In Praise of “Murder, She Wrote,” My Pandemic Lullaby
What makes the classic mystery show so comforting?
I’m watching Jessica in her red silks and ruffled neckline, and she’s getting to the bottom of it. She’s in Jamaica, where her friend’s violent, racist brother has been killed. Jessica is retrieving clues like she’s descending a staircase, one by one, she’s sliding doilies under doors and picking locks, she’s looking at blueprints, she’s noting the stain on the Frenchman’s handkerchief, she’s getting closer.
Each night, I’m lulled to sleep by this: asphyxiation, drownings, fatal blows and gunshot wounds. It wasn’t always this way. It started on a stormy and sleepless night, as the wind rattled the windows and shook icicles from the eaves.
Insomnia introduced itself three months after the first lockdown, when the initial surface panic seeped into the deeper parts like snow into dirt. In May, I fought it in lopsided, hours-long battles. With sleeplessness came more uncertainty—which, for me as well as everyone, had already been in ample supply—and the dissolution of prior certainties like the division of night and day.
A few months ago, my partner Alec and I were between houses. We packed all of our possessions into a storage unit and rented an Airbnb, to buy ourselves some time. On one of those first nights in the Airbnb, after a day spent scrolling real estate feeds, we sat down to watch Murder, She Wrote. For the first time since May—since ever, maybe—I started to drift off while sitting up, with my head on Alec’s lap, with the cat perched on the back of the couch behind me, chewing my hair.
After a few episodes of Murder, She Wrote, I knew what to expect from the rest. There are two requirements for the plot of every episode: the first is that there’s a murder, and the second is that it’s solved. In the pilot episode, Jessica Fletcher is a widowed, retired schoolteacher in the small coastal town of Cabot Cove, Maine, where she writes murder mysteries in her kitchen, for fun. The whirlwind commences when her nephew, of his own accord, takes one of Jessica’s novels to a publisher. It is published. It is a hit. Over the course of her press tour, Jessica encounters a cast of characters (after a few episodes, there will be no more characters, only suspects) and a murder. Calling upon the forensic expertise she’s absorbed from researching her novel, which invariably surpasses the competencies of the detective assigned to the case, Jessica solves the murder. Repeat.
The comfort in Murder, She Wrote is in what is known. We know that there will be a murder, a motive, and a confession. Jessica uncovers the truth as if she’s brushing dust off a fossil. All it takes is time.
But the comfort in Murder, She Wrote is also in what is not known, or in what is forgotten. After the pilot episode, the show proceeds with a gauzy amnesia that preserves its levity. Throughout the show’s twelve seasons, Cabot Cove’s population steadily succumbs to murder and incarceration: we watch the bookstore owner, the pawn shop owner, the pharmacist, the fisherman, the cop, the nurse, the accountant, the car salesman, the firefighter, and hundreds of other townspeople murder and get murdered, with such frequency that, if it were real, the town would have been the deadliest on earth. And yet, nothing appears to be lost. The town continues to function with no apparent closures; the shops remain open and bustling with customers. Cabot Cove’s small-town charm seems to supersede its homicide rates. I use the word charm literally: it’s as if the townspeople—friendly, trusting, quaint—have been spelled into forgetting that they could be next.
Jessica, who encounters most of the murders firsthand, is the most forgetful of all. After confronting his fifth murder in his first year as sheriff, Mort Metzger turns to Jessica and says, “What is this? The death capital of Maine?” Between his exasperated rambling, Jessica interjects, “But I assure you, sheriff…” We know what she is about to say: “…Cabot Cove is safe.” It’s clear that she thinks so. She leaves her door unlocked so that her friends can wander in and rifle through her fridge while munching on one of her apples (one of these apples is poisoned, once). She’s been drugged, shot at, robbed, and pushed down two flights of stairs. She finds dead bodies in every hedge, ditch, and swimming pool. But she sleeps through the night in her big empty house on the corner lot.
On trivia websites, it’s estimated that Cabot Cove’s yearly murder rate is 1,490 per million people. According to Our World in Data, the coronavirus killed 1,545 per million people in the United States in one year. I can’t comprehend that number any more than I can the shape of the virus, but when I leave the house, I imagine both in physical terms: the gaping hole and the meteor that made it. Sometimes I can’t imagine anything. More palpable is the charge of consequence in the air, the possibility that something like shopping for groceries might make me the unwitting tinder of the deadly brushfire that’s raging across the earth.
The world of Murder, She Wrote shares our present reality of heightened mortality, but after the murderer is caught, the mourning stops. For the majority of the episodes, the show insists on ending with a freeze frame of Jessica being delighted by something—whether it’s a joke, or a surprising development, the credits roll over Jessica’s open, smiling mouth. The crystallized smile is the signal that we can all move on, now that everything’s been sorted out. The knowing permits the unknowing—allows her to continue as if each new murder that she stumbles across is her first. Whenever a new episode begins, I get the sense that if I could smell what I saw on the screen, I’d smell bleach.
If only we could forget, I think, as Jessica and the people of Cabot Cove forget. Then again, it’s best we don’t. The only logical explanation that I can drum up for the termination of mask restrictions in some states is that the governors must have forgotten what happened to us. In Murder, She Wrote, perhaps there’s some correlation in the forgetting and the murders. Maybe it’s her world’s refusal to acknowledge violence that allows violence to repeat. Her laugh at the end not a salve, but a trigger.
What’s happening to us. They must still be forgetting what’s still happening to us.
I wake up. I’ve left an inch of drool on Alec’s sleeve. Jessica has discovered the murderer—the Frenchman with the incriminating handkerchief—and she’s tricked him into revealing his guilt by having a local reporter do zombie stage makeup on the man that the Frenchman has just attempted to poison and believes is dead, so that the zombie-disguised man can then chase the Frenchman into opening the secret passageway that only the murderer would know about, as it leads to the room where the initial murder occurred, where Jessica and some cops are now waiting.
In the last scene, after the Frenchman has been put in custody, Jessica sits on the white porch with her friend and the reporter, and they chuckle through a debrief of what just happened. Jessica’s friend thanks Jessica, as if she’s thanking someone for fixing a leak. As she explains the motive, the method of murder, and the way she manipulated the Frenchman into revealing himself, Jessica’s hold on the psychologies of all the characters and the causal certainties of her world veers into omniscience. She sounds like she’s describing the plot of one of her books.
There’s a substantial cohort of Murder, She Wrote fans who believe the only explanation for Jessica’s regular encounters with murder is that she’s the one doing all the killing. Some bloggers describe Jessica as the carrier of a deadly illness, spreading death everywhere she goes. Recently, in a Zoom call with my family, Alec said that Jessica was his role model, that he wished Jessica would visit him and put everything in his life into place, just like she does in the murder cases. To this, the suspicious cohort would respond: you don’t want Jessica to visit you. I agree that a visit wouldn’t be fruitful—that Jessica only solves the mysteries of her own making—but what I mean by “making” is this: that Jessica is not the prevailing murderer of Murder, She Wrote, but its author.
It’s right there in the title, spelled out in the title sequence at the beginning of each episode. The title sequence begins with Jessica on her typewriter, pounding the keys, and interlaces clips of her murder investigations with the emerging story on the page, as if to suggest a more intimate correlation between the two—that the words describe her adventures, that the adventures originate in the words. We see her write the title of her story at the top of the page, before she begins to work on the plot. It’s called “Murder, She Wrote.”
Though the fact of her husband’s death constitutes the “after” in which Jessica lives (she started writing mysteries to cope with the loss), the cause of his death remains vague and uncertain. We know he was too young; it may have been illness. If it was, I can imagine why Jessica, dwelling in the aftermath, would write herself into a thousand explicable deaths and a thousand closures. As she moves through the fictional mystery narratives, Jessica pockets each breadcrumb clue, ravenous for the meal she knows is coming: the killer’s just deserts, the proof of her command over what is volatile. It’s not that she’s forgetful or reckless, it’s that she’s the puppet master of a world in constant renewal. That laugh at the end of each episode is a laugh of relief—she’s resolved the plot, she can pull the manuscript from the typewriter and put it away in a folder, embossed in gold.
It is a grim prospect that, for Jessica and me, comfort is not imagining a world without violence—it is imagining a world in which each injustice is noticed, each victim has an advocate, and each instance of brutality can, without pretense, be regarded as an isolated incident. Here, between episodes of Murder, She Wrote, the pandemic still stretches indeterminately forward, requiring days that seem the same in their banality but aren’t, because each day contains a new, unfathomable number. The world can not be resolved and renewed overnight.
Once, Jessica said, “I feel like I’m walking on eggs.”
She means, of course, that she feels as if she must proceed with caution. But to me, it sounds like she’s admitting to her own authorial exemption—that her mastery of this world is such that she could walk on raw eggs without soiling her shoes. I wish that Jessica could take us by the hand and lead us to a place of such lightness. So we could walk on a field of eggs without cracking a single one. But Jessica can only do so much. For now, she’ll lead me into sleep.