Cool Takes: ‘Murder, She Wrote’ and Sleuthing for Virtue
Every other Wednesday in Cool Takes, S. D. Kelly offers a fresh reflection on hot topics by exploring the intersection of faith with high and low culture.
The best thing about Jessica Fletcher, the fictional murder-mystery writer and amateur sleuth, is that she demonstrates a thoroughgoing moral sense without being a moralizer. It is rare to encounter a character who displays an belief in absolute morality while maintaining a certain humanity. Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury, manages to embody this tension in each of the many episodes of Murder, She Wrote, a show that aired on television from 1984 to 1996 and now runs in perpetuity on Netflix. Jessica Fletcher always catches the killer, but not without seeming to regret the discovery that, yet again, the killer turns out to be another one of her fellow human beings.Jessica Fletcher subscribes to a higher law, and chooses to live accordingly. She only hopes you will do the same.
First, it should be acknowledged that Murder, She Wrote is ridiculous. The idea of an elegant, schoolteacher-turned-novelist widow from Cabot Cove, Maine running hither and yon across America and around the world, stumbling (sometimes literally) across dead bodies everywhere she goes defies imagination. But it is unfair to judge the show by the standards of realism. No one complains about Miss Marple’s proximity to so many corpses in Agatha Christie’s books, and Miss Marple is an even more unlikely candidate for crime-solving than Jessica Fletcher, a comparative woman of the world. Besides, murder is only a mechanism for the real story: the ways in which humans convince themselves it is a good idea to do very bad things.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, murder mysteries make for compelling moral viewing. This is because moral certitude underpins every plot, which makes for a nice change from Reality TV and sitcoms. At some point someone (or many someones) is going to die, and this is always wrong. The lack of nuance is exactly what makes Murder, She Wrote appealing: a person was killed, and another person is responsible for that death, and Jessica Fletcher is going to track the killer down. She is dogged in this process. In whatever podunk jurisdiction or urban jungle Jessica Fletcher may find herself (and a dead body), no hayseed lawman or hardboiled homicide detective is going to stand in her way. The professional crime fighters usually step aside as she pokes around the crime scene, not even bothering to protest when she sits in while they question suspects. It is clear that Jessica is able to sniff out a solid lead and a good clue with the facility of a bloodhound. The fact that she combines this crime-solving acumen with the wisdom of Solomon makes her unstoppable.
Jessica Fletcher is the moral center of the show, and the conscience of nearly every character she encounters. This holds true even when the characters dislike her; it holds true even when a character turns out to be the murderer. At the end of each episode, after Jessica determines who is doing all this killing and confronts that person, the murderer almost invariably responds to Jessica’s display of earnest rectitude by confessing everything, helpless in the face of her overwhelming goodness. Jessica listens to these confessions, no matter how sordid and depraved, with an expression of intense sympathy and sorrow. She shakes her head in disappointment. How the killer has grieved her with his decision to take the lives of his lawyer and his mailman just so he could lay his hands on a rare stamp worth a million dollars. Jessica understands the killer’s pathetic psychological profile, how his mother never loved him and his uncle threw his childhood stamp collection in the incinerator just for kicks. All of this is sad, and quite terrible, Jessica Fletcher agrees. But really, it is no excuse for murder. Everyone in the room during this confession (usually an assortment of law enforcement) is brought low by the brokenness on display, the unnecessary waste of life. Jessica gently lays these sins at the feet of the murderer, and a moment of silence follows before justice is served. There is no glee, no celebratory high-five or post-confession round of drinks.
This sort of unambiguous virtue is a rare sight in a TV show, especially now, riddled as the television landscape is with stellar, high-production value shows like Jessica Jones or Luther, gritty depictions of reluctant heroes, doing the right thing in spite of themselves and sympathetic villains, doing the wrong thing because they can’t help it. But Jessica Fletcher is hero of another sort, an unrepentant do-gooder. It is impossible to imagine her character conceiving of, let alone brooding over, a gray area when it comes to murder.
The character of Jessica Fletcher is made of sterner stuff indeed. She is a throwback to another era, and it is no coincidence that the aesthetic on the show is thoroughly Victorian. This extends even to the house she occupies, with its period-perfect interiors. Every room in her house is a version of domestic life circa 1880s, only with electricity: a comfortably jumbled mix of throw pillows, cross-stitched samplers, floral-patterned wallcoverings, faux oil lamps with little roses painted on them and lots of warm panelling.
Jessica herself is somewhat of an anachronism even by the standards of 1980s, the primary era of the show. She rides around Cabot Cove in a single gear bicycle with a basket attached. She types out her book manuscripts on an old manual typewriter, the kind with the clatter of the keys and the ding of the carriage being returned after every line. The typewriter serves as a sort of mascot for the whole show, with the theme song centered around the image and sounds of Jessica typing at her kitchen table in her writerly personal of J.B. Fletcher. The theme features a tuba, an out-of-tune piano and other cartoony elements, a perfect iteration of Victorian schlock. And just like with the Victorians themselves, all the fuss and pomp overlays a more serious, substantive purpose: the pursuit of virtue.
This is the power of Jessica Fletcher. She may look like nothing more than a well-dressed version of your grandmother, the kind of lady who will comb her hair and put on lipstick just to go down to the kitchen to make a pot of tea, but this is all a veneer for her real work. Her real work is to do what is right, even when it gets complicated, messy and difficult. Jessica Fletcher subscribes to a higher law, and chooses to live accordingly. She only hopes you will do the same. Be good, is the lesson of Murder, She Wrote, and please don’t murder anyone, no matter how sad you are, or broke, or how much the person may deserve it. Jessica Fletcher will track you down — and be very disappointed in you — if you do otherwise.
Very good; well said. Thank you.
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