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So Long, 'She Wrote'

How 'Murder' Affected Real Mystery Writer

May 18, 1996|MARTHA GRIMES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Martha Grimes' new novel is "Hotel Paradise." Among her other novels are "Rainbow's End," "Jerusalem Inn," "The Deer Leap" and "The Dirty Duck."

"Wow! A real-life Jessica Fletcher!"

This is the by-now predictable response I get from strangers--grocers, trash collectors, used-car dealers--when I'm asked what I do, and I say I write mysteries. Jessica Fletcher is the reality. I'm the virtual. Life imitates Art.

Yes, I confess I'm guilty of nursing a grudge because of the iron grip Jessica Fletcher has on the public imagination, a grip held through 12 television seasons, 264 episodes and 286 murders. I feel a sort of dumb envy when Jessica yanks that sheet of paper out of her typewriter and lays it atop the other neatly stacked pages of manuscript.

(Once in a while she finishes a manuscript and lobs it off to her editor-publisher. But how often do we actually see her writing? She could hardly take up air time with that wasteful process: It takes an hour for a writer to get a character off his duff to go and open a door.)

I think it's a shame that the old manual typewriter, with its satisfying ping-ping-pinging, has recently been replaced by a computer, thereby having Jessica tip her hat to the present. Trying to yank J.B. Fletcher (her pen name) into the modern world misses the point: that she has little to do with modernism and much to do with myth.

What makes Jessica Fletcher and her mise en scene, Cabot Cove, so real and so compelling that millions of viewers would continue to tune in over these 12 years?

Angela Lansbury is, of course, the first reason. Angela Lansbury does not appear to be acting: She is J.B. Fletcher. Jessica, like Jane Marple, is one of those savior-sleuths--the Good Mother (or Aunt or Sister) who we know will restore order and make everything come right in the end, something like a deus ex machina with feelings.

But there is also the morality play pull of the classical detective story, with its darkly symbolic representation of Murderer, Victim, Detective. There's comfort in knowing that order will be restored and that we won't have to flail forever in the aftermath of murder.

Then there is the place itself. In its Nantucket-like isolation and its pastel beauty, Cabot Cove, like St. Mary Mead, remains unpolluted by time; one can sense the present delicately unraveling, revealing one of those timeless, paradigmatic villages where murder is merely idiosyncratic. Over the years, there have been 64 murders in this little village, yet the place seems less violent than our own backyards. Even when Jessica goes to New York (where 58 murders have occurred), she still appears to track the sands of Cabot Cove behind her.

"Murder, She Wrote" is the longest-running detective series in television history and was the highest-rated drama series for nine consecutive years. Angela Lansbury, as J.B. Fletcher, may well have done more to popularize the detective story than any other single force.

On Sunday, the final episode airs. But one feels that Jessica will still be there in Cabot Cove, punching out stories and turning her formidable powers of deduction on whoever turns up newly dead. And I'll still be hearing versions of what I heard only yesterday:

"You write mysteries?"

"Yes."

"Under your own name?"

"Yes."

"Should I have heard of you?"

"No."

"Are you famous?"

"Apparently not."

"So listen: What you should do is get your stuff made into a TV show--you know, like a TV series. That's what Jessica Fletcher did."

Whoa!

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