Saturday, September 8, 2012

Naked Heat

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Naked Heat (Hyperion, 2010).

There are two people who play the role of the fictional novelist Richard Castle. The better-known of the two is Nathan Fillion, who stars as the character on ABC's TV series Castle. He is depicted as a very wealthy and successful writer of mystery thrillers, along the same lines as James Patterson and the late Steven J. Cannell, who appeared two or three times as Castle's poker buddies. The premise of the show is that Mr. Castle, having concluded a series of books about a tough he-man hero, is looking for new inspiration and ideas and finds them in the shapely form of NYPD detective Kate Beckett, around whom he crafts a new series of books about a no-nonsense supercop called Nikki Heat. These, too, become very successful and he sells the film rights. This metafiction gets very, very fun. In one episode, guest star Laura Prepon played an actress named Natalie Rhodes who, cast as the film version of Nikki Heat, comes to New York to see how Kate Beckett works. Got that?

The studio and the network saw a good marketing opportunity and decided to sell actual Nikki Heat books, as they would appear in the fictional world of Castle, and that's where the other guy who plays Richard Castle comes into the picture, because somebody's actually got to write these books. The smart money's on the anonymous author being a gentleman named Tom Straw, thanks to some good detective work by readers and a cute little hidden credit in Castle's fake biography. Surprisingly, Straw's only writing credits for television have been situation comedies and variety shows for the last thirty years. This late-career shift into writing thrillers that have a publicity photo of Fillion on the back cover is a pretty interesting development. Since Straw's not really able to acknowledge that he's the author of the books, it will probably be some time before we learn how he got the job.

Assuming, wrongly, that these novels - a fourth is due this month - were somewhere near the lowest rung, I was not interested in sampling them. I'm not unfamiliar with the thriller genre, although I'm presently reading all of Robert B. Parker, watching as his detective fiction novels of the 1970s slowly transitioned into uncomplicated trillers and honestly think that he made a mistake letting that happen. Still, when I stumbled across the second of the books, Naked Heat, I was willing to give it a try and found myself pleasantly surprised. This is actually a perfectly entertaining mystery with a high body count. It starts with one bizarre murder which Nikki Heat is investigating when the call comes in that one of New York's most notorious gossip columnists has been found dead. The list of suspects proves to be incredibly long, leaving Detective Heat, and her associate, hard-boiled journalist Jameson Rook, trying to untangle a very complex story that spirals from major league baseball stars to limousine drivers to pop stars.

It's clear that Straw had a great challenge in telling a very intricate story in a really simple and straightforward way, to the point that he (or some editor) underlines his allusions and metaphors quite crassly. For example, I'd have been perfectly capable of seeing a character as a stand-in for Heath Ledger without the text making it clear. It's always a case of knowing your audience, and the reality is that the audience for this book might not read very many other books. Nevertheless, it feels like he had great fun with it, and both the plot and character interactions are engaging despite the simplicity of the text.

While basic, it is very effective entertainment, and it shows off that Straw really knows what he's doing. Richard Castle, despite his accolades, is more of an ideas man than a master. He can't resist giving his fictional avatar, Rook (get it?), the sexual liaison with Heat that he can't manage (as of 2010's episodes) with Beckett. Even more so than the entertaining story, I'm impressed by the way Straw correctly identified what drives an arrested adolescent like Richard Castle, and created a work that genuinely feels exactly like what I'd expect the character to produce. I can't claim to have any great enthusiasm for it, but it was a truly fun diversion.

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