CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Body of Evidence, by Max Allan Collins — a book review

My earliest memory of the television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (later rebranded as CSI: Vegas after spinoffs kept spinning off) was a conversation I had with a radio deejay about the show.

The radio deejay was a man who would become my nephew, by marriage, a couple of years after this conversation. The venue was a family reunion of sorts. Not my family—not yet, at least—but that of the woman who would become my wife.

I’ve known only a couple of deejays during my life, but both had similar traits. Accustomed to having one-sided conversations, and possessing a job-related fear of dead air, they both liked to talk. A lot. I am, by nature, an introvert, and an active listener. I tend to attract the attention of people who like to talk a lot.

The subject my future-nephew the deejay wanted to talk about twenty years ago was what was then a relatively new television series about a group of crime scene investigators in Las Vegas, Nevada. I had watched a couple of episodes by that point, and knew enough about the series to keep the deejay talking (although I’ll admit this wasn’t too difficult).

This was the original version of the television series, I should add. I was never a regular viewer when the main cast began to change. I’m familiar with Ted Danson, Lawrence Fishburne and Elizabeth Shue, but not from their work on this series. The show would continue for fifteen seasons and 337 episodes. At the outside, I’ve watched maybe ten per cent of these episodes, all of these occurring within the first three or four seasons. I liked every episode that I watched. But, I wouldn’t say I was over-the-moon about them.

At least, not like my nephew the deejay was. At this family gathering, where I was a guest, the deejay waxed eloquent about the series. He described how a typical episodic story was structured, positively gushed over the special effects that recreated the deadly injuries suffered by the episode’s victims, and praised the performances of the lead actors, especially that of William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger.

As I recall, the deejay related, in great visual detail, the plot of an entire episode. I wasn’t the only one listening to him by this point, and the boy knew how to paint word pictures for his audience. Someone who had never seen an episode before that day would have a pervasive feeling of deja vu once they watched one. The slick motion picture style, fast-moving plots and MTV-type editing were implicit in the deejay’s monologue.

My nephew is no longer working in radio. He left to become director of public relations (I think) for our local cable/utilities corporation. He still does some color commentary for some regional sports teams, and is often seen or heard in local television spots. His is the voice I hear on the telephone whenever I have to call the cable company and sit through that recording listing my six hundred options in the optimistic quest to speak to an actual living, breathing human being.

I’m not sure why I’m telling you all of this. I just feel like I’ve introduced a new character in the plot of my life, and I thought you should know what happened to him. He’s on his third wife now, lost a lot of weight after having surgery, and seems reasonably happy.

But, I digress—

My point was that I was a casual viewer of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation during the early days. Similar to my experience with the various Law & Order shows. A fan but not a fanatic. My memory is no longer to be trusted, but I don’t think I ever watched a single episode of any of the spinoffs.

I have, however, seen plenty of clips of David Caruso putting on or taking off his sunglasses, just before Roger Daltrey lets loose with the greatest scream in rock-‘n’-roll. It was a meme before memes were memes.

My experience with author Max Allan Collins follows a similar pattern. No, my nephew-in-law the former deejay never talked about Collins. Or any writer, at least not in my earshot. I knew Collins first as the writer of the Dick Tracy comic strip. He took over from creator Chester Gould in the late 1970s and continued to write the strip until the early ’90s.

Ironically—or perhaps not (I’ll have to ask Alanis Morissette)—the current writer of the Dick Tracy strip, Mike Curtis, lives just up the road from me here in central Arkansas.

I was also familiar with Collins’ series character, Nathan Heller, a Chicago private investigator working cases in the early-to-mid Twentieth Century guaranteed to feature cameos or guest-starring real-life historical figures such as Orson Welles, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, FDR, and many others. I’ve read only a few of the twenty or so Heller books out there, but enjoyed each and every one. I have several more waiting for me, still unread, on the shelves of my library closet.

Collins has written other mystery series, movie novelizations, and comic books. He is the creator of the comic book, and character, Ms. Tree. He also wrote the graphic novel, Road to Perdition, which was adapted into a motion picture starring Tom Hanks. In addition, Collins has co-written novels with his wife, well-known author Barbara Collins, and he has written and directed several films. Obviously, a man who likes to keep busy.

In total, Collins has published twelve novels in the CSI universe (including three CSI: Miami books). I believe I have one or two more waiting for me to read them in the closet, but this is the first one I’ve read.

I have a history with media tie-in novels that goes back to the original Star Trek and the novelizations for R-rated movies I was too young to see in the theaters. I enjoy the tie-ins to favorite television shows because you’re typically dealing with characters you already know and are reading about adventures you haven’t experienced already. This is especially enjoyable with series that have been off the air for a while.

At times, these media tie-ins fail to capture the essence of a show, in my opinion. The characters don’t ring true. Or, the stories are structured in ways that just don’t feel like the television show. No franchise is immune to this issue.

Fortunately, this isn’t the case with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Body of Evidence. Collins wrote a story that feels like an episode of the series, from beginning to end. If you liked the series, I guarantee that you’ll like this novel.

There are an A story and a B story in this book. Not a main plot and a subplot, but two different story arcs running in parallel.

In the A story, Catherine Willows and Nick Stokes are on a case involving a Las Vegas advertising agency and child pornography. This case drags a bit in the beginning, proceeds to baffle me with a lot of programming and computer jargon that is probably now obsolete, executes a couple of twists and turns, then ends when the guilty party or parties are given a police escort out of the building.

The B story is the better story arc, in my opinion. It involves the discovery of a female corpse rolled up in a carpet. The young woman turns out to be the missing assistant of the Las Vegas mayor, who was rumored to be having an affair with the mayor. Sara Sidle and Warrick Brown take point on this investigation. It also provides an excellent example of how high-profile media cases must be investigated by the police. This case also wends its way around in crazy swirls, as the CSIs narrow the case down until we have only one suspect.

Captain Jim Brass and CSI Level III Supervisor Gil Grissom pop up in both A and B. Brass hangs around as a representative of the real police, generally facilitating the activities of our scientist cops. Grissom is on-hand for an occasional nudge or opinion, as emotionless as a Vulcan and more than a little weird. Exactly as portrayed by William Petersen. But, Brass and Grissom both feature prominently in the final act of the B story, which is exciting, dangerous and true to the television show.

This is probably not great literature. Who’s to say what our future descendants might think, though? It is entertaining fiction, certainly, with relatively shallow characterizations and plots that would have worked well on the television screen. In fact, this novel could have easily been adapted as an hour-long drama.

This book was published way back in 2003. A lot of CSI seasons followed this year, so maybe these plots were used on the series. Stranger things have happened.

Firewater’s Fun-But-Forgettable-Forensics Report Card: B

At this point, the nostalgia factor may have boosted this grade a half-step or more. It’s not a bad book. In fact, it seems like it could be a story I have seen on television. But, it isn’t particularly special or memorable, either.

Still, if you liked the series, you’ll like this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.