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Monday, July 17, 2006

Jessica Fletcher -- Criminal Mastermind?

Heather Marie and I were accidentally watching Murder, She Wrote tonight during supper, and it was a typical episode: someone has been murdered, Jessica Fletcher's niece is a suspect, and Jessica manages to nab the real killer...or so it would seem.

At first we were just laughing about how often Jessica Fletcher's nieces and nephews get accused of murder, and exactly how many nieces and nephews she seems to have. Strangely, viewers never see her siblings (or siblings-in-law) that we know of, so we have no way of telling if all these relatives are the progeny of a few extraordinarily fertile siblings or the only children of dozens of brothers and sisters. And if her nieces and nephews aren't actually shady, unsavory characters themselves, they at least run with some dangerous crowds.

That was a funny thought, and it lead to the obvious discussion about how murders seem to follow TV detectives around like a bad smell. That's pretty common in the mystery genre, and it forms the basis of a long string of obvious jokes about how danger it is to hang around with free-lance detectives. What's different about Murder, She Wrote, though, is how frequently the most obvious suspects are friends and relations of the main character.

That's when the pieces started falling into place.

It is a strong coincidence that murders seem to coalesce around Ms. Fletcher, and eventually it would raise questions among the authorities, except that all those cases have been solved and the killers identified. Right? Maybe not. Suppose you were a murderer who needed to cover her tracks. What better way than to help catch the "real" killer?

Wouldn't that start to become suspicious itself, though? Eventually the police would put two and two together: "Hey, she's around a lot of murders, and she's always pretty eager to pin it on someone else. There's something fishy here."

One good way around that would be to arrange the crime in order to frame not your real patsy, but yet another suspect...a suspect whom you would have an obvious reason to help clear...like a well-loved nephew, perhaps? Ah, now we're getting somewhere!

This approach would allay the suspicions of the official investigators, since the answer to their questions about her involvement would be that she's concerned about her brother or sister's child. How good of her! How kind! And she always gets her man! Of course she does -- she's the one who framed him!

This revelation led us to consider how frequently her nieces and nephews are the prime suspects because they stand to benefit in some way from the victim's death. My, that's certainly convenient, isn't it?

So, consider this hypothesis: A friend or relative calls mild-mannered mystery writer Jessica Fletcher with a problem. She pays them a visit and while there kills the person who's standing in their way. In order to cover her tracks, she deeply frames the "real" killer, while superficially framing her loved one, then apparently clears them in the process of catching the real killer. Crime's solved, the innocent are cleared, and justice is served. Very nice and tidy.

In exchange, she gets some killer mystery novel plots (pun intended) and possibly a small kickback from the person she helped in order to support her until the royalties start coming in. In fact, such support probably constitutes her primary income, since the typical 60-something mystery writer isn't exactly rolling in dough.

But what about all the people who confess when confronted with her apparently irrefutable evidence? Sadly, it would seem that false confessions are uncomfortably common. What's more, most of the suspects (or should we begin referring to them as victims at this point, instead?) would stand trial for capital murder, and in many states a voluntary confession precludes the death penalty, so they could merely be bowing to defeat at the hands of a superior foe and salvaging whatever small victory they can.

Seen through the lens of this theory, Jessica Fletcher begins to look less like a kindly old aunt, and more like the Godmother, head of a criminal empire.

Needless to say, we'll be watching Murder, She Wrote with an entirely different attitude from now on! Cabot Cove suddenly looks like a much more sinister place.

And, yes, it was a very slow night at our house....

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