I’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.