Honoring the Heroine: Jessica Fletcher

Remember what I said in my last post about Miss Marple stories not really being made for TV? I stand to my opinion. For the record, there are two notable TV adaptations, one with Joan Hickson in the role, and another one with Geraldine McEwan  and Julia McKenzie. But in this case I think that the “American Miss Marple” is way more memorable. Even though Jessica Fletcher was never advertised as such, this is how she is usually seen. And unlike a lot of other “Americanized” version of famous British detectives (it’s sometimes a little bit disconcerting how fast the US-Media pounces on successful foreign detectives, while totally overlooking their own detectives like C. Auguste Dupin or Philip Marlowe), this one works perfectly, because the changes made mostly add to the character – even though they also reduce her a little bit. After all, one of the basic ideas of Miss Marple is that you don’t have to be “fit” and “active”to have a sharp mind. But, like I said, inactive characters don’t really work in a TV series, so I can hand-wave this aspect in this particular case.


Nevertheless, Jessica Fletcher shares a lot with the character she is based on. She is smart, financial independent, lives in a small village with an unusual high murder quota and is often able to solve cases because of her live experiences. But she is also way more active (in fact, she can easily outrun the local sheriff), and being a famous writer, she is way less hampered in her movements. In short, she has all the strength of the character Agatha Christie created, but none of the weaknesses which limited the kind of cases Miss Marple could deal with. Jessica Fletcher is not forced to sit at home while other people collect information for her. She goes and investigates herself.

If I look back at “Murder, she wrote” I have to admit that the show is extremely formulaic. Like most crime shows created in the 1980s, there is no on-going story arc, and every episode more or less follows the same pattern. Jessica somehow gets involved in a murder, the law enforcement arrest the wrong suspect, Jessica confronts the real murderer by quoting real or made up clues for his guilt, and in the end everyone is happy and the episode closes with a smiling Jessica. Since the characters barely change, you can watch more or less every episode out of context with no problems and the cases in itself are somewhat similar, too, though there is an interesting twist once in a while. What carries the show is really the character Jessica Fletcher (or Jessica Beatrice Fletcher, nee MacGill) , expertly portrayed by Angela Lansbury. This is especially notable in some of the later episode, in which Jessica Fletcher only makes some sort of introduction and the actual case is built around some acquaintance of her. They are easily the weakest of the show.

Quote: “In the end it all comes down to four things: patience, direction, determination and strengths.”

Best episode: The show has twelve seasons, plus four TV-movies…there is a lot to pick from, but I go for the Pilot in this case. It is always fun to watch, mostly because Jessica first has to struggle with her unexpected fame.

Best moment: Again one from the pilot, to be precise when Jessica’s friends try to talk her into changing for public appearance…and she sticks to her own style in the end.

If you like a good whodunit, this show might be the right one for you. Also if you are a fan of Angela Lansbury, this is one role you shouldn’t miss.



10 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroine: Jessica Fletcher

  1. I really liked that you stated the patterns between the stories, but I think there’s also one more case in the pattern: you never see the murder being committed while it’s being committed, but when Angela Lansbury finally figures it out, you see a flashback of the murder being committed. Thanks so much for sharing this!

    • True…it’s really a very classical and quite predictable structure. But what I like about it is that unlike with a lot of other TV shows, you normally get to see (or hear) the clue which leads her to the real murderer.
      Thank you so much for commenting!

  2. I never thought about Jessica Fletcher being Mrs Marple. I haven’t watched it for a while and so I wonder how it would hold up but Iove Angela Lansbury. I heard her sing once a few years ago and she was amazing. I loved how she took ownership of the parts she had played. She said that with Mrs Potts small children felt a comfort at hearing her voice. After 911 she would talk to the children of those who had lost parents and give them some comfort . That was very touching. She has been nominated for 18 emmy’s including every season of Murder She Wrote (never won!), 5 Tony wins (7 noms) , 3 Oscar noms. What a woman!

    • The show is still shown on one of the smaller networks over here, so I could watch a bunch of episodes in preparation for the review.
      Angela Landsbury is for me one of the “stick out” actresses.

  3. Murder She Wrote is always good fun. I think I remember an unusual one where she takes us through one of her novels, which had a different filming style.
    Do we now have Castle as a male Miss Marple? He could also be a variation of an old BBC character Paul Temple (also formulaic but, fun ) but, I doubt the series writers have ever come across him.

    • There were quite a lot episodes in the later seasons in which Jessica only told a story. Some of the episodes were good, but most felt like the producers just had a script lying around which they couldn’t use elsewhere.
      Castle, as the series originally was before it became all about the Romance, was mostly a meta about writing. The writers only had to look into the mirror for inspiration. He is too far removed from Miss Marple to be called a male version of her imho. The only thing he has in common is that he keeps drawing parallels, but not to his own life experience, but to stuff he used to write about.
      Paul Temple is not that obscure. So one of the writers might have been inspired by him.

  4. Paul Temple is not obscure! Yay! That’s really good I think the stories Francis Durbridge wrote were very good really even if some themes do repeat a lot. The first time my family came across him we liked it partly for the old-fashioned flavour but, gradually got more and more drawn in. I think that was The Vandyke Affair and the villain reveal at the end was actually quite chilling.
    Thinking about Castle though you’re right about him being different from Miss Marple, he’s also different from PT I can’t really think of anything similar except maybe when Inspector Morse gets ideas from the operas he listens to.

    • Perhaps castle was inspired by Ellery Queen, who is an independent wealthy writer who gets involved in crimes through his detective father and lives with him in an apartment in New York…he even has an assistant called Nikki.

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