When I discovered that Mendocino, Northern California stands in for the fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine, in the long-running TV series Murder, She Wrote, I felt compelled to plan a pilgrimage to this patch of California’s rugged coastline. The twisting, cliff-hugging route north from San Francisco up Pacific Coast Highway is a relatively undiscovered, unspoiled swathe of coast, and makes for the perfect intersection of all American road trip and boyhood rite of passage.
You see, I had been a closet Murder, She Wrote fan since the American export first aired on British TV screens back in the 80s. Fortunately for me I now lived in Southern California and this gave me the perfect excuse to set forth on a fantasy adventure to this romantic coastal hamlet. 464 miles later, I found myself perched on a wave-carved headland, sandwiched between thick forests and a restless sea in the place I’d been yearning to visit from a young age. It was like all the wishes on my gay bucket list had come true.
Saturday nights as a kid meant one thing for me: Jessica Fletcher. Others watched the A-Team, or played some sport-related activity. I was all about Aunt Jess
Saturday nights as a kid meant one thing for me: Jessica Fletcher. Others watched the A-Team, or played some sport-related activity. I was all about Aunt Jess. If you’re not familiar with the show, the premise is similar to Miss Marple. The lead character, played beautifully by Angela Lansbury, is a crime writer who happens to live in an idyllic coastal spot where a lot of murders take place (as with Midsomer, if Cabot Cove actually existed you’d want to run for your life). The opening scene, with chirpy, lifting piano music, shows our crime sleuth tapping away at an old school typewriter (which is updated to a word processor in the 90s), churning out some impeccably researched page-turner.
Her author status gives her Super(wo)man-like access to a fourth dimension which means we get to see Fletcher visiting a vast network of friends and acquaintances beyond the confines of Cabot Cove. Her arrival in any given location always coincides with some terrible crime which – she being the bestselling mystery writer J.B. Fletcher – helps solve. Usually there is a high society element to it: she’ll have known Connie or Bonnie from many moons ago, and there’ll be some family drama or inheritance snafu. Jessica swoops in and saves the day, often having to circumnavigate a bumbling and inept cop who totally fails to grasp the brain he has in his midst. Because she’s an old lady she often gets dismissed while quietly outshining them all by being her brilliant and humble self. This is her secret weapon: never underestimate an oldster.
Mendocino is a time capsule from the late 1800s, giving a sense of old world permanence that serves to underline Fletcher’s own unshakable foundation
What’s fascinating about her too is that she doesn’t court the limelight, nor does she seek out the trappings of a best-selling author. She is homespun, but also a husband-free, independent lady making a good living from her craft. She is not defined by her widow status and offers a third act for women on TV who often get dropped from the schedules when their sexual allure starts to fade. Jessica’s power is her brain, and her ability to maintain deep and longstanding friendships with people. Wherever she goes her celebrity precedes her, but she doesn’t rest on her laurels. She is nobody’s fool and tells it like it is: she brandishes her intelligence without ever a whiff of grandiosity. She’s always charming to staff, speaking to everyone on a level, with no airs and graces. You rarely see her drink. She is respectable and sincere, not showy or self-inflated.
Much like Sex and the City has Manhattan as its fifth character, Cabot Cove (aka Mendocino) is the perfect embodiment of Aunt Jess’s world. Mendocino is a time capsule from the late 1800s, giving a sense of old world permanence that serves to underline Fletcher’s own unshakable foundation. The Kelley House walking tour is a good way to discover the chequered history of Mendocino, which is the only town on the California coast designated as an Historic Preservation District. We did a self-guided audio tour – also pretty good. Established in the 1850s as a lumber town, Mendocino was surrounded by redwood forests. During the depression and well into the 1950s the town’s timber declined and so did the population, which meant the buildings, reminiscent of Maine with its grand Victorians and quaint Saltbox cottages, were left intact. Many of Mendocino’s early settlers were from the eastern seaboard. As a result, local architecture lent well to depicting the fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine.
Nine episodes of the 264-episode program were filmed in Mendocino, while exterior shots throughout Mendocino were used in the remaining episodes. The program was broadcast for 12 seasons, from September 1984 until May 1996, and won countless awards. At Hill House Inn, which features prominently throughout the show, there are signed photos by Lansbury and other high profile guests to geek over in the lobby. Jessica Fletcher’s home in the series is actually a bed and breakfast called Blair House (the VIP suite is named “Angela’s Suite”). For me, it felt like coming home. All it needed was Aunt Jess to peddle up on her bicycle, invite me in for coffee and a piece of freshly made pie before putting the finishing touches to her next opus.
Cue music. C