Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Murder, She Wrote: How to Solve a Murder with Jessica Fletcher

Some detectives sit in a cramped, gloomy office, and a murder investigation is triggered by a dame walking through the door and demanding help. Others are plainclothes police offers, on the clock and awaiting a crime scene. For mystery novel writer turned amateur detective J.B. Fletcher (Jessica, to her friends) of Murder, She Wrote, which premiered on CBS in 1984, murder seems to follow her wherever she goes. The author’s knowledge and adeptness is derived from hours of research, concocting various ways in which a person(s) can be murdered. She’s so thorough, in fact, that, when working a case, she’s occasionally been named a suspect, often an unscrupulous way to glean information that she’s stockpiled on her own. (She’s also been arrested, such as the Season 5 premiere, “J.B., as in Jailbird”, but that had more to do with the fact that she was standing over a dead body.)

Jessica (Angela Lansbury) is a modern day Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s popular female sleuth. Like Jessica, Miss Marple is an older woman working as an amateur gumshoe (though Jessica is considerably younger). Both women work alone or without a regular partner, and while Miss Marple was never married, Jessica is a widow and lives in a small cottage in Cabot Cove, Maine. (Keep in mind that, while Jessica was often paired in the course of the investigation with characters such as Sheriff Amos, played by Tom Bosley, such characters worked as a counterbalance, their superficial view of a crime or suspect invariably proven wrong by Jessica.)

Though Jessica Fletcher did not go looking for murder, it always managed to find her. Whether she was visiting relatives (nieces, nephews and the like, as she and her late husband had no children), attending conferences or events related to her books, or simply staying at home, dead bodies seem to fall at her very doorstep (that almost happens in the series’ second episode, “Deadly Lady”, when a stranger shows up at her door looking for work and winds up dead -- though somewhere else, not at her door). Wherever Jessica was, or whomever the victim, there was a basic pattern to solving murder mysteries, and the novelist followed fundamental steps, much like a story’s outline.

1. Ingratiate oneself with the local authorities. Jessica typically deals with two types of authority figures. While most of the detectives or cops are familiar with her and/or her novels, they either consider her a nuisance or are gushing fans. If the investigating detective was a fan (e.g., the French inspector, played by Fritz Weaver, in “A Fashionable Way to Die”, who jokingly calls her Watson), Jessica was at a major advantage, with firsthand details of the ongoing case. But a cop who doesn’t appreciate her presence or respect her work creates another obstacle for the author. In any case, the best way seems to be working with the lead investigator, and not against -- unless, of course, said authority is suspect, like in Season 3’s “Cemetery Vote”.

2. The most effective way to prove an innocent person’s innocence is to expose the real killer. Generally the police lock onto a suspect or two, and Jessica may have doubts. Establishing someone as beyond suspicion is a nearly impossible feat, as the only real way to erase all residue of guilt is to throw it all onto the guilty party. Whether or not the unjustly accused is Jessica’s friend or a family member, the novelist will take a step back, gather all the clues and allow them to lead her to -- hopefully -- someone else.

3. Obtain a confession by any means available -- trickery, proof of deceit, etc. -- but always be prepared. On the road to the killer’s identity, Jessica often finds herself face-to-face with a person whom she’s confident (or, at least, fairly certain) is a murderer. She may remind said person of a spoken untruth or an inconsistency in his/her story, or she may intentionally cause a person to blunder, but what Jessica does nearly every time is arrive with backup. This functions as another set of ears if a killer confesses but, more than that, it’s simply protection from a person whose desperation may prove fatal. Sometimes it all comes to a head in a room full of suspects, which is preferable by offering additional witnesses and more limbs to restrain a murderer.

4. In the course of the investigation, lying or manipulation may be a necessary evil. There are occasions when Jessica flatly misleads someone or does not rectify a misunderstanding. One such example is from Season 4’s “Witness for the Defense”, when Jessica leads a suspect to believe that she’s an ambitious small-town reporter so that he will feed her further details of a murder.

5. Let the resolution happen naturally. In a number of episodes, Jessica has all the pieces she needs and doesn’t quite know how everything fits. It’s often when she’s discussing or considering another topic that a connection is made, and she can move from there to a solution.

Not every episode followed a formula. Season 3’s “Murder in a Minor Key”, as a for instance, was an interesting change of course. Jessica speaks directly to her audience, introducing and recapping (following what would have been the commercial breaks) the story of one of her novels -- the episode’s title. Perusing the plot, however, one sees familiar terrain: a law student (Shaun Cassidy) works as a novice sleuth, determined to prove that a friend did not commit a murder and ultimately extracting a confession from the person truly responsible. It seems that Jessica’s life provided the basis for her novels -- or were her books the inspiration for her investigatory process?

“Murder in a Minor Key” acted as almost a precursor to what became known as “bookend episodes” in Seasons 6 and 7. With the assumption that Lansbury would be departing after the fifth season, executive producer and writer Peter S. Fischer scripted a series finale, which had to be reworked at the eleventh hour when Lansbury signed on for two additional seasons (though she stuck around for even more). Part of her agreement was a reduced workload, which was handled by sporadic episodes throughout a season in which Jessica would only appear to introduce and/or close a story. Examples included another of her novels (“Good-Bye Charlie”), and episodes featuring her crime-solving friends, such as MI6 agent Michael Haggerty (Len Cariou), football player turned P.I. Bill Boyle (Ken Howard), and insurance investigator and former thief/conman Dennis Stanton (Keith Mitchell). There was a notable drop in ratings during these two seasons, which seemed to affirm that viewers tuned in not for the murders but for the bright and beguiling Jessica Fletcher. It was a drastic change to watch, for instance, Dennis solve a crime (Mitchell’s character starred in one of the bookend episodes in Season 6 and all five of them in 7). His method was a diametrical difference, as he sought to prove guilt, intentionally agitated law enforcement, and identified fabricated accounts from others in lieu of manipulating them (an interesting approach from an ex-conman).

Angela Lansbury was topnotch as Jessica Fletcher. She made the character immensely charismatic, sweet like a grandmother, nimble like a dancer, and elegant like a queen. She was a lady whom anyone would wish to know, although only from afar, considering the track record for her wrongfully accused family and friends. For her portrayal, Lansbury was nominated for 12 Emmys (a nomination per season) and 10 Golden Globe awards. Shockingly, she never won an Emmy, but she did walk away with four Golden Globes. The versatile actress has been nominated and won awards for her work in film, TV and theatre, including an Academy Award nomination for her 1944 film debut, Gaslight, also starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, and five Tony Awards.

Though Lansbury was the only regular, there were several recurring characters. William Windom played Dr. Seth Hazlitt, Cabot Cove’s doctor. Windom actually debuted on the series as another character (a murder suspect!) in the Season 1 finale, “Funeral at Fifty-Mile”. Seth first appeared in the second season. Tom Bosley was Sheriff Amos Tupper. Bosley left the series after Season 4 for the lead in Father Dowling Mysteries. Though Bosley’s departure was disappointing, he was replaced by Ron Masak as Sheriff Mort Metzger, a warm and favorable character on par with Sheriff Amos. Masak, like Windom, first starred on Murder, She Wrote as a different character (two, actually, in Seasons 1 and 3) before becoming the sheriff. Michael Horton also made frequent appearances as Jessica’s long-suffering nephew, Grady. He has been accused of murder a few times, including the pilot. A body is discovered soon after announcing his engagement to Donna (Debbie Zipp, who is married to Horton in real life) and another on the couple’s wedding day. In Season 6 (“The Szechuan Dragon”), a corpse makes its way into Jessica’s living room while Grady and a pregnant Donna are house sitting (Jessica still solves that one, over the phone and 3,000 miles away in London).

Jessica’s ingenuity and knack for solving murder mysteries is undisputed. The sheriffs of Cabot Cove were intelligent men, but their reliance on Jessica is clear, and, though they may not admit it, detectives and cops of other cases may never have found the real killer if not for the author. And if not for the crossover episode, who would have helped Magnum, P.I. (Tom Selleck) prove his innocence? My favorite part of Murder, She Wrote is Jessica’s moment of revelation, which happened in most episodes. It was that subtle jaw drop, the eyes a little wide, and her frozen, immobile state that lasts for a couple of seconds. She’d usually run from the room, sometimes thanking the person she’s with, the person clueless as to what she’s deduced. There are times when I know why Jessica had her reaction, and many times I don’t. But it’s always a welcome sight.


  1. I had as much fun reading this post as watching an episode of "Murder, She Wrote".

    I would hardly call Jess's Cabot Cove abode a "small cottage" though. More than ample room for a convention of mystery writers.

    While watching a 4th season episode of "Gunsmoke" the other day, Matt Dillon caught a murderer using your step #3, the unspoken truth. My daughter turned to me and commented that Matt had tapped into his inner Jessica.

    When I grow up I want to be J.B. Fletcher!

  2. Sark, this was an incredibly thorough, perceptive review that's almost as charming as Ms. Fletcher herself. In your discussion of later seasons, you noted that "viewers tuned in not for the murders but for the bright and beguiling Jessica Fletcher." I think that was the key to the series: an engaging sleuth played by a first-rate actress. On a weekly television series, I think that's more important than clever mysteries and plot twists. Once one becomes invested in a great character, watching a series becomes the equivalent of a weekly visit with a good friend. I love your description of the usual episode formula (which reminded me of COLUMBO, another series with a memorable character that followed a steady formula to great effect). I forgot that Angela Lansbury never won an Emmy...despite being nominated 12 times! She was a marvelous actress, adept at playing comedy (she's awesome in THE COURT JESTER), evil mothers (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), and--of course--amateur detectives. What a great pick for this month!

  3. Sark, this was a most thoroughly engaging profile of Jessica Fletcher, portrayed to perfection by the very talented Angela Lansbury. I think your point 2 was adapted by most amateur detectives, including even the lawyer Perry Mason. In a whodunnit we demand to know who did it! I loved your observation about that "I've got it!" moment and also your wry comment about Jessica being "a lady whom anyone would wish to know, although only from afar" because one would have a higher propensity to become a suspect onself! Superb write-up!

  4. I loved reading this. Thanks so much. I was a big fan of the show years ago, a big fan of Angela Lansbury actually. But there was something about MURDER SHE WROTE which was so cozy and comfy - just the opening alone always put me in a good mood - not to mention the jaunty title music.

    Lansbury was really perfect in the part. And I always liked William Windom and Tom Bosley in their roles.

    My late mother too loved the show.

  5. Sark, my Mom just LOVED this show! (I ended up getting into it with her when we became roommates when my boys flew the coop!) It would not be TV detective month without Jessica, and I'm glad you're the one who did it! Really interesting facts, fun reminders of different episodes. I laughed at your description of her "got it" moment, too! You know what that reminds me of? I am a rabid "House" fan, and he does that all the time -- talking to someone, suddenly getting an idea and running out with the other person wondering what happened!

    Lansbury was just a wonder. From pretty little maid in Gaslight to murderous mother in Manchurian to Jessica Fletcher, she did it all. Your list of "how she did it" was great. My favorite has always been Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, but Jessica is my next detective fave! Great article!

  6. Sark,
    I can't get the MSW theme song out of my head now. My mother loved this show and she will still watch the reruns over and over when not amusing herself with the Charlie Chan series. This is very effective in running my dad out of the living room.

    Admittedly, I wasn't a fan of Ms. Fletcher and her dutiful help but after a couple of years I got used to them and now I find myself watching them on occasion even though they are a bit milquetoast. And as I've gotten older I realize living in Cabot Cove and solving crimes (That place was insanely dangerous) wouldn't be a bad gig.

    My favorite in this genre is the Ellery Queen Mysteries. Sadly, I've never seen it in syndication. I can't look at a black and white tiled floor or a chess board without thinking about it. (Very strange)
    Great Post as always Sark.

  7. Sark, I really enjoyed reading your article on one of my favorite shows, MSW. The show always had great line-up of well known guest stars, who would play different characters in each episode. Some of the actors I remember being on the show: Van Johnson, June Allyson, Stewart Granger, Cyd Charisse, Dorothy Lamour, Ann Blythe, Eleanor Parker, Ernest Borgnine....

  8. Great review. But come on! You know that Fletcher was a serial killer secretly juggling trysts with the local authorities.

    Or so I've heard...

  9. Angela is one classy lady. She is in the same category as Betty Davis, Joan Crawford and others. I have watched since it began and continue to watch 3 hours every night. I'll watch as long as you air the show. Thank you for good entertainment without all the nonsense.