Peter S. Fischer was Murder, She Wrote's co-creator and initial showrunner; he adored whodunnits, having penned not only Ellery Queen, but also The Eddie Capra Mysteries and Columbo. And in staffing Murder, She Wrote, he brought along two of his Ellery Queen writers, Robert E. Swanson and Robert Van Scoyk. It was no secret that Fisher and Lansbury never got along. She wanted her character, amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher, to become stronger, more worldly and independent; for him, Jessica represented (in his words) "all that was good about middle America and its traditional values." He departed after seven seasons, and Lansbury took over running the show. A lot of wonderful things happened in those final five years: Lansbury's newfound enthusiasm was evident onscreen, and it buoyed the proceedings; her insistence on fresh acting blood resulted in a more naturalistic (and frequently more palatable) style of playing. What was lost were the great mysteries; it simply wasn't a priority of the new creative team. (They included Lansbury's son Anthony Shaw directing and her brother Bruce scripting.) By the final few seasons, it felt like every crime was solved when one of the suspects, midway through, revealed something "only the killer would know," and Jessica, ten minutes to the end, pointed it out. Sometimes that was the only clue. Although you lamented that you were no longer watching Murder, She Wrote for the complex puzzles it had once provided, you continued to prize the series for its other pleasures -- most especially, an hour in Lansbury's company.
Below, my top-ten Murder, She Wrote mysteries -- all of them, notably, from the first seven seasons. Mind you, there are episodes from the later years I quite enjoy: "Nan's Ghost" for its haunting atmosphere; "The Petrified Florist" for its surprise ending; a lot of the Season 8 episodes (as Jessica forces a new career teaching criminology in New York City) for their sharp confrontations and edgier pacing. But for the best mysteries, expertly devised and cunningly sustained, none beat these ten. In chronological order:
"Sticks and Stones"
(Season 2, written by Jackson Gillis, Linda Shank & Mark Giles)
John Astin, who'd been recurring as Cabot Cove's resident real estate agent Harry Pierce since Season 1, had accepted a featured role on Mary Tyler Moore's 1985 comeback vehicle. Gillis, one of TV's most accomplished writers (with credits ranging from Perry Mason to Columbo), uses Astin's imminent departure to augment his airtime, and in doing so, produces the series' first unforgettable mystery. "Sticks and Stone" eschews the already well-trod formula of introducing the guest cast slowly, through the first two segments, then having the victim discovered at the midway mark; here, the murder takes place straight away, while the guest credits are still rolling. (It's a complicated killing -- a bathtub electrocution -- and we see exactly how it's done.) And from there, the pacing picks up considerably, as anonymous letters flood Cabot Cove, incriminating its residents and pitting neighbor against neighbor. Add in a consortium hellbent on building high-rises along the coast, and the unexpected arrival of a travel writer, played by Parker Stevenson ("I'm going to put Cabot Cove on the map," he announces to Jessica, to which she counters, "If I'm not mistaken, it already is" -- in that sweet but curt manner at which Lansbury was a master), and you suddenly have several seemingly unrelated story-lines intersecting and colliding. But that sense of mayhem, it turns out, is by design. It's all part of the killer's plan, to better disguise his identity -- and it falls to us to distinguish what is true from what is not. Gillis relies on just a handful of clues, but they're solid and shrewd. In particular, in the first ten minutes, two characters offer up differing accounts of the wiring in the victim's bathroom; they can't both be correct, so presuming one of them is telling the truth, what reason would the other have to lie? The reveal at the end is one of Lansbury's most emotional summations; she chokes up as she recounts how the crime was committed. Of course she does: this Cabot Cove mystery hits close to home.
"Trial by Error"
(Season 2, written by Paul Savage and Scott Shepherd)
At the start, a couple gets into a car accident, and we watch as the wife is taken away by ambulance. The husband goes to drown his sorrows at a local bar, where he strikes up a conversation with a woman; a snitch picks up the phone and lets the lady's husband know she's stepping out on him. The husband screams, "I'm gonna kill that broad" -- and we dissolve to a courtroom. But the lady in question hasn't been killed at all; it's her husband who's dead, and the accident victim who's on trial for murder. What happened that night, after they left the bar? Before we can get our bearings, we fast-forward to the jury room, where the twelve members are already in deliberation, and where Jessica, as foreperson, is reviewing the evidence. We relive the trial in flashback, and often, as the witnesses and defendant give testimony, in flashback within flashback. The jurors are mostly reduced to single traits -- the optimist (Vicki Lawrence), the antagonist (Allan Miller), the pragmatist (Virginia Capers) -- but they never deteriorate into caricature. The actors are too smart, and the direction (by Seymour Robbie) too even-handed. This is a mystery in which the facts, by design, are laid bare; it's Jessica's responsibility to review the timeline, the statements, and the discrepancies in both. Which scenario seems most plausible? Did the man whose wife was hospitalized really just go out for some fresh air? Or had he and the other woman intended to meet that night, knowing someone would tip off her husband, and they could dispose of him? The bartender insists it was a chance meeting, but what about that motel owner who thinks he'd seen the couple together before? As judge and jury keep reminding us, there are only two possible verdicts: innocent or guilty. Either the defendant intended to strike the husband with the fireplace poker, or it was self-defense. But in a cunning turnabout, Jessica announces "a third possibility, that none of us have yet considered" --- and in fact, it's the only answer that supports all the evidence. It's one of the series' most ingenious conceits; the entire episode -- the jury format in particular -- was a trap that we willingly fell into. We got so focused on debating the verdict, we forgot to solve the crime.
"Keep the Home Fries Burning"
(Season 2, written by Philip Gerson)
It's breakfast time in Cabot Cove, and locals and tourists alike have gathered at the town's newest eatery, the Joshua Peabody Inn. But as the breakfast rush ends, customers clutch their stomachs and collapse to the ground, and it appears a jar of tainted strawberry preserves is the culprit. When the jar is found to contain atropine, it's no longer a case for the health department; it's a case of murder. But before the killer can be fingered, Jessica first has to figure out: what was the motive? Were the victims random or targeted? Was this a move to put the diner out of business, and the roster of those affected is irrelevant? Or was one specific person the target, and the jar of preserves, as it made it way from table to table, simply got away from the culprit? "Home Fries" boasts a host of reasonable suspects -- the feuding businessmen, the rival diner owner, the chef who wants out of his contract, the husband whose affair is about to be exposed -- and a slew of misdirects along the way, several of them provided by Jessica herself, who voices every possibility before committing to the most likely scenario. In some ways, "Home Fries" is like one of those Agatha Christie paperbacks that supplies a diagram at the top -- of the seating assignments on the plane (Death in the Clouds) or the layout of the mansion (They Do It With Mirrors). Everything stems from how the customers were positioned, and the route that that jar of preserves took as it made its way from table to table -- and if you're looking to solve the crime before Jessica does, that's a fine place to start. But don't overlook Jessica's remarks on the high-class clientele the new eatery is attracting, and the way a couple of customers choose to order and pay their bills; the design is in the details. And as Murder, She Wrote reminds us more than once, don't trust any husband to know what's really going on in his own marriage.
"Night of the Headless Horseman"
(Season 3, written by R. Barker Price)
TV Guide was permitted to follow the cast and crew around for the seven days of preproduction and eight days of shooting. In the resulting article, the writer noted that "this script is not one of [Lansbury's] favorites" -- probably not what Price, the 36-year-old freelancer enjoying his first Hollywood sale, hoped to hear. Lansbury complained, "There's a fine line in a farcical drama, and it has to be understood by every actor. There isn't time, so we fly by the seat of our pants." The thing is, none of Lansbury's reservations register onscreen. There's an exquisite consistency of tone; Lansbury in particular offers up one of her most delicately comic performances, when Jessica's protege Dorian Beecher, a poetry instructor at a boys' academy, asks her to pose as his mother, to impress the father of the young woman he's courting. (As the young lovers, Thom Bray and Karlene Crockett play the most overzealous and literarily inclined pair since Ah, Wilderness!) Price devised his script with story editor Swanson, and his final draft was rewritten by Fischer himself. (No doubt most of the freelance scripts I speak of here were equally collaborative.) There's some fussiness in the second half, and at least one plot thread seems a distraction. But the mystery is taut and atmospheric. Given that the premise riffs on the Legend of Sleepy Hollow (in this variation, the horsemen is found dead and beheaded), the reason for his decapitation has to be plausible and persuasive -- and the script plays it scrupulously fair. Jessica herself, upon getting her first glimpse of the corpse, asks "why cut off his head" and "why are his boots on the wrong feet," and when we finally learn the answers, we recognize how reasonable and right it all seems, and how carefully the clues were scattered, in seemingly generic greetings and apparent throwaway lines. There's even a cold case referenced early on that gets wrapped up as well. "Horseman" may boast one of Murder, She Wrote's bloodier crimes, but few solutions were ever quite so tidy.
"A Fashionable Way to Die"
(Season 4, written by Donald Ross)
Jessica is in Paris visiting an old chum (Barbara Rush) who's trying to jumpstart her failing clothing line with a new collection; she's at the mercy of a loan shark who's also juggling a wife (Taina Elg) and a mistress (Juliet Prowse). Although the second unit grabs some lovely footage of Paris (and some questionable match shots of Lansbury's stand-in getting in and out of taxi cabs), most of it was filmed on the lot at Universal, with the American actors serving up all manner of French accents. (Fritz Weaver's is about as authentic as Pepé Le Pew's.) But what the episode lacks in atmosphere, it more than makes up for in mystery. Fittingly for a script about the fashion industry, most of the clues are visual, starting with a pair of models being sent down the runway in the wrong outfits. "A Fashionable Way to Die" is only the second Murder, She Wrote effort by Ross, who'd become one of the series' most prolific writers (with sixteen scripts to his credit, including the last, "Death by Demographics," which exposed how advertisers catering to a young-adult audience were sabotaging many a hit series, including Murder, She Wrote itself), but his is already a crafty and assured hand. "Fashionable" is one of the most extravagantly clued scripts in the Murder, She Wrote canon; unlike other episodes, in which the writers strive to conceal the evidence, Ross lays his bare: the button found beside the victim; the chambermaids with differing accounts of the shots fired; the two towels missing from the crime scene. Pay particular attention to the significance of a pair of airline tickets, and to a red purse that darts in and out of the action (and ultimately proves the killer's undoing). And although there's only one victim, be certain you're banking on the right number of shooters. A stylish mystery, capped by a freeze frame on one of Lansbury's best withering looks.
"If It's Thursday, It Must Be Beverly"
(Season 4, written by Wendy Graf & Lisa Stotsky)
It's the best -- and best sustained -- red herring in the show's history. When the wife of Sheriff Tupper's night deputy is found murdered, a sordid secret comes to light: that, during his nightly rounds, he was providing the local widows and divorcees with, as guest star Dody Goodman so memorably puts it, "good clean sex once a week." The women whom he'd found time to comfort --- most of them regulars at Loretta's Beauty Salon (a setting that proved so popular, it was rewarded a return visit the following season) -- are played by a formidable crew, including screen legends Ruth Roman, Kathryn Grayson and Gloria DeHaven. This is Murder, She Wrote reimagined as bedroom farce; as each of the deputy's dalliances comes to light, they're met with increasingly broad double-takes by Angela Lansbury, William Windom and Tom Bosley. (Lansbury does some marvelous mugging when the deputy gives her a shoulder rub that turns into a seduction.) But mostly, the episode is distinguished by its facile use of sex as a misdirect; as more and more women come forward with tales of weekly rendezvous, we become convinced that deciphering the deputy's extracurricular activities is crucial to catching his wife's killer -- when nothing could be further from the truth. As Murder, She Wrote was wont to do, a key clue is served up during the opening scene, while the credits are distracting us, and while we're still getting our bearings. And the others -- Seth's irritation at not being able to finish his weekly crossword puzzle; Jessica's sad reflections on the dead woman's lonely life, which she gleans from the items pinned to her refrigerator -- are so carefully disguised as character beats that we're unlikely to give them much thought. A total triumph, and the best bluff this seaside town ever saw.
"Snow White, Blood Red"
(Season 5, written by Peter S. Fischer)
Even if you're familiar with the murder-mystery trope where a specific target is hidden among a string of victims, you're unlikely to stay one step ahead of Fischer here, because of the shrewd ways he inverts and subverts this time-honored tradition. A massive storm strands Jessica at a ski lodge where members of the U.S. World Cup ski team are being taken out, one by one. But does someone have a grudge against the entire team, or is one victim the intended target, and the others mere decoys? As in so many Murder, She Wrote episodes, the death of the first victim is telegraphed -- here, the womanizing Gunner Tillstrom is universally despised: by the husband whose wife he's seduced, by the agent whose deal he's jeopardizing, by the coach who's fed up with his antics. It's only a matter of time before he's found dead -- and so he is. And although a clear motive is handed to us a good three or four times in the first fifteen minutes, it's muddied the moment a second corpse is discovered -- and then a third. "Snow White" features a sterling cast, with especially fine turns by Barry Newman and Ronnie Claire Edwards, as a New York detective and his wife, whom Jessica befriends and entreaties to help her solve the crime; and George Wyner as a gynecologist pressed into service as a coroner. (And although Emma Samms doesn't have much to do, she lets loose with one of the great sustained screams in Murder, She Wrote history.) But mostly it's a mystery elevated by Fischer's impeccable cluing, which is wonderfully varied: something aural, something visual, and most damning, a decision by the killer that defies common sense, that we ourselves should have questioned even without Jessica's prompting. In most Murder She Wrotes, the murderer has to hang around for the interrogations: they're a relative or colleague of the deceased, or they live or work at the setting of the crime. But if you're a guest at a ski lodge, and commit murder, why don't you just leave before the police arrive?
"The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel"
(Season 5, written by Peter S. Fischer)
It's the episode where Fischer's vision and Lansbury's seem most compatible, and it probably served as her Emmy reel for Season 5. A plot device that, over the previous four seasons, had become almost comical -- that any friend or relative that Jessica came to visit would be falsely accused of murder within minutes of her arrival -- is taken to its most unsettling extreme, allowing Lansbury to exhibit some of the fire and outrage that would distinguish her later performances. In "Dixie Damsel," Jessica is summoned to Crawford Air Force Base in California, to greet the arrival of a newly discovered USAF Cargo Transport plane, which had been abandoned during a 1952 blizzard by its five crew members, one of them Jessica's late husband Frank. When the body of one of the crew members is discovered on board, shot dead, and when the other three veterans pass a polygraph, the Major heading up the investigation is all too eager to pin the murder on Jessica's late husband. At once a murder-in-retrospect, a locked-room mystery, and a tour-de-force for its leading lady, "Dixie Damsel" is more leisurely than most of Fisher's scripts: at times almost elegiac, as the young officers who populate the base prompt Jessica to recall her early years with Frank. There seem only two possible solutions, which Jessica spells out early on: that one of the crew members fooled the lie-detector test, or that there was a sixth party on board the plane in 1952, identity unknown. The latter theory flies in the face of fair-play mysteries, which insist on a fixed set of suspects who are familiar to the audience. But Fischer's canny denouement plays us for fools. And his best clue? A greeting between two characters so seemingly innocuous that we overlook its significance.
(Season 5, written by Richard Stanley & Ralph Meyerling, Jr.)
It picks up where the previous episode, "The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel," left off, with Dale Robertson (as real estate mogul Lee Goddard, who served in the same platoon as Jessica's late husband) spiriting her away to his ranch outside Tucson. Once arrived, Jessica learns that Lee's daughter-in-law Jill is obsessed with astrology, and to keep her happy, her husband Michael has invited a well-known clairvoyant, The Great Francesco (David Birney in a sly and entertaining turn), to perform at a family gathering. But when his visions grow ominous, and start coming true, a case of kidnapping and extortion turns deadly. After an episode more ruminative than the norm, this is a return to the sort of event-filled mystery that was the series' bread-and-butter -- full of sex, violence, and a hint of the paranormal, where seemingly everyone has something to conceal. The clues are hidden in plain sight, including our introduction to Lee's household at the top, in particular their various comings and goings, which -- on the face of it -- merely suggests the steady turnover of staff at a working ranch. As in "Sticks and Stones" and "Snow White, Blood Red," part of deciphering the puzzle involves no more than common sense on the part of the viewer. (Once Francesco is unmasked as a fraud, what spin does that put on everything we've seen up to that point -- in particular, all the premonitions that came true?) And as in the Miss Marple classic A Murder is Announced, the best clue is a typographical one -- here, a misdirect that's made for television. Instead of adhering to the series' standard wrap-up, where Jessica arranges to meet the killer in private and shares her evidence (often with the police waiting nearby), this arrest comes in a public place, with the suspects on the run, and without one of Jessica's typically methodical recaps. But once she sits down with Lee in the final scene, to detail how the crime was committed, and why, all the pieces click into place, and you realize you've been witness to a sleight of hand as impressive as anything cooked up by The Great Francesco himself.
"Trials and Tribulations"
(Season 7, written by Peter S. Fischer)
It starts with a full-on action sequence, rare for Murder, She Wrote: a prison break from a New York penitentiary, with law enforcement in hot pursuit. As police close in, the van overturns, and the fugitive -- one Eddie Stone -- is pronounced dead. Cut to Jessica dining in New York City, where she's served a subpoena; it turns out that she assisted the NYPD in capturing Stone, years back, and now his daughter -- believing her father innocent of the crime -- has brought a wrongful death suit against the police, naming Jessica as corespondent (to the tune of $500,000). Jessica gets a hard look at how easy the system makes it for those with a litigious streak -- whether or not they have the evidence to back it up; it's another of Fischer's knockout showcases for Lansbury. And the murder? Well, the prosecution's key witness when Stone was first convicted is now claiming that Jessica bribed him to give false evidence -- but before she can reason with him, he's found dead, injected with a lethal dose of insulin. Who has the most to gain from the witness's sudden demise? The rising DA who first tried the case, for whom any setback or reversal could put an end to her political ambitions? Or perhaps the daughter bringing suit against Jessica, who fears the witness will recant his written testimony under oath? And all along, we're left with a set of puzzling questions. Why was the syringe left in the backyard? Why wasn't it disposed of far from the crime scene? And if the witness was bribed to recant his original testimony, what happened to the money? Ultimately, Jessica arrives at the only solution that adds up, and one that perhaps we never would have guessed -- because nothing like it had been attempted on the series before. It's a stellar cast, with George Maharis as the shyster lawyer, resisting all urge to chew the scenery, and the great Kim Hunter (as the witness's widow) in the kind of performance that, on film or on stage, wins awards. "Trials and Tribulations" is a sensational start to the seventh season: Fischer's last, and the end of Murder, She Wrote's golden age of mysteries.
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Do you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows? If so, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Judging Amy Season 6, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), plus a dozen essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; I also pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.