It actually has a very similar feel to Columbo and Ellery Queen. This is murder without the sleaze and without graphic violence. There are no junkies and no hookers in sight. It’s all a million miles from the Mean Streets so beloved of so many film and television producers. This is murder done in an orderly and relatively civilised manner. Which is not to say that it’s necessarily bland or innocuous. Murder is if anything more shocking when it takes place in civilised surroundings (this is something that was known to the writers of the between-wars golden age of detective fiction but it’s been largely forgotten since).
Murder, She Wrote is also, like Columbo and Ellery Queen, very very plot-driven. This is murder as intellectual puzzle. There are going to be clues and they’re not necessarily going to be obvious. You’re going to have to pay attention.
The resemblances between this series and Ellery Queen are very marked. In both cases we have a successful writer of detective fiction who also dabbles in actual crime-solving on an amateur basis. The odd thing is that Ellery Queen (for all its excellence) was a commercial failure and was cancelled after a single season. Murder, She Wrote became one of the biggest hits in television history, running for an incredible twelve seasons. Why one series should fail while another, employing pretty much the same formula, should succeed spectacularly is one of the minor mysteries of pop culture.
The pilot episode was The Murder of Sherlock Holmes. Jessica Fletcher is a busy cheerful widow who lives in a small seaside town in Maine, Cabot Cove. Purely for her own amusement she tried writing a detective novel. Much to her alarm her nephew Grady passed it on to a new York publisher who immediately published it. To her even greater alarm she has fond herself, overnight and completely accidentally a bestselling author. Against her better judgment she is persuaded to undertake a promotional jaunt to New York, in the course of which she attends a costume party, and during this party a man in a Sherlock Holmes costume is murdered. Jessica would never have considered trying to solve the crime herself had the police not insisted on arresting her nephew for the murder.
In Birds of a Feather Jessica’s niece has a problem. Her bridegroom-to-be has been doing a drag act in a San Francisco club and now he’s a murder suspect. This is one of those mystery stories in which the victim was hated by everybody and everybody has a motive for the murder. The solution is OK but nothing special. At best a very average episode.
Hooray for Homicide takes Jessica to Hollywood where she’s trying to prevent a movie from being made from one of her books. A low-life producer is trying to turn her mystery story into a sleazy sex saga. Now the producer is dead and since Jessica had a motive for wanting him dead she’s a suspect. But then everybody hated Jerry Lydecker (played by John Saxon in wonderfully extravagant style) and everybody wanted him dead. This is a story in which pretty much all the characters are dismal human beings (this is Hollywood after all) so it’s hard to care very much about their fates. It’s an OK plot and you can have fun spotting the various superannuated second-rank stars in the guest cast.
In It's a Dog's Life Teddy is framed for murder. Teddy is a dog and is extremely wealthy, having just inherited $15 million. There may actually have been two murders and Sawdust was at one time a suspect in the first murder. Sawdust is a horse, although he isn’t wealthy. The Langleys are a rather unpleasant family so it’s easy to believe that any of them could have been capable of murder. Jessica wants to clear her friend Abby who works for the family and had been rather friendly with the now deceased family patriarch. Jessica is convinced Abby is innocent, and she’s convinced Teddy is innocent as well. I’ve probably made this one sound rather silly but it actually boasts quite a clever little plot. In fact it’s the strongest episode so far. Look out for a guest starring performance by former Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie.
Hit, Run and Homicide is about a slightly unusual murder method - murder by driverless car. This episode is positively overloaded with decrepit former Hollywood stars - June Allyson, Van Johnson, Stuart Whitman. Clearly nostalgia was as very major part of the appeal of this series. Which is fine. When a show runs for twelve seasons it’s fair to say that the producers knew exactly what their audience liked. This one has a fairly adequate plot and it continues the trend of putting Jessica in danger. An OK episode.
We're Off to Kill the Wizard goes totally over-the-top, with very pleasing results. Horatio Baldwin, known as Horrible Horatio, is a larger-than-life character who is a very successful creator and operator of theme parks with gruesome horror themes. He is hated by everyone who works for him, and in fact by by everyone who has ever had any contact with him. He manipulates, bullies and blackmails his employees. He tries the same tricks on Jessica. When he is found dead, with a gunshot wound to the head that seems to be self-inflicted, everyone is delighted. It has to be suicide since it took place in a room locked from the inside. But the gunshot wound didn’t kill him and it wasn’t suicide.
This episode has a decent locked-room mystery as its core. It’s perhaps not entirely original in concept but it has a few neat twists and it works. The horror theme park makes a nice setting which is used quite skilfully and Horrible Horatio is certainly a memorably nasty but undeniably colourful murder victim. The tone is light-hearted and outrageous with a bit of an edge to it and it benefits from the absence of the cloying sentimentality and excessive whimsicality that so often afflicts this series. This episode really is enormous fun.
Death Takes a Curtain Call is a rather dull story about defecting Russian ballet dancers and a murdered junior KGB officer. William Conrad’s performance as a cheerful KGB major is the only real highlight of this episode.
The great thing about theatrical mysteries like Broadway Malady is that you have theatre people trying to kill each other and that’s always fun to watch. In this case there’s a faded Hollywood star making a comeback in a Broadway musical in a show also featuring her son and daughter. There’s a shooting that appears to be a mugging gone wrong but Jessica doesn’t believe that for a moment. There are some interesting financial dramas behind the scene. It’s an amusing glimpse into the glamorous but corrupt sordid and vicious world of show business. Quite a good episode.
Murder to a Jazz Beat takes Jessica to New Orleans where a jazz musician dies suddenly but Jessica happens to be on hand and thanks to the research she did on one of her novels she recognises the symptoms of death due to an obscure South American poison, but how was the poison administered? To appreciate this episode you probably need to like jazz. I don’t like jazz very much at all and I found it to be at best a middling sort of episode.
My Johnny Lies Over the Ocean takes Jessica to sea, on a cruise with her niece who has been in a mental hospital after her husband’s suicide. It seems that someone definitely means to do harm to her niece. The photographic clue is quite cute.
Tough Guys Don't Die is what might have happened had Jessica Fletcher and Sam Spade worked a case together. A private detective named Miles is murdered. Of course Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon was named Miles. This murdered PI was working on three important cases, including one in which his client was Jessica Fletcher (it was research for her next novel). His partner Harry McGrath (Jerry Orbach) knows that the code of the private eye is that when your partner gets murdered you have to do something. That’s the code that is laid down in The Maltese Falcon. Jessica wants to find the killer as well although she’s wanting him to face a court rather than the rough justice laid down by the code of the private eye.
This is an episode that could easily have come to grief but while Jessica Fletcher and Harry McGrath come from different detective story universes and they comprise the most ill-assorted crime-fighting team that could possibly be imagined they somehow manage to work together and the script somehow manages to work and what could have been a trainwreck ends up being very entertaining television.
Sudden Death is a football mystery. As a non-American I find American football to be completely incomprehensible but luckily you don’t really need to know anything about the game to watch this episode. Jessica inherits part-ownership of a football team. There are some nasty power plays going on and everybody wants to buy Jessica’s share even if they have to pay her four times what it’s worth. Of course that just makes her stubbornly determined to hang on to her share. It’s an OK story.
Armed Response is a medical murder mystery. While in Texas to testify in a court case Jessica is slightly injured at the airport. She discovers that the local hospital is a seething hotbed of intrigue with the tyrannical Dr Sam ruling with an iron fist while the junior doctors busy themselves with plots. It’s not at all surprising that it ends in murder. Luckily the cop assigned to investigate is smart enough to ask for Jessica’s help. The plot relies on unbreakable alibis and it works pretty neatly.
In Murder at the Oasis a particularly loathsome show business type gets murdered. Security at his house was so tight it had to be someone from within his own household. This story makes use of a particular plot device that I always dislike and that I personally feel never comes off convincingly. And it’s perhaps just a bit of a cheat. This episode is in my view a bit of a dud.
There’s trouble down on the ranch in Funeral at Fifty-Mile. A rancher has just died and his will contains a major surprise. He’s left his daughter with nothing and he’s left everything to a man he despised. There’s plenty of ill feeling and angst and pretty soon there’s murder as well. Sheriff Potts is a nice guy be he’s never investigated a murder before, because in these parts of Wyoming folks just don’t murder each other. If the sheriff could be persuaded to leave everything to Jessica there’d be no problem but he tries to solve the case himself, which of course will leave Jessica ending up having to do it all herself anyway. It’s quite a fun dirty-work-at-the-crossroads kind of story.
Some of my fears regarding this series were certainly realised. It does try way too hard for folksiness, Jessica is excessively loveable and charming to the point of becoming slightly irritating at times, there is a tendency to wallow in sentimentality. There’s also a little too much whimsy.
Angela Lansbury on the other hand overacts outrageously but somehow she manages to get away with it.
On the plus side there are some pretty decent mystery plots. And despite the tendency to overdo things this show does have a certain genuine charm. And the good episodes are very good. It’s very lightweight but that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be - harmless entertainment but well-made and at its best quite well-written.
I don’t think it’s an entirely successful series but it did run for twelve years so obviously there were an awful lot of people who disagreed with me.
I’m still happy to give it a recommended rating.