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?