The Rooster Crowed at Midnight by Abigail Porterfield is a detective novel which occurs in the Season 6 episode The Light That Failed.
The novel in the MASH episode
Early in the episode, the MASH staff, cold and short of medical supplies in deep winter, are jubilant when a supply truck arrives. However they are quickly crushed to discover that the truck carries boxes and boxes of useless hot weather items like salt tablets and suntan lotion. However, all is not lost. In an otherwise empty mail bag, they find a package for B.J. Hunnicutt which turns out to be the novel The Rooster Crowed at Midnight which, according to the jacket blurb, was "another brain-teasing, spine-chilling whodunit from the prize-winning pen of Abigail Porterfield". The jacket blurb also described Abigail Porterfield as a 97-year old lady who had been residing in Sydney, Australia for the last 60 years.
The bored MASH staff soon pass the book around sometimes a chapter or a page at a time. For Hawkeye, getting to read the first chapter "just might be better than sex". For the impatient Winchester, "it certainly takes longer around here." The efforts of the MASH staff to identify the murderer take up much of the time in the episode.
Is it Real? Is it an Agatha Christie novel?
Although many fans have thought that The Rooster Crowed at Midnight might really exist, this is not true. The novel was a prop for the episode. There is no such novel in reality, and Abigail Porterfield the novelist does not exist, either.
The novel is thought to be patterned after the detective novels of Agatha Christie and does indeed contain many motifs of the Christie novels.
Like Christie's The Secret of Chimneys, The Hollow, and Crooked House, it is a country house mystery. The crimes are set in a country house, in this case, Huntley Manor on the English moors.
There is a presumably wealthy patriarch, Lord "Old Man" Cheevers, and a large ensemble of characters are gathered at the country house for some reason. Lord Cheevers is murdered and then more and more of the others are killed.
Finally, in a characteristic Christie touch, the suspects are gathered in a drawing room by the detective who proceeds to review the evidence, announcing the murderer only on the last page of the novel (which unfortunately for the MASH crew, was missing).
However, there is no exact parallel Christie novel. Christie's country house crime mysteries are seldom based on a simple motive of inheriting wealth. The bodycount is also far too high - a total of 11 people, 2 pigs, and 1 canary are killed in The Rooster Crowed at Midnight. No Christie novel has such a high number of murder victims.
The Characters in the Novel
The MASH staff come to know the characters in the novel very well. They include:
- Lord Cheevers - the first murder victim - presumably in a locked library
- Sir Winslow - another murder victim - hit by a falling gargoyle
- Lady Penelope - "a woman scorned" (according to Bigelow)
- Jessica - "a prize thoroughbred; swift, hot-blooded, and highly responsive to the whip"
- Randolph - nephew of Lord Armbruster, "...a raging stallion. To call him merely virile would be to damn with faint praise"
- Reverend Homer Butterfield - almost 90 (or says he is)
- Avery Updike - stepson of Lord Cheevers
- Maurice - a French accountant
In chapter 3 of the novel, there is a lurid section describing an affair between Jessica and Randolph. Winchester gets so carried away when reading it to Margaret in her tent that he ends up calling her "Jessica", leading Margaret to kick him out.
So Who Did It?
When the MASH staff discover that the last page is missing, B.J. is at first confident he knows the murderer - it has to be Rev Homer Butterfield. However, he later changes his mind when he realizes that Butterfield's ship from Australia only pulled into Liverpool two days after the first murder.
Bigelow believes the murderer to be Lady Penelope, "the woman scorned". She was presumably lady to either Lord Cheevers or Sir Winslow. B.J. then recalls that Randolph was in love with Cheever's mistress (Jessica?) and that gave him a motive. He had played in Huntley Manor as a child and so would know about its secrets - like a secret panel behind a bookcase to gain access into the library (there's always one).
This seems to satisfy the group until later when Bigelow discovers that Randolph couldn't have done it because he suffered from vertigo and so could not have climbed up on the roof to drop the gargoyle on Sir Winslow.
Driven to extremes, B.J. decides to call Abigail Porterfield in Sydney for the answer. She tells him it was Avery Updike who was trying to get access to the inheritance - a task which Klinger says would require killing 35 people.
Everyone is now satisfied with the solution, and now the correct supply truck arrives, so all is well until...Colonel Potter tells them it couldn't be Avery Updike either, because when Sir Winslow was killed, he was locked in the linen closet with Jessica.