In Praise of “Murder, She Wrote,” My Pandemic Lullaby

From Electric Lit:

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.  

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

5 thoughts on “In Praise of “Murder, She Wrote,” My Pandemic Lullaby”

  1. I still think that darling Jessica is really one of history’s greatest uncaught serial killers. Why else so many murders around her, almost always blameable on someone who wouldn’t ordinarily be a suspect? And just look at some of the other roles Angela Lansbury has played… how about a nice game of solitaire, Mrs. Isen?

  2. I fondly recall visiting Cabot Cove. I think it was at Universal Studios, and the whole place could fit on one side of a tennis court. I forget what the store signs were, but there they were, facades crammed together supported by two-x-fours and looking just like they did on MSW. All they needed for the shot was Angela Lansbury whispering to one of the locals out front. I was shattered. Cabot Cove wasn’t really a cozy seaside village? They even had a little boat dock with half a boat tied up.

    The day only got worse when I found the gates to Jurassic Park. About eight feet high and four feet wide. The average muffler shop is more impressive.

  3. There’s a reason so many murder mystery series are set in a place where there are lots of tourists and events to bring new people to town to be killed or killers.

    It’s not my genre for writing, but in speculation I have my eye on a place with balloon festivals and wine tastings…

  4. “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. ”

    Replace Cabot Cove with MidSomer and you have my reaction to MidSomer Murders exactly. I guess I never watched that many MSW episodes but my wife enjoys MM, so that leaks in.

    Goes around, comes around.

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