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Review: The “Richard Castle” novels

Well, I finally got around to borrowing the two “Richard Castle” novels from the library.  These are tie-in books to the ABC mystery series Castle, about a mystery writer (Nathan Fillion) who assists the police in solving crimes in exchange for using Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) as the inspiration for his new series character, Nikki Heat.  The two novels that have been published in reality, Heat Wave and Naked Heat, are supposedly written by Castle himself (the ghostwriter is unknown, though suspects include series creator Andrew W. Marlowe and a writer named Tom Straw who’s alluded to on the book jacket and the acknowledgments), and not only that, but they’ve actually been incorporated into stories on the show, complete with accurate dialogue quotes and page-number references.  It’s a rather clever form of cross-promotion blurring the lines between fiction and reality.  Similar things have been done before, like when Laura Palmer’s diary was published as a Twin Peaks tie-in, or when J. K. Rowling wrote and sold a couple of books mentioned as part of the Hogwarts curriculum in the Harry Potter series, but this kind of two-way feedback between the series and its tie-ins is impressive to see, particularly from my perspective as a tie-in author.  (I’m reminded of The Monkees — the folks who created a sitcom about a rock band promoted it by having the performers use their real names on the show and actually cut albums and go on concert tours in real life, so the fiction became reality — with the band achieving legitimacy beyond the show.)  I’m a fan of Castle (though I felt its just-ended third season was weaker than its first two), so I was curious about these books.

There are two ways to evaluate Heat Wave and Naked Heat, since these are at once tie-ins to a TV show and purported artifacts of that show’s fictional reality.  As what they actually are — thinly veiled Castle tie-in stories — they’re reasonably good.  Aside from the changed names and a few details, the characters from the show are all recognizable and it’s easy to imagine the show’s actors in the parts.  So from a character standpoint, the books feel like Castle episodes, which is what you want from a tie-in.  Plotwise, there are some differences — the male and female leads actually become intimate (which hasn’t happened on the show yet), there’s more physical danger and action for the heroine, the murder schemes are bigger with more bodies, and in both books there’s a hired killer who becomes identified as the culprit midway through the book, making it more about the chase, although who hired the killer remains a mystery.  In Heat Wave, Detective Heat (I still can’t take that name at all seriously) is more clearly the star and the sole viewpoint character, and the book doesn’t have the show’s usual formula of bouncing from one suspect to another to another.  But Naked Heat feels closer to the Castle formula, with more suspect-bouncing and more shifts of narrative viewpoint, and with the writer character Jameson Rook being more an equal partner in the crimesolving.  In some ways, though, the books improve on the show, do things the show can’t, which is the real strength of a tie-in novel.  They’re able to offer more character insight, go into more detail on police procedures, introduce more supporting characters in the squad room (for greater realism, since homicides are investigated by whole teams rather than just 2 or 3 people), and make better use of their New York setting than the LA-filmed show can.  I enjoyed those aspects.  In particular, I liked how much the books acknowledged Nikki Heat’s compassion and regard for human life, even remorse for lives she has to take in the line of duty.  That’s not what I would’ve expected from these books; I figured they’d have more of a lurid, exaggerated, potboiler quality.  It’s certainly not what I would’ve expected from a character named “Nikki Heat.”  As for the actual mysteries, there were some things that I felt were telegraphed, but others that came as surprises.

But as what these books purport to be — the “actual” novels written by Richard Castle within the show’s universe — Heat Wave and Naked Heat don’t quite stack up.  For one thing, Heat Wave is extremely short, just under 200 pages, which is more the length you’d expect from a rushed TV tie-in novel than from the debut of a new series by a bestselling celebrity author.  Naked Heat is better, about 50 percent longer, but still a little slim.  For another, whoever the ghostwriter is, he or she (or they?) is apparently British.  There are a lot of tells — characters using “lav” or “loo” for “bathroom,” “dodge ’em” instead of “bumper cars,” “liner” instead of “trash bag,” “manacled” instead of “handcuffed,” phrases that just don’t sound right in a book supposedly written by a lifelong New Yorker.  (Although neither of the ghostwriter candidates I mentioned above appears to be British.  Odd, that.)  But the primary thing that bothers me is how close the characters are to the “real” people Castle is supposed to have based them on — including himself.  Out here in the real world, that makes sense, since what the audience wants to see is something that feels and reads like the show.  But in-universe, I have a hard time buying that he’d copy all these people so exactly with nothing more than flimsy pseudonyms.  For one thing, it’s not very creative; for another, it’s an invasion of privacy (something that’s actually a story point in the second book, so we can’t pretend Castle was unconcerned with it); and for another, it creates the risk of lawsuits if the genuine articles feel they’ve been misrepresented or libelled.  I think that instead, he’d create composite characters and bring more of his own imagination into play, rather than just copying the “real” people note-for-note.  In particular, I think he’d take a lot of flack for Mary-Sueing himself into the books as the reporter Jameson Rook (Rook for Castle, how obvious can you get?).  At least in the first book, Rook is more of a sidekick and is well behind the cops when it comes to solving the case, but in the second, he’s more of an equal protagonist.  True, Castle is known in the show for his ego, so it’s not entirely implausible that he’d write about a thinly veiled roman a clef of himself and make him heroic, handsome, and extremely good in bed.  But it seems he’d be a little subtler about it.  (At least there’s no novel surrogate for Castle’s daughter Alexis.  Given how loving and protective Castle is toward Alexis, the idea that he’d preserve her privacy above everyone else’s is the most plausible thing about the conceit that Castle actually wrote these books.)

There are a couple of in-jokes in the novels that suggest they were written by someone close to the show, such as Marlowe, rather than some hired ghostwriter.  The first book features a judge named Horace Simpson who’s described as resembling Homer Simpson; this is no doubt a surrogate for the recurring judge character Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer) played in the first season.  And in the second book, there are two references to a pair of detectives named Malcolm and Reynolds during an investigation of the Dragonfly Hotel — an obvious reference to Fillion’s Mal Reynolds character from Firefly.  The show itself has made several such fourth-wall-eroding in-jokes, but they could be taken in-universe as showing that Castle’s a big fan of Firefly (no doubt because of his striking resemblance to the lead actor) and would be prone to put nods to it in his books.

So to sum up — as Castle’s “actual” in-universe books, unconvincing, but as Castle-in-all-but-name stories in prose form and as mystery/procedural novels, reasonably satisfying.   My main gripe is that Naked Heat has a misleading title.  Nikki spends a fair portion of Heat Wave naked, but in the second book her nakedness is almost entirely psychological.  Maybe this is supposed to represent Castle’s growing respect and affection for Beckett between the writing of the two books, but the lurid title of the second book is an odd mismatch for the story within.

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