Mysterious Ways

Earlier this week, ABC premiered a new television procedural that mixes a couple traditional elements of the mystery genre - television and literature. The show is Castle, and begins with a series of murders that are modeled after several in the novels of Rick Castle, a famous novelist who has recently killed off his main character of a popular series, and is working on another series. He partners with Kate Becket, a detective in the NYPD to help solve the case, and stays on after the end to 'research' his new main character, a female cop.

I love mysteries, almost as much as I love science fiction. There is something incredibly satisfying about watching the pieces of a puzzle come together over the course of a novel, from the initial crime to the discovery of evidence to the inevitable final chase that either brings the criminal to justice or death, depending on the author.

I started reading late, but when I did, I began with Encyclopedia Brown, trying to discover the answer to the puzzle before Leroy did, and shortly thereafter, I moved onto The Hardy Boys, where I consumed the books at a voracious rate, often hiding under the covers with a flashlight or reading by a crack of light at the door, to get to the end.

For me, Mysteries have always been better as books. There are very few good crime movies, although the trend falls towards television nicely, and weekly procedurals, such as Law & Order and CSI (although I despise that show and its sequels) are very popular. While in college and afterward, I could always count on the endless re-runs of L&O on USA, and picked up several other shows, such as Veronica Mars and Life on Mars, with relish, to see new stories.

My one big series that I absolutely love, however, is Vermont author Archer Mayor's Joe Gunther novels, now numbering in the twenties. I discovered Mayor with the book The Ragman's Memory, and like other series, I tracked down as many as I could get my hands on, and devoured the plots.

Archer Mayor's stories in particular are absolutely fantastic. Set in Vermont, they follow Brattleboro detective and his team through a number of Vermont-centric mysteries, covering a number of topics that Mayor researches for over a year. They are well plotted, with a number of twists, turns and cynical details about this place. They are constantly fulfilling, and I try to pick them up as soon as they come out (although I never got around to last year's, something that is soon to be corrected). Mayor remains one of the tragically unknown authors, and his stories are easily some of the best out there.

The all time leader of the mystery genre, however, remains Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for his creation of Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of all time. I first picked up on Holmes while in London while looking for a good book to read on the train, and he quickly became a favorite of mine.

Inherently, novels are the best place to unspool a story. While television is fine, a book allows for far more time and space to build upon the details, and to provide a story that is far more complicated than can be easily put together in an hour. Law & Order has a harder time, as they only have half the time to find the criminal - the other half is spent on the legal side, which is similarly interesting, but not as fulfilling.

I think this is why Castle proved to be a good hour of entertainment - it combines parts of both worlds, at least superficially. In the pilot for the show, Castle is driven by the idea that there is a story behind the crime, that there are reasons for motivations, and that pushes him to further question the evidence and motives behind everyone involved. Doubtlessly, this will continue as the show progresses, with each episode being a fairly self-contained mystery like any television show. To further make things interesting, a couple of notable authors, James Patterson and Stephen Cannell, make an appearance, which shows that the writers at least recognize the literary element of the genre, if only by scanning the best sellers.

The show is further aided by Nathan Fillion's character, Rick Castle, who is both witty and intelligent, but very arrogant and self-centered. As Becket described him, he is a nine year old on a sugar rush, totally incapable of taking anything seriously. Fillion brings an enormous amount of wit and charm to his character, and I was laughing through the entire episode, something that I haven't done in a while, as the drama department of television has been largely filled with cynics and far more serious and depressing characters. Castle is a fun hour long ride, and while it's certainly nothing groundbreaking, it is a breath of fresh air. In any case, I don't know that I've seen a procedural/mystery show that has really acknowledged the literary component of the genre, and it makes for a fun mix.

I hope that there will be more references to the literary world, here, because the genre does deserve that. The inclusion of Patterson and Cannell make me wonder if this will be a regular feature - maybe they will include Archer Mayor in at some point. How cool would that be?