You’ve got to hand it to this show: they tried to choose interesting people as the killers. We had a retired police officer in Murder is a Parlor Game and a ventriloquist in A Riddle for Puppets. Now it’s the turn of a phony psychic, and of course that turn of phrase is tautology, because every psychic who takes money off innocent people is a phony.
A Puzzle for Prophets shows us a really messed up bunch of people, but maybe you have to be a bit twisted to be willing to con people out of their money by taking advantage of their grief and desperation, which is basically the modus operandi for any practising fraudster who calls themselves a psychic. There is a power struggle going on between “Sister” Janice and the young pretender to her crown, Eve. There is no mention of her age, but one can’t help but wonder just how twisted this situation is, and how long she has been in the frame as Janice’s replacement. Running the show is Sid Russell, who is trying to control their lives. When we are first introduced to him he is expressing disapproval at Eve’s hair. When she says “I like it this way,” he replies that he will tell her how to like it. This puts into context what a piece of work Sid is, and that’s really Eve’s only function in the story. She hangs around for the whole episode but is of little relevance to the plot.
The motive here is simple enough. Janice wants to run her own show, but Sid won’t relinquish control of her life, and could easily expose her as a fraudster and start again with a new “Sister”. The actual murder is very inventive on the part of the writer, but I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of sense. The television in Sid’s flat is timed to switch on and play a video in which Janice tells Sid she is going to kill him, just as she points a gun at him, the television screen is rigged to explode, while in the empty flat next door a CB radio is timed to switch on and interfere with Sid’s pacemaker. The combination of the shock of the explosion and the radio waves messing with his pacemaker are enough to end his life. The reason I’m doubtful of the logic of all this is that it all seems like it would be horrendously difficult to rig that all up and time it all to the second (and it has to be to the second for the gun/explosion trick to work) even with modern technology, let alone the limited equipment available to the killer in 1979.
But that’s not the silliest aspect of all this. The trail of clues Kate follows is absurd. I think to a certain extent this is a symptom of the shorter running time. I’m not saying it would be impossible to do this right within the limitations of a 45 minute episode, but it would take some exceptional crime writing. Instead, the writers were presented with the problem of having to get Kate involved, following a trail of clues, and then solving the case, all within about the 20 minutes available between the set-up and the gotcha, and they seem to have all responded to that problem by making the cases ridiculously easy, and involving Kate in the stories by coincidence. The latter of these is by far the least excusable. Kate is a journalist, so has a reason to be involved (it would help if the writers actually had her working for a major publication rather than the “Weekly Advertiser”), but still the writers persist in involving her in the life of the murderer for reasons other than reporting the crime. So she just happened to be reporting on the killer’s self-defence classes in Murder is a Parlor Game, reporting on the killer’s high-end catering business in Caviar with Everything, and reporting on the psychic work of the killer in this one.
The bigger problem is the simplicity of the case, which relies on the murderer not making a concerted effort to cover her tracks, and not for the first time. Janice doesn’t even bother to dispose of the tape recording where she announced her intention to kill Sid, and also left the timer, wiring and CB radio equipment all at the murder scene. Kate shouldn’t even have needed to be investigating this one, because the police should have easily found all that. It’s all so silly.
And yet… I quite liked this one. Once again, a lot of the reason for that is Kate Mulgrew’s performance, but also I’m really enjoying Kate’s growing confidence as this season has progressed. She is now clearly emulating her husband and enjoying the game of cat and mouse. Readers of my Columbo reviews will be familiar with the significance of what I call the cards-on-the-table moment, and there is a blisteringly good one of those here:
“Why did you do this?”
“I think… because I don’t like you, not at all Sister Janice. You are a cheat. You frighten people.”
That’s nothing compared to the ending, which is the first great gotcha moment that would be worthy of the parent series. It also solves a problem this show has had previously, and does so in an incredibly clever way. We need a moment at the end of each episode where Kate confronts the killer with her evidence, but unlike her husband she isn’t a police officer, so what’s to stop the murderer simply killing her? This has been problematical in previous episodes, particularly A Riddle for Puppets which saw her simply confronting an unstable killer in a basement on her own. I won’t spoil it, but the way Kate uses Janice’s own technology against her to ensure her safety, despite being alone with the murderer, provides an added element to the gotcha moment that works perfectly for the first time this series, and is a great conclusion to the first season. This is clearly still a show trying to find its feet, and it has never yet lived up to the promise of the excellent first episode, which had the luxury of weaving a more intricate story over the course of 90 minutes. But there’s still a lot of potential, and all in all this was an entertaining season, thanks mainly to Kate Mulgrew being just so watchable in the lead role.
This short season ran from February to March 1979. Viewers at the time would not have long to wait for the second season, which debuted in October of the same year, but it returned with some major changes… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Mrs Columbo: Ladies of the Afternoon
Phony psychics who do what they do for money is a sad reality as I’ve personally learned. It can thankfully be easier nowadays to recognize them. Especially when our authentic psychics make themselves known and certainly for the right reasons. As for how they can fictionally serve as a culprit to be defeated by the detective, and Columbo himself had to face one too when his show’s revival started with Columbo Goes To The Guillotine, it may seem easier in that sense to see how they get away with it for a long time before the star detective of the show takes them down. The fact that they had to become guilty of murder makes it easier of course. Thank you, RP, for your review.
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