TV Cop Show*

TV Cop Show-WatchingI’m sure you can give plenty of examples of crime fiction TV series or films that are influenced by (even based on) novels and stories – probably many more than I could. But the opposite also works. There are plenty of crime-fictional characters who are influenced by TV and film. In fact, crime writers have to be careful not to base what they know about real-life crime just from what they see on TV or on film. It’s seldom accurate.

And yet, if you read crime novels, you see where TV watching can influence the way characters think about the police and about police investigations. There are several examples of that influence in the genre. Here are just a few.

One plot thread of Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing concerns money stolen from a kitty party. At kitty parties, all of the attendees (mostly women) get together for food and conversation. There’s also a prize draw that works this way. Each person contributes a little money to a kitty. Then one person’s name is drawn, and that person wins the kitty. One day, Rumpi, the wife of Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri, attends a kitty party with her mother-in-law, Mummy-ji. The two women are enjoying themselves when someone breaks into the party and steals the money. Mummy-ji manages to scratch the thief, and later goes with Rumpi to the local forensics laboratory, where the son of one of her oldest friends works.  When she tells the young man what happened, and asks him to run a DNA test on her fingernails, he tells her:

‘‘Auntie-ji, I think you’ve been watching too much of CSI on Star TV, isn’t it?”

As it turns out, Mummy-ji may indeed watch crime shows, but she’s a quick-thinking and shrewd woman who is dismissed at one’s peril.

In D.A. (Dror) Mishani’s The Missing File, we are introduced to Tel Aviv detective Avraham ‘Avi’ Avraham. One evening, sixteen-year-old Ofer Sherabi is reported missing. At first, Avi is convinced that the boy will return soon, but when he doesn’t, an investigation begins. And there’s more than one possible explanation, too, for what happened to him. Ofer’s father, who was away from home at the time the boy went missing, could have something to do with the case. Or there’s Ze’ev Avni, who lives in the same building as the boy and gave him English lessons. Their relationship wasn’t a typical student/tutor relationship, and that could easily have led to Ofer’s leaving. As Avi investigates, we learn about him, too. He reads detective fiction and watches cop shows on TV:

‘He preferred to eat on his own and watch an old episode from the third season of Law & Order that he had seen countless times before…He discovered something new each time he watched – another mistake in the investigation, a new way to acquit a defendant.’

In Avi’s case, he hones his detection skills on these shows.

In Earlene Fowler’s State Fair, rancher and folk museum curator Benni Harper has agreed to help with the up-coming Mid-State Fair, which will feature several examples of the folk art that interests her. During the fair, someone steals a valuable story quilt, modeled after a famous pattern Then later, the quilt is found wrapped around the body of Calvin ‘Cal’ Jones. Benni and her friend, Detective Ford ‘Hud’ Hudson of the local Sheriff’s Office, look into the murder to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. In the meantime, Benni’s great-aunt Garnet comes for a visit. This will mean Benni has to play referee between Garnet and her sister Dove (Benni’s grandmother) if the visit is to be a success. Aunt Garnet is addicted to crime shows on TV (she reads crime fiction, too), so she has a lot to say about police procedure. And she says it using ‘TV language.’ But she’s a lot shrewder than people think, and she turns out to be helpful in solving the mystery.

Monica Ferris’ Knitting Bones features Betsy Devonshire, who owns Crewel World, a needlework shop in the small town of Excelsior, Minnesota. In this novel, Betsy and some of other members of the Embroiderers Guild have raised over twenty thousand dollars in aid of the National Heart Coalition. The representative from the charity, Bob Germaine, accepts the check in a public ceremony, but then the check – and Bob – disappear. Everyone thinks he made off with the money – everyone, that is, except for his wife, Allie, who’s the head of the Embroiderers Guild. Allie is sure that there’s another explanation, and wants to turn to her friend Betsy. But Betsy’s broken her leg in a horse riding accident, so she’s homebound. She’s going to have to depend on her employee, Godwin, to do the ‘legwork’ this time. In a few places in this novel, there are conversations about what’s shown on TV crime shows:

‘‘Anyone who…watches crime shows on television knows that stolen checks can be sold…What was odd in this case was that no one made an attempt to cash the check.’’

On the other hand…

‘‘And if you want to laugh, tell a person who works in forensics that you’ve learned a lot from CSI.’’

That comment highlights what most people know. Television cop shows often don’t reflect what really goes on in criminal investigations.

But with so many such shows and films available, it’s hard to deny their influence. And many of them are very well-made. So it’s not surprising that they also have an impact on fictional characters.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for some CSI: NY on Netflix. Or perhaps CSI: Miami…    😉



NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bryan Frazier song.


Filed under D.A. Mishani, Earlene Fowler, Monica Ferris, Tarquin Hall

31 responses to “TV Cop Show*

  1. Nice one Margot – I dare say I lie to myself with all sorts of second hand knowledge that in completely inaccurate 😆

    • Thank you, Sergio. And you’re not alone; I probably do the same thing, myself. Cop shows and other crime shows and films are so much a part of our culture that we’re often not aware of the assumptions we make because of them.

  2. Forensic scientists here in Australia talk about the ‘CSI Effect’ and its impact on juries, e.g. giving them unrealistic expectations of what can be proved through DNA evidence, not to mention the time it takes to turn tests around. A powerful cultural force, worthy of a COAMN post.

    • Thanks, Angela. And I completely agree. The ‘CSI Effect’ is real, and it does influence juries, witnesses, and a lot of other people, too. It happens in the US, too, and is something that attorneys and police have to contend with when they’re trying to work on a case.

  3. I imagine it must drive the police crazy when we’re all ‘experts’ in how crimes are investigated. A couple of Scottish authors have had characters refer to things they’ve seen on English shows, and the authors have had their police officers sighing over the fact that Scots never seem to remember that Scots law is different – Stuart MacBride is the one that I best remember doing it, but I’ve seen it elsewhere too.

    • Oh, I like that, FictionFan. I’m hardly anything like an expert (trust me!) in Scottish law, but even I know it’s different to English law. I think Ian Rankin’s mentioned that fact a few times in his Rebus series, and I’m glad he does. It makes the novels all the more authentic. And I learn something. You’re right, too: I’ll bet the police hate it that so many people watch crime programs and/or read crime fiction and think they know more than the police do.

  4. Col

    I hadn’t really considered TV influencing the books, not that I’m familiar with any of the examples.

  5. Great timing on this post, Margot. I just finished DEADLY FATE by Heather Graham where one of the characters made several references to police procedures based on her knowledge from watching cop shows. I seem to recall seeing an episode or two (can’t remember which show) where references were made to police procedures from books. Guess it goes both ways.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • Perhaps it does, Mason. And thanks for mentioning Deadly Fate. I confess I’ve not (yet) read that, but you reminded me that I should spotlight a Heather Graham novel. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. The CSI Effect is alive and well, unfortunately. However, I do enjoy fictional characters who mention their favorite crime dramas. It always gives me a chuckle. 😉

    • Me, too, Sue! And you’re right; the ‘CSI Effect’ is woven into the way a lot of people view the criminal justice process. I think that’s a bit of why it’s so important for the crime writer to get the facts right.

  7. Keishon

    TV and media have influential effects- good and bad ones. Of course TV, films et al exaggerate the truth for entertainment but didn’t someone once say that if you want to introduce something to the public, put it on TV first? LOL. Just had to share that. Great post. I’m often not a fan of this kind of crime novel, the kind influenced directly from TV like The Killing, etc.

    • It’s certainly true that if you put something on TV, people will talk about it if it’s done right, Keishon! And it’s true that there are plenty of TV-influenced novels that don’t have the depth and richness (and accuracy!) that most readers want. I tend to be wary of them myself. Thanks for the kind words.

  8. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Another thought-provoking post from mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg!

  9. tracybham

    Some of our favorite TV shows, past and present are cop shows. CSI (Las Vegas and New York, but not Miami) was a favorite, even though we knew it was unrealistic. But fun.

  10. yeah. TV shows hold so much sway on audiences, and maybe, they shouldn’t! Yet, it’s inevitable!

    • They really do, don’t they, Lisa? As you say, they really do hold a lot of sway of audiences, and some of those audiences are very big. So it’s not surprising, I suppose, that there’s that influence.

  11. The CSI effect is really interesting and does influence juries. In two of my Forensic courses taken recently we studied juries and witness evidence and how crime fiction in books and on the screen was influencing juries and lay people and raising expectations of what is and is not possible to discover from a crime scene and body etc. We also investigated miscarriages of justice around the world and how some of these were the result (with hind-sight) of the CSI effect. It is fiction and the writers and series makers take and stretch the truth and possibilities. Excellent tale telling when you think of it. Convincing.

    • That’s just it, Jane. It is convincing. And as you point out, it plays an unfortunate role when it comes to real juries, real cases, real investigations, etc. Those Forensics courses must have been absolutely fascinating, too. I’m sure you learned a lot of useful and interesting information. Even if not everything you learned finds its way into your writing, it’s all helpful for the crime writer.

      • Agreed Margot, it has dispelled some myths and opened my eyes. I love the TV series of course, and reading crime novels, but now and again something crops up and I think back to my newly gained knowledge and realise there is an error. But, I am reading fiction, and therefore we are allowed as readers to be drawn into whatever fantasy the author weaves and that also allows the author to stretch our belief too. Nothing has to be so accurate, it is make-believe after all. I want to have a good basis for my crime detection but it may never find its was on to the page. Fiction is fun. Escapism is fun. Sticking rigidly to fact might not be. 🙂

  12. I’ve heard that the forensic programmes have led to a rise in interest in the science, and that there has been a sharp increase in the number of courses and the students taking them. An interesting side-effect…

  13. kathyd

    Oh, gosh, this post reminds me of one of my favorite shows: Quincy, a medical examine played by Jack Krugman. It was terrific.
    However, the forensic TV shows of today are too gruesome for me. I don’t remember Quincy as being as gratuitous in depicting human bodies which have been brutalized nor in showing the most sadistic crimes.
    And, oh, on cop TV shows, this post also reminded me of watching Dragnet as a kid. Every week we watched it. And I thought cops were like those on the show.

    • I used to watch Quincy, ME, too, Kathy. I thought it really was a good show. And you’ve highlighted one of the issues with a lot of cop shows. They can seem realistic, so people believe that’s actually how criminal investigation works. It isn’t, but it can seem that way.

  14. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…8/30/16 – Where Worlds Collide

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