The Case of the Mysterious Ritual:
Murder, She Wrote and Perry Mason
If Murder, She Wrote were the game of Clue, we could say that Jessica
Fletcher did it in the TV room with a skewer--every Sunday night for ten
years. Mass media research long has demonstrated that older women
the mystery genre among their favorite television choices, but little
has been done that offers to explain why.1 This article relies on
analysis to suggest that programs such as Murder, She Wrote and its
television cousin, Perry Mason, draw viewers--many of them older
a form that rewards ritualized consumption of television. It further
suggests that ethnographic methods might be used to interpret the nature
that ritualized viewing experience.
Mystery and detective programs have supplied the broadcast networks with
popular content fairly consistently since the days of radio. For
Perry Mason was a radio serial drama on the CBS network from 1943 to
before becoming a CBS television episodic drama, running from 1957 to
(Brooks and Marsh, 1981, and McNeil, 1991). In the mid-1980s, CBS
what would be its most successful mystery series ever, Murder, She Wrote,
starring Angela Lansbury as aging amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher.2
mystery-detective genre peaked in popularity during the 1974-75
when four series made the list of the top twenty rated programs by the
Neilsen Co.3 More than two decades later, the mystery format has become
tired and less reliable for networks, which compete with more channels
The Case of the Mysterious Ritual,
and other entertainment forms for the attention of high-spending audiences.
Advertisers desire a younger audience than the 50-year-olds and their
seniors who flock to Murder, She Wrote each Sunday evening. Murder's
competitor on ABC, Lois and Clark, hails about $16,000 more for each
30-second commercial spot even though it has ranked much lower in
As far back as 1976, John Cawelti offered aesthetic reasons for the
decline of the mystery genre: Its highly articulated structure has made
resistant to change, which it needs to maintain appeal among audiences who
eventually grow tired of repetition. It is no accident that mystery and
detective programs tend to skew toward older audiences, who may find
genre comfortable compared with more experimental programs. For
the Fox network has purposely attracted younger viewers through
with brassy, quick-paced styles and, occasionally, radical or fused
such as The Simpsons. Programs with their roots in the mystery,
detective genre, such as Moonlighting, L.A. Law, and Twin Peaks, were able
to attract younger viewers to various degrees because they broke from
hackneyed formulas of the past.
The classical mystery is inextricably linked to the traditional detective
and lawyer genres. The original Perry Mason series appearing in the 1950s
and '60s (and the revival series of the early 1970s), as well as the Perry
Mason television movies produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is a
lawyer show in the traditional mold. It follows a mystery formula
close to that of Murder, She Wrote: The hero encounters a dead person
a wrongly accused bystander, then goes to work uncovering clues about
handful of guest-star suspects, resulting in a climactic revelation of
real killer's identity. More often than not, the killer confesses.
is restored, and relations are normalized. Matlock, a traditional
show that has been popular among older viewers during the Murder, She
era, is similar in formula.5
As the mystery genre has receded from prominence, Murder, She Wrote has
served as a notable exception. Despite its undesirable skew, CBS has
able to depend on it to deliver audiences for advertisers while much
network's prime time schedule has grown weak (The Associated Press, Nov.
11, 1994). Angela Lansbury, the star of the program, has, herself,
out against what she considers a double standard in ratings logic.
Likewise, the Gray Panthers, an advocacy group for seniors, criticized the
advertising industry's "ageism" and questioned its logic in light of
national trends indicating the general aging of the U. S. population and
the rising wealth of elder Americans (Farhi, 1994). Murder, She
overwhelming popularity with elder viewers has not brought it critical
acclaim. Except for its emphasis on an aging female character, it is
another example of its genre. Its faithfulness to its type is, for
purposes here, what makes it worth studying.
Studying a Dying Genre
If the mystery's era has waned, why is it important to study examples of
the genre, and why is it important to study the uses viewers make of
The mystery and related genres, such as the classical detective show,
remain important to many older viewers within the so-called television
audience. Television tends to play a significant role in the lives of
elderly women (Comstock, 1978, Davis & Westbrook, 1985).6 Learning
something about how favorite texts figure into their everyday lives can
help us to explain how older viewers use media to construct meaning
(Tulloch, 1989). Ang (1994) has argued in favor of studying the
microsituations of elderly viewers in order to work toward ethnographic
understanding of diverse people who are part of the so-called
Morley (1992) and Silverstone and Hirsch (1992) have argued that
television--as a medium and as an assembly of texts--is consumed by people
as an act of everyday life, and, through this activity, people
meaning. Some of this consumption, as suggested by the work of these
authors, is highly ritualistic: In the context of our domestic settings,
we regularly and even ceremonially engage certain television texts to
our situations. The symbolic meaning that the texts carry for us is
contingent on where we may be positioned as cultural subjects. In order
gain as complete an understanding as possible about such culturally
produced meaning, Tulloch (1990) has insisted that scholars must study not
only the reception of the message, but its production, and the message
itself. This paper begins with the text and sets an agenda for more
The project aims to begin probing the relationship between texts that
encourage ritualistic use and their actual uses by elements in the texts
that may encourage particular meanings. As Morley (1992) has
"the audience [is] multiply embedded in a consumer culture in which
technologies and messages are juxtaposed, both implicated in the creation
of meaning, in the creation of possibilities of everyday life" (p.
He perceives consumption of television as a rhetorical activity
both the situated audience member and the production of culturally
messages. The empirical work intended to explore the ritual uses of
mystery genre by older women viewers--one such multiply embedded
in Morley's terms--will follow this work. However, in order to
contextualize the ritual use encouraged by such texts, I offer some
comments I have collected from elderly women who consider themselves "fans"
of mystery shows. These comments help to suggest the saliency of what Ang
has identified as "microsituations" in interpreting how a texts are linked
with acts of ritual.
In the early 1990s, while doing fieldwork for my dissertation on
television use in a Midwestern retirement community, I heard numerous
stories from women who told me that watching Murder, She Wrote was
something they always did on Sunday nights, whether they lived alone or
with a spouse. Some habitually prepared a favorite snack or engaged in
other routinized activities along with viewing this special program.
seemed more important to them is that they tended to look upon the
experience of seeing the program--and Lansbury--as a bright spot in their
week, a way of marking the end of the week, in many cases.
Eighty-year-old Fostine told me she didn't mind that Murder, She Wrote's
plots involved incredible coincidences and its endings often were
predictable for her:
I like the way she [Jessica Fletcher] works things out so neatly. Oh,
of course, you couldn't possibly believe that all those murders could
take place in that little village of Cabot Cove or that the same
nephew had been arrested on suspicion of murder three or four
times--or even that the same guest star had appeared in different
episodes playing different roles.8 I treat each episode as a
different story. I enjoy that story and don't worry about all the
Fostine said the variety of possibilities--in the circumstances and method
of the murder, the scene of the mystery (which often involves
exotic locations), and Jessica's means of solving the mystery--made
show seem "inventive" to her, despite its repetitive storylines.
Another woman, 77-year-old Jackie, said she liked watching "the old Perry
Mason reruns" on cable channels for similar reasons:
Of course, one lawyer would never just happen to turn up when so many
dead bodies are discovered. But that's part of the fun of the
program. I mean, you can count on Perry going through every step of
the way--uncovering each person's motive, maybe making one person
guilty when it turns out at the last minute they have an alibi, and
then, finally, that courtroom scene, when he catches them and
them confess. It works out clean every time.
Jackie said she remembered having watched Perry Mason often when it was
broadcast on CBS but wasn't "a regular fan." In her retirement years,
watched the program two or three mornings a week and also enjoyed
She Wrote on cable. "[Watching] is something I like to fit into my
routine," she said. "It isn't important, really, but, if I'm home, I
watch. It's kind of the high point of the morning, a nice way of marking
that point in the day."
Jackie compared Murder, She Wrote to the 1970s and '80s series The Love
Boat and Fantasy Island, shows that featured ensembles of recognizable
guest stars. "My husband and I used to watch to see stars we used to
and talk about how they'd changed or how we hadn't seen them around,"
said. "Sometimes I find this is true, to some degree, with Murder,
Wrote. Somebody is always turning up there."
While it is apparent that people engage such texts as Murder, She Wrote
and Perry Mason ritually, we can look to these texts to understand how
their producers have made them suitable for such consumption. I am
contending that these programs and those like them suggest an occupation
with television as ritual more than they do the significance of a
aesthetic value and that industry programmers operate with this
Newcomb and Hirsch (1994), in fact, suggest that understanding ritual
aspects of a text helps us to see the ways in which television functions
a cultural forum and should take precedence over considering the critical
aesthete of the text.
Television is rich with programs that encourage ritualized viewing.
Sporting contests, daily news productions, game shows, soap operas, and
other highly redundant forms attract viewers who, for diverse reasons,
enjoy the ritual of regular viewing.6 Newcomb (1994) asserts that much
television viewing is ritualized, with people being attracted to the same
programs in the same time slots week after week or day after day. In
case, programs such as Murder, She Wrote, whose structures are tightly
formulaic, may cause us to notice their ritual nature because of their
of innovation. Their ring of familiarity--their assurance that an
expected problem will be worked out through a method that we expect,
leaving us satisfied at the end --continues to draw an audience of the
Formula stories occur in a dialectical relationship with the culture
whose lessons and experiences they address and whose expectations they
inflect. Audiences ritually return to examples of predictable
that confront them with problems that are relevant to their lives and
solutions that favor existing power relations while allowing room to
explore moral boundaries (Cawelti 1976). (While the subject of murder may
not be so relevant for most viewers, the problematic surrounding the
often is--motivations of the human psyche, troubled interpersonal
relationships, as Feuer (1994) has suggested about melodrama.) Ritual
exploration of moral boundaries is often a strong subtext of the murder
mystery. Perry Mason, for example, virtually always won his case,
that no murderer, no matter the motive, would get away without facing the
While texts such as Perry Mason and Murder, She Wrote may function as
escapist communication forms, the ritual connection between such texts
their audiences also has to do with preserving self-identity. For
people, particularly, ritual forms of communication may serve as a
continual validation of the self in a stage of life when one's identity
may be in doubt. Myerhoff (1992) found that ritual storytelling among
elderly members of a Jewish senior center in California, helped
continue to focus on the core values of their lives and the stability
their relationships with one another. Myerhoff (1984) observed:
Ritual alters our ordinary sense of time, repudiating meaningless
change and discontinuity by emphasizing regularity, precedent, and
order. Paradoxically, it uses repetition to deny the empty
repetitiveness of unremarked, unattended human and social experience.
From repetition, it finds or makes patterns, and looks at these for
hints linked with the past and incorporated into a larger
.... (p. 173)
Both Fostine and Jackie spoke about the rewards they perceived in mystery
programs that repeatedly worked out problems neatly. They enjoyed
the hero ensure the restoration of order, and, in Jackie's case, she also
felt rewarded by watching television stars from the past, moving
life's stages similarly to her.
In the following section, I will address ways in which the texts of Perry
Mason and Murder, She Wrote encourage ritualistic consumption. In the
concluding section, I will suggest a special ritual link between these
texts, as representative of their genre, and elderly women viewers.
Perry and Jessica: The More Things Change ....
Perry Mason could hardly be considered "high-quality" or even realistic
television by today's critical standards: Its stark mise-en-scene,
developed for television in its youth, lacks the richness of latter-day
lawyer and mystery shows, for example. Its dialogue reflects a Fifties
naivete and utter white-male dominance. The character of private
Paul Drake, for instance, is positively portrayed as a straight-arrow
type; at the same time, he gets smiles from secretary Della Street when
refers to her in such terms as "Doll."9 Perry Mason, in fact, with
pat, unified plotlines and highly formulaic structure, seems corny when
weighed against the messy, multi-dimensional drama of Law and Order.
to its fusion with other genres (cop show and soap opera), its delving
inner conflicts of characters, more diffused focus on the cast of
characters, and resistance to happy endings, Law and Order typifies the
evolution of the lawyer genre.
The deep structure of Murder, She Wrote, with its simple plot structure,
concentration on one major character, and ultimate, positive solution
the episode's problem, is much like that of Perry Mason. Collins and
(1988) observe that Mason extends "beyond formula into ritual," and we can
perceive Murder, She Wrote in similar terms:
A horrible human being, despised by one and all, is murdered; accused
of the crime is an innocent who finds her (or his, but usually
way to the office of defense attorney Perry Mason. Mason,
Drake and secretary Della Street set out to solve the crime in
private-eye fashion, talking to witnesses, examining the clues,
dueling with the police, led by the luckless Lt. Arthur Tragg (p.
Collins and Javna go on to describe the ensuing courtroom battle between
Mason and his nemesis, prosecutor Hamilton Burger, and Mason's
the real murderer, which usually forces out a courtroom confession.
Murder, She Wrote's chief differences are Jessica Fletcher's amateur
and, thus, lack of an investigative staff, her frequent travel to
different locations (Mason was based in Los Angeles and generally solved
his mysteries there), her unmasking of the murderer in an informal
and the unusual age and gender status of her character. Murder, She Wrote
is the first long-running mystery/detective series to feature a woman in
the leading role, and no such series has featured an older woman as
central character. Older men (Matlock, Columbo, Perry Mason movies)
While Jessica Fletcher's distinct characteristics of age and gender may be
important to viewers, other aspects of the series' deep structure that
make the program similar to Mason are integral to its success with
female viewers. In addition to the plot formula, other strategies
form the series narrative. In the cases of Mason and Murder, for
little series development takes place, and the main characters do not
change much because of their involvement in the "stories" of the series.
For example, Perry Mason does, over the course of the series, accrue
as a reputed legendary trial attorney, and he also assumes growing
familiarity with the supporting characters as the series goes on. However,
the nature of the character relationships does not radically change.
Neither Perry nor Della, for instance, is shown to have a life outside
office, and an implicit hint of sexual tension between the characters
suggested throughout the life of the series. Although the familiarity
between the two deepens, they never consummate their affection, a
reflection, perhaps of both the producers' wishes to maintain the tension
and the celibate nature of dramatic characters on television in the
the repressive 1950s and early '60s.
Likewise, the Murder, She Wrote series does not have much of a memory. A
few functional changes occur, including minor cast changes. (For
Cabot Cove got a new sheriff when actor Tom Bosley got his own mystery
drama and the character of Sheriff Amos Tupper was eliminated.) A few
theme-related changes contribute to the growth of the Fletcher
For example, Jessica changes, gradually, from a dowdy, small-town
writer clinging to her manual typewriter and bicycle to a
computer-operating New Yorker who gets around mostly in cabs and on
planes. Her character, that of a well-mannered, pleasant, and curious
woman with excellent judgment, remains intact, however. Like Perry
Murder, She Wrote limits the realm of the personal to the extent that
Jessica Fletcher almost never engages in a social relationship for story
purposes other than advancing the mystery plot line. She has
romantic interest in a man only twice in ten years. Of these men, one
turned out to be the murderer and had to be sent, through Jessica's
efforts, to prison. In an unusual development, the character turned up on
an episode during a subsequent season only to become the murder
She told the second suitor that she preferred her Maine lifestyle to
Murder, She Wrote and Perry Mason may appeal to older women viewers, in
part, because they feature the process of working out a problem that
comfortingly manageable. This characteristic may represent a blend of
gendered styles--a traditionally male emphasis on closure that may
more to older (and, often, more conservative) women than to younger
and a traditionally female emphasis on process. Fiske (1987) has
that some television genres are traditionally masculine and others are
traditionally feminine. He posits that, most significantly, the former
driven by action and closure and the latter are concerned with process.
Using the examples of Cagney and Lacey and Hill Street Blues, Fiske
suggests that some programs can exist as mixtures of masculine and feminine
genres. He cites, for example, these programs' tendency to equate in
significance the process of the story with the episodic outcome.
The examples of the mystery genre explored in this paper can also be
submitted as blends of the masculine and feminine forms. Neither of the
programs emphasizes the physical, with the general exception of the
event; both emphasize the mental process of solving the crime. Yet,
both series, the climactic moment occurs when the hero exercises
superiority over the offender and, effectively, captures him or her in
snare of logic. Perry or Jessica, in verbally upbraiding the villain
reeing the distressed damsel (female or male) who stands hopelessly
of the crime, is no less the virile hero than if he or she had chased the
villain down in a red Ferrari. Still, the process is more mannerly.
does his battle from the defense table, and Jessica, often, from the
dinner table. Both become involved in feminine-styled discussions about
motives, opportunities, and clues, whereas heroes from more
masculine-oriented shows, such as Mannix, frequently found themselves
involved in physical confrontation. Protected by the courtroom, Perry
Mason rarely found himself with his life threatened by the murderer.
Occasionally, Jessica Fletcher confronts the villain privately and has
safety threatened, but she is almost never involved in a physical
On other levels, however, both Perry and Murder reflect the traditional
terrain of masculine texts. For example, a feminine-style text about
murder might be expected to dwell on the emotional consequences of the
crime--as in a made-for-television movie. Perry Mason never displays
emotions about the victim's loss, going straight, instead, into the
crime-solving process. Jessica Fletcher, upon discovering "the body,"
often briefly grimaces, then, like Mason, sets about solving the puzzle.
Many times, she has appeared in a black dress at a wake or funeral but
to advance the plot by collecting clues there.
Also reflective of masculine genres is both series' tendencies to employ
agents of white patriarchy, unmistakably good guys, to orchestrate the
restoration of order from chaos. In the heat of investigation, however,
both heroes explore the boundaries of legitimacy in order to find
This type of action, concerned more with rightness than with authority,
may suggest a feminizing of the text. Perry Mason often makes
that, temporarily, cause the authorities around him to question his
He skirts the law on such matters as tampering with or withholding
evidence, failure to report a homicide, and perjury--offenses that, on
their face, clearly oppose cultural values. Truth and justice
prevail, as part of Mason's design, but the story encourages us to
opposing values--an innocent person's right to freedom versus adherence to
the letter of the law.
Perry never breaks the rules but bends them to suit his needs in a
ritualistic game of wits against the authorities who have the wrong killer.
In one episode, for example, a quintessentially helpless maiden
approaches him for assistance, which she needs imminently, but she is
financially embarrassed. Perry asks her how much change she has in her
purse. "Thirty-eight cents," she answers. He takes it and declares
himself legally retained as her counsel. (An oppositional reading might
see some irony in a lawyer taking a poor "victim's" last thirty-eight
cents.) Occasionally, Perry, having unmasked the true killer, shows
compassion for the person, with whose plight he sympathizes. His initial
case won, he now will offer his services as defense attorney to the
killer. (Of course, the viewer never sees those cases.) Jessica
in Murder, She Wrote, has, on numerous occasions, exercised similar
compassion for the offender whom her sleuthing has identified. For
in one program from the late 1980s, the "murderer" turns out to be a young,
pregnant Amish woman who killed her evil lover with a pitchfork in
self-defense. In a common ending for the show, the mystery concludes with
Jessica, having uncovered the truth, happily assuring the woman that
law would be lenient with her. (Of course, Jessica does not stick
to help the woman navigate her course through the legal system.)
Another way in which Perry Mason and Murder, She Wrote represent a blend
of masculine and feminine genres is their heroes' blend of deductive
reasoning and intuition to solve crimes. Both rely more heavily on logic,
the traditional realm of male thinking. In a typical instance, Perry
realizes the identity of a killer because police Lt. Tragg mistakenly
suggests that Mason has accidentally tracked a feather from the murder
scene into his office. Immediately, Perry knows the female visitor who
left earlier must have brought the feather in on the bottom of her shoe
therefore must be the murderer. In a Murder, She Wrote plot, that,
coincidentally, also involved a feather, Jessica figures out the killer's
identity when she realizes the reason for a feather found (by her, of
course) on the corpse. On the other hand, both Perry and Jessica intuit
well, although Perry relies on secretary Della to do much of his
intuiting. These three characters--Perry, Della, and Jessica--all seem to
be able to tell when someone is lying to them, and, perhaps more
to the story, when the falsely accused person is truthfully professing
innocence. What is more, no other characters on these two programs,
especially law officers, seem to have this ability.
In one way, in particular, Murder, She Wrote is a more feminine text than
Perry Mason. While, as I have stated, Murder does not focus much on
history and is, instead, highly episodic, the program does offer
rewards for regular viewers. Recurring characters, such as nephew Grady,
do appear, and occasional reference is made to his earlier "problem."
Michael, a mysterious British MI-6 agent, occasionally appears, and
always chides him for getting her into a previous jam. Such references
award longtime, loyal viewers with a special intimacy and tend to
for a moment, on Jessica's life as process. Still, these references
simple and brief as not to confuse the naive or forgetful viewer who may
be concerned only with the current storyline.
Murder, She Wrote bears a feminine style in another way as well.
Jessica Fletcher is not an officer of the court like Perry Mason; she is
amateur.10 She is an older woman who bravely speaks up when "the system"
is about to punish the wrong person for a grave crime, and she
challenges authority. In doing so, however, she is almost
self-deprecating, telling various lawmen, "Of course, I wouldn't dream
telling you how to do your job, but ..." or "I just write mystery
and I'd like to help." She ably leaves the murderer in the hands of
authorities, reinstating their legitimacy after winking at us behind
backs. Then, she returns to her home in Cabot Cove (or New York) to
out another harmless mystery novel.
The standard devices detailed here, together, tend to suggest that Perry
Mason and Murder, She Wrote, as traditional mystery dramas, borrow
both masculine and feminine television styles. These devices help to
ritually construct the episodes of these dramas so as to encourage
production of meaning among the individuals who select them for use in
their own lives. Just how that production of meaning takes place for
individuals--and how people ritually engage the texts of such
not been probed. The next step for this line of research will be to go to
the sources of ritual-making: the elderly women who patronize the mystery
genre. This research will need to explore the link between, on the
hand, the texts that seem to encourage ritual use through their content
form, and, on the other hand, the audience members who routinely fit the
texts into their everyday lives.
As Cawelti (1976) has argued, empirical audience research is the necessary
validation for textual analysis:
Peronally, I think that the most disappointing aspect of the present
study is my ability to substantiate many of the speculations I
offered concerning the cultural significance of the different
I have discussed. In particular, there is a lack of solid data about
audiences for the various formulas (298).
The kind of "data" I hope to find to "substantiate" a ritual interpretation
of the mystery genre is ethnographic in nature. It is already
established, as stated earlier in this paper, that this ritual-laden genre
attracts large numbers of elderly women viewers. The research
that remain, for audience research, are, how do members of such an
use the genre and where does it fit into the broader circumstances of
their lives? I expect to find connections between the smaller context
ritual in the television viewing done by these older women and the
context of ritual in their lives as aging women in American society.
talking with many of them at length about their mystery "fanhood," I
to be able to understand how such connections might occur. In
I hope to be able to highlight the nature of the meaning making that
shared by women of various social backgrounds. I also hope to be able to
talk about some of the ways in which women of various class and ethnic
backgrounds and different old-age cohorts approach these texts
By understanding the interpretations and uses that people share as well as
those that distinguish them from one another, we can collect a somewhat
well rounded picture of how older women construct meaning from acts of
It is through the uncovering of such connections between mass culture and
everyday life--the messiness of how people use media--that we can
understand culture. As Pauly (1990) has suggested, we may study
problems in depth, through the use of qualitative methods, in order to
how our research questions reflect a broader set of concerns. If we can
understand the significance of television and ritual in this narrow
context, we may learn something about what it means to be old and female in
1 Comstock et al., 1978, show that older women and men as well as
middle-aged women frequently watch suspense and mystery programs. My
ethnographic research in a Midwestern retirement community (Riggs, 1994)
uncovered a keen interest in classical mystery and detective dramas
elderly women there.
2 Created by Richard Levinson, William Link, and Peter S. Fischer, the
series premiered with CBS's fall 1984 lineup, when star Angela
59 years old. It quickly became a network staple, dependably winning its
time slot and generally finishing in the Nielsen top ten.
3 According to McNeil (1991), The Rockford Files was number 12, Mannix
was 19, and Cannon and The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie tied for 20.
programs oriented toward the mystery formula in the top twenty included
Kojak and Hawaii Five-O. Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, and Cannon all
4 According to Betsy Sharkey (1994) of The New York Times, a
thirty-second commercial could be had in the fall 1994 season on
She Wrote, for $116,000. This series placed number 16 in the May 1994
sweeps rating period for prime-time programming, substantially higher
ninety-fourth place Lois and Clark, whose viewers skew much younger.
thirty-second spot on Lois and Clark cost $132,000 in fall 1994.
5 All these programs bear a resemblance in form to the traditional
drawing-room mystery found in literature, as typified by Agatha Christie
the 1920s and '30s. For a more detailed explanation of the mystery
formula, see Cawelti (1976) and Collins and Javna (1988).
6 In terms of sheer exposure, women age 55 and older watch more
television than any other demographic age group--41 hours a week in 1989
7 For example, Fiske (1987) posits the quiz show as an enactment of
capitalist ideology through its rituals of emphasizing the personal
differences among the competitors in the introductory segment and
establishing the triumph of the winner at the end through ritualistic
celebration that includes emphasis on material prizes.
8 The character Jessica Fletcher lives in Cabot Cove, Maine, a fishing
village. Of the program's more than 250 murders to date,
fifth, or fifty, have taken place in this otherwise "tranquil" hamlet (The
Associated Press, Nov. 11, 1994). In the last several years, Jessica, a
famous mystery novelist, has kept an apartment in Manhattan, an
that conveniently has frequently allowed her to be on hand to solve
murders in New York.
9 In the made-for-television Perry Mason movies, set in the late 1980s
and early 1990s, characters reflect changing times. Della Street acts
deferentially to Mason, often winning her boss over to her view. The two
private detective characters, including the first, Paul Drake Jr., act
more recklessness and worldliness than the original, flat Paul Drake
showed. The first Paul Drake wore light-colored suits, smoked
and commented wryly on his investigations; the latter detectives got
fistfights, car chases, and messy relationships.
10 Klein (1988), in making a case that detective stories tend to support
male hegemony, has suggested that it is significant when a woman
lacks the official status of detective we most often see connected
male detectives: "When detectives are amateurs, they can be ignored and
their behavior seen as a momentary intrusion into public life. And,
changes in social organization which would arise from women's active
participation in public life, disruption of economic activity, and
involvement in the political process could be dismissed as short-lived and
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Collins, M.A., & Javna, J. (1988). The critics' choice: The best of crime
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The Case of the Mysterious Ritual:
Murder, She Wrote and Perry Mason
by Karen E. Riggs
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
125 Johnston Hall
P.O. Box 413
Milwaukee, WI 53211
[[log in to unmask]]
Submitted to the Qualitative Studies Division of the Association for
Educators of Journalism and Mass Communication for its 1995 conference
The Case of the Mysterious Ritual:
Murder, She Wrote and Perry Mason
The author suggests, through textual analysis, that television's
traditional mystery formula encourages audiences to view these programs
ritually. Two classic examples, Murder, She Wrote and Perry Mason, are
compared for similar elements. Citing research linking the genre with
elderly women viewers, the author sets an agenda for ethnographic study
this relationship. Through qualitative methods, the author suggests,
research can show how ritualistic television viewing fits into the
lives of the elderly.