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The Author Must Die: TV Detectives Saving Writers from Themselves

Eileen Gonzalez

Contributing Editor

Eileen's primary literary love is comic books, but she’s always on the lookout for her next literary adventure no matter what form it takes. She has a Bachelor's in media studies, a Master's in digital communication, a smattering of published short stories, and a seriously cute dog. Follow her on Bluesky.

There’s a whole lot of crime shows, but only so many types of crime. So if you watch as many of these shows as I do, you eventually notice some commonalities. For example, there’s always the Let’s Play With ESP episode (“Sixth Sense,” Hart to Hart; all of Psych), the Check Out This Cool New Tech episode (“A Virtual Murder,” Murder, She Wrote; “It’s Only a Game,” Simon & Simon), and so forth.

And then there’s the type of episode that’s most relevant to this site: The Author Must Die. These feature a writer who, well-intentioned or otherwise, writes a book so damaging that they end up on someone’s hit list. (Sometimes, the book is only a smokescreen for a different motive.) I decided to collect as many of this type of episode as I could find. They are very white- and male-dominated; alas, I could not find episodes from the likes of Tenafly and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency that met the criteria.

Note that The Author Must Die is distinct from its sitcom cousin, The One Where So-and-So Keeps a Diary and Everyone Gets Mad About It. I could probably write a post about that, too, but we’re sticking with the more serious variant for today. No spoilers here, so read with ease!

I’d also like to give a shout-out to my fellow Rioters, who offered lots of good suggestions and ran down specific episodes so I wouldn’t have to. Your expertise in all things literary, as always, astounds me.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. “The Pieces of Fate Affair” (February 24, 1967)

Yes, this is a spy show and not a detective show, but it’s my favorite, so in it goes. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is actually about two men who have dedicated their lives to protecting the world from mad scientists, would-be dictators, and a disturbing number of women who get off on torturing people.

In this episode, a teacher writes a book based on some diaries she happened to stumble upon. The problem? The diaries belonged to a Thrush agent (Thrush being U.N.C.L.E.’s sworn enemies). Thrush has her shot, giving her amnesia and making it more difficult for our heroes to recover the diaries.

Mannix “Falling Star” (January 6, 1968)

Lone wolf (and very ’60s) private eye Joe Mannix solves cases his own way, much to the chagrin of his straitlaced boss.

Mannix reluctantly investigates when an aging actress with a penchant for publicity stunts narrowly survives a house bombing—twice. Could her newly announced autobiography, full of salacious Hollywood secrets, be the motive?

The Snoop Sisters “The Female Instinct” (December 18, 1972)

Often regarded as something of a predecessor to Murder, She Wrote (yes, we’re coming to that!), The Snoop Sisters stars two stubborn yet endearing older women who go from merely writing about murderers to chasing them.

In their inaugural adventure, the Snoop sisters look into the death of former movie star Norma Treet. As you may have guessed, Treet was writing her memoirs when she was killed. Now the Snoops must find the manuscript before the killer does.

Cannon “Moving Target” (January 31, 1973)

Former policeman Frank Cannon is now a P.I. for hire in Los Angeles—if you can afford him, that is. Hey, the man has to pay for his snazzy car phone somehow.

An author has decided to write the biography of a millionaire who totally isn’t Howard Hughes. That would be fine, except the author is a lying liar, the biography is unauthorized and untrue, and someone is, uh, explosively angry about it.

Barnaby Jones “Conspiracy of Terror” (October 1, 1974)

Barnaby Jones is yet another L.A.-based detective (and, as it so happens, a friend of the aforementioned Frank Cannon). He and his daughter-in-law, Betty, run their own agency.

A famous writer receives a major scoop: a jailed murderer’s proclamation of innocence. He doesn’t get the chance to do much with this knowledge before he himself falls victim to a murderer.

Ellery Queen “The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader” (October 2, 1975)

The Ellery Queen TV shows (yes, plural—the one I discuss here is the most recent) are practically a footnote in the character’s long history. Ellery Queen, a mystery writer, has been solving cases in novels, radio, and more since 1928.

This episode deals with comic books, which makes it especially relevant to my interests. The acutely unlikable Bud Armstrong is in charge of producing an Ellery Queen comic. Ellery disagrees with his portrayal loudly and in front of witnesses, so when Armstrong is shot dead, Ellery ends up in jail.

The Rockford Files “The Gang at Don’s Drive-In” (January 13, 1978)

Ex-con Jim Rockford has turned over a new leaf as a private investigator—when he can be bothered to get up and do his job. But honestly, if I lived in Malibu, I’d want to sit around in the sun all day too.

Jim’s boozy writer friend Jack Skowron hires him to help conduct research for a book about his high school classmates. But this is no simple where-are-they-now, and Skowron’s real reason for writing the book could very well get them both killed.

Magnum, P.I. “Ghost Writer” (December 24, 1981)

That mustache! The ugly Hawaiian shirts and the beautiful Hawaiian backdrops! Who needs the mysteries? We all know the real reasons we’re watching this show.

The client in this episode is a ghostwriter who is supposed to be working on an autobiography for a millionaire recluse who also totally isn’t Howard Hughes. Unfortunately, someone has broken into her hotel room and made off with all her work.

Remington Steele “Etched in Steele” (November 19, 1982)

Before he was James Bond, Pierce Brosnan was Remington Steele, an amnesiac movie buff who finagles his way into the life and business of private investigator Laura Holt.

At a publisher’s party, our heroes talk with the husband of a popular erotica author just moments before he is thrown off a balcony. They quickly learn that the husband was the real writer of the books bearing his wife’s name. So why would someone kill the cash cow?

Simon & Simon “Murder Between the Lines” (January 6, 1983)

Brothers Rick and A.J. Simon—complete opposites in every respect, of course—run a detective agency in San Diego. They solve cases with occasional help from friends in law enforcement and occasional nagging from their widowed mother.

Publicly popular but critically panned, Rockwell Stark fears for his life when a serial killer starts selecting his victims and their causes of death based on Stark’s latest bestseller. No spoilers, but this episode is a bit of a face-palmer.

Moonlighting “Next Stop Murder” (March 26, 1985)

When former model Maddie Hayes loses her fortune to a crooked accountant, she stumbles/is pushed into the detective business by talented but infuriating P.I. David Addison. Shenanigans ensue.

Our heroes accidentally get involved in a murder party hosted by a famous mystery writer, who is stabbed only two hours into a 24-hour train ride. Naturally, everyone on the train is a suspect—including Maddie and David’s quirky secretary, Agnes.

Matlock “The Author” (January 13, 1987)

The ever genteel Ben Matlock always goes out of his way to see that the killer is caught and justice is done, even if that means stepping out of the strict boundaries of his role as defense attorney.

Writing a bestseller is every writer’s dream. But when Mary Ann Newton achieves this goal by basing her characters on the people in her hometown, the townspeople are furious, and someone else gets caught in the (literal) crossfire.

Murder, She Wrote “The Sins of Castle Cove” (April 9, 1989)

Our protagonist, Jessica Fletcher, is a mystery writer who is just as good at solving murders in real life as she is on the page. But in this episode, it’s not Jessica’s writing that causes the trouble.

One of Jessica’s former students, Sybil Reed, has an ax to grind with her old hometown of Cabot Cove. She writes a thinly veiled and downright vicious exposé about her ex-neighbors. The Cabot Cove residents aren’t happy about it, even before one of them dies in almost the same way she died in Reed’s book.

Jake and the Fatman “I Could Write a Book” (November 13, 1991)

I don’t know who thought that was a good title. Anyway, the main characters are Jake Styles, an investigator, and J.L. McCabe, a district attorney (played by the former Frank Cannon, William Conrad), who work together to bring criminals to justice in Los Angeles, and then Hawaii, and then Los Angeles again.

When a struggling writer dies of an apparent suicide, his old buddy “Fatman” McCabe calls bull. He discovers that the dead man had written a book containing some very sensitive information that some very dangerous people had good reason to want suppressed.

Murder, She Wrote “Family Secrets” (September 27, 1992)

Apparently Jessica has some really dense students. This episode features yet another one of her former pupils who, having learned nothing from Sybil Reed, decides to write a book exposing Cabot Cove’s deepest, darkest secret, thus drastically shortening his life expectancy.

Diagnosis Murder “Reunion with Murder” (February 4, 1994)

A respected doctor by trade, Mark Sloan has a talent for sniffing out murders. He solves them with the help of two of his hospital colleagues and his police officer son. It’s a fun show, if you can tolerate the presence of Scott Baio.

This episode finds Mark’s friend and coworker Amanda Bentley in hot water. Her former sorority sister has decided to revenge herself on her school bullies—including Amanda—by writing an incriminating tell-all. She later turns up dead…in Amanda’s house.

Jonathan Creek “The Reconstituted Corpse” (May 24, 1997)

Magician’s consultant Jonathan Creek and journalist Maddy Magellan demystify crime by revealing the rational explanations behind seemingly supernatural murders.

Zola Zbzewski, famous for her many plastic surgeries, angers her surgeon with her memoir. As a result, she is the prime suspect when the surgeon is shot to death, but Zbzewski has an airtight alibi. Oh, and now she’s dead, too.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent “Maledictus” (April 21, 2002)

Law & Order and its various incarnations have collectively been on the air for about a century, I assume. Criminal Intent mostly focuses on Detectives Eames and Goren, your classic odd couple pairing who learn to respect each other despite their differences.

“Maledictus” has our heroes investigate the death of a woman who wrote a deeply incriminating book about her mobster father. You’d think that would be enough to get anyone decapitated, but of course, it’s more complicated than that.

Midsomer Murders “Sins of Commission” (January 18, 2003)

There’s no murder like British murder, and the county of Midsomer is plagued by a frankly suspicious number of them. It’s up to Inspector Barnaby—and later his cousin, Inspector Barnaby—to bring a semblance of law and order to the picturesque villages he is in charge of.

Inspector Barnaby (the first one) comes to the town of St. Michael to investigate when a writer is killed and his laptop stolen during a literary festival. Things get progressively more murdery from there.

Monk “Mr. Monk vs. the Cobra” (January 28, 2005)

Adrian Monk is a man with a lot of problems, most famous of which is his OCD. But he is also able to parlay some of his more troublesome traits into a successful career as a private eye.

In this episode, Monk is called upon to solve the murder of a writer who was beaten to death with nunchuks. That may seem random, but the victim was writing an exposé about a deceased but still very much beloved martial arts expert.

Psych “Shawn vs. the Red Phantom” (August 25, 2006)

Shawn Spencer is not a psychic; he just plays one for the Santa Barbara Police Department, with some help from his friend Gus and his father Henry.

This episode puts a modern twist on the old The Author Must Die formula as our heroes investigate the disappearance of a teen boy who runs an influential blog. Just before he vanished, the boy publicly eviscerated an upcoming superhero film.

NCIS “Cover Story” (April 10, 2007)

Another one of those been-around-forever franchises, this D.C.-based police procedural features a host of fun characters. I’ve only seen this one episode but I would die for like 83% of them.

Investigator Timothy McGee has a second career as a writer of crime novels based on his colleagues and their exploits. That’s all fine and dandy, until his current book-in-progress inspires a deluded fan to go on a murder spree.

Monk “Mr. Monk’s Favorite Show” (August 7, 2009)

Growing up, Monk loved a show called The Cooper Clan, so he’s naturally thrilled when a former child star from that show hires him as a bodyguard. She needs protection because her recent tell-all memoir has ignited the fury of a creepy fan…or so she says.

Midsomer Murders “The Creeper” (January 27, 2010)

Another twofer! This time, a ghostwriter is smothered during a robbery, perhaps to stop him from writing an unflattering book about his host family.

Bones “The Archaeologist in the Cocoon” (January 14, 2013)

Bones takes viewers into the sordid yet oddly hilarious world of forensic anthropology, i.e. examining dead bodies to glean clues as to how they died.

Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan and her colleagues find the body of an archaeologist best known for writing trashy books and peddling fake artifacts. But was it all the bunk he wrote that got him killed, or the one truth?

Brooklyn Nine-Nine “Skyfire Cycle” (November 29, 2016)

This is more like a combination sitcom and crime show, but there is crime, so I’m counting it! This kooky cop squad faces down everything from thieves to murderers to (most daunting of all) their feelings.

When sci-fi writer D.C. Parlov receives death threats, he believes they are the work of a disgruntled fanboy. But as the investigation progresses, the good officers of the 99 start to suspect Parlov wrote the threats himself.

Queens of Mystery “Murder in the Dark” (April 8, 2019)

Wildemarsh is another one of those quaint English villages that sees a whole lot of murder. This one is home to Detective Sergeant Matilda Stone and her mystery-writing aunts.

The pilot takes place at a fancy manor that is hosting an awards ceremony honoring exceptional mystery writing. The winner is immediately clubbed to death with his own award, and the ending of his unpublished manuscript is stolen. Then, the missing pages mysteriously reappear—or do they?

Please don’t tell me I missed any: I’m tired! But if you can’t resist, hit me up on social media.