Television Critic

The detective tale is like yellow cake -- at some level everyone likes it, and with a little imagination you can do pretty much anything with it.

Which is why the mystery section of almost every bookstore is among its largest and why television is inevitably chockablock with detective skeins of one form or another. Lately, we’ve been tipping toward Nick and Nora-meet-Sherlock Holmes. On shows including “The Mentalist,” “Bones,” “Lie to Me,” “Eleventh Hour,” “Life” and even “Fringe” you have the sleuth with something extra (He used to be a fake psychic! She’s a forensic archaeologist! He’s a cop who went to jail!) teamed up with a more standard-issue model, usually, though not always, of the opposite sex (on “Numb3rs,” the cop and the math whiz are brothers).

Onto this crowded playing field comes Castle, an ABC murder mystery series that is both of the genre and about the genre. Meet Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion), a bestselling mystery writer-playboy who has just killed off his lucrative detective because he was bored. But not for long! When real crime scenes begin resembling the murders in some of Castle’s books, the firm-jawed yet lovely NYPD detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) comes to call.

For some reason she doesn’t bother to suspect Castle, she just wants his help, though not nearly as much help as he wants to give her. His years as a mystery writer have given him many insights into the criminal mind -- and if he runs out, he can turn to his poker buddies, real-life mystery writers James Patterson and Stephen Cannell.

More important, of course, is his burgeoning relationship with Beckett. Turns out she’s sense to his sensibility, flint to his tinder, and when they solve the crime it’s no big surprise that he manages to pull a few strings so he can shadow her as research for his next blockbuster character -- a tough but gorgeous female detective.

Having a mystery writer solve mysteries is nothing new -- Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) and Ellery Queen did it for years (a moment of silence, please, for the late great Jim Hutton, whose wingtips can never be filled). Nor is the sparks-a-flyin’ mismatch, which is as ubiquitous as chocolate frosting. But new and fancy don’t always mean better, and at the end of the day who’s going to say no to a nice piece of cake?

Written by Andrew Marlowe (“Air Force One”), “Castle” has more than a few high-quality ingredients. Fillion, well-known to Joss Whedon fans from “Firefly,” has long been in search of a show that would showcase his talents (“Drive” wasn’t it). Here he is just as charming, handsome and banter-friendly as the role requires, with the added benefit of being a bit more baritone and less, well, vest-wearing than some of his current competition.

Castle may have his demons, but he also has an actual, if over-rich, home life. He’s single father to a refreshingly smart but non-precocious teenage daughter (Molly Quinn) and lives with his former-actress mother, who could be unbearably annoying except she’s played by Susan Sullivan, may her “Falcon Crest” mojo never falter.

Katic was last seen in a surprisingly good turn as a vampire in the most recent “Librarian” TV film, and her Beckett is an attractively streamlined version of a familiar character. Yes, she is buttoned down and irritated by Castle’s presence as required, but she, and Marlowe, have decided to go with self-possessed coolness over arch put-downs and sarcasm, and God bless them for that.

The problem is that in the pilot and an early episode, the crimes are nowhere as compelling as the characters. For a show like “Castle” that dares to launch a more classic version into an already saturated and tarted-up market, the murders have to be as complicated and compelling as the push-me-pull-you glances between the main characters, and so far, they just aren’t.