The next evolution of Court TV doesn’t advance much with this rather perfunctory exploitation of five big-name fiction writers to rehash sensational real-life crime stories. Heavy on dramatic music and recreations, the project opens with James Ellroy milking his mother’s death for what he says will be the final time, to be followed by hours featuring Michael Connelly, Faye Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman and Lisa Scottoline. Basically, it’s the same formula adopted by MSNBC and CBS’ “48 Hours Mystery,” which says that nothing attracts live bodies quite like a few well-mangled dead ones.
Interviewing investigators in the various cases, the Ellroy installment is more notable than Connelly’s (the two made available to reviewers), mostly because of the crazed theatricality the “L.A. Confidential” author brings to the material, down to his painfully clipped prose, which sounds way less ridiculous in print.
Ellroy meanders at length regarding his conflicted pre-adolescent feelings toward his “hated and lusted-for mother,” whose murder when he was 10 remains unsolved and helped inspire his L.A. Quartet (including “The Black Dahlia” and “Confidential”) as well as his memoir “My Dark Places.” Somehow, the gaunt writer manages to be creepy and compelling all at once, making it difficult to turn away no matter how much one yearns to.
Not so with Connelly’s episode, which recounts the exploits of a serial murderer/rapist Connelly covered as a crime reporter. Unlike Ellroy’s self-narrated tour, there’s an unseen narrator here, as Connelly somewhat awkwardly appears periodically with insights, as if he were a latter-day Alistair Cooke during “Masterpiece Theater.”
Already a long way from just the courtroom and trials, Court TV first became a “crime and justice” channel under its former management team and now intends to stretch its portfolio further as part of the Time Warner cable posse. In that sense, “Murder by the Book” is really just a blip on the road to whatever comes next — imprinting these brand-name writers on the channel’s same old police blotter.