World sleuths on TV

By Sally Carpenter

Why are there so few TV shows about crime writers? Could it be all the action takes place inside the character’s head? Or that watching a person type is boring?

 The most recent TV show featuring a writer was “Castle,” which just ended its eighth and final season. The series began with a clever premise: a playful, best-selling author teams up with a hard-nosed NYPD detective to crack cases.

Detective Kate Beckett calls in Richard Castle when a killer stages crime scenes inspired by the author’s books. Castle, in need of a new series idea, continues to shadow Beckett on other murders for inspiration.

 The cases were often silly and far-fetched, with unrealistic forensics, but viewers loved the characters, the witty banter and the growing romance.

One of the best bits was the weekly poker games with Castle and real-life authors Michael Connelly, Stephen Cannell and James Patterson. When Castle complained about the difficulty of finishing one book a year, Patterson retorted, “Only one, Rick?”

 Then the show became darker and more serious, with story threads that stretched on far past the breaking point and frequent attempts to split up the Caskett romance.

 The show went off the skids when Castle stopped writing and became a PI. When the producers announced the character of Beckett would not return for season nine, fan backlash was so severe the studio wisely put the show out of its misery.

“Castle” is a textbook example of how not to write a series. While readers expect characters to grow, straying too far from what brought fans to the story in the first place can end a series faster than a publisher merger.

 A more successful TV mystery writer was Angela Lansbury as widow and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in “Murder She Wrote,” running a remarkable 12 years. Although the show is off the air, the new cozy mystery books are still being ghostwritten under Fletcher’s name.

The show also gave rise to the expression “Cabot Cove Syndrome,” in that cozy writers must find a way to logically explain the high number of murders in their otherwise charming small towns.

I admit I never watched the show when it aired, but I plan to check out the DVDs soon from my local library and catch up.

The creative team behind “Murder She Wrote”—Richard Levinson and William Link—also produced “Ellery Queen.” Jim Hutton was the pipe-smoking writer who assisted the police. Three/quarters into the show Hutton looked at the audience and asked if they could solve the case with the given clues. The show played fair with the audience but it didn’t last long, probably because viewers don’t want to think when watching the tube.

Another one-season wonder was UPN’s “Legend.” Richard Dean Anderson played Ernest Pratt, a dime novelist in the Old West. He penned an adventure series starring the clean living hero Nicodemus Legend. However, townspeople thought Pratt was really Legend, and regularly called on him to solve mysteries and put away villians. The show also had frequent disagreements with Pratt and his publisher, EC Allen.

 The “Legend” pilot begins with Pratt writing a book. When Legend ends up in a deathtrap with no way out, Pratt whacks his head on the table and says, “I’ve killed my meal ticket!” How often do writers really feel that way when they’re “stuck”?

Do you know of other TV crime writers, and which one is your favorite?



8 thoughts on “World sleuths on TV

  1. I loved the poker games too, and especially when Dennis Lehane played. I met him long ago at Mayhem in the Midlands, a most wonderful mystery conference that has disappeared.


    1. Hi Marilyn, yes, the poker games were great. I had the privilege of meeting Stephen Cannell about six months before his death. He spoke at my Sisters in Crime chapter. An interesting and nice man. What a loss.


  2. “Castle” began as a show about a writer helping the NYPD crack cases, but over the years he did less and less writing and apparently did no writing at all in the last couple of seasons. He had a good theory about finding the “story” behind the crime as a way to find who dunnit.


  3. What an interesting thread, and seriously, I never gave this too much thought, either, but it is certainly true; I did watch “Castle” and “Murder, She Wrote.” I have been following the Hallmark mysteries as well, but I never saw Legend. This opens up a new pathway for a mystery series, huh?


    1. You’d think TV writers would love to create a series about themselves, but the networks seem more interested in CSI-type shows and action/adventure police shoot-em-ups. You can probably find “Legend” shows on YouTube or Hulu; just about every old series is on the internet somewhere.


      1. Sally, I think it’s a brilliant idea for someone to write a series about a writer trying to help solve crimes. Think of the endless possibilities. For instance, the television show “Sex and the City,’ was about a female columnist doing research and writing about NYC. Again, Seinfeld’s show about ‘nothing.’ I agree with you too many CSI and NCIS’s and fantasy shows on television now. I admit, I got very, very caught up in How to Get Away with Murder ( frankly, I thought the premise was brilliant).


  4. Fun post, Sally! I too started out loving Castle and rarely watching it towards the end. When it became dark and disconnected I found other shows. I watch “Murder, She Wrote” reruns and laugh at the old styles but the mystery parts is classic. I hadn’t heard of the show “Legend”. These days I mostly watch the British mystery/police dramas. I not only see new cultures and scenery but they have a interesting twist on things. I also have been watching the Hallmark mysteries. Some are a bit hokey but they follow the mystery sequence.


    1. “Legend” only lasted 13 episodes and ran on odd times (I saw it Sunday afternoons!) on UPN so most people missed it. The show was finally released on DVD this year. Not really a mystery show per se but tons of fun and great dialogue. Masterpiece Theatre used to do Agatha Christie series and the Sherlock series with Jeremy Brett was great, although those characters were not writers.


Comments are closed.