From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Unbreakable Habits: The Devil and Mrs. Fletcher

Though my friends make fun of me for it, I am not ashamed to admit that I love mystery TV shows. And my very favorite is Murder, She Wrote. Yep, that show from the 80’s with Angela Lansbury. My whole family loved it and we watched together every Sunday night. The show was on for 12 seasons, so we were hardly the only fans. Even today Murder, She Wrote is on 6 – 8 hours of the day on the Hallmark and Biography channels.

One of the reasons I love MSW is that it’s secretly genre. Not just mystery genre — it’s fantasy, too. After all, the show’s elements are a bit ridiculous, as critics often pointed out. Every week someone died and Jessica was there to solve the crime. What are the chances of that happening to anyone, much less an elderly lady from Maine? There’s a very simple explanation for it. An explanation that makes the show firmly fantasy. Maybe even horror.

In league with dark forces…

Let’s start with the premise, for those of you unfamiliar with this landmark series. Jessica Fletcher, a retired, widowed schoolteacher from Cabot Cove, Maine, has a quick and inquisitive mind and she’s able to draw massive conclusions from minute details. She puts this talent to use and writes a mystery novel, but of course she doesn’t intend to have it published or anything. Still, her favorite nephew, Grady, takes the manuscript to his girlfriend’s boss, a fancy New York publisher. He loves the book and instantly resolves to publish it.

You see, we’re already in the land of fantasy!

When she goes to New York to meet her publisher, he invites her to his Westchester home for a costume party. And then someone dies.

Now, on the show, all we see is Jessica getting involved in the investigation out of curiosity and then, reluctantly, figuring out that the killer is the publisher dude. (Good thing the ink was already dry on that contract!) What we don’t see is that, sometime during all this poking about and trying to determine who killed the dude and why, Mrs. Fletcher is approached by a supernatural entity. One that promises her that this first novel will stand out, become a New York Times bestseller, and garner her so much money and attention that, everywhere she goes, people will know who she is. For our purposes, let’s just call him the Devil.

All this fame and fortune won’t come for free, of course. But he doesn’t want Jessica’s soul. Instead, he wants her to help him collect other people’s souls. Wherever you go from now on, the Devil says, a person will drop dead in your vicinity. And thanks to them dying without confession or absolution, they’ll go straight to hell. When it happens, involve yourself, as you did here, and find out who the murderer is so they get sent off to jail.

You would think that a sensible woman like Jessica would turn down such an offer. It’s the Devil, after all. But our supernatural friend is the king of temptation, so he knew exactly what to offer. A chance to solve mysteries, a chance to look clever in front of friends and strangers, and a chance to make sure the right people get sent to the electric chair — with those souls going to the Devil, too.

At first, Jessica is a little reluctant. But our tricksy friend provided further motivation: when a murder occurred, more than half of the time someone Jessica cares about was wrongly accused of the crime. She had to get involved to keep her friends or poor family members out of jail. So for twelve years (and beyond, as there were movies after the series ended) Jessica went around the world doing the Devil’s work.

Of course, he couldn’t count on her just showing up wherever a murder was about to happen. So the Devil imbued Jessica with a demonic force that sought out tense situations and gave people already inclined to hate some person (who, generally, deserved to be killed because they were assholes) a little extra push. Sometimes it was self-defense, or an accident, or heat of the moment madness. Other times it was pure, cold-blooded murder. Those are the best times.

It’s a pretty clever plot. Except after a while the coincidences became a bit ridiculous with someone dying everywhere Jessica went. And her small hometown of Cabot Cove must have had more murders per capita than New York City.

There were a few times in the series when people commented on this.

Jessica’s nephew, Grady, often had trouble keeping girlfriends. When he finally got engaged, Jessica came to meet the girl. BOOM! Someone died. Jessica came to visit on another occasion and, again, a death. On the day of the wedding the poor girl’s housekeeper turned up dead in the kitchen; and that was just the beginning. She finally asked Grady if these were omens. “At every major moment in our life together someone’s been murdered! I think it’s a sign that this relationship is cursed.” No, honey, it’s his aunt! Can’t you see?

In the middle of season five, the longtime sheriff of Cabot Cove retired and was replaced by a cop from New York. Pretty soon Metzger discovered that his retirement to a sleepy town up North wasn’t going to be as relaxing as he’d hoped. In the last episode of the season, he pulled Jessica aside and asked: “Mrs. F, what is going on in this town? This is the sixth murder this year! Is this why Amos Tupper retired??” “Oh Mort! Don’t be silly,” Jessica said, waving her hands at him. And he dropped it!

It is really amazing that people didn’t bar their doors against the woman. In the show, everyone seems to know that she’s great at solving mysteries. Even when she comes to an unfamiliar town, the police eventually let her in on everything and, of course, end up enlisting her help in catching the evildoer. Yet hardly anyone stops to wonder how a woman like Jessica Fletcher gets involved in so much crime solving.

I think that’s the doing of our friend, the Devil, again. Even in TV Land, people aren’t that dumb (unless they’re in a sitcom or a soap opera). Jessica just waves her hands and no one notices the utter danger they’re in, thanks to the Devil’s demon power.

Angela Lansbury is still acting. And apparently she’s interested in doing one more Murder, She Wrote movie, if someone brings her the right script.

I would like to see a movie in which the truth is finally revealed. I want a climactic scene between Jessica Fletcher and the Devil, where she says that she’s too old to be collecting souls for him. Her family flatly refuses to let her visit. None of her friends call anymore. And everyone in Cabot Cove is dead or in jail — except for Seth Hazlett, the town doctor. Can’t she have some peace in her last years?

Would the Devil let her go, even then? After so many years in his service, delivering soul after soul after soul?

I will leave it to you, Fantasy readers, to write the ending.

K. Tempest Bradford also enjoys watching Matlock, Perry Mason, and Father Dowling Mysteries. Contrary to all of this, she is not 60 years old.

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