On Murder, She Wrote
by David Beer
I have a quite pronounced memory of Murder, She Wrote first being broadcast in the UK. Its dated styling may make this hard to imagine now, but to my recollection it was a fairly big launch. There were adverts promoting it and a prime-time evening slot. As a burgeoning fan of such things, there was quite a sense of anticipation.
The format was very appealing for anyone with an inclination toward TV detective shows too. Jessica Fletcher, also known as J.B. Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury, was a well-known crime fiction writer who was also, as it is often put in the show, a formidable “amateur detective”. Captured in its quaintly bizarre and faintly off-kilter world, I have to admit to watching the show diligently since its first appearance.
Initially I’d misunderstood the chain of events that make-up the show’s arch. I’d missed that comma in the title. I thought at first that Jessica wrote the story of the murder and then it would happen. I’ve subsequently discovered, from years of watching, that this does actually happen in at least one episode. Yet the premise of the show as a whole is that Jessica’s pencil sharpened eye for the detail of a mystery, honed by writing those mass-selling and highly popular books, has readied her to see and solve real mysteries in ways that others can’t. Jessica’s skill is based in her heightened attentiveness to minutiae and a deep attunement to both human nature and plot.
Originally running from 1984 to 1996 the show was a big success. It kept that prime evening slot for a while before semi-retiring to the more sedate and less demanding afternoon schedules. Today, nearly four decades on, it is now possible to watch multiple episodes in a row on one of those anonymous mid-range TV channels. Despite its notable place in TV history it has been exiled to the TV equivalent of the bargain bucket. Yet it’s a comfy home. The format of the show lends itself to multiple episode viewing. You can become absorbed in those repeated patterns and in its gentle aesthetic. When they produced these shows they couldn’t have intended for them to be watched sequentially in quick succession, yet they produced something that almost works better in that mode of viewing.
It’s one of those shows that has just enough content to hold the attention and not quite enough to be demanding of the viewer. There are perhaps four or five types of storyline that are used within the show. These have basic features that tend to reappear. Any viewer of the show will spot these popping up in slightly reworked forms. There remains just enough variation within those narrative structures to keep things from ever getting too staid. There is also that gentle lulling tone. What might be heavy content is breezily dealt with. Things seems to float away easily on Cabot Cove’s faint coastal winds.
Within the show the most commonly used plot point would be the presence of the wrongly accused individual. It’s obvious to the viewer and to Jessica that this person looks guilty simply through circumstance. The over eager and misguided police officer appears wherever Jessica goes. The mistaken arrest provides a secondary injustice for Jessica to resolve within the hour. Of course, the most obvious culprit within TV detective shows is rarely the perpetrator. Jessica knows that, as do we, and so we can share in her frustration at the hastiness of the police. We can also then share the satisfaction as they are guided to the correct outcome.
Then there is often an epiphany type moment. A revelation comes out of the blue and only Jessica is aware of what it means. In this moment a crucial detail is inadvertently brought to Jessica’s attention by someone who doesn’t realise it. An unrelated comment is made and Jessica suddenly realises the importance of something seemingly innocuous that she had noticed but hadn’t yet placed into the jigsaw, until then.
What this all requires is a set of possible outcomes that can be played with or eliminated during the episode. A key aspect of Murder, She Wrote is the way that, usually, the opening scenes are designed to create as many suspects as possible. It produces lots of potential pathways. As many as it can. The aim being to keep the viewer guessing for as long as possible. Twists are taken to try to keep as many options in contention, the result of this is that even at the end the motives can sometimes seem a little hard to fully decipher. This is especially the case where they seem to run low on time and rush to a close.
We interpret the world of Murder, She Wrote through Jessica’s reactions to and observations of it. A raised eyebrow, a slight curl of the lip, a knowing glance, a look of surprise at an overheard conversation, a nodded acknowledgment, a rolling of the eyes, a resigned tightening of the forehead. What we are nudged toward thinking of as the unsavoury, for instance, is usually dealt with via Jessica’s facial expressions. Yet at the same time, somehow, Jessica is simultaneously judgmental and non-judgmental of the characters around her. Jessica is worldly-wise, little surprises her, and so is accepting of what she sees. A facial expression may indicate some sense of unease but then that quickly passes into an acceptance of other’s faults. Jessica is also all-seeing, even if this witnessing is delayed by some factor or other. She notices everything, or at least she notices everything that is of importance to solving the crime or to keeping the viewer guessing.
Of course, the main issue the writers have is how Jessica, an author spending most of her time writing in a small town, can end up getting tangled in so many murder cases. When you make 264 episodes, that is quite a challenge for the imagination. The fictional town of Cabot Cove, a sleepy and warmly-lit town of lobster eating cosiness, is the backdrop for a large proportion of the episodes. Here Jessica is close friends with two police officers, the doctor and others who provide the gossip, information or access needed for Jessica’s presence in the investigation to just about make sense. Beyond that Jessica’s extended family of nieces and nephews provide a framework. Then there are the plot options made available by the wider network of her society friends, literary acquaintances, business interests, publishers, her criminology teaching and book tours. Occasional coincidences make up the short-fall – Jessica happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (or the right place at the right time if your a pressured TV writer).
And if things get tricky they produce an episode that tells a historical story or where Angela Lansbury plays her own cousin or some other relative. There are also some episodes that feature a British private detective instead. These must have been the moments when the plausibility was getting stretched too far, even for this quirky and caricatured world of light-hearted mystery. By retaining a kind of just-about-plausibility in balance with a hint of the ludicrous, the show finds its gently absorbing properties. A distracted and gentle form of escapism perhaps, but with an off-centre charm and knowing nod that draws the viewer into its steady format and moulded storytelling.
Looking back, much of this is embodied in the theme tune. The very slight sense of disorder in the nearly-hectic opening piano line, followed by the coasting through a series of movements, including a shallow moment of foreboding tension, leading to a resolution. The credits may set the tone, the endings tell us something too. The conclusions are usually amusingly awkward. Murder, She Wrote closes, usually, and where the writers felt they could manage it without it seeming completely at odds with the content, with a light-hearted moment. Often this is a laugh or a smile at something unrelated to what has gone before.
Those awkward closing moments create a disjuncture with the experiences through which the characters have just lived. They tell us something of the self-consciousness of the storytelling typical of the show. These are thinly veiled attempts to leave a sense of warmth despite what has happened. There is an eagerness to reiterate that gentle cosiness. By striking a discordant note, the end is the bit of the show where this is most visibly on display. The shoe-horned closing moment is always where Murder, She Wrote’s otherworldly daftness is at its sharpest and, as a piece of entertainment, at its most acute.
About the Author
David Beer is Professor of Sociology at the University of York. His books include Metric Power, The Data Gaze and The Quirks of Digital Culture. The Tensions of Algorithmic Thinking will be published later in 2022. He is currently part of the team working on the Nuffield Foundation funded project Code Encounters: Algorithmic Risk-Profiling in Housing.