Jessica Fletcher on the Case


Photograph: CBS Photograph Archive via Getty Images

“So who was the killer?”

It’s the first question I get when I arrive at the beer garden on late Sunday afternoon. Burke left before the denouement. She wants to know how it went down.

“The brother-in-law.”

“The little guy with the nice smile?”

“No, the big one with the flannel shirt.”

“Oh. How?”

“Poisoned the guy’s bourbon.”

“Why?”

“Said he was screwing up the family business with his drug problem.”

“How did Jessica figure it out?”

“The drinking glass. It wasn’t a rocks glass, just a water glass. He put some drugs in the clam chowder so they would all be drugged, not just him.”

“Ah clever.”

“Clever enough to throw Jess off the scent for a bit, but she got him in the end.”

“Obvs.”

Murder She Wrote has become one of two constants in my household and Jessica Fletcher a third member of our household. She is endearing, maintains perfect social etiquette, balancing a brilliant forthrightness with tact. How she always ends up being around when there’s a murder is another story. We decide that Cabot Cove, Maine is a dangerous place. As are, evidently, London, Woolford Vermont, Portland, Oregon, the archaeological dig in New Mexico, the rodeo in Saskatchewan, the convent.

No matter where Jessica’s business and her seemingly endless supply of friends, nieces, and nephews bring her, she figures out who the killer is and tells everyone how it happened, including the often hapless police officer. Not only does everyone accept that this is what happened, the murderer is often so flummoxed by how well Jess has hit the head on the nail that they just give up and explain their motivation.

In a time of uncertainty and purposeful disinformation from people we should trust, I am finding comfort in a forty-five mystery that’s wrapped up at minute 43 in a tight little bow. Everyone agrees that it all went down the way Jess said, because, you know, facts. The bad guy gets led away in handcuffs by Tom Bosley. There’s a laugh at the end and the freeze frame and we know that the next time we’ll see Jessica she’ll be in Hawaii with Magnum or myth busting the Headless Horseman in Vermont or catching Gabe Kaplan at a dinner theater. All is well. Sense is restored.

If Jessica Fletcher is the third member of our household, then Robert Stack is the fourth.

If you grew up in America in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then every week you could watch an hour long show about unsolved mysteries called, perhaps unimaginatively, Unsolved Mysteries. It featured unsolved crimes such as murders and abductions, unexplained occurrences such as missing and disappearing people, and even supernatural mysteries such as UFO sightings, Bigfoot and other creatures, and ghost stories.

Everything about the show is creepy. From the reenactments to the often disturbing stories themselves. The show ends with the creepy theme song playing while an nondescript car drives down a lonely back road. When I was a kid the show induced anxiety and paranoia. It seemed that if a killer or kidnapper was still on the lam, they were last seen heading in your direction with an axe and they had a predilection for attacking/abducting/eating people who resembled you in backyards that looked like yours. At night. While their parents were over at the Schorpp’s for a dinner party.  

And then there’s Robert Stack’s voice, which perfectly sets the eerie tone of the show. He doesn’t emote creepiness, but rather narrates in a deep, commanding, and neutral voice. He never cracks. He never falters. He makes the occasional wry joke (“On the advice of a medium, they put a ring of salt around the house to get rid of the ghost. Though they diminished the slug population of their garden, the ghost remained.”)

Unfortunately this show better fits the times we live in. Uncertainty of the truth, several different accounts of what happened, the inability to believe the harsh realities (“I know they checked her dental records, but it can’t be my sister!”). On the bright side, the show worked. People called in with tips and information. And as a result, there are “updates” on cases which tell the viewer that the bad guy had been caught or that Bigfoot was running a Dairy Queen in Levittown, Pennsylvania.  

I prefer Jessica, Burke prefers Robert. If we spend an evening watching TV, we set an every-other schedule. It’s Robert and then Jessica or vice versa (depending on your outlook). This regulation helps us have a hold on reality as well as reassure ourselves that there are some answers to the universe. Robert tells it how it is, Jessica figures out that it’s the brother-in-law with a chip on his shoulder and a flannel pocket full of codeine.

After Jessica’s denouement, I am comforted in the knowledge that the bad guys of the world will be caught, their motives outlined for all to see, and everyone will agree to the facts.

A ridiculous fantasy.

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