Maybe it’s the long grey of winter, or the even greyer length of pandemic winter, but the past few months I’ve found myself falling back on the comfort of old, familiar things. I keep reaching for my faded plaid shirt and softest worn-out jeans, ignoring the food in my fridge in favour of peanut butter sandwiches, and last week all I really wanted to watch was episodes of Murder, She Wrote. It always reminds me of my grandma, in part because it ran for 12 years (264 episodes from 1984-1996) so we watched a lot of them, but also because she loved Angela Lansbury and thought her characterization of Jessica Fletcher was a wonderful model of what an older woman could be. Watching it again now, of course there are some ways in which it’s dated but I’m actually surprised at how well it holds up and I can see why Lansbury was a bit miffed that she never got an Emmy for it. I was also surprised by all the places she suddenly popped up in my life, including a podcast about a workout video she made when she was in her sixties, a recommendation to watch the 1978 movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, and a subtle background Murder, She Wrote cameo in Rian Johnson’s cozy murder mystery inspired movie Knives Out (2019). It all left me thinking about what stands the test of time and why murder mysteries are so appealing despite being about…well…murder.
For me, I think the answer to why I enjoy murder mysteries comes down to three things and honestly the murder isn’t one of them, it just seems to come with the territory. The most obvious reason is that I love a good logic puzzle, but on a deeper level I enjoy mysteries because they tend to have a cast of well-developed characters in order to give you reasons to suspect them all, and the ending usually involves some kind of justice with the person responsible for the murder getting caught. In a world where just desserts are far less common than they should be, a genre that treats them as the end goal has a lot of appeal. The question of what feels like justice, though, is much more complicated and it’s definitely something I have a different take on now than I did when I was watching Murder, She Wrote as a kid in the 80s.
I can see why my grandma liked Jessica Fletcher so much. She’s a retired schoolteacher living in the small and apparently exceptionally murder-prone town of Cabot Cove, Maine, who becomes a best-selling mystery novelist and ends up also solving the many, many real-life murders that mysteriously happen everywhere she goes. It would have made an entertaining finale if she had finally solved the mystery of why people seemed to feel the need to kill each other wherever she went! Jessica is an independent older woman, widowed and with no children, who is clearly happy and fulfilled in her life. She is the one and only lead in the show, and despite a number of men expressing interest in her at various points, there are no romantic sub-plots. It’s a show based entirely around a single woman over 60 who is well adjusted, with an exceptionally sharp mind, high self esteem, healthy relationships, good boundaries, a strong sense of justice tempered with compassion, and a curious, caring attitude towards the world around her. Even now, it seems like a bit of a unicorn.
I’d expected to just watch a few episodes and have had enough, but what I’ve noticed rewatching the show now is that Jessica Fletcher was a role model in more ways that I had realized. She approaches everyone with kindness and interest, whether she’s at home in Maine, on the floor of the Senate, at a New Orleans jazz show, or in a San Francisco drag club. She listens to people with compassion and empathy and makes space for them to tell their stories. Even when she’s revealing the solution to the mystery, she always seems to understand the culprit and reflect their motives back to them in a way that encourages them to confess to her. Although she is regularly discounted and underestimated for being a woman, and particularly an older woman, she is also a well-educated, well-known, well-off straight white woman and that means she is able to access places and challenge authority in ways that people with less privilege could not safely manage. She uses that privilege to challenge biased assumptions and injustice where she sees it, advocate for people who have been wrongly accused, and frequently literally puts herself between more vulnerable people and the police or potential threats. All of the murderers do get turned over to the police in the end, which conflates justice with the legal system in a way that people who that system was built to serve often do, but Jessica also regularly argues with and outright defies law enforcement officers when she believes they are wrong or abusing their power. She just does it all with such a down to earth, grandmotherly attitude that it seemed like it couldn’t possibly be radical.
Of course, part of the appeal of Murder, She Wrote was Angela Lansbury herself. My grandma remembered her from stage and screen, including her Tony-winning Broadway stage roles in Mame and Sweeney Todd and Academy nominations for Gaslight and The Manchurian Candidate. I knew her as Miss Price, the guardian in the Mary Poppins-ish Bedknobs & Broomsticks (1971) who is taking a correspondence course in witchcraft in the hopes of using magic to help the British win WWII. It was a popular pick for weekend screenings in the community centre gym and involved much shrieking when she used the “Substitutiary Locomotion” spell to bring knights’ armor to life to battle the Nazis. Murder, She Wrote wasn’t her first foray into murder mysteries either–she also played Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d (1980) and eccentric romance novelist Mrs. Salome Otterbourne in Death on the Nile (1978), where she drunkenly tangos around the dance floor and inadvertently solves the crime only to become the final victim. Death on the Nile also starred Bette Davis and Maggie Smith in a very entertainingly unbelievable mistress-servant relationship that I’m pretty sure was a cover for being a couple and involves Maggie Smith wearing a tuxedo.
What I didn’t know was that during her time on Murder, She Wrote, Angela Lansbury put out a workout video. It was called Positive Moves: A Personal Plan for Fitness and Well-Being at Any Age, and much like Jessica Fletcher, it’s actually a bit radical under the surface. At a time when celebrity fitness plans were everywhere and people were working out like crazy to Olivia Newton John in their spandex and leg warmers, Angela was wearing pastel onesies that would be right at home during the pandemic and talking about body acceptance, mindfulness, sex over 60, and exercise for the purpose of enjoying your everyday life. She starts with self-massage and looking at yourself in the mirror, saying, “there are things to love about every body!” She talks about sexual well-being while taking a bubble bath. If you can do the full exercises, great, if not just pay attention to your body and do them the way you can, no shame. If you can do the whole routine at once, great, if not .you can do it in small chunks whenever you have time during the day. There’s also a section she calls “Feeling Free” inspired by her childhood experiences “prancing around” in the Isadora Duncan style of Greek dance, which seems to be an ad hoc interpretive dance session where you mindfully move your body however you want to calm music. For a full and very entertaining review of the video and how Angela Lansbury is the anti-Goop, I highly recommend the October 26th, 2021 episode of the Maintenance Phase podcast, “Diet Book Deep Dives: Angela Lansbury’s ‘Positive Moves’”.
Just when I thought I was done finding Murder, She Wrote references, I caught it in the background of Rian Johnson’s clever retro whodunnit film, Knives Out (2019). There’s a scene where a character’s mother is watching “Who Threw the Barbitals in Mrs. Fletcher’s Chowder?”, an episode in which someone is murdered during a dinner party at Jessica’s home in Cabot Cove using her own famous seafood chowder to do the deed. It’s a nice homage in a movie that was clearly influenced by shows like Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, as well as Death on the Nile. One of the key elements that makes Knives Out different from a standard whodunnit is that Johnson blends it with “…the dynamics of an empathy-driven Hitchcock thriller. So you actually care about one of the characters, and they are in peril and you’re leaning forward to see whether or not they make it out of it.” That brings in all three of the things that I enjoy about murder mysteries – the puzzle itself, the focus on characterization, and a more nuanced approach to the question of what feels like justice. It’s a mystery that takes the complexity of that question into account and it’s very satisfying to see all the characters in Knives Out get their just desserts.
alex MacFadyen is perfectly happy with his role as an armchair detective, although perhaps he will do some gentle stretches as he tries to puzzle out the mysteries.