Normally, a franchise tie-in novel isn’t considered here at Lost in Translation. The only exception so far has been a Nikki Heat novel by Richard Castle, mainly because of the metafictional aspects the book provides. However, a recent discovery brings up the nature of tie-in novels. How much time since the end of the original work is needed before a tie-in novel becomes an adaptation in its own right?
Murder, She Wrote was the television equivalent of a cozy mystery series, a number of novels featuring the same core cast of characters where later entries focused more on the lives of the cast than on the mystery. “The Cat Who” mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun and the Mrs. Murphy books by Rita Mae and Sneaky Pie Brown are good examples of cozy mysteries series. With Murder, She Wrote, Jessica “JB” Fletcher, a widow and retired English teacher turned mystery writer played by Angela Lansbury, solved murders on a weekly basis for CBS from 1984-1996, followed by four made-for-TV movies. While Jessica did tour the US, either to visit friends and family or to promote her latest book, she also spent time in her hometown of Cabot Cove*, a fictional town in Maine, letting the TV series build a cast of regular recurring characters.
A typical episode of Murder, She Wrote had the murder victim and prime suspect, who had some connection to Jessica, introduced to the audience; the murder itself; the police arresting the prime suspect; and then followed Jessica’s investigations through to the reveal of the real killer. The show allowed viewers to make their own observations, letting them try to figure out who the murderer was before Jessica. There were no sudden reveals; all the clues were shown. The reaction of the police varied. Most tried to keep Jessica from getting involved in official business, but some accepted her help, including Sheriff Amos Tupper, played by Tom Bosley, and Sheriff Mort Metzger, played by Ron Masak, both of the Cabot Cover Sheriff’s Department**, both of whom relectantly accepted Jessica’s help because of her track record.
The first Murder, She Wrote tie-in novel, Gin and Daggers, was released in 1989. The novel was written by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain, and had a few inconsistencies, including having Jessica driving where in the series, she didn’t even have a license. A second edition that corrected the problems was released in 2000. Five tie-in novels were released before the series ended in 1996. Afterwards, an average of two Murder, She Wrote novels were released each year since.
Killer in the Kitchen, published in 2015, begins in Cabot Cove. The first part of the novel introduces the murder victim and the obvious suspect along with the supporting cast. Brad and Marcie Fowler, the son and daughter-in-law of Jessica’s friend Isabel, have been working towards opening a seafood restuarant in Cabot Cove, extending themselves financially. Brad has a short temper and a shaky sense of the restaurant business. He and his wife need their endeavor, the Fin and Claw, to succeed. However, noted chef Gérard Leboeuf has decided to open a new restaurant in his chain right across from the Fin and Claw. Gérard knows the business, once letting Jessica look behind the scenes of his New York City as part of research into one of her mysteries, but has the manners of a boor. During the Fin and Claw`s grand opening, Gérard goads Brad on, leading to threats of violence from the latter.
It is no surprise when one of the chefs turns up dead with a kitchen knife in his chest. Dr. Seth Hazlitt, who was played by William Windom in the series, fills in for the Medical Examiner, and gives Sheriff Metzger the details on the cause and time of death. The Sheriff suspects the rival chef because of obvious reasons, but Jessica believes that someone else murdered the dead man. Clues are laid out for the reader to follow, but not always explicitly made mention by Jessica. Other characters become suspects, if not to Jessica, then to the reader, especially once the victim’s home life and possible Mob connections are revealed.
The goal of a tie-in novel, beyond the “make money” aspect, is to present the characters as fans of the original work see them. The problem there is that each member of the audience could have a valid but differing interpretation of the character***. The success, or lack thereof, depends the author setting not only the right tone for the novel but having a good ear for how characters speak and a good eye on how they act. As mentioned above, Gin and Daggers had issues with details that were corrected with a second edition. Murder, She Wrote was a light mystery, a cozy, with a well-meaning busybody snooping around when she felt the police had arrested the wrong person. Writing in the style of Dashiell Hammet or even Richard Castle would miss the proper mood. Jessica was well define in the run of the TV series; she needs to behave in the novel as she did on TV.
Killer in the Kitchen is written in the first person from Jessica’s point of view. Getting her right is critical, and Bain does a good job getting Jessica’s voice correct. Likewise, the recurring characters who do show up also have the correct voice. One can easily picture Angela Lansbury, Ron Masek, and William Windom back in their roles. The result is a story that would very much fit in the run of the TV series, twenty years after the show left the air.
* Cabot Cove, Maine, fictional America’s murder capital, beating out the current one, Detroit.
** Sheriff Tupper retired in his last appearance on the show in 1988, possibly in preparation for Bosley to star in Father Dowling Mysteries. Sheriff Metzger was a New York City police officer who thought that Cabot Cove would be more peaceful.
*** Then there’s the out of left field interpretations, such as Jessica Fletcher being the most successful serial killer on television and responsible for all the murders during the run of Murder, She Wrote.
News has broken about NBC remaking the murder mystery series, Murder, She Wrote. This time around, Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for her role in The Help, will star as Jessica “J.B.” Fletcher, mystery writer and angel of death*. A few changes are being made to the series, beyond having an actress younger than Angela Lansbury was when she played Jessica. First, instead of the main character being a widow who wrote mysteries to supplement her income and getting a break, the new JB Fletcher will be a hospital administrator in her day job. With Jessica having a regular job, she won’t be able to travel around as much as in the original series. Second, Jessica will be a self-published author instead of going through a publishing company. This reflects the huge changes in the publishing industry since the original series left the air.
The usual question when anything is remade is, “Why do a remake?” In this case, NBC is still rebuilding after the fiasco of moving Jay Leno to a 10pm time slot, losing five dramas including the long-running Law & Order. NBC is still rebuilding, trying to regain the lost audience, a tough chore when the options available are almost boundless. The network has already cancelled one remake, Ironside, after three episodes, replacing it with Dateline for the most part in the time slot**.
The difference, though, between Ironside and Murder, She Wrote is familiarity. The original Ironside starred Raymond Burr, who was better known for Perry Mason. The old series, while falling one short of having 200 episodes over eight seasons, never received much syndication beyond the 70s; Murder, She Wrote lasted twelve seasons with 284 episodes, plus came out when syndication was far more established with the 500 channel cable line up looming. Murder, She Wrote had a larger impact, and, having ended its twelve season run in 1996, is better remembered. NBC may be counting on people wondering about the differences between the original and the remake to get a decent number of viewers for the pilot episode.
There will be complaints. With the Internet and social media, people have many places to vent about a series sight unseen. There are three areas of contention that I can see. First, Jessica has a day job. The original series was more an anthology series featuring whodunits, and with JB Fletcher being a successful author able to live off her royalties, there was no need to anchor her to any one location. If one episode needed her in LA one week and the next week’s show needed her in Miami, the script writers could hand wave her being in both cities as being on a book signing tour. Or she could visit friends and relatives anywhere in the world*** for any number of reasons. The new Jessica Fletcher, though, has a day job – hospital administrator. The new Jessica can’t gallivant around the country. Being self-published, she can’t yet live off her royalties. Book tours would either be self-funded or virtual. However, being at a hospital means that she would see the bodies that come in, giving her a chance to notice that the odd death isn’t of natural causes. This also means that, in a large enough city, she’s not going to be the harbinger of death. In the original Murder, She Wrote, everywhere JB Fletcher went, someone died, to the point where people could call her Entertainment’s most successful serial killer.
The second area of contention is the choice of actress in the new series. As mentioned about, Spencer is an Oscar winner. However, Angela Lansbury was much beloved in the role. It may be difficult to separate her from JB Fletcher. I’d have called it unremakable, alongside Columbo, for the same reason; the lead character and her actress have become one and the same to many viewers. Spencer will have to bring her own interpretation to the character and hope that people are willing to accept her version.
The third issue is tone. Remakes tend to go in one of two directions, the comedic approach or the dark and gritty approach. The original Murder, She Wrote was light fare. Sure, there was at least one body per episode, but to have a murder mystery, there needs to be a murder. At the same time, Jessica made the rounds, talking to suspects and investigating the crime scene, giving the viewers a way to solve the mystery alongside her. The end reveal showed the clues, letting viewers know that there wasn’t anything pulled out of thin air. The new series needs to keep the mystery aspect, keep the viewers following for clues. The level of gore might be raisable, thanks to shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and still remain light entertainment.
This isn’t to say that the show will be bad. Nothing has been filmed yet. The show can still succeed or fail on its own merits. NBC needs to have a deft touch with the new series, to bring in fans of the original, while still satisfying new viewers. Best of luck!
* Everywhere Jessica went, someone died. Her hometown of Cabot Cove, Maine, was probably happy to see her leave for a book signing; it gave the townsfolk a breather from waiting for the next murder.
** Also coming up in the Ironside timeslot, a live version of The Sound of Music.
*** World being, for the most part, the Lower 48 States with maybe a detour into Canada. Maybe.