There Was Fifty-Seven Channels and Nothin’ On*

TVAn interesting comment exchange with Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan has got me thinking about television. Bill did a very interesting post about the fact that fictional sleuths don’t really watch a lot of TV. Actually, all of Bill’s posts are really interesting. If you’re a crime fiction fan, you really should be following his blog if you’re not already doing so. And he’s right about TV, too; it doesn’t seem to be a major part of life for most fictional sleuths. They’re either too busy or quite frankly not interested. And yet TV is a pervasive presence in our lives. Even if you’re not a TV watcher, chances are that something on TV is going to be discussed at work, family gatherings and so on. So it seems to me only natural that there’d be plenty of TV in crime fiction, even crime fiction that features sleuths who really don’t watch much of it.

A television news story is part of what gets Sergeant Barbara Havers involved in a murder case in Elizabeth George’s Deception on His Mind. Haytham Querashi has recently emigrated from Pakistan to the British seaside town of Balford-le-Nez. There’s already an immigrant community there and Querashi’s plan is to marry Salah Malik, whose family has already gotten established. When Querashi is found dead on a beach near the town, the case makes the television news, mostly because of the already-simmering rift between the immigrant community and the locals. Havers happens to see a news broadcast about the case and learns that DI Emily Barlow, who is one of Havers’ idols, is leading the investigation. Havers arranges to be assigned to the case in part so that she can work with Barlow. Havers hardly spends all day sitting in front of the television, but in this case she happens to be watching at the right time.

So does Emma le Roux in Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. She is watching a news story about a man named Cobie de Villiers who is wanted in connection with the murder of a traditional healer and three other men when she notices that one of the men looks exactly like her brother Jacobus. Jacobus le Roux disappeared twenty years earlier from South Africa’s Kruger National Park. At the time, everyone assumed he’d been killed in a skirmish with poachers, but if that’s not true, Emma wants to find out where he is. Shortly after she contacts the police about the news broadcast, Emma is attacked in her home. Now she knows that there’s more to her brother’s disappearance than everyone thinks, and she hires bodyguard Martin Lemmer to go with her from Cape Town to the Lowveld to get some answers. What they find is that the murders and Jacobus le Roux’s disappearance are all connected to greed, international business intrigue and politics.

Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano is not an avid TV-watcher. But he knows the value of TV in getting and passing on information. One of his good friends is Nicolò Zito, who works for Vigatà’s Free Channel. The two men often co-operate on cases and with Montalbano’s access to exclusive and valuable information, and Zito’s connections, each benefits the other. In The Wings of the Sphinx for instance, the body of an unidentified young woman is found near a local landfill. The only distinguishing mark on her is a tattoo. Montalbano knows that it will be very hard to find out what happened to the woman and who would have killed her if she can’t be identified. So he has Zito broadcast a picture of her and a picture of the tattoo. It turns out to be a very good thing that he did, because that’s how Montalbano learns that the victim was a member of a group of Eastern European girls who had come to Italy to find work. It’s through that thread that he’s able to find out who killed the girl and why.

In Gail Bowen’s A Colder Kind of Death, political scientist and television commentator Joanne Kilbourn has to revisit the tragedy of her husband Ian’s murder when his killer Kevin Tarpley is shot in the prison yard. When Tarpley’s wife Maureen, who was with him on the night of Ian Kilbourn’s murder, is killed too, Kilbourn needs to clear her own name. She also wants some resolution. So she looks into the circumstances of both murders. In one thread of the story, Kilbourn’s son Angus, who’s fifteen at the time of this novel, finds out that Tarpley’s been killed and asks his mother for more details about that murder and about his father’s death. She reluctantly agrees and the two go to the local offices of Nationtv where Kilbourn works. It’s through recorded television broadcasts that Angus learns more about his father’s death, the trial of Kevin Tarpley and the impact Ian Kilbourn had. The recordings also give Kilbourn a hint as to the truth about the murders of Tarpley and his wife.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are, we meet regional television presenter Frank Allcroft. He’s happily married and has a strong bond with his eight-year-old daughter Mo. But he’s at a crossroads in his life and he’s dealing with the loss of his mentor and predecessor at the network Phil Smethway. Smethway was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was out jogging. When Allcroft is drawn to the scene of the death one day he sees that the road is straight and clear. It should have been easy to see Smethway and avoid him. Although the driver was never located, Allcroft begins to suspect that this death is more than a simple case of tragic miscalculation or drink driving. So he begins to ask questions about Smethway’s life and finds out there were sides to his friend that he never knew. As Allcroft searches for answers, readers get a look at the power of TV. Viewers feel they know Smethway and Allcroft and speak and write as though both men were close acquaintances instead of strangers who simply present on TV. And some viewers’ reactions and suggestions really are funny.  We also see how being on TV has affected both Smethway and Allcroft.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. A successful presenter, her show Saturday Night has been a popular New Zealand show for some time. But it’s hit a proverbial plateau and Thorne knows that in the TV business, there’s always someone new coming up who can easily supplant the people ‘on top.’ So she’s eager for the story that will cement her position. She thinks she’s found it in the case of Connor Bligh. Bligh is in prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. New hints have come up though suggesting that Connor Bligh may be innocent. If he is, then this is a really important case of justice gone wrong. So Thorne eagerly pursues the case. As she searches for the truth, we see the impact of TV in the way people react to her, in the way viewer ratings matter, and in the public reaction to this new investigation.

There are also novels in which TV ‘personalities’ are murdered. Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder and Liza Marklund’s Prime Time are just two examples. And there are fictional sleuths such as Elizabeth Spann Craig’s  Myrtle Clover who do watch TV (her never-miss-it show is called Tomorrow’s Promise).

TV is woven throughout a lot of other crime fiction too – much, much more than I have space for here. Love it, hate it or don’t care about it, TV is a big part of life. Bill Selnes is right that fictional sleuths don’t usually watch a lot of it – they can’t if they’re going to investigate crime. But the rest of us seem to…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s 57 Channels (and Nothin’ On).


Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Catherine O'Flynn, Deon Meyer, Elizabeth George, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Lynda Wilcox, Paddy Richardson

20 responses to “There Was Fifty-Seven Channels and Nothin’ On*

  1. I think we mystery/suspense writers tend to watch a lot of crime/cop shows. And when a great mystery series is turned into a TV series, like Craig Johnson’s “Longmire,” it’s very hard to resist watching. In most of the books I read, however, the action takes place over a short period of time so the main characters are hustling to capture a criminal or escape a bad situation. They’re lucky if they have time to watch the news. Television news and online news stories play an important role in one of my manuscripts, but I was careful not to date the story by naming networks or websites..

    • Pat – You know, you have a very good point about the pacing of a story. If a story’s to be interesting it can’t go too slowly so there isn’t a lot of ‘wiggle room’ for TV watching. If the pace is to be realistic, it doesn’t make sense that the sleuth would spend a lot of time in front of the TV either. But like you, I do include mentions of the TV from time to time. You’re right though that it’s important not to make those references too specific.

  2. Our fictional friends get to live the lives we’d like? All the boring bits like household chores and TV watching expunged or dramatically reduced 🙂

    Reality TV seems to be creeping in to crime fiction too, though usually one or more of the contestants ends up dead which possibly says something about how crime writers view the reality TV genre? Chris Grabenstein’s Fun House sees a Jersey Shore-like show come to Sea Haven and the contestants start dropping like flies and Camilla Lackberg’s The Gallows Bird also features a reality TV production with requisite dead body. Even Val McDermid’s The Vanishing Point has as its main character a reality TV star.and though no one in her show dies the whole industry is not exactly displayed in a great light.

    • Bernadette – LOL! I love that view. Perhaps it really is that we’d like to imagine a life without the boring stuff. I wonder how those folks handle things like doing laundry and paying bills. I feel a post coming on….. 😉
      You’re right too that we’re seeing a lot more reality TV in crime fiction than we did. Your examples are excellent too. I really do wonder about reality TV myself, but a lot of people watch it. And you’re right; as we see what happens t o reality stars in crime fiction, one wonders how the authors feel. You’ve made me think for instance of Liza Marklund’s Prime Time, where a TV celeb gets murdered. I also wonder if reality TV will end up as a fad instead of something a little more enduring. It’s only been a few years that it’s really been prominent, so I suppose the jury is still out. I wonder though…

  3. A very specific case: in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone (1977) it is very important that the family were watching TV when something happened. The TV had been moved from a smaller room into the posh sitting room so the family could watch an opera on TV. One of the family pencilled a remark about a wrong note in a certain aria or scene, so the police were working times out from that. And a connection of the family had earlier explained to the police that they MUST have been watching TV at this particular time, because to miss this opera for them would have been like a football fan missing the FA Cup Final. As a young person I was impressed by the (entirely foreign to me) lifestyle implied in every single bit of this! Of course nowadays they’d be recording it, they wouldn’t have to stay in. And now I am a huge opera fan myself…

    • Moira – Thank you – so very much!!! – for mentioning A Judgement in Stone. To be honest I’m embarrassed that I didn’t include it in this post as it’s such a clear example of what I mean. Thanks for filling in the gap I left. You’re right too that it now seems extremely odd that the family wouldn’t have recorded the opera but as you say, it turns out to be critical to the case.

  4. Skywatcher

    I can still recall the episode of COLUMBO where William Shatner is a telly detective who commits a murder. Columbo and his never seen missus are, of course, huge fans of the show. The episode does suggest that the detective’s liking of the show is real, and the idea of him admiring a fictional sleuth is rather sweet. HILL STREET BLUES was believed by Ed McBain to have been, shall we say, strongly influenced by his 87th Precinct novels (and they never paid him anything!). As a result, the members of 87th Prencinct all watch HILL STREET BLUES and register their disapproval of the show several times in the books published whilst the show was on the air. The TV show JONATHAN CREEK had a typically weird take on TV, with the titular amateur detective becoming more and more famous until, after several series, he is talked into fronting a television documentary show about his cases. In the past, detectives such as Poirot or Ellery Queen are famous amongst the public, but these days being really famous pretty much means appearing on television.

    • Skywatcher – Good point about what ‘famous’ means today. It is interesting isn’t that being famous used to happen through newspaper stories and so on. Today all it takes is a mobile with a video camera and one becomes a celebrity. And thanks for reminding me of the ‘Hill Street Blues’/87th Precinct connection. It’s actually funny in an odd sort of way. Never, ever get an author angry….
      I must confess to not having seen Jonathan Creek, but I do remember the Columbo episode you mention. I always had such a soft spot for him…

  5. Margot: Thank you for the kind words about myself and my blog. You provide alot of encouragement.

    As I was reading your post I was thinking of Joanne Kilbourn and there she was in the post. I have found it interesting how Gail Bowen works into the series a continuing role for Joanne with NationTV.

    Our sons just bought us Apple TV so we can watch on the TV from the computer. I have it hooked up and working. I can manage new technology but admit I do not look forward to learning new electronics. I doubt it will take long for such an electronic feature as Apple TV to appear in crime fiction.

    • Bill – It’s my great pleasure to feature your blog. I am looking forward to a post from you at some point about how much sleuths watch TV. And as to Joanne Kilbourn, I agree; Bowen is quite effective at finding new ways to integrate Kilbourn’s work with NationnTV. I like that as it adds some innovation to the plots and to Kilbourn’s character.
      Congratulations on your new TV system. I hope you’ll richly enjoy it. It’s funny you’d mention the way new electronics such as Apple TV, tablet computers and so on are developing. I’ll bet we really will see an increasing number of them in crime fiction as time goes on and authors get more comfortable with discussing them.

  6. kathy d.

    I don’t have a view of this, but am now aware of the importance of TV watching in some investigations in crime fiction, due to this post. Interesting. All I know is that I now have more books to add to the TBR list. Luckily, I’ve read the Montalbano and know that he does watch Nicolo Zito frequently. But the Bowen, Meyer, McDermid, Richardson, O’Flynn I haven’t.
    Oh, drat TV,it seems a waste to watch it and miss valuable reading time.
    Glad the sleuths don’t do too much of it and are out creating the mysteries we love to read about. If it helps with cases, fine.

    • Kathy – I hope that you get the chance to read the O’Flynn and the Richardson; they are especially ‘stay-with-you’ kinds of books. And Gail Bowen and Deon Meyer are both truly talented authors. They’re not really similar to each other but they’re each highly talented.
      I know what you mean about watching TV in real life. Not many people can read a book and watch a TV show at the same time so eventually one has to choose. And I’d rather read, as a rule.

  7. An interesting debate, Ms. Kinberg, though I’m not sure I can add to it in any meaningful way. I have seen a handful of episodes of detective and crime investigation serials on television and they are a lot less convincing than their book versions. Crime fiction is also far less melodramatic than the crime series on television. While a television series is entertaining, it takes away your freedom to imagine and visualise it in your head, the way you can while reading a book.

    • Prashant – You make a very interesting point about the difference between watching something on television or in a film and reading it. That’s why I almost always prefer to read a novel before I see an adaptation assuming I’m going to do both. I like to form my own impressions of what the characters look like and so on. And your comments always add to our discussions.

  8. I haven’t noticed much TV in what I read recently. I will have to pay more attention to that. A lot of what I have read recently is vintage or older books, so not much mention of TV.

    Rex Stout used television in some of his later mysteries. Or was that only radio? I am sure he must have mentioned it. Wolfe had opinions about everything.

    In The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Alan Bradley), early television plays a part. Which helps to establish the time period. We did not have television at my home until the later 50’s, so I was surprised at that.

    • Tracy – Now, that’s an interesting point. Golden Age and classic detective fiction of course doesn’t include television because it wasn’t widely commercially available until the 1950’s. And even then, not everybody had a TV. So it makes sense that you wouldn’t see much mention of TV there.
      And you’re right about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. In Please Pass the Guilt, one of the last novels in the series, Wolfe says, I turn on the television rarely, only to confirm my opinion of it.. I think that about says it all….
      Thanks too for mentioning the Alan Bradley series. I do like those novels and yes, TV does play a part in The Weed… and I’d forgotten about that. Thanks.

  9. It’s funny but I’m not sure if it’s the same episode of Columbo that I remember as Skywatcher but there was one, where the TV was an alibi and Columbo realises that the schedule had changed and that the murderer couldn’t really have been watching that programme. But you’re right. TV doesn’t really appear in crime novels and I hadn’t noticed that before.

    • Sarah – Oh, now you’ve reminded me of another episode of Columbo so thanks. 🙂 The one Skywatcher referred to involved the then-brand-new technology of the VCR. Sorry my brain fails me as to the title of the episode, but I love the way Columbo stores and uses those little bits of information and then pulls them out.

  10. kathy d.

    I’m dating myself here, but as a very young child I remember visiting a neighbor’s child in the next building in Greenwich Village. The family was the earliest on my block to own a TV. I remember watching Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers in 1952 on their TV as the neighborhood kids would crowd around it. Not that I’m a fan of Westerns — I’m not — but in those days TV was a novelty and that’s what was showing.
    We were enchanted with it. In 1953, Chicago, our parents bought a TV.

    • Kathy – TV really was a novelty in those days, and kids were enchanted with it. It was unlike anything anyone had seen before, so people really were pretty amazed. Your memories are reflective of the entire generation of kids who were there when TV first become something people had in their homes. And it’s interesting how TV used to bring people together (the kids on the block would all gather at the home of whoever had a TV). Whereas now, because so many people have TV, it can keep people from getting together.

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