Murder, She Wrote and Me

Jessica was writing on a manual typewriter, just as I was back then

Jessica was writing on a manual typewriter, just as I was back then

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, taking you back into the past—to 1985, to be precise. I thought you might enjoy reading the exchange of letters I had at the time with the Executive Producer of Murder, She Wrote, which was then in its second season. And me? I had two whole books to my credit, only one of them fiction. My letter, printed in full below, is dated November 26, 1985. Keep in mind that some things have changed. We do have train service north of Boston now and some of the information about sheriffs in Maine is no longer 100% accurate. Back then I was a lot younger and very full of myself, with an appalling tendency to sound pompous. I am surprised, rereading this thirty-one years later, that Mr. Fischer bothered to answer me!

Kathy with her first stack of author copies

Kathy with her first stack of author copies

Dear Mr. Fischer:

As much as I admire your work in MURDER, SHE WROTE and other t.v. mysteries, I find that as a long-time Maine resident and the wife of a deputy sheriff, and as a writer (my THE MYSTERY OF HILLIARD’S CASTLE was just published by Down East Books of Camden, ME), I must point out a few very annoying errors which turn up repeatedly in your series.

with-young-readersThe first concerns law enforcement. Tupper is called the Sheriff of Cabot’s Cove. Sheriff is an elected county office, 99% administrative. Sheriffs generally wear business suits. The men in uniform are deputies. In addition a sheriff’s department may have court officers, investigators, a jail administrator, and a chief deputy. None of these men and women are as stupid as the deputy recently shown searching a lake for a body, and none would use the police radio as he did. 10-codes are used here for the same reasons they are used elsewhere, and just as consistently. Furthermore, neither a sheriff’s department nor a local police force (found only in large towns and in cities) would be involved in a murder investigation. These are turned over to the state police as quickly as possible. In a place the size Cabot Cove appears to be, it is unlikely there would be a police department, let alone a jail. The town would be more likely to have an untrained, semi-voluntary constable with a patrol deputy for back-up.

hometown-signingThe second point is minor, but annoying to Mainers. Jessica has no accent. Wise move. The other Maine characters would do well to lose theirs, or get it right. Most present day Mainers have watched t.v. all their lives. They sound more like national newscasters than the Silases and Calebs (and Amoses and Ethans) of stereotype. Incidentally, there aren’t many Silases and Calebs, not even on the coast. Harlan, maybe, or Linwood, or a Calvin or two, but most of us have regular names, just like you “foreigners.”

My third objection is also minor. We would love to have passenger train service. Unfortunately, to get any closer to Maine than Boston one must fly or drive or take a bus. And unless Cabot Cove is right on the New Hampshire border, it is probably at least a two hour drive. Maine is a big state. Over half of it is north of Bangor, which is a three hour and more drive from the Portland area. Incidentally, is that the Maine coast you’ve filmed? Much of it looks suspiciously Californian.

I hope you don’t mind these comments. You have a good show, which is very popular in Maine, but it could easily be accurate as well. Since you took the trouble to get a deputy sheriff’s uniform right (but not the lights on the patrol car—we use only blue in Maine) why not fix the few inaccuracies that are left?

I sent this with copies to the other producers, Richard Levinson and William Link. Peter S. Fischer’s reply is dated December 2, 1985:

Dear Mrs. Emerson:

Such a thoughtful and constructive letter certainly deserves an answer in kind and I’ll try to do my best to explain why we do what we do on MURDER, SHE WROTE.

jessica-fletcherI’m sure your information on the operation of the various Sheriff’s offices in Maine is accurate. However, slavish accuracy can often get in the way of a good story and we have obviously taken liberties. Our sheriff and our sheriff’s office is as fictional as Cabot Cove itself. In truth, Amos Tupper, in spirit and experience, is much closer to the “untrained, semi-voluntary constable” you mention in your letter. Pleasant, naïve, and totally out of his element when it comes to murder. For the sake of clarity we have taken the liberty of calling him “Sheriff” and giving him the responsibility of clearing up the murder of the week in our fictional town. Yes, it would be more accurate were we to call in the state police, but I think we would lose a lot of fun and audience identification with Jessica’s traditional rival. Certainly it is utter writer’s convenience that Perry Mason always went up against Hamilton Burger and that Burger always lost the case because Mason came up with some clue that a halfway decent police force would have stumbled upon almost immediately. Lt. Trask was not the model of an open-minded, well-informed police lieutenant. Inspector LeStrade was a humorous foil for Holmes—would the stories have been better if he had been Holmes’ intellectual equal? I confess. We bend accuracy to fit our format but we are first and foremost trying to entertain in a lighthearted way. If I thought it inappropriate for our style of show I would not do it.

"Jessica" chose to include one of my short stories in this anthology in 1999

“Jessica” chose to include one of my short stories in this anthology in 1999

As for the Maine accents, we do our best to get them as right as possible but some actors are better than others. Besides, as you point out, the nation has become more homogenous and we certainly wouldn’t want them all sounding identical. I hope you don’t feel we’re poking fun at Maine and State of Mainers because we’re not—I love New England and the people who live there. We’re just trying to give our viewers a little taste of something besides Southern California. (Although you are right. “Cabot Cove” is located upstate California. Mendocino, to be precise, a small town founded by New Bedford whalers in the mid 1800s using traditional salt box architecture. Shooting in Maine itself would be much too prohibitive, financially. The East Coast unions have seen to that.)

As for train service, again we were aware that it stopped in Boston—but again we wanted to keep a homey flavor to this mythical location. We didn’t want a modern airport nearby and decided to give outsiders access to Cabot Cove by sea, rail and bus. In fact, most of the references since the first episode to travel in and out of Cabot Cove deal with busses.

Finally, I’m having our transportation department fix the lights on Sheriff Tupper’s car. All blue. I promise—at least for the last Cabot Cove show of this season.

Thanks very much for writing. We really do want you to be happy with us.

murder-she-wrote-title-art

All in all, a very nice response . . . although as far as I was ever able to tell, they never did fix the lights on the cruisers. What I find most interesting in retrospect is that television and movie producers are still using the same excuses for not bothering to get the details right. Any episode of Castle will illustrate a total lack of regard for actual police procedure. So, dear readers, what do you think? Does this reasoning make sense or would you like to see scriptwriters pay as much attention to accuracy as you expect from those of us who write mystery and crime novels?

fallsbooks1Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse ~ UK in December 2016; US in April 2017) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com

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14 Responses to Murder, She Wrote and Me

  1. Vida Antolin-Jenkins says:

    I’ve been asked to leave the room during one or two tv shows/movies after I’ve exclaimed, “that’s not how it really is!” one too many times. The incorrect details keep me from focusing on the story, but I don’t think it’s a malady shared by all the audience. So I’m with you- accuracy =verisimilitude for me.

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  2. Allison Keeton says:

    First, thank you for this. I love “Murder, She Wrote” and had the pleasure of meeting Angela Lansbury a few years ago. A delight. I loved reading the letters too.

    Second, I think it’s important to get things right unless the writer needs a believable suspension of reality as a plot device, to move the story forward, and so forth. Sticking as close to the truth as possible on other elements allows for some creative licensing I think.

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  3. David Plimpton says:

    Interesting post.

    Your points are well taken, but so were Mr. Fischer’s. On balance, he seems right about most of what he says; most people (even in Maine with respect to a show set in Maine) don’t care about slavish devotion to accuracy. They like the stories, and more important, the feel of Cabot Cove. Slavish devotion to accuracy gets you “The Beans of Egypt Maine”, which does not have the makings of a popular television series. Re the accents, you’re right, they should have dropped them, but only Maine people would know they’re bogus.

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    • Hi, David. Good points, although I would argue that the picture of Maine readers get from Carolyn Chute’s books is not all that accurate, either. To be perfectly honest, though, neither are my Liss MacCrimmon mysteries. The Maine in my novels, although they are supposedly set in the 21st century, is actually closer in many ways to rural western Maine in the 1980s and 1990s. That said, my retired law enforcement husband makes sure I know it when I try to have my cops do something they couldn’t or shouldn’t do! I had to rewrite half of The Corpse Wore Tartan because as originally written I had Sherri mishandling the crime scene and messing up evidence, things that in real life would have gotten her fired, even if she had the best of intentions.

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  4. Barb Ross says:

    I think the closer you are to a thing, the harder it is to suspend disbelief. My husband worked in politics for years, and it made it hard for me to watch or read things set in campaigns, because they were often so ridiculous.

    Similarly, I frequently laugh at the depiction of writers. Oh for that so rarely sitting at your desk, jet-setting life style. And when the theft of a fiction manuscript by a talented nobody is the motivation for murder…

    But then again, I love HBO’s Silicon Valley, because of the funny and only slightly exaggerated way it treats the world of technology start-ups, something I know well. In this case things a civilian might find totally unbelievable, I find all too believable.

    That being said, you have to accept certain tropes to enjoy certain genres. I think the New England towns in most cozy mysteries I know are halfway between truth and Brigadoon.

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    • Good points, Barb. I still maintain, though, that a well thought out plot, TV or cozy, will not be harmed by having the correct department investigate a murder. That this department can vary from state to state might require a little research, but a professional writer ought to be doing that anyway.

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  5. Carole Price says:

    What’s interesting is that you kept these letters for us to enjoy reading now. I still watch late night reruns of Murder She Wrote. The Jessica Fletcher house shown is on the northern Mendocino, CA coast. I even knocked on the front door but no one answered. I was just excited to see it, knowing how much I loved the series. Thanks for sharing your letters.

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  6. Beth Clark says:

    In my career as a nurse and nurse educator, I really hated how nurses were portrayed! I applaud your passion in pursuing these inaccuracies and your openness to sharing your letter and the response. Thanks for an interesting column.

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  7. Sharon Kushner says:

    Kaitlyn, I have known you forever and didn’t realize you were so brazen. Just kidding. As a reader and watcher I know that liberties are taken with scenarios. Not being someone from Maine, I would not know there was no train where Cabot Cove would have been located. Nor would I know the type of policing in such a small town. I watched MURDER, SHE WROTE for the pure enjoyment of the story taken as it was. If the story were set in our small home town, I may have been much more picky. I love to leave reality, escape to another time or place and mentally help solve a TV or written crime. I don’t worry about some of the minor details. Most people would not know about the small stuff. Many of the characters in MURDER, SHE WROTE could have been transplants. Police work, however, should stick to the true line of work even though quirky sheriffs are fun. I am very proud to be your friend and enjoy your books. BTW I have written to a couple of authors also to comment on some really blatant errors but never heard back from them. I wonder why? Keep up the wonderful writing.

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    • Hi, Sharon. Thanks for posting a comment. I don’t know about other writers, but I always respond when someone finds a blooper in one of my books (unless the person writing to me is really rude about it, and I know you wouldn’t be). Speaking of our home town, you’ll get your chance to be picky sometime in the spring of 2018. But I did take care to interview Cheryl M.’s son, the deputy sheriff, when I was there for our 50th, so at least I’m pretty sure I’ll get the law enforcement part right.

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