I’ll bet you’ve watched at least some of them. They can be addictive, even as you admit they’re not exactly edifying. Yes, I’m talking about TV competitions and reality shows. They’re everywhere, and they cover all sorts of topics. There’s MasterChef Australia, Power Couple, The Chase, Cash Cab, Survivor, and The Bachelor, to name just a few.
They’ve found their way into crime fiction, too, and that’s not surprising. All sorts of things can go on when the camera is turned off. And there’s the suspense and tension of the competition, too. And that’s to say nothing of the stress of the ‘ratings war.’ So, it’s little wonder that we see those shows in the genre.
In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Delicious and Suspicious, we are introduced to Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, one of Memphis’ popular restaurants. Aunt Pat’s has a chance at television fame (and the resulting increase in sales) when Rebecca Adrian, food critic for the Cooking Channel, visits. She’s in Memphis to search for the best barbecue restaurant in the city, and Aunt Pat’s is a strong contender. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities that the fame will bring, but Adrian is, to say the least, not a pleasant guest. She alienates nearly everyone. Still, Taylor makes certain that she serves the very best the restaurant can provide. Only hours later, Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. And it’s not long before gossip starts about Aunt Pat’s. Mostly in order to clear her restaurant’s name, Taylor starts asking questions to find out who the killer really is.
Isis Crawford’s A Catered Christmas features a cooking competition on a popular local television show. The Hortense Calabash Cooking Show has invited five local caterers to compete on the show. One of those companies is A Little Taste of Heaven, which is run by sisters Bertie and Libby Simmons. It’s an exciting chance at important publicity, so the Simmons sisters get to work planning what they will cook. Then, on the day of the competition, an oven on the show’s set explodes. The blast kills Hortense, and of course, puts an end to the competition. The natural conclusion is that one of the five competitors must have been responsible. But it’s not the only possibility, and it turns out that Hortense had plenty of enemies. So, the Simmons sisters have a number of possible suspects as they look for answers.
A reality show turns very, very creepy in Ian Rankin’s Dark Entries, a graphic novel illustrated by Werther Dell’Edera, and featuring John Constantine, from the Hellblazer series. In this novel, Constantine (a paranormal investigator) is hired by the staff of Haunted Palace. That’s a reality show in which young contestants are trapped in a ‘haunted house.’ The only way to win is to get into a hidden room and claim the prize. This group of contestants has been bothered by visions and other scary incidents, but they aren’t the ones that the show’s staff have rigged. It seems, instead, that these young people are seeing these visions themselves. Constantine’s been engaged to find out who, or what, is behind the eerie events, before anyone is killed…
Max Allan Collins has written two novels featuring a sort-of reality show called Crime Seen! The host, former sheriff J.C. Harrow, tracks down criminals with the help of tips and information from viewers. In the first, You Can’t Stop Me, the show’s team uncovers a dangerous murderer who just might have been the one who killed Harrow’s family, and got him started with the show. In the second, No One Will Hear You, Harrow is about to wrap up the show, which was never intended to be a permanent fixture. But then, a killer sends a grotesque ‘demo tape,’ challenging the show’s crew to spotlight him. At the same time, there’s another killer at work, too. So, instead of ending production, the team has no choice but to try to find the killers before more people die.
And then there’s Douglas Lindsay’s We Are the Hanged Man. Met DCI Robert Jericho is ‘volunteered’ by Superintendent Dylan to participate as a consultant on a reality show called Britain’s Got Justice. In this show, contestants compete as apprentice police officers, and Jericho is to be one of the experts/judges. As it is, Jericho isn’t particularly interested in doing the show. He’s got other cases and concerns on his mind, and he’s not a big fan of reality television to begin with. Everything changes, though, when one of the contestants, Lorraine, ‘Lo’ Allison, goes missing. At first, it’s suspected that she simply decided to drop out of the competition, and gave no warning. But soon enough, it’s shown that she wanted to win as much as anyone else does. So, the police start a missing person search, and, since Jericho’s been involved with the show, he takes a major part in it. Among other things, this novel takes a cynical look at reality television, its creators, and the people who watch it.
And that’s the thing. A lot of people do watch this sort of TV, even at the same time as they acknowledge that it’s not exactly highbrow. And it can make for a very effective context for a crime novel. Do you ever watch reality/unscripted shows? What’s the draw if you do?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pascale Picard’s That is the Matter.