The Great Detectives: Jessica Fletcher
As part of a group effort by The Tuesday Night Bloggers, I’ve previously discussed four of my favourite Great Detectives — three created by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason and Cool & Lam in Part 1 and Doug Selby in Part 2, along with Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-Djieh from 6th century China.
Today’s contribution is a character whom some of my regular readers may disparage as being artificial, or cardboard, or merely entirely implausible — Jessica Fletcher, a widowed mystery writer from Cabot Cove, Maine, portrayed by Angela Lansbury, who starred in 264 episodes of a television programme called Murder, She Wrote between 1984 and 1996. Between 1997 and 2003 there were four made-for-TV movies; between 1989 and 2018, there have been approximately 48 spin-off novels as by, for the most part, “Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain”. (The “approximately” is because Gin and Daggers was released twice, in two editions, in 1989 and 2000; the second edition corrected errors in continuity with the TV series, such as Jessica being unable to drive a car.)
Now, say what you will about her believability as a character, or the astonishingly high murder rate of Cabot Cove — 264 hours of network TV plus 8 hours of movies plus 48 novels, all of which were published after the TV series went off the air and continued for thirty years afterwards, adds up to a durable character who has a great big fan following. The TV series has never been out of syndication since it went off the air, to my knowledge, and has been released on home video in its entirety. Think about it for a minute. It’s absolutely unprecedented to have 48 spin-off novels published after a TV show goes off the air, let alone have them published in hardcover first editions; very few other television programmes have ever managed to sustain the public’s interest for nearly 30 years after going off the air. Only Star Trek and Doctor Who even come close to surpassing Murder, She Wrote’s scale of market penetration.
Why is Jessica Fletcher such a great detective?
To be honest, as she’s presented in the TV programme, Jessica is not such a great Great Detective. She has the knack of being at the right place at the right time, and she certainly is a person who notices small things in her environment and remembers them at the right time to put two and two together. By and large, though, quite a few of her cases are not solved by methods that would be approved by, say, Ellery Queen.
For instance, a favourite method of bringing Jessica to the mystery’s solution was to have her realize that the murderer had mentioned something that meant that s/he had to be at the scene of the crime, or in some way had told a lie about his/her whereabouts at the time of the murder. Yes, that takes a little deductive reasoning, but really it just means Jessica was up against a stupid murderer. Another method that found frequent approval with the screenwriters was Jessica collaborating with the police to set a trap for the murderer because they didn’t have enough evidence to convict the killer and needed a lot of self-incrimination. Sometimes the trap is based on fake evidence. That’s not the standard of detection that made Ellery famous.
But for every one of those half-hearted endings, there was another episode that would possibly surprise an experienced mystery reader with its cleverness. The series was, after all, created by Richard Levinson and William Link (and Peter Fischer) — Levinson and Link created the mystery series Columbo, Mannix, Ellery Queen, and Blacke’s Magic. The writing partnership received the Ellery Queen Award (for outstanding mystery-writing teams) in 1989. And one of their scripts for a stand-alone made-for-TV movie, the great Rehearsal for Murder, won the Edgar Award in 1983.
So you might not be surprised to know that there’s a clever locked-room mystery as the basis of a Season 1 episode (We’re Off To Kill the Wizard), or that M,SW viewers regularly pronounced themselves baffled until Jessica told them whodunit at about minute 54 of every episode. By and large, the scripts have intelligence and contain interesting puzzles. Levinson & Link’s involvement with the series dwindled as time went on and the puzzles got less difficult, but in the early years even John Dickson Carr aficionados may find themselves challenged by a few of the scripts.
Where they generally fall down is plausibility. We’ve all chuckled at the huge murder rate in tiny Cabot Cove, where accepting a dinner invitation from Jessica was tantamount to either suicide or a life sentence for murder. Certainly mystery writers have to go around the world to promote their books, especially for someone like Jessica Fletcher whose books are regularly made into movies (see season 1’s Hooray for Homicide, where Jessica is suspected of killing a producer who turned her first mystery into a B-grade horror movie). But everywhere she goes, from Saskatchewan (Showdown in Saskatchewan, season 4) to Moscow (From Russia With Blood, season 5) to cyberspace (A Virtual Murder, season 10) Jessica’s presence is like the kiss of death for someone. At least 264 someones, making Jessica Fletcher the Angel of Death around the world.
Frankly, the producers of M,SW experimented with the format of the programme in a way that would likely have killed any other series. Beginning in season 6, Lansbury needed a respite from the onerous production schedule of 22 episodes a year, and the scripts began featuring guest stars leading stories without Jessica involved, except in introductory and closing “bumpers”. (For instance, The Grand Old Lady from season 6 repurposed an unused script from Ellery Queen and featured the detecting skills of a young American reporter who looked and acted a lot like Ellery Queen.) A few of these guest detectives were popular with the viewers; Keith Michell as roguish insurance investigator Dennis Stanton was nearly spun off into his own series, and Jerry Orbach as seedy private eye Harry McGraw actually made 16 episodes of the short-lived spin-off The Law and Harry McGraw in 1987-1988. Jessica did a crossover episode with Magnum P.I. and occasionally did a two-part episode, but for the most part the series stayed comfortably and safely within the 60-minute format, and you could just about set your watch by the discovery of the body and the revelation of the murder in each episode.
Possibly in order to bring some freshness to the work for Angela Lansbury, within the boundaries of the series she played a hard-drinking cousin of Jessica’s with an English accent a couple of times; occasionally the mystery plots were more focused on espionage and international plots, and travel to exotic locations like Hong Kong and Italy was a feature of the last few seasons.
The producers later stopped the guest star policy but it seemed evident (to me at least) that Lansbury’s heart wasn’t in the work any more and the final few seasons were desultory. The last years’ scripts had many examples where Jessica was certainly there, but not really necessary to solve the mystery; either that or the reason for her being on the scene was so specious as to be entirely beyond belief. She actually solved one mystery over the phone. Jessica’s friends relatives (especially the repeating character of her nephew Grady) occasionally took up the slack of detection and let Jessica mostly relax and be an armchair detective.
What was responsible for her popularity?
It’s safe to say that one of the reasons why Jessica Fletcher attained such great durability is that the series was originally designed to appeal to middle-aged TV viewers. That age group was not well-served by appropriate entertainment in the 1980s and have become even less interesting to television producers in the intervening years. But with Jessica Fletcher, the middle-aged lady who wasn’t afraid to get her hands bloody investigating a murder, the older viewer found a comfortable home. Jessica radiated confidence and was always at home in a variety of situations; when she found herself dealing with something new, like virtual reality headsets or switching from a typewriter to computer to write her books, she waded in and got the job done.
Another often cited-reason for Jessica’s popularity is that, especially in the early years, the producers very wisely filled the episodes with guest stars who were familiar to the viewer from other TV and movie appearances, but not huge stars — what one reviewer called the “Love Boat” gambit. In my house when M,SW was on, the TV room was a hubbub as my family tried to identify exactly where they’d seen the actors before. “That’s the guy from …” or, “Didn’t she play the X on such-and-such?” There’s a huge list on Wikipedia of M,SW guest stars found here, which included 13 Oscar winners. But many of the guest stars were actors whose careers were declining and who were used more for their nostalgic references than their acting abilities.
The first-rate second-rate guest stars provided a kind of mental anchoring for the audience; a kind of familiarity that let people know that, yes, it might be a story about murder but you know that it’s just light-hearted fun, because gee, that guy was one of the Brady Bunch, wasn’t he? As a general rule, the more famous the actor the less likely it was that their appearance would see them revealed as a victim or a murderer; they would generally manage to keep their reputations unsullied. Some actors appeared more than once in different roles, and some apparently relished the chance to play the killer. Here’s your trivia question — which actor/actress who was the title character in a different detective series appeared three times on Murder, She Wrote and played the killer twice? (Feel free to answer in the comments.)
Ultimately, though, it was all about Angela Lansbury. She seems to have struck a chord with the audience, male and female, who apparently found her overwhelmingly upright morality attractive. Lansbury, of course, can really act — by the end of the series, she probably could have done scenes in her sleep, but she managed to bring talent if not huge energy to even the most desultory of scripts. When she stopped doing the character, it never recovered.
Whatever the reason for her continued popularity, it’s quite an achievement that Jessica Fletcher’s brand has extended to the present day. I don’t think there’s an enormous presence to Jessica Fletcher, but in this day of reboots and remakes, I think it’s interesting that no one has floated the idea of bringing back Jessica as, say, a much younger woman, or a woman of colour, or even just another middle-aged actress whose career is fading and who could use a comfortable niche on the TV schedule. The books are still going strong, mostly due to library sales, and I think they will continue to do so … whether we ever see Jessica Fletcher on screen again is another matter. I’d certainly watch a reboot.