Finding "Naked Heat" by Richard Castle simmering on the bestseller list wouldn't be unusual — it's the second in a mystery series, with a sexy cover and a blurb from author Michael Connelly — but for one thing: There is no Richard Castle. He's a fictional character.
Castle is real enough to those who watch ABC Monday nights at 10 p.m., when the television show "Castle" airs. Show creator and executive producer Andrew Marlowe describes Castle, played by cult heartthrob Nathan Fillion, as "a ruggedly handsome New York-based novelist who lives with his mother and daughter." In the fictional universe Marlowe created, Castle is a bestselling author — but it took a special combination of factors for him to become one in real life. "I didn't expect it," Marlowe says, "but I was utterly delighted."
Publisher Hyperion, which had success with similar projects connected to sister company ABC's soaps "One Life to Live" and " All My Children," decided to bypass a traditional TV tie-in and instead go with a Richard Castle-authored book after seeing the greenlit pilot. Castle's name alone appears on the books, without any nod to a real-life scribe. "The main character's a writer! How perfect is that?" says Gretchen Young, an executive editor at Hyperion and its editorial director for ABC Synergy.
Yet publishing production schedules are much longer than episodic television's, and less susceptible to cancellation. "It was a risk," Young admits. "By the time we could get it written, would the show still be around?"
After a shaky start in 2009, "Castle" has found strong footing. Now in its third season, it's pulled in its biggest numbers in recent weeks. The show is part police procedural, mostly flirtatious twosome, following wisecracking Castle as he trails New York police detective Kate Beckett for material for his books.
Hyperion worked to get the first book, "Heat Wave," in front of viewers as early as possible, posting early chapters online even as others were being written. "It was very, very quick," Young says. "Richard, being that deadline-oriented writer, kept handing in chapters."
Although Young knows very well that Castle doesn't exist, the idea of the grander fiction is too good to pass up. The show plays with fiction and reality: On it, Castle has talked about his upcoming publication commitments with his agent (yes, Hyperion will be publishing two more) and played poker with real-life mystery writers James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell, who died in late September.
In an upcoming episode, "Heat Wave" — a novel written by a fictional television character — has been optioned by Hollywood. "It gets very meta in the show," Marlowe admits, laughing.
And in person. As part of Hyperion's release last year of "Heat Wave," Fillion appeared as Castle at two Southern California bookstores. The actor — who secured a cult following with roles in Joss Whedon's "Firefly" and as the overly good nemesis in "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" — drew more than 300 fans to Barnes & Noble at the Grove in Los Angeles. There, surrounded by posters bearing the author photo that's on the back of the Richard Castle novels, he signed autographs, posed for photographs and juggled his dual Castle/Fillion identities for fans.
Fillion was not available for this story, but Castle was. "Sometimes a week or two will go by without an interesting murder for me to tag along on," he said via e-mail. "And often times when I am on a case, there's all this boring background work that detectives need to do, all the stuff I cut out of my books … canvassing neighborhoods, going through paperwork. While they're going through paperwork, I'm generating paperwork."
That paperwork — Castle's mystery series — isn't simply a straightforward rendering of what happens on screen. In the books, the handsome writer Jameson Rook (get it: Castle/Rook) follows and flirts with detective Nikki Heat. People who see the show will recognize the characters and catch in-jokes, as Castle (who isn't real) toys with his reality (a fiction that fans watch on TV) through his alter ego Rook (a double-fictional identity).
If all that meta seems a bit confusing, don't worry. The books are still just sexy mysteries.
"If you happen to be the kind of person who devours that kind of eminently disposable, airport-friendly potboiler, the kind of person who reads 30 of them a year on your commute — why wouldn't you pick a Castle book up, even on a lark?" says Marc Bernardin, a longtime entertainment journalist who covered television for Entertainment Weekly. "The dirty secret of what makes them work," Bernardin continues, "is that they are perfectly, wonderfully shoddy confections."
And the economics of publishing and television are such that if a small portion of those who regularly watch the show are intrigued enough to pick up the books, they can score what Bernardin calls "a moderate hit." Castle has done even better, finding a place on bestseller lists.
Others like him are fast coming up behind. "Sterling's Gold," written by "Mad Men" character Roger Sterling and featured in Season 4, hit shelves Nov. 16. Publisher Grove's "reissue" of the book is wrapped by a banner featuring a photo of actor John Slattery — err, Roger Sterling.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times