Sunday, June 06, 2010

Realism in Mystery Books Vs Television Series

This week the Sunday guest blogger is Brooklyn White. Brooklyn writes on the subject for forensic sciences at

If you’ve never watched a crime series on television, you’re probably one of a rare breed of people who hate the idiot box. Today, almost every network has one or more crime shows based on forensics – CSI, Bones, Criminal Minds, NCIS – they’re all proof that audiences like crime and the basic idea that forensics can be used to solve even the most complex of murders or other violent crimes. The genre proved to be such a big hit that there are three versions of CSI – the original, and its spin-offs CSI:Miami and CSI:NY. But if there is one bone I have to pick with television series that portray crime, it is that they are far removed from reality and do not portray the real world of criminal investigation as it is or even close to what it is.

You could argue that fiction is certainly not fact; if it was, it would not be called fiction. But there’s another form of fiction that stays more true to reality than television series do – books. If you’re ever read murder mysteries, you’ll know what I’m talking about. For one, books are more detailed - from the nature of the crime to how it is committed, from the character of the lead detective to the way he/she goes about solving the crime, it’s all there in much more detail than you would find on television. But that’s probably because books have the luxury of a platform that is larger in terms of time – TV episodes have to be condensed into 40 minutes of dialogue that must tell the whole story.

Because they are detailed, books are able to stay closer to realism. If you’ve watched Bones, you may know that the series is based on the work of real-life forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs – Dr. Temperance Brennan is a character created by her and the series is loosely based on the books. But if you’re a fan of the series and think that the books are just as interesting or fast-paced, you’re in for a not-so-nice surprise.

Yes, Kathy Reichs does write good stories, but they’re more like real life, and this means that the pace and intense action is missing. All the elements that keep us glued to the screen during an episode of Bones are missing.

So this begs the question – if fiction is as close to reality as possible, does it mean that it is not interesting or intriguing? The answer lies in the nature of both platforms of fiction – the reality is that television cannot afford to take its own time to solve murders – the story can only be as realistic as the timeline that is available. So yes, while there are a few liberties taken on screen, the fact is that television series make for compelling viewing. As long as people are aware that they are watching fiction and that they cannot expect the real world to be similar, I guess it’s ok to depict murder mysteries with a touch of creativity that moves away from realism.

Brooklyn White writes on the topic of Forensic Science Technician Programs. She can be reached at


Jill said...

Very tough to find that fact-fiction balance. We all know the cliche "truth is stranger than fiction". But, those wonderully wacky things that really have happened are the exceptions, and you'll find them on News of the Weird, or Weird Wire News (or similar). Reality is indeed to slowly paced, or all our lives & jobs would be best sellers.

Anonymous said...

I think people appreciate books because they can explore things at their own pace. Yes, books can be fast paced and intense but they can also be deliciously detailed so that they can be savoured and characters can truly be developed. That isn't to say that books are better or that television is better, they both do their own thing quite well. Two different approaches to story telling.
Thanks for sharing this.

Vicki Delany said...

I'm with you Cassandra. But that is why I prefer books over screen any time.

Rick Blechta said...

Almost all TV is shallower than books by its very nature. How can you really have any depth/richness when you only have 40, very formulaic minutes in which to tell your story?

I find CSI and its ilk shallow and unrealistic to the point of silliness.

I seldom watch TV simply because there are so few good shows on.

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