lucky requires a combination of skill, strategy, luck, and cunning. Some weapons are more dangerous in certain parts of the island. The cat’s ability to distract players can be a hindrance or a gift, depending on how you use her.

Even when you manage to outmaneuver your opponents and isolate the Doctor, it will no doubt take you several tries to kill him; your opponents can thwart your murder attempts by altering the Doctor’s chances of survival (by expending their luck cards).

They can also hamper your gameplay by tossing hazards your way, causing you to sacrifice cards from your hand or deplete your cache of luck.

But the more attempts you make — either to kill the Doctor or to hamper your opponents — the faster you can move around the island and the more dangerous your murder attempts become. This is a game that rewards patience and boldness alike.

The engrossing gameplay is enhanced by the humor and style that permeates the game from top to bottom. There are shamelessly punny regions on the map — like Salient Point and Tiger Woods — and a host of hilarious Failure and Hazard cards to entertain you as you scheme.

The artwork is simple, evoking an old-timey sense of adventure and derring-do with the scratchwork-style drawings and aesthetics, while the cast of characters is vividly rendered, offering each player a particular motive for wanting to off the infamous Doctor.

All in all, The Island of Doctor Lucky is the most ambitious edition yet, encouraging players to interact with each other more than ever before, and offering the Doctor further chances for survival. Even long-time fans of the series will find delightful, challenging new wrinkles to enjoy here. As the game strays farther and farther from its Clue-inspired roots, it only grows richer and more engaging.

The Island of Doctor Lucky is available from Cheapass Games and participating retailers.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Murder Mystery edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And in today’s post, I’d like to follow up on last week’s murder mystery post.

In the previous post, I gave you some of the backstory and logistics of our in-office murder-mystery event, and today, I wanted to discuss the event itself.

Our murder happened Monday night — the fictional J. Augustus Milverton Puzzlenationo would breathe his last breath near the photocopier — so Tuesday morning marked the official start of the game.

And since we’re an office full of puzzlers, the morning began with something of a logic puzzle, as the players were given a list of passcodes used to enter the building, but they needed to figure out who had used them and at what time.

You see, someone’s passcode being used at a certain time didn’t necessary mean that person was actually entering the building at that time. Someone could’ve used another player’s code. (Information involving times and identities was scattered throughout emails to all 10 participants, so it would take a fair amount of cooperation to unravel this.)

But since all of the players were suspicious of each other — which was wise, given that several “solvers” were actually following my orders throughout the event to fulfill certain tasks — the first day didn’t involve as much cooperative solving as I’d hoped. (That would come the next day out of necessity, as alliances began to form and more information was shared.)

As I fielded questions from players asking for further details — and several clues were discovered and analyzed — the first of several complications for the players was revealed: a fellow player was “killed.”

This not only upped the stakes for the players, but led to one of my favorite moments in the game. You see, when a fellow player stumbled upon the body, he wasn’t sad that his coworker was dead…he was sad because he couldn’t ask him any questions. (Though, intrepid solver that he was, he asked if a Ouija board was out of the question.)

For the rest of the day, I was fielding all sorts of instant messages and emails from players, asking for information, cashing in Holmes Tickets, clarifying things, and trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle into place. Early theories emerged. Some were wild guesses, and some were surprisingly close to the truth.

Our event played out in real time, so the players were aware that things could happen outside the workday that would impact the game. People seemed reluctant to leave, just in case they missed a clue.

Day Two opened with another red herring — punny threats sent to three of the players, delivered in envelopes that pointed to another player (a gambit by the killer to put the spotlight on someone else) — and a few secrets had already come out.

Players openly offered information to each other in a group email, which helped resolve some red herrings and put other pieces into place. More clues were uncovered, but the murder weapon remained elusive.

Lunchtime was orchestrated to be a tipping point. Not only would another murder occur, but other plans and clues would come together. I gave one of my collaborators two missions to accomplish while the players were away from their desks. Hopefully, she’d be able to accomplish both, but at the very least, she had to accomplish one of the tasks.

There were a few of these open-ended narrative moments written into the story where the players had the chance to surprise me with what happened and what didn’t. Not only did those moments make the game more fun for me to run, but it gave other players chances to really inhabit their characters and get into the performance side of the gameplay.

Lunchtime allowed for more group theorizing — something that the workday hampered, as you might expect — but the real fireworks awaited players upon their return.

A trap was sprung, and another player died unexpectedly. Although some chaos did ensue, most of the players realized this latest death was the work of another party, and several of the players solved it quickly before returning their attention to the first two murders.

In the midst of all this, two real-world complications arose on Day Two.

The first involved a player dropping out due to a mix of time constraints (she felt the game was distracting her too much from work) and general frustration with the format of the game (which, for someone unfamiliar with immersive storytelling like this, is totally understandable). I was sad to see her go, and adjusted the story accordingly, recovering a clue from her and redistributing it to an active player.

The second involved the pace of the game itself. I’d hoped to run it over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday and have it wrapped up that second day. But between the elaborate unfolding plot and the difficulty in balancing gameplay with, you know, actually getting our work done, things were progressing more slowly than expected.

That darn workday. Such a nuisance.

So the game rolled into Day Three, and players could sense the end was near. Most of the puzzle pieces were there for the taking, and several compelling theories emerged. (Honestly, one of them was better than the story I’d actually written, which was both funny and a little humbling.)

To add a bit of drama, I set a deadline of mid-afternoon. If the murders hadn’t been solved by then, the killer would escape scot-free.

Things finally steamrolled to their conclusion when the murder weapon was revealed — in the hands of a thief who had been woven into the plot — and one of the players came close enough to cracking all three murders that I declared the mystery solved. (And our ace detective did so before the deadline, so no escape for our dastardly murderer.)

It was different from any murder-mystery event I’d run before, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. There were certainly flaws in execution, as there are in any first attempt, but I learned some valuable lessons in this play-through that will make other such events in the future smoother, more satisfying, and more engaging.

Although…I hadn’t considered the potential consequences of the event on workdays going forward; everyone seems a bit more wary of each other. (And there are a few vengeful “spirits” lurking about, hoping to avenge themselves in future games.)


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Interactive Puzzling is Murder on a Work Day!

[Image courtesy of Carriageway.com.]

It all started with a board game at lunchtime.

TableTop Day is a popular annual event here at PuzzleNation, and several of my fellow puzzlers enjoyed it so much that they wanted it every week. Well, we couldn’t swing that — deadlines and all — so we play games every Wednesday during lunch.

During a particularly spirited round of 10 Minutes to Kill — a game where every player controls a hitman trying to take out three targets without being identified by the other players or the police — the subject of murder mysteries came up, and I let slip that I’d helped write and run several murder mystery dinners in the past.

[Image courtesy of Vancouver Presents.com.]

So, naturally, the idea of running a murder mystery at work became a recurring topic of discussion.

As a huge fan of interactive storytelling — be it tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, improv theater, LARPing, or other group activities — the idea appealed to me.

Of course, I had one huge hurdle to overcome: the work day.

You see, murder mystery dinners thrive on the theatricality of the event. Attendees can overhear arguments, catch snippets of banter and exposition as they walk around, and engage characters in conversation to learn more. The more you interact with the story, the better chance you have of solving the mystery, but even passive players will get the big picture.

But in a normal workday, I can’t stage big elaborate sequences, like a failed marriage proposal or someone tossing wine in another’s face. I’d have to find another way to deliver information, mysteries, and drama.

Thankfully, as a puzzler, I’m accustomed to writing clues. Cluing is simply delivering information in unexpected ways. Whether it’s through deceptive wordplay, puns, or connections with other entries, crosswords and logic problems are excellent training for being creative and stealthy while presenting important information.

So, I mapped out the murder and the characters I’d need to pull it off, and cast those characters from a group of fellow puzzlers. At the same time, I gauged interest from other coworkers to see who’d be interested in trying to crack the case, and began devising ways to weave them into the narrative. (This was more intimate than writing your usual murder mystery dinner for random attendees, since the latter is more about creating scenes than tailoring it to specific people and circumstances.)

[Can’t have a murder mystery without an animal for someone to pet fiendishly.
In this case, my trusty armadillo in a cowboy hat, Armando.]

My goal was to get everyone prepped to play on Monday, and then actually run the mystery on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the murder having occurred overnight.

Which led to another big hurdle. I couldn’t exactly stage an elaborate murder scene in a way that was unobtrusive to the workday, so I’d have to describe the scene to the players and let them ask questions about it.

But how do I leave clues for the players that are readily identifiable as clues and not just the ephemera of a working office? After all, any good murder investigation needs some convenient clues to uncover that will help unravel the mystery.

I opted to mark any clue (which were most often color pictures of actual items, like a stashed wallet or a threatening letter) with the symbol below, to remove any doubt that this item was involved someway in the murder mystery:

Okay, that takes care of the clues. But what about the actual interaction, where players ask questions of characters and gain the valuable knowledge needed to solve the crime?

Sure, a lot of that can be done through group emails and instant messenger programs, encouraging the investigators to share what they’ve learned, so there wouldn’t be random gaggles of investigators creating a distraction as they ponder the latest clue found or deduction made.

As a storyteller, whether you’re running an RPG or a murder mystery, you not only need to know the details of your story backwards and forwards, but you need to anticipate what questions the audience will ask.

And no matter how prepared you are, I assure you, the players will ALWAYS find a way to monkey-wrench your plans, whether they approach the problem from an unexpected direction or they ask for information you hadn’t prepared in advance. There had to be a simple way to reflect this in the actual gameplay.

To deal with this, I borrowed an idea from Lollapuzzoola and created Holmes Tickets, which were catch-all requests for deeper insight or information than had been provided. Basically, anything that would require outside intervention or skills beyond that of the casual investigator could be revealed by spending a Holmes Ticket.

Dusting for fingerprints, getting ahold of a coroner’s report, uncovering information on a missing check…all of these and more were results of investigators cashing in their Holmes Tickets at various points in the investigation.

So, how did the actual murder mystery go? Well, I’d love to tell you, but it’s not finished yet! The work day proved more intrusive than expected — damn those pesky deadlines and responsibilities! — so we’re rolling into a third day of passive gameplay.

By hook or by crook, the story will be wrapped up today, and I’ll be able to fill you in more on the actual story, clues, and progression of each investigation. For now, I’ll just let you know that there are currently three bodies to account for (our killer has been busy since Monday night), and a host of theories, but no firm accusations yet.

We shall see if justice is served or if our crafty killer gets away.


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