Dispatches | November 10, 2010

One of the first things I wrote when I was eight or nine was a mystery. I don’t remember the title, or what happened, but I do remember writing and illustrating each page, not knowing where it was going, rushing to get to the end so I could find out who had done it. I read every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys book I could get my hands on, and still, when I want a book to escape into, something that will let me forget everything, I turn to mysteries. During grad school mystery novels were squeezed out to make room for more literary/academic pursuits, but I happily replaced them with something even more escapist: mystery television shows, which is how I started watching Castle (among others) and why, perusing the new mystery section at Barnes and Noble one Sunday, I picked up the novel Heat Wave, written by – or so the cover claimed – Richard Castle.

ABC’s television series Castle stars Nathan Fillion as Richard Castle, a famous mystery novelist who gets permission to follow a NYC police detective named Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) around as she solves murders in order to research a new book he’s working on. In many ways the story plays out along predictable lines: he ends up being good at solving crimes, sexual tension between Castle and Beckett is carefully maintained, and by the end of each episode the guilty party has confessed. Castle’s writing mostly happens off-screen (ala Jessica Fletcher), but eventually he must produce a book, and what better way to promote the show than for ABC to publish the novel that their character has written. The protagonist of “Richard Castle’s” novel, Heat Wave, the ludicrously named Nikki Heat, is, of course, based on Beckett with a thinly disguised supporting cast based on Castle and Beckett’s colleagues in the unit. Heat Wave was released in hardcover by Hyperion in September 2009 and reached number six on the New York Times bestseller list in its fourth week. “Castle’s” second novel, Naked Heat, debuted at number seven a year later.

I have found one sort-of precedent for this. There is a series of mysteries by Jessica Fletcher, the main character played by Angela Lansbury in the long running television series Murder, She Wrote. But there are three major differences in the presentation of “Fletcher’s” and “Castle’s” books. One is that the Murder, She Wrote novels loudly announce their connection to the television series of the same name. A large, full-color photograph of Angela Lansbury features prominently in the cover art of each novel, her smiling face clearly advertising the work as having sprung from the five seconds of typing she does during the credits of each episode of her show. At the bottom of the cover the book clearly announces its affiliation with the show, explicitly stating that it is based on the series. The second major difference is that the Murder, She Wrote novels are co-written by Donald Bain, indicating to the perceptive consumer that Jessica Fletcher, being a fictional character, probably did not actually write the books. And the third difference is that Jessica Fletcher stars in her own novels, the characters are not based on Jessica Fletcher’s friends and neighbors in Cabot Cove, instead the books are simply another version of the characters on the show. And although I have not actually read any of the Murder, She Wrote books, I am fairly certain, based on the titles of the dozen or so listed on Amazon, that each one follows the plot of a single episode of the show.

“Richard Castle’s” novels approach all three of these elements differently, more covertly, with a kind of subtlety that not only creates the impression that Richard Castle wrote the books, but makes the question of whether or not he is a real person seem almost irrelevant. True, the covers of both Heat Wave and Naked Heat do include the ABC network logo, and suggest in small type that the reader watch Castle on ABC, but no credit is given to a ghostwriter. There is no indication at all that Richard Castle is a fictional character from a television show, that he and his fictional mother and fictional daughter do not actually live in a snazzy apartment in New York City (for the very simple reason that they are not real people), as claimed by the author bio on the dust jacket. And finally, by renaming the characters in the novel as though they were real people in need of a layer of protection rather than already fictional characters, a veneer or faux-reality is added to the entire project.

The fabrication of reality, the blending of the real and the unreal, has been all around us for the better part of the past century or longer. In his 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, historian Daniel Boorstin provides a fascinating look at many of the fabricated events that posed on television as news for the consumption of American audiences. The AMC series, Mad Men, brings much of this fabrication out in the open, or rather, takes us behind the scenes to where Don Draper and his staff are working hard to shape the perception of their clients’ potential customers. (Remember the episode in which Peggy suggests that they hire two actresses to stage a fight in public over the last Sugerberry ham?) And of course there is “reality” television, which needs no introduction. Staged reality is nothing new, but creating fictional authors and publishing their novels seems to be a new step in adding another layer of story to our stories.

There are so many things to consider here. Does it matter that the author of these two novels is a fictional character himself? Do the novels fall into a category of fiction (I’d classify them as pulp mysteries, with a extra layer of commercialism) in which it simply doesn’t matter who actually wrote them? Is this nothing more than a spin-off that demands only our vague amusement and disdain? Does it mean anything?

The other interesting thing about the Castle real life/fiction blend is that the show has featured several episodes in which real writers appear as themselves. Castle is a mystery writer, well connected, active in the mystery writer community, and therefore he has many mystery writer friends, such as Michael Connelly, James Patterson and Stephen Cannell, all of whom have appeared on the show playing poker with their buddy Rick Castle and offering their fictional counterpart advice on his writing and his love life.

I feel as though puzzling this out requires a logical/scientific approach rather than the writerly one I am more accustomed to assuming. I’m used to approaching novels and even movies and TV shows as a writer – cringing at bad lines, silently complimenting (and envying) the writers when they pull off something particularly clever – but when it comes to Castle, I keep going over and over the pieces of reality and fiction, trying to put them together like pieces of a puzzle, as though there must be an answer to this question (a question I’m not even sure how to ask other than to say: what is up with this?) if I can just maneuver each piece into its proper place. I want to figure out what all this means, or if it means anything at all. It seems too easy to say, good job marketing department at ABC, brilliant campaign, and leave it at that. Even though I’m not sure what it means, I can’t get away from believing that it means something.

What are your thoughts on fictional-reality and real fiction? What are the implications for how we operate as readers and writers?