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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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”
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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.
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.
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.
(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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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