Welcome to Cabot Cove, Maine, population 3,650. In this pleasant coastal community, you can enjoy lobster stew, old-fashioned doilies, a close-knit community of gruff and eccentric New Englanders, the occasional nor’easter, and approximately one hundred murders per year.
Such was the premise of Murder, She Wrote, a show that ran twelve seasons between 1984 and 1996 and starred Angela Lansbury as the small-town widow turned mystery novelist turned improbably productive crime solver.
Angela Lansbury played so many roles, of so many kinds, in so many different types of production, that it is impossible to write a concise and comprehensive summation of her career. I first heard her sing as a motherly talking teapot in Beauty and the Beast; I first saw her as Elizabeth Taylor’s less horse-obsessed, more boy-oriented older sister in National Velvet; She had a knack for finding the roles that become family staples, searing the actor’s presence into your psyche.
But for me, and I think for many people, Murder, She Wrote was the baseline Angela Lansbury vehicle, the gateway Lansbury experience. I used to watch it — as I imagine others did — with my grandmother, sometimes snuggled in her big four-poster bed, sometimes in the TV room under chenille throw blankets that seemed to me the height of elegance.
Like many grandparent shows serialized during the daytime — Matlock, Columbo — it played on the perverse coziness of the murder plot, but with two key differences as far as I was concerned. Murder, She Wrote was not just a grandparent show, it was a grandmother show. And unlike many of its peers, which were interesting to me as a child mainly insofar as they afforded a chance to watch grown-up television , Murder, She Wrote enthralled me.
I watched a few episodes recently to see what had impressed itself so deeply on my attention. I found a few contenders: the goofily over-the top-menace that, as an adult, conveys the sense of a shared joke, the episodes set in exotic locales, the rotating cast of guest stars (many of whom, apparently, were long-time peers Lansbury would insist on casting so that they could keep their union benefits), the charm of Cabot Cove itself. But every individual point is insufficient, not unique to the show. I think the answer must be Lansbury. Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in a trench coat and silk scarf, shining a flashlight into a dark place. Lansbury in tweeds and clip-on pearls telling an overbearing functionary where they could shove it in ladylike terms. Lansbury with that bulldog set to her jaw refusing to let go of an idea, Lansbury with a sudden burst of twittering, sprightly energy when she finally realized what she’d overlooked and hopped off, like a nemesis in the form of a goldfinch, to confront the real killer.
Lansbury played a type usually figured as a worthy dullard: the small town, unattached woman, middle aged shading into elderly, busily involved in the kind of institutional merry-go-round that keeps civic life functioning without ever catalyzing permanent change. She is on the board of the historical preservation society and volunteers at the library. She may have an investment club or a book club with the other ladies. She wants to register you for the blood drive. If she is Catholic, she is on the parish council and plays bingo. Insofar as she has a political stance towards the wider world, it is captured by an “I voted” sticker. If she is difficult, she will be an object of contempt. If she is sweet, she will be an object of casual affection. In neither case is she wanted at parties.
But Jessica Fletcher went to parties! Jessica Fletcher went to costume balls and galas. Jessica Fletcher played resort roulette in a daringly low cut pink evening gown. Jessica Fletcher could charm her way into or out of any place on earth with her patented mix of plain-spoken common sense, old-fashioned manners, and incorrigibly cheerful verve.
In many ways, Jessica Fletcher is a reassurance against the material terrors of growing older.
In this respect she differs from her obvious predecessor, Miss Marple. The show is an extended homage to Agatha Christie’s spinster detective; its central conceit imagines Marple and Christie, lady detective and lady crime novelist, united in the same person. Like Miss Marple, Lansbury’s Fletcher is an unattached woman in her later years. Like her, she is a small town personality. But Miss Marple is consistently underestimated and forgotten by everyone she comes across. She is written off as a foolish old maid, her gentle Victorian ramblings proof of her irrelevance until the final reveal. This is in fact her secret weapon: invisible to most of those around her, she can see what others might prefer to remain hidden. Her status as an unnecessary woman enables a life of keen and detached observation.
Jessica Fletcher, on the other hand, is rarely overlooked or flustered by anyone. She is a pillar of her community and respected as such, trading quips and offering advice with the sheriff and the town doctor. She has a rich and varied network of friends. She is a keen observer, but also a habitual central actor. She is not merely confident, she is unshakably poised. In her essential character, she resembles Miss Marple less than an elderly Nancy Drew.
In a recent memorial, B.D. McClay posits that part of Lansbury’s appeal is her imperviousness to the mayfly cycles of Hollywood relevance, her penchant for roles that suggested “life would continue to be interesting and varied, as long as you yourself were open to it, and that it would continue to be like that well into middle and then old age…… If she was meant to have an expiration date, she simply never noticed.”
There are cruel, specific fears around aging. You will not have saved enough money and have lost the capacity to earn it. You will remember the powers of mind and body without being able to exercise them. Your faults will harden until you become a caricature of yourself. You will be unwanted and finally unnoticed. You will lose control of your bowels, and then you will die.
In many ways, Jessica Fletcher is a reassurance against the material terrors of growing older. She jogs, gardens, and bicycles vigorously in the opening credits. Most importantly, she taps at her typewriter: she has money, and the ability to keep making it. As Austen’s Emma reminds us:
“A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.”
Jessica Fletcher is respectable, yes, but she is also glamorous. She visits New York, Paris, London. Her clothes, wherever she is, are always magnificent. But her glamor is not an extension of youth. Nor is it a second chance at life — she is not getting her groove back or rediscovering herself under a Tuscan sun, another major template for middle-aged feminine vitality. The glamor of Jessica Fletcher, inextricable from Lansbury’s charisma, flows from the same place as her authority in confronting murder and mayhem: the totality of her life, all of it important, all of it a continuous whole. She comes on the scene as a widow, someone who has loved and lost, rich in the wisdom and compassion that only time provides. She is busy with the entanglements and minutia of a small town, too interested in life to need to live it on a large scale. Most importantly, she knows who she is. In any context, confronted with any type of problem and with any type of person, she is Jessica Fletcher, aunt and friend, elder and busybody. She is someone who knows that the drama of life and death is happening all the time, all around her — a truth made dramatically literal by Cabot Cove’s appalling murder rate. When she does step out, unshakably poised and magnificently dressed, onto a bigger stage, it is the richness of her life on a small one that equips her.
This marriage of glamor, courage, and competence that flowed from an ordinary life is not unique to Jessica Fletcher, or the woman who immortalized her. I see it in my great aunt, who occasionally up and decides to hike the Camino de Santiago in between making blueberry muffins for her grand-nieces; in my grandmother, whom I last saw ruminating on how much champagne we should order for a party from a post-stroke hospital bed. But Lansbury was perhaps the only person who could make the combination so vivid. There are no second acts in American lives, said Fitzgerald. Lansbury, and the women she played, never needed one.
Clare Coffey currently resides in Idaho.