By Jon Land
Jessica Fletcher became part of my life back in May of 2017 when my agent called to ask whether I’d be interested in working with Don Bain on the MURDER, SHE WROTE series. Don’s health was failing and needed a writing partner who’d eventually succeed him. Well, having never written a straight mystery, a cozy, or from the first person POV, I immediately said I would. Because that’s the thing about this business: When given an opportunity, the answer is yes—what was the question?
Sadly, the health of Don Bain, who’d written all 46 books in the series, failed faster than expected and I was left on my own early in the process; well, not quite alone. You see, Don’s talented grandson Zach had been working with him prior to my involvement and he became a vital resource and sounding board for me. Indeed, my first responsibility was to be true to the traditions of the series and Don Bain’s legacy following his passing.
MAKING THE SERIES MY OWN
When was the moment the series became mine? That’s easy: From the moment I found Jessica’s voice banging around my head, louder and louder every time I sat down behind the keyboard. The process wasn’t as nearly as hard as it should because I let Jessica do the hard work, the heavy lifting. I wasn’t very familiar with the books at all, but did recall the great TV episodes from back in the 80s and 90s. So I was channeling Angela Lansbury the whole way, picturing her as Jessica in every scene and moment, to the point where I found myself much more reliant on the mythology from the television series than the books. In MANUSCRIPT FOR MURDER, for example, Artie Gelber (played by Herb Edelman for about a dozen episodes) plays a big role, even though he never appears in the books.
What made all this work was listening to Jessica, following her lead instead of asking her to follow mine. The problem is she’s speaking to me, not Don Bain anymore, and that means the books, and Jessica herself, are going to be different than what some readers are accustomed to or prefer. But I could never take over this or any other series without putting my own stamp on it and making it my own.
BEING TRUE TO BOTH OF US
The thing is above all else I need to be true to both Jessica and myself. Writing and/or storytelling have to be organic. It has to come from the inside out, rather than the outside in which is what writing to a formula implies. Cozies have established formulas that were very difficult for me to emulate because it’s not my genre of choice. So I think what I created was something we can call the “cozy thriller” in that I’m striving to preserve what readers love most about MURDER, SHE WROTE, while adding the kind of pacing, suspense and plotting they may have seen before. Based on some of the comments on Amazon, that transition wasn’t entirely seamless. In a perfect world, every established fan of MSW will love my approach even as legions of new readers discover or rediscover the series. But this isn’t a perfect world and I know diverting from some of the established templates of the cozy culture is going to upset some readers. At that same time, I believe far more are going to feel that I’ve kept plenty of the cozy structure intact while injecting elements to keep the series fresh.
I had kind of inherited my first effort, A DATE WITH MURDER, from Don about 60 pages in, so MANUSCRIPT was my first tale I developed on my own, the first that was truly my own. That said, this is a process and I’m continuing to learn from criticism both constructive and negative. And the just published MURDER IN RED is much more of a mystery in which Jessica’s incredibly keen powers of observation are displayed in much the same manner fans will recall from the TV series. But Sheriff Mort Metzger now mostly calls her “Jessica” instead of “Mrs. Fletcher,” and she has more of an edge about her, appearing more determined and relentless in pursuit of justice, even at the risk of putting herself in danger
JESSICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY
You see, I’ve made a conscious decision to write this series the way it would be if it had been originated today, instead of trying to replicate the 1980s absent cell phones, UBER, the instantaneous information age and 24/7 news cycle. Instead of portraying Jessica in a vacuum, I’ve chosen to portray her as a creature of her environment instead of in spite of it. Cabot Cove is still Cabot Cove, but I portray the once bucolic village as a kind of mini-Hamptons of the North during the summer months, much to the chagrin of Jessica and the other series regulars. She will always be the same Jessica but the world around her isn’t going to remain frozen in time. So, too, we will see the return of more and more popular characters like romantic interest George Sutherland from the books (MURDER IN RED) and Jessica’s nephew Grady from the TV show.
Next November, by the way, will see the publication of the 50th book in the MSW book series, A TIME FOR MURDER. And to commemorate that, for the first time ever, in books or TV, the audience is going to meet Jessica for the first time as a younger woman still married to her husband Frank and serving as a substitute English teacher in Appleton, Maine before her writing career took off. A murder back then will be directly connected to a murder in the present back in Cabot Cove and Jessica will narrate them both, even as she uncovers the connections. In A TIME FOR MURDER, we’re also going to meet a younger Amos Tupper, Seth Hazlitt, and realtor Eve Simpson when she shows Frank and Jessica the home at 698 Candlewood Lane for the first time. It’s all about keeping long-time fans of MURDER, SHE WROTE happy by giving them what they expect, sprinkled with enough nuance to keep the series fresh and vital for a 2019 audience.
The series, after all, may now belong to me, but Jessica belongs to the world and the legions of fans who’ve followed her for more than 30 years. I should know, because I’m one of them.