Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Writer on TV

Next week a new season of network TV begins. I admit to an addiction to a few good shows: Chuck, Bones, and Castle.

I grew up watching a slew of great mystery/spy shows--Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen (photo), both the Man and Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (why was he a "man" and she a "girl"?), Get Smart, The Avengers, MacMillan & Wife, Burke's Law, Ironsides, The Rockford Files, and later on, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, Magnum P.I., The Scarecrow & Mrs. King, and Cagney & Lacey.

What did they have in common? A good story, a little (or a lot of) humor, characters, directors and writers who didn't take themselves too seriously, who knew how to play. How to be creative.

But today's blog isn't about those old shows. It's about how mystery writers are portrayed on TV.

In Castle's opening, we always hear how writing pays better than crime. I'm always tempted to hit "mute" on that part. The writer lives in an apartment or condo bigger than most houses, presumably in Manhattan, since he never seems to be late because of being stuck in a tunnel or on a bridge. In Manhattan, living space that size probably doesn't exist, but if it does, you'd run through a cool million each quarter renting it. Even that I can overlook--maybe Castle inherited his bucks from his family--but what's most unbelievable is his lack of books. The writers I know (self included) have books lying around everywhere. Boxes of your own books for promos, stacks of novels other author gave you, stacks of freebies brought home from conventions, stacks of research books, and stacks you actually want to read for pleasure. The realistic thing about him is that he hangs out with other authors. He plays poker while he talks shop. My writer friends and I eat.

Jessica Fletcher and Ellery Queen are probably most like writers I know. Their wardrobes were (for the most part) modest. I don't remember much of the Queen household, but Jessica's digs were small and cozy. But I don't remember stacks of books with either of them, or piles of research materials, or even a handy dictionary or thesaurus next to their typewriters. I do recall Jessica standing in front of a bookshelf for one of her author photos, but the books behind her? No modern mysteries, no torn, sensational jackets, no paperbacks, not even a tome on forensics or bullet calibers or undetectable poisons.

Most true-to-life about all TV mystery writers is how they avoid writing. Of course, they do it by solving murders--the rest of us avoid writing by, say, cleaning out the garage. But the sentiment is the same. Said best, perhaps, on one Castle episode where he answers the phone with something like "Please tell me there's been a murder or I'll have to write."

Happy viewing,

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