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Building Castle on the Air

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Crime dramas have always made popular TV shows. The challenge is to keep the format fresh, finding new characters, plots and settings to engage viewers.

ABC believes it has come up with the right formula with a new TV drama, Castle, being filmed in New York: attractive male mystery writer, bored with his success helps attractive, female cop solve crimes. The writer, Richard Castle, is being played by Nathan Fillion, a Canadian with Hugh Grant-like appeal. The cop, Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), is tough yet feminine. Already the sexual tension between the two is at fever pitch and threatens to keep viewers on the edge of their seats (Will they? When?)

Of course, ABC’s focus—mystery writer as detective—is hardly unique. Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury, had a long run on Murder She Wrote. Why are mystery writers a popular choice to solve crimes in TV mystery shows? Perhaps because a mystery writer would approach solving the crime in a different manner.  “In the Rex Stout mysteries, his protagonist, Nero Wolfe, once said to Inspector Cramer of the New York City Police Department, that in 99 out of 100 cases, Cramer’s routine was all that was needed; but in that other one percent, the police would fail because they had no sense of phenomena,” said Jane K. Cleland, author of the popular Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries and past president of the Mystery Writers of America’s New York Chapter.

Fletcher often had trouble with the police who tended to dismiss her theories. Cleland believes that as perceptive as many mystery writers are, “99 percent of the time, the crime wouldn’t be solved without the routine at which the police (and not crime writers) excel.” Cleland herself often solves TV mysteries before the end of the program. “I hear something and `fill in the blanks’ as if I were plotting a story,” she said. “Often, I learn later that I was spot on.”

While the ratings jury is still out regarding Castle, Cleland, watching with a skilled eye, has her own opinion. “I thought they oversimplified the case and its resolution,” she observed of the first episode where a serial killer mimics scenes from Castle’s books. “I would have inserted a couple of more twists. Also, anyone going to the trouble of mimicking murders they got from books wouldn’t make the kind of stupid mistakes they featured in the episode (i.e., yellow vs. blue dress). You hear all the time that many criminals are stupid; the killer in this story wasn’t stupid, and to me, it simply wasn’t credible that he’d screw up so obviously.”

Perhaps a high note during the first episode was seeing real life mystery writers—Faye Kellerman, James Patterson, and Stephen J. Cannell—playing cards with Castle. (Although based on this trio’s acting, they should stick with their day jobs).

These days, however, everyone wants a different job. Writers become actors; cops become writers. Would a writer ever become a cop? Entirely possible, said Cleland. “I know crime writer police groupies,” she said. Stay tuned.

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