An 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).