"The Adventure of Miss Aggie's Farewell Performance" is a 1975 episode of a short-lived television show set in the now long disappeared world of radio drama, during the Truman administration, featuring central characters introduced in 1929. You wouldn't expect it to feel contemporary in 2016. Yet in a lot of ways it does.
Part of it is the casting of Betty White. While most of the people who appeared in this episode have passed on, White has only loomed larger in the nation's culture in the ensuing decades. Just a few short years ago she became the oldest host in Saturday Night Live's history after a viral campaign on Facebook. And she does have a couple of bravura scenes in this episode as a fairly snotty talent agent.
Beyond that, there's a plus ça change quality to the episode's view inside the world of radio actors. These are not colorful and quaint eccentrics spreading hokey cheer. They're professional icons as much concerned with promoting their #brand as anyone who currently has their own YouTube channel. In a way the fact that their whole industry is just a few years from being marginalized and decimated by television makes everything more urgent, bringing higher stakes to the bitchiness. And you bet Simon Brimmer is on-hand.
It is the proverbial backstabbing that leads to the literal murder, of course. Vera Bethune stars on the series Miss Aggie, playing a kindly schoolteacher in what sounds something like a radio adaptation of the Mary Worth comic strip. In her few pre-mortem scenes Eve Arden plays Vera with a high-strung charm that obviously covers ruthlessness. And yes,as the episode unfolds it's revealed that she's kept the cast and the station wrapped around her finger, pulling every possible string to make sure that she and she alone remains the star. So when she's poisoned in the studio it certainly looks like someone else on the show is trying to kill her.
It also looks like she should be safe now, at least as long as she's in the hospital. Yet in a stylistically distinct killer's eye view scene, someone breaks into her room and shoots her through a down pillow, feathers everywhere.
Simon Brimmer? For him the tragedy is a vital opportunity. His sponsor has gone cold on his show and wants to throw all the funds at the Miss Aggie show. The attempted - then successful - murder of Vera Bethune gives him the opportunity to show that he can take the police on their own game and win. That's got to be worth some Vita-Cream money.
Ellery is in the middle of it as well, of course. This may be his top episode for showing his caring, nurturing side. First there's the endearing reveal that he's a fan of this dumb radio soap. Then in a quietly well-acted scene he consoles his father, who's feeling guilty and stupid for not preventing a murder when his force was already investigating a murder attempt. And in a bizarre scene he listens to and comforts the show's organist, a lovely woman in real-life terms but one who's meant to be understood as an anguished wallflower (and probable owner of at least a dozen cats.)
I can say with some satisfaction that this is one of the few cases I was able to solve. Well, in broad strokes, at least. The solution rests in a dying clue. Dying clues are a peculiar invention of the mystery writer. I'm sure the number of actual murder victims who've been able to implicate their assailant through an arcane hint is minuscule. But it helps to put the reader - in this case viewer - on notice that they've picked up a different kind of story.