If there’s a contemporary equivalent of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, she would be Jessica Fletcher, the mystery novelist/sleuth at the heart of the Murder, She Wrote TV and book series. Calm, understanding, sensible, and unfailingly polite, she’s everything most female sleuths are not and—if we’re being honest—everything we all should aspire to be.
Jessica has friends, actual friends who like her, trust her, and enjoy her company. (Take that, Jane Tennison!) She lives in picturesque Cabot Cove, Maine, a peaceful (except for the murders) community where she rides her bike to the shops and chats with her neighbors. She travels the world. She makes a living doing what she loves. Who wouldn’t want to be Jessica Fletcher?
Before you answer, keep this in mind: being Jessica Fletcher requires hard work. And no one knows that better than Donald Bain.
Bain is the “co-author” of Jessica Fletcher’s 37-and-counting Murder, She Wrote mystery novels. True, Jessica gets top billing, but one has to accept that Bain does the heavy lifting here. For despite what fans want desperately to believe, Jessica is a fictional character originated on the TV series by Angela Lansbury. Nevertheless, the world lives in hope. “Every time I make a public appearance, there are a couple of really disappointed people who were waiting for Jessica,” Bain admits.
While he might not be mistaken for Jessica Fletcher in the flesh—his beard’s sort of a stopper—Bain is definitely not disappointing. This I say with all the objectivity of a person who has known him nearly all her life. (I met his daughters when I was five.) He was a local celebrity in our town and, whether he realizes it or not, he’s directly responsible for several of us pursuing professions in the literary world.
As his daughter Laurie pointed out to me recently, throughout his long and impressive career Bain has unintentionally become a particular type of female impersonator. From his enormous commercial success with Coffee, Tea or Me? in 1967 to the autobiography of 1940s film noir star Veronica Lake to the Murder, She Wrote mysteries, he’s ghostwritten dozens and dozens of books, most of them on behalf of women. So while you might not recognize his name, there’s a very good chance you’ve read his work.
The fact that Jessica, with whom he’s “collaborated” since 1989, doesn’t actually exist isn’t a barrier for him. “She’s real in the minds of a lot of readers and she’s real to me too,” he says. He not only knows her, he likes her. And, really, what’s not to like?
“With all due respect” is one of those remarks—like “Be honest, do you like my new haircut?”—that people toss around when they mean precisely the opposite. Jessica Fletcher is different because she genuinely does treat people with all due respect. “She’s very aware of foibles and what goes on today,” Bain points out. Yet, he adds, “She’s very accepting of the human condition.”
Respect is part of Jessica’s core. It’s why we love her, admire her, aspire to be more like her. And if we’re looking at the bigger picture, respect is at the core of the best cozy mystery protagonists. They prove to us that honesty and gentility are disarming in a way that duplicity and brutality cannot be.
“Jessica is an example by her actions,” Bain says. “She doesn’t preach it; she lives it.” Happily, she’s even become an example for new generations of readers. Bain often receives thank-you letters from parents whose teens have become hooked on reading through the Murder, She Wrote novels.
Reliable as she is, Jessica occasionally does the unexpected. She earned a pilot’s license, for one thing. (Not coincidentally, that’s an interest she and Bain share.) When she’s in London, she stays at the Athenaeum Hotel or the Savoy. (Both favorites of Bain’s.) She’s even been known to prop her feet up on the coffee table after a long day. (Jessica with her feet on the coffee table? “Impossible!” readers balked.)
After all those books together, Bain confesses to one or two missteps with Jessica. The most egregious was 22 years ago, in their first outing, Gin & Daggers, when Bain wrote that Jessica rented a car and drove it away. Fans of the TV series responded immediately: Jessica Fletcher does not drive, they reminded him. Bain never forgot.
Still, the occasional chastising letter is a small price to pay for a long and fruitful partnership with a beloved co-author. For while we all might aspire to be like Jessica Fletcher, Bain knows that the job of being Jessica Fletcher is already filled.
Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company.