Friday, June 7, 2024

Murder, She Watched

Though I’ve always been a fan of the late, great Angela Lansbury, until recently I had never seen a single episode of the famous crime series in which she starred for twelve seasons, Murder, She Wrote. This CBS series, which ran from 1984 through 1996, starred Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a novelist and amateur detective. She’s a retired English teacher comfortably ensconced in the quaint (and fictional) Maine town of Cabot Cove. A widow, she has taken up the writing of mystery novels in retirement, acquiring both fame and fortune. It’s all a bit of an echo of Agatha Christie’s celebrated spinster sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, a shrewd amateur keen on solving mysterious deaths in and around her English village of St. Mary Mead. I’ve heard that Jessica Fletcher’s sleuthing and that of Miss Marple fit into a sub-genre of crime fiction called “the cozies,” in which sex and violence are played down, the guilty have a tendency to eventually confess their misdeeds, and average citizens often turn out          to be much smarter than the local constabulary. One wit has noted that in a cozy series, the main character becomes embroiled in so many high-profile murders, often by accident, that the public may tend to get suspicious. Citron Christian quips, in something called The Blot, that Jessica Fletcher had to be the actual murderer in every case, because "No matter where she goes, somebody dies!"

 I got first-hand experience of Murder, She Wrote over the past weekend, while spending the night in a resort town. Some obscure cable channel was having a marathon, and so I watched three episodes in a row. As it happened, they all aired in late 1985 or early 1986, when star Lansbury was a spry sixty-year-old. (She is seen cruising around Cabot Cove on a bicycle in the opening credits.) The episode called “Murder Digs Deep” has her investigating a mysterious death while on an archaeological jaunt in Mexico. “Murder by Appointment Only” takes her to NYC, where  a lost lipstick becomes a key clue in a story set in the beauty industry. Frankly, they didn’t do much for me. (To be honest, it had been a long day and I kept dozing off.) But “Trial by Error” delighted me, because it puts the unflappable Jessica in a jury room, where assembled jurors must decide whether a man is guilty of involving his wife in a near-fatal auto accident.

 I gather that part of the fun of Murder, She Wrote is the appearance of guest stars with long histories in the entertainment industry. In this episode, among the members of the jury are amiable Virginia Capers (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air),  cranky Tom Ewell (who starred opposite Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch), ageing cutie-pie Arlene Golonka (The Andy Griffith Show), the glowering Brock Peters (To Kill a Mockingbird), and the fawning Vicki Lawrence (Carol Burnett’s perennial sidekick). Naturally, in an obvious echo of the great jury-room drama, Twelve Angry Men, they disagree from the start, with some jurors feeling the driver is obviously innocent and others convinced that he’s obviously guilty. They agree on only one thing: that they want to finish up quickly and go home. But the sensible Jessica, who of course is selected as jury foreman, insists on examining each bit of testimony, leading to a surprising set of conclusions. You see, it turns out that there’s not just one murderer around: there are two. Though in Twelve Angry Men a careful look at the evidence finds an “obviously guilty” man innocent, in Jessica Fletcher’s world there are murderers galore.


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