Jessica Fletcher is a divisive figure. You either love her busybody nature, her observational prowess, her ability to outsmart the police in both Cabot Cove and New York, her ear-worm theme music (once heard, glued into your innermost synapses forever), her jaunty bicycling because she can’t drive (though she can, and does, fly a plane in the Murder, She Wrote tie-in novels), or you hate her, for exactly the same reasons. Though if you hate her, I suppose you may not have made time to read the tie-in novels, of which there are nearly forty.
Jessica is a former English teacher turned murder-mystery writer after the death of her husband, Frank. Her first novel, The Corpse Danced at Midnight, was an immediate best-seller. Unfortunately, once through the pilot episode where her publisher kills Sherlock Holmes, the writers are saddled with the intrinsic unlikelihood of an author stumbling on 264 episodes’ worth of crime scenes.
The closest real-life parallel to Jessica Fletcher is surely Agatha Christie, who wrote 60 plus murder novels and dozens more short stories, yet solved not one single actual murder. Jessica, meanwhile, solves plenty: 286 hapless victims bite the dust in the Murder, She Wrote universe.
The murders are so contingent on Jessica being there to solve the crime, that I often wonder if, rather than being a great detective, Jessica might actually be the most successful serial killer to practise in modern times. It would certainly explain her almost martial death toll.
Nonetheless, Jessica holds her place in the detective pantheon. Cabot Cove, Maine, is the precursor to all those other cosy murder locations – there would have been no Midsomer without Cabot Cove. Jessica is very much in the Miss Marple tradition: she’s seen the world go past from her kitchen window so she is never shocked by anything. And she sees murder everywhere, which is lucky, since it follows her around like a loyal dachshund.
She is also precisely the most desirable kind of famous. Jessica can walk the streets in perfect anonymity. But any time she needs to book a restaurant table, or get tickets for a sell-out show, or deal with the police when one of her myriad nieces or nephews is arrested for murder, and the crucial person is pretty much always a fan of the great JB Fletcher.
As for her finest hour, the crossover episodes with Magnum (Novel Connection and Magnum on Ice) are tremendous fun, but they’re surely beaten by Season 10’s A Murderous Muse, in which a mean piano teacher is sent an anonymous composition, plays it through, hits a rogue chord, and thus inadvertently causes himself to be shot in the head, by a sound-activated gun hidden in a desk behind him. And even that doesn’t fool Mrs Fletcher.
Iconic? Are you kidding me? Murder, She Wrote provided 12 Emmy nominations for Angela Lansbury. Also, they bothered with the comma in the title. Glorious.
Duffers? The moment in the pilot where a youth chases off two muggers in downtown New York, because he likes Jessica’s book.