We meet Jessica Beatrice Fletcher for the first time as she makes the transition from a widowed high school English teacher to an international bestselling author. With thanks to her nephew Grady Fletcher, Jessica’s novel is published and she’s thrown into the world of celebrity talk shows, the wealthy and inevitably murder. Using her meticulous attention to detail, she successfully solves the murder, but at a great personal loss.
US Air Date: Sunday 30 September 1984
UK Air Date: Saturday 19 May 1985
Just to give you a little context, here are some of the things that were happening from 1984-1985:
- Leicester University geneticist Alec Jeffreys develops DNA Profiling
- The first .com is registered and the first version of Windows is released Ver 1.0
- Indria Ghandi is assassinated
- Recession continues to be a problem in the US and 70 US Banks fail in just one year
- Following the Ethiopian famine, many pop musicians join together under the Name Band Aid and record the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas”
- Apple releases the Macintosh computer
- Virgin Atlantic starts operations
- CD’s were introduced
- The wreck of the RMS Titanic is located
- As the spread of AIDs increases, governments around the world start screening blood donations for the disease
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes from the hit BBC series Sherlock
The first ever episode of Murder She Wrote (MSW) is a great play on literature and sets the theme for the entire series.
The title itself pays homage to the great fictional detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes (I’m a huge fan, by the way), and from whom countless other characters, including Jessica herself (as well as Miss Marple and Poirot – yes, I’m also a Christie fan) have emerged.
The episode is loaded with literary references, which in conjunction to the title, Murder, She Wrote, gives us insight into the entire series.
We begin in the small seaside town of Cabot Cove, Maine during the dress rehearsal of a play entitled, “Something Terrible”. We meet Jessica Fletcher and her two friends (Mrs Lois Hoey and Mrs Eleanor Thompson) who typify the well-meaning, but prying elderly spinster, wife or widow. Within just minutes, Jessica demonstrates her incredible prowess without even knowing it. After watching just the first act of the rehearsal (or parts of it), she casually reveals the “uncle” to be the killer in the play and plunges the play’s initially rude dismissive director into doubt over his entire production… the night before opening. 👏🏾
We’re then taken to the opening credits which sees Jessica going about her usual day to day life in Cabot Cove; jogging, riding her bike, fishing, teaching at Cabot Cove High School, and of course, typing.
She later gets a call from her bumbling nephew Grady Fletcher, who by the sounds of it can’t hold down a steady job as an accountant. During his last visit to dear Aunt Jess, he’d read a story she’d been writing to help her cope with the (by the sounds of it, fairly recent) death of her husband (and Grady’s father’s brother) Frank Fletcher. Grady informs Jessica that he loved her manuscript so much, he passed it onto his friend, Kitty Donovan (the first of his many girlfriends love interests), who works in PR at Coventry House Publications. The book is so good, he says, they want to publish it.
“That’s the trouble Aunt Jess. You’ve never dreamed and it’s about time you did” – Grady Fletcher
The telephone conversation here between Jessica and Grady is an interesting one.
As the series progresses, we learn that Jessica is pretty much all the family Grady has. With each appearance, his bumbling and insecure nature becomes apparent and he relies on his aunt for her advice, encouragement and her ability to get him out of the scrapes he finds himself in.
In this first episode, however, it’s interesting to note how Grady is the source of support and encouragement. He tells his aunt to have confidence in her abilities as a writer and to “dream” for once, suggesting that Jessica had been a very ordinary small-town wife/widow and teacher with little or no aspirations. The absence of her humdrum busybody friends, Mrs Thompson and Mrs Hoey from later episodes, implies that Jessica moves away from just small-town elderly widow to the strong and confident woman we know her to be.
There’s also a further argument here that could suggest that (minus the subsequent deaths that take place), the death of Frank Fletcher was the best thing that could have ever happened to Jessica.
Through Frank’s death, Jessica was able to discover her talents, travel the world and meet new, interesting and influential people while also experiencing the wealth and fame that life as high school English teacher could never attract. But on the flip side, with the fame and wealth following Frank’s death, comes a series of deaths – gruesome murders in fact, for which many of Jessica’s loved ones and Jessica herself are sometimes implicated.
Dr Faust & the devil
There’s an essay in there somewhere touching on a Faustian Bargain. Could JB Fletcher have made a deal with the devil? Fame and wealth, in exchange for souls? This could also link to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Perhaps JB’s murder mysteries acts as Dorian’s picture? As Jessica becomes more and more successful, people die and presumably their deaths give her more material for her books. There’s also some feminist theory in here – Jessica found liberation after the death of her husband, no longer looking after children (in school), but travelling the world as a successful writer. This series raises a lot of interesting themes that I’ll get round to writing an
essay blog post on at some point.
Anyway, Jessica’s manuscript, The Corpse Danced at Midnight is published and becomes a hit, presumably making it all the way to the number 1 best seller of the National Literature Circle after beating the likes of, Murder at the Beach, Taire-Ann, Champignon Car, The Life of SF Smith, Turn Right After Jerusalem and Lord Whittington’s Grave. I’d love to read the blurb of these books – might even write some of my own in future!
The Corpse Danced at Midnight (presumably) all the way to #1
The National Literature Best Sellers List
To help promote her book’s publication, Jessica is whisked away to New York for a publicity tour by Coventry House Publications. She gets booked on various talk shows including, The Today Show, (which is still running and has been since 1952!); David Letterman – who is a big deal in the US; The Phil Donahue Show another big deal in the US, and who’s show ran for 26 years!
After a long wait in the office of Coventry House Publications, the publisher and Kitt’s boss, Preston Giles finally makes a hurried entrance looking worse for wear and with “a dozen crisis already this morning”, and Jessica replying that she “certainly wouldn’t want to be the thirteenth”! 🤣 Foreshadowing, perhaps?
Jessica displays her small-town, homely elderly wisdom and charm (that we don’t see much of after this episode) by advising Preston to eat some apples as it contains “pectin – it’s very good for the complexion” and also has cancer preventing properties and aids digestion, FYI. They make dinner arrangements for later that evening and Preston exists as quickly as he came in.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to be your 13th [problem today!]” – JB Fletcher
The face you make after a JB Clapback
We then see Jessica making her media and marketing appearances. There’s an exchange between her and a very cynical TV presenter, who attempts to rubbish her writing and the “masses” who read her work; implying that they’re easily pleased “in an era dedicated to beautification of the trivial and canonisation of the mundane”.
This exchange exemplifies what I love so much about Jessica’s character – in a couple of short sentences, she eloquently and ever so kindly puts him in his place by using his own words against him. 👏🏾
At a book signing, Jessica meets yet another cynic who buys 8 copies of her book, in the hope that if she ever becomes anything more than a one hit wonder, the signed copies of the first editions of her first book will be a worthwhile investment – we can only assume this guy has since made some cash considering her fame!
She deals with a radio host, who doesn’t even know her full name, blows smoke in her face and generally isn’t too impressed by her wholesome charm, or her book. He tries to get her to reveal something “scandalous” or interesting about herself, like a prison record, or maybe that she’s living with someone. The latter is interesting to me. I took it to imply that it was unusual for a man and woman to live together unmarried. On a side note, it reminds me of my own parents. They were living together, unmarried in 80s West Africa when my older brother was born. But by the time I came along in ’85, they’d married quickly for fear that my mum – an unwed mother living with a man, would lose her job. I remember my mum telling me that one of her colleagues in a similar situation has been fired for that very reason.
My parents’ wedding
I find it interesting, because having emerged from the Civil Rights movement, the ‘Summer of Love’ and the hippy phenomenon, I assumed 80s America would have been more liberal about such issues. The radio presenter indirectly puts a prison record on par with living (unmarried) with a partner… 🤔💭
Following on from that, Jessica’s then interviewed by an overbearing TV presenter who (mis)interprets Jessica’s book as a triumph for feminism – revealing the pregnant ballerina as the murderer in the story.
“I for one Mrs Fletcher, was delighted by the feminist thrust you were able to weave into your story line”
During her short time in New York, Jessica has been demeaned by a critical snob who sees no intellectual significance in her book, dismissed by a slack radio host who couldn’t find a defamatory enough angle to help is ratings, then had a brash and domineering, self-appointed activist of women’s rights misinterpret and disclose the ending of her book on national TV. When she tries to retreat to her hotel room, she’s then mobbed by fans for an autograph and handed a subpoena by one of them for alleged plagiarism! I can’t help but think that these particular scenes were probably based on the real experiences of a disgruntled writer who switched to writing screenplays!
By this point Jessica’s had enough of New York and the “fame” and is heading back to Cabot Cove for some much-needed respite. She’s followed by Kitt and Grady, who desperately try to convince her to reconsider, but Jessica is adamant!
JB enthralled by the charming Mr Giles
She’s about to board the train, when she’s met by Preston Giles, armed with a bouquet of red roses and looking like he’s managed to get a good night’s sleep… and some apples.
It doesn’t take much convincing though from Preston to change Jessica’s mind and she decides to stay in New York without objection! Preston invites Jessica, along with Kitt and Grady to a party he’s hosting in the country (presumably rural Upstate New York) town of New Holvang.
After some flirting, Jessica and Preston arrive at his mansion where we meet the first of his equally wealthy friends – the gregarious and philandering Captain Caleb McAllen (Grady’s boss and owner of Caleb’s Fish Restaurant) and his long-suffering wife Louise McAllen. It’s implied here that the captain has invited along an assistant that he’s allegedly having an affair with, which is ironic since the name Caleb name means both “dog” or “faithful”.
Caleb and Louise McAllen
Lady Godiva riding naked through Coventry
Through Jessica’s conversation with Louise, we discover that the party is a fancy dress one – come as your favourite fictional character. There’s another flirty exchange between Jessica and Preston, in which Jessica jokes that she could always come as Lady Godiva – since she doesn’t have anything to wear. One of the very few times Jessica has actually made me cringe🙈. In case you don’t know, Lady Godiva was a real medieval noblewoman who apparently rode naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry. Yeah.
The party gets underway and we meet Peter Pan, Humpty Dumpty, Henry VIII and a chicken among the many other party goers. So not quite fictional. But there’s still a lot of literary references that relate to the story line.
A couple of cheesy party puns later, Jessica makes her entrance as Cinderella’s fairy godmother – a costume, it’s implied, that she made herself with “odds and ends” and help from Louise McAllen. Mrs Fletcher’s resourcefulness never ceases to amaze me or the smitten Preston Giles, who comes dressed as the Count of Monte Critso. Preston’s costume ties in with the storyline and serves as a big hint for eagle-eyed watchers of this episode. In short, the Count of Monte Cristo is a story about a man who was framed for a crime he didn’t commit. He spends years in prison before finally escaping. He makes his fortune and sets out to take his revenge on those who framed him… HINT HINT!
The Count of Monte Cristo and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother[row_inner_3] [col_inner_3 span__sm=”12″]
We finally meet the eponymous Sherlock Holmes, who’s in fact Captain Caleb groping Little Red Riding hood (his young assistant) he’s cheating with, while Snow White’s wicked stepmother – Ashley, a former lover watches on jealously. Poor Louise.
We then head outside and find Grady, (dressed as Robin Hood) and Kitt (as a belly dancer) having a flirty stroll outside. After a quick kiss, Grady becomes distracted by a moving light in the window of the room he’s staying in at Preston’s mansion. Leaving poor Kitt outside, Grady rushes in, dashes up the stairs, and without any words whatsoever goes onto punch the stranger in his room straight in the face. There’s a scuffle and the stranger attempts to escape, running out of Grady’s room, only to be tripped over by Jessica in the hallway. Poor guy. As he’s manhandled off the ground by Grady, we discover he’s just an old man.[/col_inner_3] [/row_inner_3]