Jessica Fletcher should probably be locked up. Over the course of 264 episodes, the main character of Murder, She Wrote was conveniently in place to witness—and solve—at least that many murders, dozens of which took place in her supposedly sleepy hometown of Cabot Cove, Maine.
Statistically, that would give quaint Cabot Cove the highest murder rate in the United States, and possibly the world. Murder follows mystery novelist Jessica wherever she goes during the show’s 12 seasons, across the country and occasionally overseas, too. “If murder were a disease, you’d be contagious,” an NYPD detective tells her in the second-season episode “One Good Bid Deserves a Murder.”
Yet as played by Angela Lansbury, Jessica is always a warm, welcome presence, calmly pointing out clues and coaxing confessions out of stone-cold killers. Some law-enforcement officials, like that NYPD detective, are annoyed by her meddling, but almost all of them eventually come around once she demonstrates her uncanny crime-solving skills. It probably doesn’t hurt that she’s an unassuming, matronly widow, the kind of person who’s often overlooked in male-dominated spaces. Despite the frequent reminders that she’s a famous author, she moves unobtrusively through nearly every environment, from small towns to major cities, upscale galas to down-home diners.
Jessica is part of a long tradition of folksy female amateur detectives, most notably Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, whom Lansbury played in the 1980 film The Mirror Crack’d. The cancellation of a potential Miss Marple movie franchise led to Lansbury’s casting in Murder, She Wrote six years later, and while Jessica Fletcher might have initially seemed like a consolation part for Lansbury, she has arguably become far more famous than her inspiration.
Jessica in turn has influenced characters like Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale on Poker Face, another chronically underestimated female detective who seems to be followed by murder wherever she goes. Charlie is an amateur like Jessica and Miss Marple, but Jessica’s disarmingly casual manner has carried over to more professional female detective characters as well, as recently as Zazie Beetz’s put-upon postal inspector Melody Harmony in Steven Soderbergh’s Max series Full Circle.
Cabot Cove itself has become influential, too, a model for the seemingly idyllic small town hiding an underbelly of homicidal resentment. “What is this, the death capital of Maine?” the newly installed sheriff asks Jessica in fifth-season episode “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” after being presented with the latest dead body in a town he thought would be a quiet change from the big city. Towns like Cabot Cove have a long history in mystery novels, as well as in British TV series like Midsomer Murders and Father Brown, but Cabot Cove remains the most enduring example on American TV.
Cabot Cove wouldn’t be what it is without Jessica Fletcher, and she carries its homespun charm wherever she goes. Just as much as her expertise as a writer of murder mysteries, her small-town background is key to her prowess as a detective. She’s ingratiating and gregarious, with a tendency to spot personal details that professional investigators miss. She never uses intimidation tactics or force to get suspects to confess, and she can even find sympathy for killers with complex motives — without letting them off the hook, of course.
Some of those killers even come around to respecting and admiring Jessica, if not quite at the same rate as the law-enforcement officials she works with. Lansbury’s performance is key to Jessica’s likability, and it’s easy to see why everyone from cops to criminals ends up befriending her. Only a woman like Jessica Fletcher can walk into that many murder scenes and casually cut through the distractions and misdirections with such good-natured ease. It’s best that she’s left to roam free.
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Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and the former TV comedies guide for About.com. He has written about movies, TV, and pop culture for Vulture, Polygon, CBR, Inverse, Crooked Marquee, and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.