Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes”

“The Murder of Sherlock Holmes” is the premiere double-length episode of Murder She Wrote that aired on September 30, 1984 which ran for twelve seasons and was one of the most beloved mystery series’ of all time.

In this first episode, Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) is a widowed substitute school teacher living in the town of Cabot Cove, Maine. She writes a mystery novel in her spare time that she only shows to family. Her nephew (Michael Horton) takes the unpolished manuscript to a publisher friend in New York and it is published and climbs to #2 on the New York Times Best-Seller list, giving her instant fame. This requires that Lansbury be extra likable in order to win over those of us who have revised countless times and received more rejection letters than we have fingers and toes.

However, quick success has its price as she is subjected to the most insipid series of television interviews an author has ever had to endure, including an interview by the worst person in the world, who spoils the ending of Jessica’s book on national television. She’s had about enough of this when her publisher (Arthur Hill) offers her a trip to the country to spend time with his friends.  It’s at this party that she begins her streak of finding a body nearly everywhere she shows up as a man in a Sherlock Holmes costume is found murdered in the swimming pool

What’s Good :

I’ve seen half a dozen episodes of Murder She Wrote at most and these were later episodes where Jessica took every dead body in stride and is used to being a world famous mystery writer.  Don’t get me wrong, she was in no way arrogant, but she was quite accustomed to a strange life of finding dead bodies in between writing massively successful mystery books.

This is a different performance by Lansbury as this tells the story of how Jessica was plucked from obscurity to become an overnight mystery-writing sensation. After nearly 60 years on Earth, she finds herself have to deal with New York City, and then she gets thrust into a murder investigation when her nephew is suspected of the crime.

She has the raw detective skills but begins her career believably out of her element and over her head. However, she pushes ahead with her basic skills and pure grit and determination. At the same time, she’s likable throughout. If you don’t have someone like Jessica Fletcher in your family, then you certainly wish you did. She’s kindly, wise, and caring about people around her.  She’s great at building rapport.

There’s also a romance angle to the story, where she and her publisher start to fall for each other. She finds it all way too fast and it’s a believable reaction.  The gentle sparks between them is a good example of how romance can work with an older couple.

The guest cast is solid and professional including veterans Brian Keith, who is great as the crusty fast seafood king “Captain” Caleb McCallum and Anne Francis as his alcoholic wife Louise.

Another aspect of the production I enjoyed was the costumes at the costume party. They were perfect for the occasion. The costumes didn’t look like rentals from a costume story or like they were from a new Broadway musical.  Rather they’re tasteful and classy costumes that look just like what would be worn at an upper class party.

I also loved the final confrontation scene. There’s so much going on and Jessica is in real danger and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s also got more emotional stakes than is typically at stake in these sort of stories. You wonder what the killer is going to do right up until the last moment.

What Doesn’t Work:

While much of the first twenty-five minutes served to introduce Jessica as a character before she got to the party, I did feel like portions of this dragged and this could have been better paced.

Ned Beatty plays the Chief of Police of the small town where the murder occurred. Beatty tries to play him as being smarter than he looks or initially acts, even though he’s not at Jessica’s level. The script works against him, so it’s a bit of an uneven performance.

The execution of some scenes in Jessica’s investigation were a little off. She supposedly was breaking and entering into her nephew’s office to investigate another suspect but it seemed like she walked through an open door along with her nephew, so what was the problem?  

Also, there was a scene where Jessica was mugged and I noticed they used a stuntman with a wig for the rough part. I was also confused as to the point of the scene. She’s exculpated from the situation by someone who isn’t involved in the mystery and doesn’t become involved in the case. He’s just a random person who read her book.  They added to the power of published authors that they get devoted fans who risk their lives fighting off muggers.

There’s a scene in a theater and it’s an incredibly cheap-looking set. Its cheapness undermines a key plot point.

The ending scene where Jessica is leaving and the police want her to stay in New York and investigate a strange murder is excessively silly. And I write that as someone with a high tolerance for silly.

Overall:

No good TV series reaches its full potential in its first episode. Murder She Wrote is no exception. Parts of this story are a bit rough.  The pilot was written in an open-ended way that could allow it to lead to a TV series or, if that failed, it would at least be a good mystery movie of the week.

Thankfully, Murder She Wrote did become a TV series, thanks to Lansbury, whose likable and energetic performance makes this more than a movie of the week with a standard mystery plot and a few minor flaws.

By no means, is “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes” Murder She Wrote at its best but its Jessica Fletcher’s origin story and thus its worth viewing.

Rating : 3.5 out of 5

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