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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Jessica uncharacteristically ducks out of this ep early on, leaving the sleuthing in the capable and "venerable" hands of noted British thesp Keith Michell. He reprises his character first seen in season 5 of one Dennis Stanton - a raffish, middle aged Englishmen with impeccable manners and a slightly dodgy past. However his former career as a fraudster and gentleman "tea-leaf" proves invaluable when he encounters what purports to be an unpublished Mark Twain manuscript, one which the owners are trying to insure with his own insurance company for a cool $5 million. Acting out of altruism rather than pecuniary interest, when things take a turn for the highly suspicious and the museum holding the rare book burns down, our hero sets out to nail the malefactors. There are twists and turns along the way in this amusing and delightfully acted yarn.
The title of this episode parodies "The Great Train Robbery" (1903),
often considered a milestone in film-making, as the first
commercially-successful movie short.
Dennis Stanton (Keith Michell) approaches Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) at a San Francisco book-signing event to offer to treat her to dinner in Carmel, as he begins to relate his involvement in this "Book-end" episode which seems to contain a major plot loop-hole regarding a recently-discovered Mark Twain manuscript.
As Dennis escorts Jessica across the bookstore, he reaches for a copy of the recently-published "The Wild and Wicked Wench," the focal point of this story, which debates its authenticity, as well as its destruction, after being insured for $five million by his Consolodated Casualty Insurance Company.
Whether or not the manuscript is genuine, whether or not it is destroyed in the blaze, and whether or not Consolodated Casualty Insurance is liable to remit payment ... all seem to remain unresolved by the narrative, but Dennis and Jessica observe a published copy bearing Mark Twain as its author, and so the mystery begins....
Lawrence Erlich (David Birney), with Anna Louise Barlow (Diane Baker) at his left and Constantin Stavros (Nehemiah Persoff) at his right, addresses a press conference gathering at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, to announce that a Mark Twain manuscript has been discovered in Anna Louise Barlow's attic, presented by Twain to Anna Louise's grandmother, and authenticated by Constantin Stavros as genuine.
When the trio attempt to purchase insurance coverage from Robert Butler (James Sloyan) at Consolodated Casualty, to protect the manuscript for $five million, Butler solicits Authenticator (Russ Marin) to prove it genuine...or to disprove the allegation.
But Lawrence Erlich and Dennis Stanton share a sordid past as illegal confidence scheme operators, and neither trusts the other, who claims that he now conducts legitimate dealings. And so, Dennis creates an inter-office diversion to sneak a page from the manuscript to a third Twain expert, Professor Chandler Fitzpatrick (Roy Dotrice), for verification.
At a costume ball back at the Fairmont Hotel, Dennis and Lawrence engage in an altercation, each charging the other with unfair tactics and criminal intentions. But, after the ball, a fire breaks out at the Fairmont in the vicinity of the encased manuscript, which is now reportedly destroyed (except for the page which has been secretly lifted).
Lindsey Barlow (Holly Gagnier), the young adult daughter of Anna Louise Barlow, receives Dennis, who arrives at the Barlow residence to discuss insurance payment conditions with Anna Louise. Lindsey, however, makes a play for Dennis, which he finds convenient to attempt to achieve Anna Louise's trust.
Rhoda Markowitz (Hallie Todd), as Stanton's Receptionist, has little to do this time around except to listen as Stanton continuously repeats the clue, "The Scarlet Letter," but Lieutenant Catalano (Ken Swofford) has his hands full when he beats Dennis to the scene of the first murder, after a victim is found shot in a ransacked residence.
When Dennis later returns to the scene of the crime, he encounters Lawrence Erlich for another altercation, this time at gunpoint, as Lawrence finally admits that he had no intention of trying to break up Dennis and his late wife, Elizabeth.
But after a second body is found, the victim of a shoving from Fairmont Hotel, Dennis convinces Lieutenant Catalano and Sergeant Oliver (Stephen Prutting) of his plan to set a trap to nab the perpetrator of both murders amid "The Great Twain Robbery."
The cast is rounded out by Jan Hoag as Nadine the Book Lover, Susan Ware as Newscaster, Delana Michaels as Reporter #2, Freddie Dawson as Reporter #1, Daniel Namath as Maitre D', and Lewis Dauber as Duke of Nonesuch.
This episode represents the first acting credit each by Jan Hoag and Daniel Namath, and one of the last roles by Russ Marin.
This also marks the second of two "MSW" appearances for Russ Marin, the first of three for Roy Dotrice, the second of three for Diane Baker, the second of four for David Birney, the fourth of seven for Hallie Todd (and her third of six as Rhoda Markowitz), the fourth of seven for James Sloyan (and his second of five as Robert Butler), the fifth of nine for Keith Michell (each in his role as Dennis Stanton), and the seventh of eleven "MSW's" for Ken Swofford (and his third of six as Lieutenant Catalano).
Russ Marin, acting in film and on television since 1970, has unfortunately since passed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Yes I ran into Diane Baker many years ago en route from New York to
London (in coach) and I do feel she is underrated, having to appear
with Joan Crawford in a gloriously over the top horror flick or two.
Regardless, although in a satisfying scene at the very end, she only
has a small part in this. The episode is well done all around, and
classy criminal Stanton turned investigator has no shortcomings at all,
other than not being Jessica Fletcher. In fact he is especially
convincing in his role of sophisticated ex-criminal gent.
The premise is almost embarrassingly simple: the David Birney (and possibly Diane Baker) characters conspire to obtain a $5 million dollar Mark Twain manuscript and then, wonder of all wonders, have a fire set to destroy the document for the insurance money. Our intrepid Jessica replacement Stanton is the insurance company's investigator. But everything becomes more entertaining from there, and had me totally involved. I've been watching "Murder She Wrote" episodes daily on "COZI TV" for several weeks, and the guest investigator provides a capable and totally acceptable change of pace. This is a solid episode.
Angela Landsbury makes a brief appearance and then disappears. We are
left with the character of Dennis Stanton, insurance investigator. Even
with Keith Michell and Roy Dotrice, the story falls flat. It revolves
around a forged manuscript, allegedly written by Mark Twain,
(ridiculously entitled 'Wild, wicked wench'). The manuscript is
authenticated and on display, about to go on auction when it's
conveniently destroyed by a fire. Dennis Stanton (Michell) investigates
since it's his company that insured the manuscript for 5 million.
I don't know if Angela Landsbury had to be absent for another commitment or they were trying to create a spin-off. But it doesn't work.
Not a bad show, just that Jessica Fletcher. Is on during the first three minutes and not again after that. The lead investigator isn't particularly interesting, and has a weak voice. I guess Angela needed the occasional week off. Some insurance investigator takes this case and what sounds like a cute premise -- a questionable newly discovered Mark Twain work during a Mark Twain convention in. San Francisco -- turns out to not be that cute or memorable. David Birney is good as a smarmy literary guy and Holly Gagnier is an attractive suspect. My goodness, filling up ten lines about an uninteresting show is quite a challenge. The writers try to be clever with a couple other literary references but it's not all that clever.
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