Being a huge Nathan Fillion fan, I checked out Castle when it first came on the air many seasons ago. Despite being yet another procedural show about yet another NYPD homicide department, having a writer in the mix changed up the game enough to keep my interest and unlike other cop shows with specialists, what Richard Castle and the guest spots have to say about writing is fairly authentic. (You wanna see a physical anthropologist’s head explode, ask them about Temperance Brennan of Bones.)
Some executive had the brains to green light one of the best media tie-ins you could do with a show about a writer. ABC Entertainment has actually published books bearing the pseudonym Richard Castle which has so far included several novels, three ebooks, and even the comic books referenced in the show. Media tie-ins often get the rap of being glorified fanfiction, but anyone who spends rampant amounts of time delving into fandoms will wind up telling you that fanfiction’s got a place in the world. That’s a topic of conversation for another day, but the point is that even if they are, some media tie-ins are definitely worth the time. The fantastic part about Richard Castle’s books is that they actually stand alone from the show. While knowing Castle will get you insight into where certain lines or situations come from, the characters of the books only bear a resemblance to those on the show and come with their own histories and personalities. You don’t need to know Castle in order to understand what’s happening and that’s one of the great aspects of the books.
Recently, I finished reading Storm Front, a Derrick Storm novel available, and rereading Naked Heat along with listening to an audiobook format of Heat Rises, both of which are Nikki Heat novels.
Both series of books are murder mysteries. However, Storm Front sees Derek Storm coming back as a private investigator turned CIA operative while Nikki Heat remains a NYPD homicide detective in her books so far (I have yet to get to Frozen Heat). They share quite a few characteristics–both characters are driven, resourceful, and intelligent, but Heat’s got a leg up on Storm. Storm’s attitude, mannerisms, and behavior come off as a blunt caricature of the man’s man best-spy-there-is-besides-007. In Storm Front, he’s impersonal with everyone but the Chinese Agent Ling Xi Bang. While the ghost writer attempts to make Storm more likable–looks, he’s fallen in love with a beautiful woman inside of two seconds, hey also look he cares about these orphans–Storm comes off entirely flat. Storm never changes as a person. He is as he was at the beginning of the book and despite his actions, he winds up barely scratched himself. Even the great budding ‘romance’ he had with Ling Xi Bang getting cut off abruptly by her death does nothing to sway his overall attitudes.
On the other hand, Nikki Heat is an individual. The ghost writer(s) for her, especially in Naked Heat and Heat Rises, has shown that Nikki is a full person. She’s smart, she’s independent, she’s a quick-thinker, but she’s angry, outraged, and frightened at times too. At points she runs into an aspect in her personal life that reminds her what she’s doing wrong in a case, or she’ll chastise herself for the kind of thoughts that everyone gets from time to time. Nikki Heat is never a machine running from one plot point to the next. Every moment of Nikki’s has a clear motivation and emotional connection, whether it’s approval and support as she delegates tasks to her squad or anger and wanting to forgive when Rook finally has a chance to explain where he’s been. Nikki is human first and a cop second, and that makes all the difference in the text.
These two sleuths share another same character background piece: both of them have the dead woman trope in their stories. You know the trope well, a woman must die so the plot can advance and/or the hero has motivation to fight the good fight. Once again, the handling’s done completely different between Storm Front and the Heat series. As mentioned, Derrick entangles himself with the mysterious foreign agent Ling Xi Bang (which the book says to pronounce ‘she bang’) and from the moment he’s laid eyes on her, he wants her. And of course he gets her, despite him working for the CIA and her working for the Chinese government, they hook up, because who can resist Derrick Storm, right? (This isn’t just my ranting, it’s hinted at in the book with some of the other men’s attitudes towards Derrick having no trouble picking up women). To top off the incredulous hook-up, and Derrick’s massive passionate feelings that have blossomed overnight, the bad guy Valkov takes out Xi Bang during a shootout that’s not even on the page. Derrick comes up after the violence is done to see that she won’t survive her injuries–one of which is the classic gut wound, of course. While she’s painted as a somewhat novice in her field, there’s no real reason why Xi Bang had to die in that scene, except to take her out of the picture for Derrick’s other love, Clara Strike (who, btw, had apparently faked her death at one point and left Derrick to mourn her for a while. Also, Derrick’s mother passed away when he was young. I’m all for the rule of three’s in writing when it makes sense, but this one’s ridiculous.) You can’t even argue that Xi Bang’s death was motivation for Storm hunting down Valkov (he was already determined because of their past), or that her death caused him to learn a valuable lesson about rushing in (he chases down a plane and climbs onto the freaking landing gear.) Her death, basically, was only to try and keep a not-even-flagging sense of danger going.
On the other hand, we see the same dead woman trope in Nikki’s background, but the treatment’s different. It’s mentioned a few times in Heat Rises and Naked Heat that her mother was a murder victim. The murder of a loved one carried a strong emotional punch in Nikki’s life and drove her to become a cop–but that’s not where the treatment of the trope ends. Nikki’s past motivates not only her life’s goals, but also her attitudes and behaviors. She does everything in her power to ensure that respect is given to the victim and to the families of her cases–including reminders to her squad and even visiting detectives that they need to have that respect too. When her mother’s death is talked about, the pain is an old emotional scar that still affects her psyche, so instead of falling into the chasm of cliche, the ghost writer(s) used the trope to make Nikki more of a human being by instilling emotions and behavior alongside the motivation.
In the end, Nikki Heat is far more believable and convincing a hero than Derrick Storm of Storm Front. She’s human and he’s an obnoxious stereotype. If you’ve only got so much time for novels, put Heat on your list first, especially if you’re looking for a well-rounded lead character and/or to be welcomed into a world-setting that’s vibrant and enjoyable.