I watch CSI—the original consistently, and the off-shoots occasionally. I know they represent a non-professional’s fantasy of what forensic science is all about, and in the real world DNA analysis takes six months, not six minutes. But as long as I treat the episodes as fiction I’m fine.
But there was one thing about a recent episode that bothered me as a writer. In this episode, the victim was found draped over a barbed wire fence (I might question whether that particular fence was strong enough to support the dead weight of a body, but I could overlook that), and his head had been hacked off and was jammed on a nearby pole. All appropriately gory, blood duly spattered and dripping. Ray Langston (the character played by Laurence Fishburne) waxed a wee bit over-poetic when he said he could see the horror in the dead man’s eyes, which of course were open and staring.
And then Langston examined the head more closely, and lo and behold, a large insect climbed out of the victim’s mouth—an insect that I immediately identified as a long-horn beetle.
Let me say that my husband is a professional entomologist (although his job isn’t anywhere near as interesting as Gil Grissom’s was), so I’m attuned to insects. I suppose the average viewer wouldn’t know how many things are wrong with this scenario. Fact one: there was no earthly reason for that beetle to be inside anyone’s mouth, dead or alive (the victim or the beetle—take your pick). These are vegetarian beetles, if you will—they eat trees. No interest in flesh. Fact two: the victim had been dead only a few hours, and was killed late at night. This kind of beetle is active during the day. That beetle should not have been where it was—unless the writers were going for the “ick” factor. Lots of people go “eeew” when they see any bug, much less one crawling out of a corpse’s mouth.
I will concede that it was a very photogenic beetle—that variety is big (close to two inches) and has attractive variegated antennae that are longer than the insect’s body. They also move slowly, so they’re easy to film. They aren’t particularly dangerous to humans (they have pincers, but they can’t even pierce human skin), so Nick Stokes could pick it up easily (but why didn’t he bag it as evidence?).
It appears that the sole function of this vagrant beetle was to give Ray a chance to say “where’s the Bug Man when you need him?”—an oblique reference to the absent Grissom. Insider joke. Cute.
But that was the problem. This beetle was introduced up front, with plenty of face time. He was even given a name: Longhorn Beetle. And then he was never seen again.
It’s the Chekhov’s gun problem. Chekhov wrote "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." Mr. Beetle is the loaded rifle in this case: since we met him in Act One, we expect him to show up again later, complete with an explanation (he bit the killer and provided DNA evidence? He is found only in the remote reaches of Borneo, and only one suspect had been to Borneo recently?). Around the penultimate commercial break, I turned to my daughter and said, “They haven’t explained the beetle yet.” I was waiting—and it never happened.
For shame, CSI: you have violated a fundamental principle of good writing. Explain your beetles!