[11 October 2010]
Hardcover Mysteries explores some of the most sensational cases in American crime and their bleeding into crime fiction. Eight New York Times best-selling authors star in one episode each, leading the audience through a crime that inspired one of their most famous mystery thrillers. It’s a contemporary Murder, She Wrote, but this time, the crimes and the authors are real.
This raises the obvious question concerning definitions of reality, though the show doesn’t ask it explicitly. Premiering 11 October, it offers efficient storytelling and skilled narrators. The effect is only occasionally sensationalistic. The author of the week retells a story that is reenacted on screen, this unreality framed by interviews with a variety of people involved in the investigation, such as police officers, friends of the victims, and perpetrators. Sometimes, the show offers something new, like “the first media interview” with one of a convicted killer.
While other true crime television programs tend to turn dramatic narration, talking heads, and reenactments into repetitive, hysterical messes, Hardcover Mysteries takes a more genteel approach. It assumes viewers are intelligent people who can follow complex storylines and plot twists, in other words, readers of such mysteries. The show keeps a tight focus on each crime, omitting details about the authors’ lives, say, how many books they’ve sold or other ways they may have benefitted financially from the heinous crimes that inspired their best-selling novels. Instead, the writers serve as guides, sometimes imagining insights into victims’ and criminals’ historical contexts or personal lives.
These contexts can extend into the writers’ own work, though Hardcover Mysteries doesn’t delve deeply into this question. The series’ opening sequence draws parallels between the acts of criminal behavior and the writing about them: a gun is fired, then a typewriter key tapped violently; a glinting knife is drawn from a sheath, then a sharpened red pencil underlines the words “The Weapon” on a manuscript; finally, gloved hands pull a piano wire taut and strings are tied around the final draft of the novel. The title card features the name of the episode’s star author—“Hardcover Mysteries, by Sandra Brown,” for instance. These connections—both generic and specific—reflect the writers’ interest in retaining novelistic qualities in the retelling of crimes. True crime does, after all, imagine scenes, reactions, and conversations, in order to “sell” the story as well as to mark it as the work of an individual writer. These connections, so slickly rendered, also briefly note the basic exploitation in the process (as no reading or viewing is pictured in the sequence, we’re not clearly indicted.)
These connections are noted again in each episode’s story structure. Each opens on a table of contents, with five chapters corresponding to the plot and its commercial breaks. This technique introduces the crime and also the storytelling details. Hardcover Mysteries wisely does not use the same structure for each author. The David Baldacci and Sandra Brown episodes begin with a presentation of the featured crime but diverge in story structure. Authors read newspapers, take handwritten notes, appear in artful shadows, and wear trenchcoats. They investigate (in some comfort), they reimagine, and they develop fan-bases who have expectations.
Hardcover Mysteries depends on such storytelling, insisting on crime details, colorful characters, and sometimes vivid prose. True crime writing is an art. Just ask Jessica Fletcher.