When I finally have an hour to sit down and I want to watch a well-crafted mystery, I often turn to that excellent series with the mystery writer/amateur sleuth who gets involved in all kinds of hijinks. I check my DVR list to see what she’s been up to lately. Are you startled by the pronoun “she?” Perhaps you thought I was talking about Richard Castle.
While I adore Castle, I’m actually referring to his mystery writing forerunner, a retired, but by no means retiring, schoolteacher, who has a knack for writing mysteries. And, in just under an hour, she solves murders without either forensics or undue violence. I’m never sure whether murder follows or precedes her, but I assure you there are murders aplenty.
Is there anyone who doesn’t joyfully remember Sunday nights in front of the television? 8 pm sharp. (Except during football season, when the games often pushed the time back.) From 1984 until the show moved to Thursday nights for its final season in 1996, my Sunday evenings belonged to Jessica Fletcher, played by the fabulous Angela Lansbury, in the television drama, Murder She Wrote. Angela is a perfect Jessica: intelligent, ladylike, firm in her convictions, and extremely fearless, facing down murderers time and time again. Many of the deaths that attract Jessica’s attention occur in her small hometown of Cabot Cove, Maine. But, lest Cabot Cove run out of people, Jessica travels to superb locales around the world, often visiting friends or relatives, sometimes teaching writing courses at a college, or, occasionally, on a book tour. Early in season eleven, Jessica visits Amsterdam, (“Amsterdam Kill”) and the next week is back in Cabot Cove (“To Kill A Legend”). Then it’s off to Hawaii (“Death in Hawaii”), and so her itinerary continues.
In my all-time favorite episode, “The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel,” Jessica participates in the inquiry of an Air Force plane that crashed fifty years earlier, and has finally been recovered. The body of a crewmember is found on board and it’s evident he was murdered. Jessica’s deceased husband, Frank, is the prime suspect. Jessica needs to solve this case and protect her husband’s memory. While she adamantly insists that Frank would never kill or harm anyone, the struggle to prove it is extremely difficult.
Many episodes involve the Cabot Cove Townies. There are Sheriffs Tupper and Metzger (Tom Bosley and Ron Masak), who never manage to solve a crime on their own. Doctor Seth Hazlitt, the closest thing Jessica has to a steady beau, is played by William Windom. Eve Simpson, a real estate agent with an eye for men, is played by Julie Adams. Mayor Sam Booth is played in a brilliant, bumbling manner by Richard Paul. Who can forget the episode in season six, during which Sam is challenged for re-election by a greedy developer and at the same time a woman comes to town claiming bachelor Sam is father to her five children? Even with murder involved, Sam is hilarious.
Jessica’s two most visible relatives are her nephew Grady Fletcher (Michael Horton), who gets into more than his fair share of trouble with the law, and his girlfriend/fiancée/wife, Donna Mayberry, played by Horton’s real life wife, Debby Zipp. Occasionally we meet various cousins, including one or two who have a striking resemblance to Jessica because Angela plays the dual roles, something she does extremely well.
And then there are the recurring men in Jessica’s life. (Watch out Doctor Hazlitt!) Jerry Orbach is “straight out of the pulps” private investigator Harry McGraw, who was such a well-liked character that CBS spun off his own show, The Law and Harry McGraw, which unfortunately, only lasted one season.
Len Cariou is British MI-6 agent Michael Hagarty, who is always on extremely dangerous assignments. He drags Jessica headlong into danger with him, and sometimes leaves her there. I’m never quite sure he’ll return to make things right, but he always does.
Suave and debonair Dennis Stanton, played by Keith Michell, is an insurance investigator and former jewel thief whose unusual methods of crime solving would make a great basis for fiction. (Oh, this is fiction, right? See how caught up I get?) We see him most often in the bookend shows. Jessica introduces the story, Dennis solves the crime and Jessica wraps it for us. These episodes are completely independent and don’t include any of the regular Murder She Wrote populace.
Wayne Rogers is wonderfully seedy and disreputable as Charlie Garrett, a private investigator who cuts corners and often needs Jessica’s help. And she always comes to the rescue.
Nearly every well-known actor of the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies did at least one guest stint on Murder She Wrote. Pat Hingle, Howard Duff, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Jean Peters, Brian Keith, Raymond St. Jacques, Teresa Wright, Cesar Romero, Robert Goulet, Fritz Weaver, Lloyd Nolan, Sally Kellerman, Jane Greer, Ned Beatty. Well, I would run out of ink (or pixels), if I tried to remind you of all the greats who’ve appeared on the show. Some more than once. As for future stars, an episode involving a young couple madly in love introduced us to George Clooney.
Although new episodes did finally cease, syndication has been very good to Jessica Fletcher’s fans. Most weekdays, if you turn on the Hallmark Movie Channel or TVLand in mid-afternoon, you will come across an episode or two of Murder, She Wrote. Keeps my DVR working hard.
And what about the Murder, She Wrote books, which have been going strong since the late 1980s? For a look at the books and the author who “co-writes” them with Jessica Fletcher, see Leslie Gilbert Elman’s delightful post about Donald Bain’s long history providing us with more Murder, She Wrote.
Long live Jessica Fletcher!