It’s getting meta in here…
Heat Wave is our first book choice written by a fictional character.
New Yorker Richard Castle is a best selling mystery fiction author – most notable for the Derrick Storm series. He plays poker with some of the finest crime writers of the age including James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and Stephen J Cannell* He takes his inspiration from the real world, frequently collaborating with actual crime fighters to ensure that his books drip authenticity as well as (metaphorical) blood.
Immediately impressed with Kate Beckett – an NYPD detective that he encounters after two bodies are found murdered imitating some scenes from his books – he uses his connections in the Mayor’s office to force her to take her on as a civilian partner. Using her as his muse, he has created Nikki Heat – a passionate crime fighter. He also appears in the Nikki Heat books as Rook – the primary protagonist’s romantic foil.
Castle is a charming, fun loving single father, who lives with his mother and daughter. His every book goes straight to the top of the best seller lists and his imagination is child like and grotesque in equal measure. Despite his casual demeanour, he takes his writing seriously and is known to have criticised his early efforts publically.
At least, all this is true – according to the tv show – Castle.
Castle is a show I happen to be a huge fan of. Having said that; I personally approached this book with something closer to trepidation than excitement – I tend to be hugely sceptical of tie in novels. To my mind, they exist in a weird sort of limbo – most seem incapable of moving away from the source material and are therefore forced to rehash incidents and events seen in previous episodes. The ones that do veer off in unexpected directions risk moving too far away from the canon plot to be believable. They are compromises – yes you get to interact with characters that you love, but it’s annoying that they can’t create a new playing field (unless the series has been cancelled. That brings with it a whole different set of rules!).
Though this book is wholly steeped in the pulp fiction tradition, it delights in subverting the genera – we particularly like the inclusion of gadgets and toys that served to progress the plot forward but also ensured a contemporary New York.
In general, we found it to be better written than expected – though it was jarring reading a book written in the style of an episode. Certainly the written form revealed some of the weaknesses of a procedural show – the detective Heat lacks the depth and out of work life that allows her visual counterpart to shine as a credible person. Within this book, Nikki Heat is more of a stereotype of a particular type of woman than anyone you could imagine meeting.
(For the record, while Kate Beckett was disappointed at the name Castle gave her, she was a little bit thrilled to see the passion and sexuality that he ascribed to her.)
In fact all of the characterisation suffered as a result of the writing style. Those of us who were familiar with the show enjoyed matching the fictional (book) characters to their actual (tele-visual) counterparts. Due to the pace and the necessity to keep forward momentum (at all costs), there were a large number of suspects that resulted in potential fan favourites being neglected – particularly Detectives Javier Esposito and Kevin Ryan and Dr Lanie Parish – or the thinly veiled versions of them. It was lovely having characters no longer in the series pop up too, though these appearances felt equivalent to a movie stars cameo due to the aforementioned lack of character development. We all had a proper chuckle at Castle becoming Rook – a lovely little moment, celebrating word play and geek culture – very much in line with the show, though the sexual tension between Rook and Heat felt a touch forced in places.
Of course, not everyone agreed. Those that were totally unfamiliar with the show had free reign in imagining the characters any way they liked, with one visualising Nikki Heat as Sarah Lund from the Killing. That reader felt that they were better able to enjoy the book without all the ‘baggage’ from the tv show getting in the way. She also argued – successfully in my case – that the name Nikki Heat predisposes a reader to picture her as a sexual object. Had she been called Nora Dearheart, or Maggie Row or something neutral; we might have enjoyed her more and felt less critical of her decision making – especially when it comes to suspects. This was one of the few moments that someone who hadn’t seen the show defended the books!
Then we quoted Shakespeare for a bit – always rather satisfying.
The plot did not inspire as much enthusiasm at all. For the majority of us, the mystery was not particularly striking. While I only guessed the identity of the killer towards the end of the novel, a few readers clocked in almost from their first appearance as they were the only suspect to really interact with Nikki. As one book clubber phrased it ‘It’s not a good sign when you can tell who the killer is because they’re the only person that the lead character has flirted with!!’
Towards the end of our chat, we temporarily became sidetracked by the idea of imitating the writing style ourselves. A number of the group are creative’s and have in the past put pen to page to create their own fictional worlds. They found the style here to be very specific and surprisingly hard to replicate.
It is a very definite homage to crime scripts, with a noir tinge to both the crimes and the characters. Each person is written with deliberately over the top pointers to their visual counterparts, to ensure that even the least observant fan would be able to figure out who the originating character was. For many of us the gimmick of reading this style wore off quickly. The characters in particular suffered, with many ending up as stiff as cardboard.
I was challenged to do the write up in the same style…but – trust me – I lack the flair necessary for such an attempt.
A book club member made a note of saying that while she only found the book to be so-so, above average but only just – she was delighted to read a book that she would NEVER have picked up for herself, finding it to be hilarious in parts. Nikki Heat seemed to her to be an incredible stereotype and totally unbelievable but still someone you could route for. However, the style of writing maintained momentum throughout and she was swept up in the plot right up until the last page.
We concluded that the Nikki Heat series has been written primarily for fans of the TV series Castle; the book serves as both a stand alone crime thriller (just!) and a fan-treat, packed full of in-references and characters that you’re meant to link to their TV counterparts. However, those who didn’t know about the show scored the book considerably lower than the fans and – as with most tie in’s – found it a less than satisfying read.
Fans of the show will likely read more of these – they are easy reads that you can sink into without much effort. However, those without affection for the show won’t be seeking out more of these.
*Until his untimely death in 2010. The show dedicated an episode to his memory.