September 22, 2021

Ratings to die for

"Being happy with what you've got is the one sin that is never forgiven."

That line appears on page 5 of William L. DeAndrea's Killed in the Ratings, a murder mystery set in the world of television, and I'll have more on the profound nature of that line at the end of this review. The book came to me as a gift from our loyal reader Mike Doran, who thought I would appreciate it and looked forward to what I'd have to say about it. Well, Mike, this one's for you.

Killed in the Ratings

By William L. DeAndrea

HBJ; 243 pages

$7.99 in Kindle; available at used booksellers

The headquarters of a national television network would seem an obvious setting for murder, given that it rivals Washington, D.C. in terms of infighting, backstabbing, ambition, dishonesty, and greed, all the while producing a product that too often insults, corrupts, and dehumanizes the hearts and minds of its viewers. And while none of the murders in Killed in the Ratings actually takes place inside network HQ itself—in other words, no dead body slumped over a control panel with a knife sticking out of his back—they're all most assuredly connected with the industry.

Our narrator and protagonist is one Matt Cobb, troubleshooter extraordinare in the network's Department of Special Projects. Cobb is what we'd call in politics a fixer, following the network's stars and cleaning up after them before they can bring the network into disrepute. As he says, "We do everything that's too touchy for Public Relations, and too messy for the legal department." 

As the story begins, Cobb is the recipient of a phone call from someone who refuses to give his name, but suggests he has information that could be extremely damaging to the network: the accident that put  network president Walter Schick in the hospital in what could be a permanent coma might not have been an accident, after all. Naturally, with a bombshell like that floating around, Cobb has no choice but to meet this mysterious source and find out just what he knows. Naturally, when he gets to the hotel room where they've agreed to meet, Cobb finds the man dead. Naturally, he then gets knocked out by someone who was hiding behind the door when he came in. 

And naturally, he becomes the prime suspect in the eyes of the police—especially Detective Second Grade Horace Rivetz, one of those cops who makes up his mind after about five minutes of investigation and shows little inclination to go out of his way looking for any evidence that might upset his pat theory. Cobb, being a reasonably reliable narrator (he's refreshingly upfront when it comes to his occasional lack of judgment), leaves us with little doubt of his innocence. So, like many an innocent man who finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation, he realizes he can only clear his name by finding the real murderer. (I consider myself fortunate that in my 61 years, I've never been in such a situation myself. I must be the only one.) At the same time, Cobb has to keep an eye on the scandal involving Schick, one that could conceivably bring down the network, as well as the possibility that the beloved ratings system, at the heart of commercial television, might be rigged. It's obviously all connected—but how?

Fortunately for an innocent man trying to exonerate himself, Cobb has no lack of suspects to choose from, including:

  • Monica Tibaldi, television star, Cobb's former inamorata, and—unluckily for Cobb—the ex-wife of the dead man. She wants to get back together, but is it just a ruse to trap Cobb?
  • Cynthia Schick, not-quite-widow of Walter Schick, and daughter of the network chairman. She and her husband quarreled before the accident—was she looking to finish the job?
  • Roxanne Schick, daughter of Cynthia and Walter. Years ago she was one of Cobb's projects, strung out on drugs. He saved her life; are her intentions romantic or devious?
  • Thomas Falzet, Walter Schick's rival for power at the network, passed over for president in favor of Schick. Could this have been his revenge?
  • Herschel Goldfarb, who utilized his talent for accounting to buy up bad debt from the city's gamblers, and may have had murder—and a bad credit risk—on his mind 

As you may be able to tell, Killed in the Ratings isn't exactly hard-boiled detective fiction. It is, however, an enjoyable story that delivers a twist or two about the business and builds up to a conclusion that is both satisfying and unexpectedly moving. Cobb is an engaging protagonist (this represents the first of eight Matt Cobb mysteries written by DeAndrea), and his frequent asides show a shrewd (and cynical) knowledge of the network television industry. (At first, I found his narrative style distracting, even annoying, but he's the kind of guy that grows on you, and his insider insight into the business of television is shrewd and on the point; not surprising, considering his background in the industry.)

And now for that line that led off this review. It's a penetrating comment, not only on life in general, but the television industry in particular. In a 1966 issue of TV Guide, Gore Vidal wrote that what television could use is "a sense that getting people to buy things they do not need is morally indefensible." DeAndrea's quote is in reference to the inadvisability of turning down a promotion (your career's "death sentence"), but it could apply to the very nature of commercial television. After all, the entire system of American television (and radio before that) was built on the idea of selling commercial time to sponsors, who would in turn sell their products to viewers and listeners. And isn't mass consumption a form of ambition, of keeping up with those rich and famous people we see on television every night? 

It's a vicious circle, even more vicious than the murders that Matt Cobb encounters in Killed in the Ratings. Those people only lose their lives; the rest of us risk losing our souls. TV  

1 comment:

  1. First off, thanx for the call-out.

    In a way, I think I might owe you an apology of sorts, for introducing you to Bill DeAndrea and his work, a mere 25 years after his death.

    I was on board with DeAndrea early on - when Killed In The Ratings first came out in 1978.
    It was Bill's first novel; he wrote it while still living with his parents, typing on the kitchen table.
    Bill was 26 at the time; when he sent Killed ... around to publishers, he was already working on The HOG Murders, the other one I sent you.
    Killed In The Ratings won the Mystery Writers Edgar as Best First Mystery Novel for 1978; The HOG Murders won for Best Paperback Original the following year.
    Two Edgars before he was thirty - pretty impressive (Bill won another Edgar in 1994, for compiling Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, a really good reference to the genre).
    What I'd really love to send you would be a collection of the columns he wrote for The Armchair Detective, a great quarterly now sadly defunct; unfortunately, these columns (a blog before their time) were never collected in book form (I think you might have gotten a kick out of them).

    What you ought to do is get ahold of Murder - All Kinds, a collection of Bill's short stories (including four exploits of Matt Cobb from Killed ..., plus other tales, including a Sherlock Holmes pastiche as it might have been written by Mickey Spillane); sadly, it was published posthumously (Bill died in 1996, but the book didn't come out until 2003).
    Anyway, you still have The HOG Murders, which is about a different set of characters; be sure to read the introduction by Bill's widow, Jane Haddam, which will move you - and also make you laugh ...

    RIP William L. DeAndrea (1952 - 1996)

    RIP Orania Papazoglou, aka Jane Haddam (1951 - 2019)


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!