Emma Fielding Mysteries: More Bitter Than Death (2019)

Third time’s a charm for Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. After one lackluster series premiere and a second slightly better debut, the channel delivers the goods with the third Emma Fielding mystery. Not only is it an absorbing case from start to finish, it’s also funny, and we all better enjoy cheeky Hallmark while we can. The film works because it walks a fine line of absurdity, integrating secret society nonsense and prima donna professors into a mystery about a murdered archaeology dean.

Dr. Emma Fielding (Courtney Thorne-Smith) is back at her home base of Kenzer College, where a major archaeology conference that she’s organized is about to begin. She barely gets past her opening speech when the association’s president and her friend, Dr. Althea Harrison, drops dead. Lest you think the academic set wouldn’t dirty their hands with murder, Dr. Fielding and her crime fighting partner, FBI agent Jim Conner (James Tupper), zero in on a trio of archeology professors sitting a table away. Redhead Paula Winter, bowtie guy Carl Biberman, and um, skinny nerd Scott Turner all are vying to succeed Dr. Harrison as head of their professional society. They make no effort to hide the fact that they want the job and feel that they are the most qualified, but does their scheming and posturing to get to the top include murder?

After some past tension, Dr. Fielding and Jim are now quite happy working together. They’re great at picking up on clues that lead them closer to the killer but not so much on those that show romantic interest. Enter Duncan (Mark Valley), Emma’s ex-fiancé, archaeologist, braggart, meathead, and quasi-British John Cena. His presence makes it an awkward trio, and while Jim would like nothing more than for him to shove off, Duncan proves to be an asset as they dig deeper into the case.

The two are my favorite couple in this movie, and though Dr. Fielding and Jim are practically finishing each other’s sentences, Duncan and Jim are simply magic. Both are more than a little insecure about where they stand with Emma, leading to some masterful exchanges that are as catty as they are witty. Tupper and Valley know exactly how to dial into that injured machismo, and they play it all with a twinkle in the eye.

The professor trifecta likewise inject some sass into their parts. My favorite is Paula, who thinks she’s way slicker than she is, but I was also surprised when guarded bow-tie guy breaks out his parkour skills. It’s a wild bunch, and that includes two of Emma’s students. Instead of a circle of fawning undergrads, this movie zeroes in on Carey (Tess Atkins) and Joe (Adam DiMarco), who becomes important to the case when an initiation ceremony into the secretive Order of Bacchus goes awry. Carrie and Joe’s “just friends” relationship mirrors that of Dr. Fielding and Jim, except that the former put their own snarky millennial spin on things.

Perhaps this show is a reminder that good things take time. I’ve much preferred the series that average a couple episodes per year, like Darrow and Darrow and Flower Shop Mysteries, than the ones that churn out movies like we’re in Lucy’s chocolate factory (yes, Garage Sale Mysteries and Aurora Teagarden). The writing in this film pulls all the elements together, from the case to the characters’ personal dramas, and everyone’s on the same page in regards to the movie’s tone. If we get an episode four and if it’s anything like this one, then I can’t wait.

Highlight for spoilers: The killer is always the person you least suspect, the one who seemingly has no connection to the case, and in this movie that’s Bob the security guard. To find out why he murdered Dr. Harrison, you have to go back a few decades to when he was at university with the dean, who at the time was president of the Order of Bacchus. It was his idea to have Bob’s brother climb the clock tower, leading to his death. Bob blames the dean and the school for his brother’s death and the loss of his own promising future. After having to scrape by in security for many years, he took a job at the university, pretty much to bring it down and to recoup his losses. He blackmails the dean and gets members of the Order of Bacchus steal artifacts from the museum. When Dr. Harrison discovers that some of the inventory is missing, he knows she’s got to go. He steals the poison from Biberman’s house. Also, Duncan is the new president.

Released: 2019
Dir: Kevin Fair
Writer: Phoef Suttton
Cast: Courtney Thorne-Smith, James Tupper, Mark Valley, Adam DiMarco, Tess Atkins
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019