Darrow & Darrow: In the Key of Murder (2018)

I’m still nursing hurt feelings over the cancellation of the Flower Shop Mystery series, which had a very capable lead in Brooke Shields. She upped the game on Hallmark’s amateur sleuths, insomuch as they can be, by creating a character who was sharp and a little silly while also dealing with weightier issues of love and tragedy, and murder. Darrow & Darrow slides in to replace that show and brings its own talented cast. So far, the team of Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Wendie Malick, and Tom Cavanaugh have shown strong outings, even if their movies have been less consistent.

In the Key of Murder improves on the first film with a high stakes case and a story that doesn’t have to meander around it for the sake of establishing new characters. There’s still a lot of traffic, but this time the subplots don’t drag the action too far from the main case, which is the murder of a verbally abusive music producer. The movie opens with him berating everyone in the recording studio, from his aspiring star to the backup singers to the sound mixer. It’s clear this guy is not long for the world, and sure enough, he’s dead by midnight. He manages to call his wife before his untimely exit and is heard shouting the name of the singer, Phoebe (MacKenzie Porter). She becomes the primary suspect.

This normally wouldn’t be a case for Claire Darrow (Williams-Paisley), who deals with less lethal matters, but Phoebe happens to be the sister of her friend and the assistant DA, Miles (Cavanaugh). It doesn’t look promising for either of them when all the evidence points in Phoebe’s direction. Not only is she heard on the phone call, but she threatened the deceased and is less than forthcoming about her relationship with her new producer. Miles adds fuel to the fire with his own suspicions about his sister.

The personal connections pushes the case to the forefront, unlike in the first movie where legal matters were an afterthought. Malick, who plays Claire’s mother and the other titular Darrow, continues to exert a strong presence even though she’s not involved in the main story. Her character, Joanna, earned my sympathy despite being a corporate lawyer with a taste for the high life. She wasn’t going to let her sanctimonious daughter blame her for having ambition and an understanding of life’s grittier realities. (Good on sanctimonious daughter for having the most diverse office in all of Hallmarkland though.) But Joanna’s mellowed out and is getting on board with the socially minded ethos of her deceased husband’s law firm. This time, she’s assigned to mediate between a little girl running a lemonade stand and a sourpuss who loves zoning laws, and she discovers that pro bono work has its perks.

I’m optimistic about this series and hope it has a longer life than Flower Shop Mystery. The relationship between the Darrow women is far more exciting to watch than a predictable one between plucky female sleuth and her lover, and their dynamic pushes the story in directions that we don’t see in Hallmark’s other series. One subplot involves Claire’s daughter, Lou (Lilah Fitzgerald), who’s determined to keep her spot on the all-boys baseball team. The writing is clunky and the resolution doesn’t make a lot of sense, but at least we get to see three generations of women pushing their way past the patriarchy. If anything, the show could make better use of its male star. Cavanaugh is too good to be sidelined, but the creators have yet to define his role. Miles looks to be moving towards love interest territory but hasn’t quite gotten there and is kind of milling around holding lots of cups of coffee for now.

Highlight for spoilers: The big, blindingly obvious clue was the motor oil, which gave a false positive on the gun residue, which means the couple in the garage did it, i.e. the backup singer and her husband, the sound guy. No idea what their names are and also got confused with backup singer and the lookalike wife of the deceased. But the short is, she was jealous of Phoebe and thought she could kill her way into becoming the star. Her husband used his sound mixing skills to frame Phoebe; the phone call was fake and just a recording. Claire confronts the couple in court instead of in an abandoned warehouse because she ain’t no dummy and girl’s got skills.

Release: 2018
Dir: Mel Damski
Writer: Phoef Sutton
Cast: Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Wendie Malick, Tom Cavanaugh, Lilah Fitzgerald, Barclay Hope, MacKenzie Porter, Paul McGillion, David Paetkau
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018