One of my favorite television series of the last decade or so was Castle, the Nathan Fillion vehicle about a bestselling author who starts going on ride-alongs with the 12th Precinct of the New York City Police Department. Along the way, Castle, along with Detectives Beckett, Esposito, and Ryan, solves some of the most elaborate and twisty murders in television history. In the show, Castle uses these experiences to write a series of mystery thriller novels. The character of Detective Kate Beckett becomes the inspiration for Nikki Heat in his books.
So imagine my absolute joy when, several years ago, I realized these same books Richard Castle wrote and published actually existed! And that they were in my local bookstore. These were the same books with the same covers and the same characters they talked about on the show. Talk about meta!
What’s more? They were good. Really good. Like “I can’t decide whether the books or the TV show is better” kind of good. I loved them. Devoured them. And now they have a special place on my bookshelf.
But for the longest time, no one had any idea who the real Richard Castle was. His identity was shrouded in just as much mystery as the crimes the books sought to solve. Until a couple of years ago. His name was finally revealed and it was…Tom Straw.
Tom Straw who had a lengthy and successful career as a writer for several well-loved TV classics such as Night Court, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (a personal favorite of mine!), Dave’s World, Grace Under Fire, etc. In 2007, he set out to write his first mystery novel, The Trigger Episode, and the rest was history.
Thankfully, I recently made Tom’s acquaintance and he’s such a nice, down to earth guy that he agreed to let me ask him a few questions about his writing, mysteries, his future, and everything in between. Here’s what he had to say:
1. So, you’re kind of an unsung hero to many mystery lovers out there…mystery lovers who might not be aware of your secret identity. But for seven glorious books, you were the REAL Richard Castle and brought the same books mentioned in the TV series to life and onto bookshelves everywhere. I’ve always been curious (I’m sure you’re asked this question all the time), but how did that job come about? What was it like writing those books? Was there collaboration with you and the writers of the TV show?
After my first mystery novel, The Trigger Episode, was published the house got sold and my editor moved on to Hyperion, which was owned by ABC/Disney. He took me to lunch one day and said there was a new show coming on called Castle. It was about a famous mystery author on a research ride-along with an NYPD detective, Kate Beckett, and ABC wanted to do a companion book as if written by the fictitious lead, Richard Castle. Would I be interested in ghosting it? The thing is, it was supposed to be a one-off novelty. But Heat Wave went to #6 on the New York Times, and that led, eventually, to seven Nikki Heat novels, all NYT bestsellers.
It was a joy writing them. Each and every one. First, I loved the series. And even though the books were inspired by Richard Castle’s experiences, they weren’t novelizations of the TV plots. So that freed me to exploit the foundation of a terrific series with characters and relationships that spoke to me and made my writing a blast. I also had this amazing relationship with the series creator and executive producer, Andrew W. Marlowe. We hit it off from our very first meeting, spoke the same language, and shared the same sensibilities. That did two things: Made for awesome creative synergy—and formed a friendship that has lasted now years after the show has wrapped. Andrew and Terri Edda Miller now have a new series, Take Two, that I have faith will be another big hit.
In our collaboration process I would come to Andrew and pitch several notions for my mystery plot, and we would always find one to agree to go with. Sometimes, though, he would suggest combining two of my notions or would have a big idea to govern the story (usually a genius-level gift) and I would go off to write. Three months later I would submit my manuscript, he (and my editor at Hyperion) would weigh in with editorial notes, I would revise, and then we’d publish. The beauty of the relationship was that nobody was breathing down my neck, but I always had support and nurturing, and smart, honest fixes when I went astray. You value the perspective of someone who says, “Um, I knew whodunit on page seventy, that may be an issue.” PS: That only happened once, but thank God for the heads-up.
2. Before the Castle books, you had written your first mystery novel, The Trigger Episode. Can you tell us a little about that book and its characters?
I think I was a good fit for Castle because The Trigger Episode had many of the same elements: High-stakes mystery blended with a romantically-tense relationship. And, importantly, my lead characters were not far off Nikki Heat and Jameson Rook (Kate Beckett and Richard Castle). Totally different careers and lives (he was a war photojournalist now a paparazzo, she was a respected TV journalist and old flame) but the dynamic and personalities were very close. It made me extremely comfortable writing those Castles and, I imagine, assuaged Andrew going in that I had come close to the tone of his show in book form.
3. Since your time with Castle was up, you’ve been hard at work with another mystery novel under your own name called Buzz Killer (I’m currently reading it now and so far, it’s great!). It has an interesting premise, but one that only people from New York and similar cities might understand on a personal level (buzzing people in). Care to tell us a little about Buzz Killer and its inspirations?
Even though I had decided to move on from Castle, I wanted to continue writing those romantically complicated mysteries but in a slightly different setting. And to be frank, I wanted fans of Castle to feel like, “Hey, this feels like what I liked reading in those first seven Nikki Heats.” So I took my justice quest outside the yellow police tape. I made Macie Wild a New York City public defender paired with Gunnar Cody, a loose cannon defrocked NYPD surveillance detective who is helping her on her tricky homicide case.
I still had the romantic tension and all the colorful and big, scary New York crime characters I had written as Richard Castle, but in Buzz Killer (available on Amazon.com), I found new energy by having my heroes not just fighting the bad guys but also a justice system that is inherently stacked against the defense. And, avoiding a spoiler here as best I can, my plot somehow predicted a lot of what ended up happening with Russia in today’s news. Including the poisoning that took place just last week! My agent and colleagues wonder if I have a crystal ball.
4. Last week, I wrote a post about how confusing the mystery genre is and how publishers and book sellers no longer seem to distinguish true whodunit mysteries from crime thrillers and the like. From what I’ve read, you seem to definitely embrace what I consider ‘mystery’. Do you have any insights into what would classify a mystery from a crime thriller?
I have always subscribed to the notion that a mystery is about finding out something and a thriller is about stopping it before it happens. I believe a lot in stakes, so In my Castle novels and most definitely in Buzz Killer, I went for a hybrid of the two to keep the tension high right up to the end.
5. Who are some of your favorite mystery writers? What about these authors’ works draws you to them?
It’s a perilous question, because I fear leaving someone out. So let me say, here’s a partial list of my mystery titans: Lawrence Block, Ross MacDonald, James Lee Burke, Alafair Burke, JK Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith), Walter Mosly, Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell, Elmore Leonard, Lyndsay Faye, Megan Abbott, Richard Price, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, John le Carré, Robert B. Parker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ruth Rendel, PD James, Stieg Larsson, Caleb Carr, SJ Rozan, Viet Nguyen, Philip Kerr, and—since he joined the demolition derby with Mr. Mercedes—the great Stephen King.
As for what draws me to their works… Ingenious plots, inspiring style, and surprises, of course, but it’s really all about character. No character, no stakes. These authors (and those I will kill myself for leaving off the list) excel at creating memorable characters that Make. You. Care.
6. Looking at your website, I discovered a couple of things that made me even more excited to get to know you than just your involvement in Castle. You were also a writer and producer for two of my all-time favorite TV shows growing up: Night Court (FACT: funniest show in the history of TV) and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (Seriously! PLCL was AMAZINGLY good and I can’t understand why it never caught on. I’m still bummed over its cancellation). You wrote and produced other sitcoms as well, but those two are my favorites. I’m curious about the transition from TV comedy writing and turning to mysteries. Was it a conscious choice or did it just sort of happen? Did you always have an interest in mysteries?
Yeah, I still write and produce a lot of TV comedies. I’m cursed with a sense of humor. But all my life I have been drawn to drama, and mystery in particular. I grew up on the classic TV comedies, but I was also glued to the dramas. Combat, The Fugitive, Route 66, 77 Sunset Strip, Mannix, Banacek, Columbo… and later, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice… And that’s not counting the great British TV mysteries like Inspector Morse and Prime Suspect and now, of course, the magnificent Sherlock. Anyway, whenever I was free to read anything that didn’t have three holes punched in the margin, I went for mystery novels (see above). So let’s just say I never saw myself as a one-trick pony, and when I stopped dreaming of writing a mystery and said, “Tom, do the scary thing and make the leap,” out came The Trigger Episode.
7. What are your plans for the future? Any books coming out we should look for soon?
Buzz Killer has done so well and been so extremely well reviewed that I am naturally continuing the story of Macie Wild and Gunnar Cody in a sequel. But I am currently at work on a period mystery that I don’t want to over-talk. Let’s just say it resonates very strongly with today—this minute—even though it’s based on actual historical events. Sorry. That’s all you’ll get out of me.
8. If you could only offer just one piece of advice to fledgling writers out there, what would it be?
It wouldn’t be about craft. It would be to live a full life. And pay attention. The rest is up to you.
Thank you Tom, for taking the time out of your schedule to answer these questions. I’m definitely looking forward to more Macie Wild and Gunmar Cody stories…and whatever else you have cooking in that head of yours.