As you sit down to watch a semi-famous mystery writer talk about an especially morbid murder case during the second season of Murder by the Book, there are a couple of cautions to keep in mind. First, the writers enlisted by the Court TV series haven’t actually written books of their own about the cases being recapped. They may have lived near the scene of the crime, or become intrigued with something recondite about the puzzle, but their personal investment is not profound. Nor are the writers in charge of the production, which tends toward the ticky-tacky of Cops, with talking heads in cowboy hats, establishing shots like drive-by snipes, newspaper clippings as storyboards, and grainy footage of the gruesome past. Imagine the writers as color commentators in a ball-game broadcast booth, or as French anthropologists in a rain forest checking out the creation myths of the Tucuna Indians.
Or imagine the writers as condiments, like salad dressing. Anyone who has spent a long weekend with Book TV on C-SPAN2 will tell you that relying on writers to spice up your porridge is problematic, if not bananas. If they weren’t antisocial in the first place, they wouldn’t isolate like anchorites. Let them out on a leash and they’re either pathetically grateful or will bite your face. Nevertheless, as if they were raccoons, we want to see them cute or cantankerous. This is what Murder by the Book is counting on. Besides Lee Child, Linda Fairstein, Elizabeth George, and Lisa Scottoline, both best-selling Kellermans show up this season: Faye, whose Peter Decker–Rina Lazarus series has sold 20 million copies, and Jonathan, whose psychologist-detective Alex Delaware saves countless kids from sex abuse. I look forward as well to Joseph Wambaugh, whose L.A. cop novels brought something savagely Céline to a tired narrative form; to Nick Santora, the TV writer and executive producer who deserves rendition for decapitating the only character I cared about on Prison Break; and to Kathy Reichs, the forensic anthropologist whose Temperance Brennan mysteries inspired another, better TV series—Bones.
But only the first two murders are available for preview. On November 5, a turtlenecked and apparently nipped-and-tucked Sandra Brown takes us back to 1980, when the body of Betty Gore, a churchgoing mother of two, was found butchered in her utility room in Wylie, Texas. Although time will be wasted considering a cult killing and Stephen King’s new horror flick, The Shining, a bloody fingerprint points to Candace Montgomery, the neighborly Bible-school teacher who was intimate with Betty’s busy husband. The surprise is what happens after Candace admits that she whacked Betty 41 times with an ax, but in self-defense! On November 12, dapper David Baldacci, an ex–trial lawyer as warm in the camera’s embrace as a weevil in a biscuit, reports what it felt like to live in Washington, D.C., when three young employees of a Georgetown Starbucks were shot to death on the Fourth of July weekend of 1997. It was years before cops and FBI agents caught the killer, for whom the phrase depraved indifference might have been invented. (First they had to dispose of the red herring that was Monica Lewinsky, since one of the victims had also been a White House intern.) The remarkable visual here is of surveillance footage of cops going into a suspect’s apartment, only to be videotaped by the suspect himself—very, sort of, meta.
Still, we are nagged by the thought of what Brown and Baldacci might have done with these crimes had they been novelizing at a desk instead of mugging for the camera (especially on a network that has just rebranded itself as “truTV: Not reality. Actuality”). Or, more to the point, what the Law & Order franchise manages to accomplish even at its most perverse and exasperating. Like Cops, “actuality” is ticky-tacky, which is why we’ve always needed writers to improve it.