As I stood in line at the airport, I realized I still had time to buy something to read before boarding. I gazed at all the racks of thrillers, legal thrillers, and police procedurals with interchangeable, nondescript titles like Split Second or Truth or Dare. Then a familiar face caught my eye: It was none other than Jessica Fletcher.
For those who may not remember her, Fletcher (played by Angela Lansbury) was the nosy star of CBS’s hit show Murder, She Wrote, which aired from 1984 to 1996. A proper New England school marm, Mrs. Fletcher takes up writing best-selling murder mysteries. Before long, real life murders start to find her and she’s out solving them faster than the local authorities.
Today, author Donald Bain and Signet Publishing have brought Jessica back to life in a series of addictive murder mystery novels. Seventeen books later, I’m still hooked.
The novels are written in the first person, as if by Jessica herself. Throughout the series, we accompany her from her cozy home in Cabot Cove, Maine, to such far-flung destinations as Moscow, Scotland, France, even the high seas. Everywhere she goes, she stumbles over dead bodies. And as in the program, she always, always catches the killer.
THE SERIES’ SUCCESS HAS convinced Signet to duplicate the formula for Dr. Mark Sloan, the oddball head of internal medicine at L.A.’s Community General Hospital in another long-running CBS mystery, Diagnosis Murder (1991-1999).
Dr. Sloan was played to quirky perfection by small screen legend Dick Van Dyke. When Diagnosis Murder first appeared, critics accused the show of being a knock off of Murder, She Wrote (not true, it’s actually a spin-off of Jake and the Fat Man, which was a spin-off of Matlock, which was a spin-off of Perry Mason). The book certainly is a knock off of the Fletcher series, but it’s equally good fun.
In the first book of Dr. Sloan’s series, The Silent Partner, author Lee Goldberg reassembles the cast to solve a strange spate of copycat killings cleverly disguised as medical malpractice. All the characters from the beloved show partake in solving the crimes. One even falls under suspicion of murderous ineptitude.
Jessica’s latest, Destination Murder, puts our favorite busybody on a train through British Columbia where, predictably, a thinly veiled poisoning takes place. Less predictable is the identity of the real killer. But the evidence is not lost on our Jessica.
Granted, we’re not talking about Shakespeare here. My time could be better spent reading history, biography, or serious literature. But for whiling away the day with a clever plot full of mystery and murder, these books will do the trick.
The characters are lively and one needn’t have been a fan of either show to enjoy watching them deduce and conclude. The plots, like all good classical mysteries, are fast-paced and stripped of pointless rabbit holes and distractions. In the great tradition of Agatha Christie, every character in the ensemble could be guilty. We’re kept guessing until the last scene (unless you’ve solved the mystery yourself; an unlikely scenario). You won’t be bored to tears by a long, irrelevant dénouement, as with other modern crime fiction. Once the mystery is solved, it’s on to the next book.
FOR ME, THESE SERIES hearken back to a simpler, better time in the mystery genre. If the early 20th century reflects the Golden Age of mysteries and detective stories, I’d argue the late 20th century was the Platinum Age. And nowhere was this better captured than on the small screen. The 1980s and ’90s brought us Jessica and Dr. Sloan, the corpulent Perry Mason (long in the tooth, but still lawyering in the ’80s), cranky defense attorney Ben Matlock, the bumbling genius Columbo, and countless other quirky crime stoppers.
There is, of course, a formula to these stories. But they are far less predictable than, say, the corrupt Internal Affairs Investigator, the politician caught sleeping around, the hooker with a heart of gold, and other hackneyed “gotcha” solutions. Instead, these stories continued the tradition of the British mystery genre. Specifically, they featured a main character who, despite all his or her idiosyncrasies, was smarter than everyone else. And the story revolved around them, not the victim, not the suspect, or even worse, some inanimate object.
Lately, Hollywood scriptwriters appear incapable of developing main characters who can solve murders on their own. Instead, we’re tortured with a team of medical examiners, forensic scientists, and other specialists. The main character often ends up being a carpet fiber, a microscopic hair, or a damning receipt under the passenger seat.
NBC’s Law & Order enjoyed early success with this formula. The characters are so irrelevant to the program, the writers and producers fold in new faces every couple of seasons. Now we’re flooded with shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI, CSI: Miami, Navy NCIS, Cold Case, and on and indistinguishably on.
Cable TV brings sweet relief to fogies like me. A&E still runs Murder, She Wrote and PAX TV provides a nightly installment of Diagnosis Murder. But the classic crime fighters have retired to a finer art, the written word.
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