Sunday, 17 December 2017 18:56

A celebration of one of mysterydom’s favorite writers.

Bill Crider is a man with three cats, many books, even more friends, and few regrets.

The widely published 76-year-old author informed his blog followers recently that he had been given a few months—or even weeks—to live. Prostate cancer had spread. Facing a finite number of days, at home in hospice care and surrounded by his books and his family—daughter Angela and son Allen—Crider was too ill to get out for his weekly Sunday School class. Characteristically, the prolific writer was still thinking about books, fellow writers, and readers.

“My only regret is that I have several unreviewed books, including Lawrence Block's fine new anthology, Alive in Shape and Color, and Max Allan Collins' latest collaboration with Mickey Spillane, The Last Stand, which is a collection of two novellas, ‘A Bullet for Satisfaction,’ an early Spillane manuscript with an interesting history, and ‘The Last Stand,’ the last thing that Spillane completed,” he wrote in his blog.

For many years, Crider also reviewed short stories for Mystery Scene magazine. “Bill is so knowledgeable about the genre and so witty in his appraisals. We were very lucky to have him as a contributor. He has many friends at the magazine,” said Mystery Scene editor Kate Stine.

Characteristically generous with his reviews and fellowship, Crider has high praise for fellow members of organizations like the Mystery Writers of America, and the smaller Western Fictioneers.

“There are so many novelists who inspired me the list would take all day ... there are literary novels I have loved, mystery, adventure, science fiction—there’s an endless list,” he said in a December 6 interview. “I’m dazzled by all of them.”

Young Billy Crider had no inkling that he would grow up to be an author. His Mexia, Texas boyhood dream (and that of many of his peers) was to to find gold on the diamond as a major league ball player.

“I turned out to be half blind, totally uncoordinated, skinny and slow—none of which are highly sought qualities in a baseball player,” Crider recalled with a smile. Instead he got an undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin, and then a master’s at the University of North Texas, and a PhD from UT-Austin. All the degrees were in English. (“There’s a pattern there,” he admits with his trademark dry wit.)

Crider taught first at Corsicana High School while his wife Judy finished her college, then at Howard Payne University and finally, 19 years at Alvin Community College, where he was chair of the English department and chair of arts and humanities.

Doing poetry in a writers’ group at Howard Payne, the idea of fiction came up.

“A man at the group didn’t write, but he told me that he thought that he thought he and I could write a novel. He wanted us to write a Nick Carter spy novel,” he recalled. That collaboration, The Coyote Connection, was the first novel he sold. He started his first Sheriff Dan Rhodes novel, with an eye to making it a short story. “It got to be over 50 pages, and I thought, ‘That’s not short!’” Crider recalled.

Editor Ruth Cavin from Walker Books came to an MWA meeting in Houston, asked to see it, and published Too Late to Die in 1986. It won an Anthony Award for Best First Novel.

A string of successes—many of them collaborations—followed. Between those written in his name, a pen name, and house names he really has no firm numbers. More than 100, probably. That kind of literary longevity simply comes from doing what works and long repetition, Crider said. His advice for would-be writers?

“The only advice I know is the same old advice: read, read, read, write, write, write,” he said.


Still mourning his wife Judy after her death from cancer in 2014, Crider found himself writing another chapter, in the form of an unexpected find in a drainage ditch across from his house. Returning to his Alvin, Texas home after a jog in 2016, he saw a tiny kitten wrapped in a dirty old towel. He picked the gray-striped tabby up and brought her in. “What else could I do? Besides, everybody needs a cat. We were quite happy together,” he said.

And then, a plot twist.

“The next day I looked out the window and there were two more cats,” he remembered.

“I hoped they were squirrels, is what I hoped.” Chagrined but not daunted, Crider was worried about what would happen if he didn’t take them all in. So from three superfluous kittens, a new family sprang up with Bill Crider as the pater familias. He dubbed them Keanu, Gilligan, and Li’l Ginger Tom.

Frustrating as only kittens can be, the tiny trio were hard to wrangle. “They were all over everything and into everything, running around and tearing things up,” Crider remembered. Collectively, they were the Very Bad Kitties, or VBKs, for short.

The biggest surprise, however, was how the furry trio dominated Crider’s Facebook page. They soon eclipsed his other posts from Today’s Vintage Ad, PaperBack, and Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine.

“I put up pictures of things and I’d get six or seven likes, or maybe 20 likes. I put up the first picture of the VBKs, and had something like 1,500 likes the first day,” he recalled.

People adored the three photogenic, naughty-but-nice orphans. Draped over his knees. Synchronized lounging on cat platforms. Poised in boxes. Napping on window sills. (Napping everywhere.) Posters would make up captions, and guess at what the kitties were “saying” as Crider snapped their candid shots.

“You can certainly follow the growth of those cats—I should have given them their own Facebook page,” he said. Around the one year mark, the mature cats grew up and settled down. Although they didn’t fit conveniently in his lap any more, the photo ops continued. Crider said he’s had a few folks say the VBKs inspired them to adopt a cat. The more of that the better, he said.

“I’m a cat fan, and if a cat’s an orphan and he needs adopted, I say go ahead. I grew up with dogs, and I would recommend that, too. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cat or dog or a wombat—pets are just wonderful companions,” he said.

“It’s definitely changed my life.”

With her father’s illness, daughter Angela Crider Neary has undertaken securing a future for the VBKs. She credits the three felines for helping her dad find new meaning after her mother died in 2014. “I think he probably never would have gotten over that. They’ve helped him and kept him company. I think it was a good thing. A lot of people say my mom sent them to him. She would have loved them, herself,” she said. “He’s very lucky to have had them, and they’re very lucky to have had him.”


The apple hasn’t fallen far from the literary tree. Neary said her father’s pride in her writing was never more visible than when the attorney and author sold a story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which numbers her father among its distinguished contributors.

There’s been an outpouring of appreciation for Crider since word of his grim prognosis spread, Neary said. “Everybody hates to lose him, especially me. It’s nice to see how much respect and admiration there is for him out there,” she said.

Among Crider’s many long-time industry friends, novelist and screenwriter Lee Goldberg said Crider is one of the most knowledgeable writers he knows.

“He informs his opinions with so much knowledge and actual experience, he’s really unique. The man has written western novels, crime novels, horror—that’s not easy. For all I know, he’s written science fiction and romance.”

The two worked together on several projects. He loved Crider’s Outrage at Blanco and Texas Vigilante, and a Lee Goldberg screen adaptation came close to full funding before an investor fell out. He’d still like to see it made into a film. When Goldberg launched Brash Books, Crider was one of his first calls for recommendations

“Eighty percent of our titles are re-releases of great novels fallen out of print. Who better to advise me than Bill Crider?

“He has schooled me in mystery fiction and Western fiction for quite some time.”

On the way to Bouchercon in New Orleans in 2016, Goldberg decided to drop in and see his old friend at his home near Houston. “It’s more of a balance between a home and a book depository,” Goldberg said. “You feel his love of books right away.”

And then there’s Crider’s universal likability.

“I would call it a ‘mission impossible’ to find anyone to say a harsh word about Bill Crider. Even somebody who disagrees with him will begin by saying they love and admire him,” Goldberg said.

The courage with which Bill Crider supported his wife through her battle with cancer—and with which he faces his own approaching death—exemplifies grace under the severest of all pressures, his long-time friend said.

“He is giving us a great lesson,” Goldberg said.

As he closes life’s book, Bill Crider’s regrets are very few, mostly literary in nature.

“It saddens me to think of all the great books by many writers that I'll never read. But I've had a great life, and my readers have been a big part of it. Much love to you all,” he blogged.

Asked for parting wisdom, he shared life advice he seems to have lived by.

“Take it as it comes,” he said. “Take it as it comes.”

Reviews of Bill Crider's Books

Jacqueline Carmichael is an American-Canadian writer based on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

Bill Crider
Jacqueline Carmichael

Bill Crider is a man with three cats, many books, even more friends, and few regrets. The author told blog followers recently that he has a few months – or even weeks – to live.

Sunday, 10 December 2017 10:52

I’ve been binging a lot lately on British mystery series that are just now being made available to U.S. audiences.

These series are distributed by Acorn with DVD and Blu-ray sets available from select retailers and catalogs, and direct from Acorn at (888) 870-8047 or Each offering has extra features, interviews, etc.

Here’s a few that I highly recommend. And, with the holidays coming up, these make great presents.

THE FALL: The Fall is without a doubt one of the best psychological thrillers around. The plots are intense and the characterizations delve deep into the myriad motives of the characters.

Set in Belfast, The Fall revolves around Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson (yes, of X-Files fame), and serial killer Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan (yep, that Fifty Shades of Grey guy).

Gibson knows that Spector is a serial killer, but has not been able to bring him to justice. Plus, who would believe that a serial killer could be a grief counselor and family man as Spector is. Gibson has been accumulating evidence against Spector, but is thwarted by her superiors and his defense team, who accuse her of an inappropriate relationship with him.

MIDSOMER MURDERS, JOHN BARNABY’S FIRST CASES: Who doesn’t love the highly entertaining Midsomer Murders? This collection offers all you need to know about the cozy villages of Midsomer County, and includes Series 14, the first complete series starring Neil Dudgeon as DCI John Barnaby, and Series 15, the last season with Jason Hughes as DS Ben Jones.

Through the years, many guest stars have appeared in Midsomer Murders, including Samantha Bond (Downton Abbey), Edward Fox (Gandhi), James Callis (Battlestar Galactica), Sinéad Cusack (Marcella), Martine McCutcheon (Love Actually, EastEnders), Kate Ashfield (Shaun of the Dead), Kevin Doyle (Downton Abbey), and Harriet Walter (The Crown).

MARCELLA, Series 1: This new crime series follows Detective Sergeant Marcella Backland (Anna Friel), who leaves her job on the police force for her family, only to have her husband leave her. Returning to the murder squad of the London Metropolitan Police, she begins investigating one of her old cases—a serial murderer known as the Grove Park Killer seems to have resurfaced. Marcella finds it difficult to juggle her work and fragile state of mind because of her divorce.

GEORGE GENTLY: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION: This collection will be available December 12, just in time for the holidays. Based on the novels of Alan Hunter, George Gently captures the mid-1960s and the changing times. Tony nominee Martin Shaw stars as Inspector George Gently, an incorruptible cop transplanted from London to Northumberland. He’s assisted by Detective Inspector John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) and Detective Sergeant Rachel Coles (Lisa McGrillis), who help George navigate the ‘60s.

AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: Just forget about that new version out with Kenneth Branagh. While I prefer the 1974 version, this 2010 made-for-television movie is pretty good. That’s because David Suchet knows how Hercule Poirot should be played. The all-star cast include Toby Jones (Tru), Eileen Atkins (Doc Martin), Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), David Morrrissey (The Walking Dead), Jessica Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty), and Barbara Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters).

Gripping Dramas to Watch
Oline H. Cogdill
Sunday, 03 December 2017 11:56

Tom Straw may be the best-known unknown writer.

He’s had seven novels that went straight to the New York Times Best Seller list, with one landing in the No. 1 slot. The books were hugely popular and the character had an instant recognition for millions of people.

So you are probably thinking, Tom Straw, who?

Yep, Tom Straw.

Though you probably knew him as Richard Castle.

As in Richard Castle, the mystery writer character played by Nathan Fillion who ends up working with the NYPD to solve crimes—and get plot ideas—on the TV series Castle, which ran for eight season on ABC.

Under the name of Richard Castle, Straw wrote the first seven best-selling Nikki Heat novels: Heat Wave, Naked Heat, Heat Rises, Frozen Heat, Deadly Heat, Raging Heat, and Driving Heat.

The novels were a perfect tie-in to the series and further cemented the myth that Richard Castle was a real mystery writer.

The comedy-drama episodes often ended with Castle playing poker with real mystery writers such as Michael Connelly, James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, and Stephen J. Cannell, all of whom played themselves.

Becoming a bestselling mystery writer when no one really knows your name was a bit different, said Straw during an email interview.

“[It’s] a trip when it’s not your name. But by no means was that anonymity a negative for me,” said Straw.

“When I agreed to do the first book, I knew the deal and jumped at it without a regret. You see, I had already published my first mystery under my own name. It got nicely received but sold like most first books by unknown authors do.

“As Richard Castle I enjoyed the bestseller part because the writing itself was still my own. I had the best of both worlds: blockbuster sales plus work I was deeply proud of.”

While Castle was on the air and Straw was writing the novels, he couldn’t reveal that he was the real author. That led to some “some bizarre aspects to that secret life.”

Once while dining with his wife in a Boston restaurant, he overheard a man at the table behind explain “the Richard Castle dynamic” to his companion. “You don’t get it,” the man said. “See, he doesn’t really write the books, he’s an actor playing the role of the famous mystery writer. His name isn’t really Richard Castle.”

For Straw, “It was like that moment in Annie Hall when Marshall McLuhan materializes to set a moviegoer straight about Fellini. Did I dare spin in my chair and put things right for these two strangers? Almost. But I was afraid of messing with karma, and let it go. The very next day I was in a bookstore and wanted to buy a copy of Heat Wave for a friend. They were sold out.”

Then the sales clerk offered to order a copy and volunteered, “It’s a secret who writes these, you know.”

“I let it go with a “Huh, really...?” I don’t know if there are real ghosts, but I was understanding how the term ghostwriter was so apt. I could wander the earth, witness all these comments, and yet, as Tom Straw, be invisible,” he added.

In writing the Nikki Heart novels, Straw had to follow certain guidelines, to a point. Castle creator Andrew W. Marlowe set out a foundation of characters and the world they lived in.

“When I was approached to do a book, the common ground Andrew and I had was that the audience should get more than a novelization of a show they had already seen but should be able to enjoy the Castle vibe,” Straw said.

But Marlowe and he “wanted the book to be able to be a standalone for anyone who had never seen an episode of Castle.”

That allowed Straw to use his own creativity.

“The upshot of that was big. It freed me to create my own plot, which I pitched to Andrew at that first meeting, and he accepted. At the same time, [I could] poach some of the rich jewels he had mined in the series. Never the same plots or events. The fun was in the wink. I’d sneak tiny references into a minor character or a place Nikki Heat and Jameson Rook went that Kate Beckett [the NYPD homicide detective played by actress Stana Katic] had also visited with Castle. It was about taking the Castle TV reality and bending it 20 degrees. You even get it in naming Castle’s doppelgänger Rook.”

For research, Straw watched every episode of the series. “The essence of my Nikki Heat books, simply put: To have my stories be the TV character Richard Castle’s idealized version of his ride-along experiences from the show.”

When writing the novels, he would “channel Richard Castle’s heroic view of himself into a mystery that lets him win a bit more, lets him get the girl he didn’t (yet) get on the show, and perform some make-goods for his transgressions. I was more than Richard Castle’s ghost. Dammit, I was his spin doctor! And loved every moment.”

Novelizations of movies and television series are nothing new. But too often these novelizations were more gimmick than substance. But each Nikki Heat novel had a solid plot.

“If you want to know anything about me as writer, it’s that I take it very seriously. Writing, for me, is a calling. I love storytelling, have a blast doing it, and am honored to make a living at it. But I begin with respect for the reader. I believe if someone is going to invest in my book—then invest time in my book—it’s my duty to entertain, surprise, and make the experience satisfying,” Straw said.

Richard Castle’s books began as a promotional tie-in and were to be just an online access and then straight to mass-market paperback.

But Straw had other ideas.

“I don’t write for gimmicks, I write for readers. A gratifying call came from Gretchen Young, my editor at Hyperion, after I turned in the fifth chapter and she told me the publisher had decided Heat Wave was worthy of a hardback release. As Rick Castle would say, ‘Best. Call. Ever.’

“They put great promotion behind it and Andrew Marlowe ingeniously figured out means to weave the books into the show. The readers responded. Heat Wave made it to No. 6 on the New York Times. New ‘Best. Call. Ever.’ ”

In “channeling” Richard Castle, Straw met the actor behind the character.

“Nathan [Fillion] and I were only together on a handful of occasions but he was terrific. Not just a fun, nice guy, but quite respectful. The sort of person you are glad to see succeed. Ugly, but what are you gonna do?” Straw added, with a laugh.

The first time Straw met Fillion the actor was wearing a kilt. “Something you don’t forget. It was backstage when I was a writer on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson—Scottish, you know. Nathan was that night’s guest and had dressed for the host’s benefit. And amusement. Andrew Marlowe, the Castle creator, was there and introduced me to Nathan as the author who would be Castle.”

And those viewers who had a bit of a crush on Fillion—and who didn’t?—Straw says we would not be disappointed. Straw shares an incident when he was cast to celebrate on-camera during Richard Castle’s Heat Wave book-launch party episode.

“When a director shoots a scene, the cast rehearses once without filming, then they are dismissed to relax while their stand-ins take their places so lighting and cameras can be set. That usually takes an hour. Nathan and I and other cast did our bit. They called for the stand-ins. Instead of leaving, Nathan waved off his stand-in so that he and I could hang out together and chat. I have been in TV for decades; this is quite unheard-of. More than a courtesy, it was respectful. Plus we had a blast. The pressure was on me, after all. I had to make it worth his while after his kind gesture.”

And when Fillion appeared at book signings, drawing very large crowds, he “always made it clear that he was not the author when asked. Very classy. And made it easier for me to feel good about being the ghost,” Straw said.

Straw’s background in TV helped him with the tone of the books. Straw has been a showrunner numerous times and also was a screenwriter on series such as Night Court, Dave’s World, Grace Under Fire, Cosby, and Whoopi.

“First off, I know story structure, character, relationships, and dialogue from having written so much of it all over a few decades. Next, TV writing is deadline writing. Big, scary deadlines. Facility with that came in handy, especially when the first book, Heat Wave, was due on such an insanely rigorous schedule,” he said.

How insane?

“The first 10 chapters had to be up on the Castle website in a 10-week countdown to the season-two ABC premiere, which meant I was still writing the second half of the book while the first chapters had already been posted. I joked with Andrew Marlowe that I sent off each completed chapter like I was throwing mailbags off a moving train,” he said.

Straw’s TV background came in handy, too, in working with Castle creator and showrunner Andrew Marlowe.

“Our collaboration was aided immensely by the fact that we spoke the same language, knew the same pressures, and saw the same creative opportunities. It was kismet. And it remains one of the top creative relationships I’ve ever had. He and I are still good friends, and I am enjoying my role as President-for-Life of the Andrew W. Marlowe Fan Club.”

While Castle was in its first run, Straw’s identity was kept secret. But through the years, there were hints about Straw.

“It began secretively, and guessing the identity of the true author became a pastime,” Straw said.

Early speculation was the books were written by James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, or Andrew Marlowe. “All of whom I took as honored, albeit erroneous, company. Nathan Fillion aided and abetted by denying he was the author, saying they were written by Richard Castle,” said Straw.

And like a good mystery, the clues were sprinkled around. “Things started happening,” said Straw, because of a clue Marlowe planted in the About the Author flap copy that stated Richard Castle’s “first novel, In a Hail of Bullets, published while he was still in college, received the Nom DePlume Society's prestigious Tom Straw Award for Mystery Literature.”

“The social media buzz fired up, most wondering who the hell Tom Straw was,” Straw said.

“Bloggers speculated. Parade magazine ran a column, declaring I was Richard Castle. One fan site even posted a screen grab of me shaking Nathan Fillion’s hand in the Castle show I appeared in, side-by-side with my author photo from The Trigger Episode. It became this sort of open secret. Like Santa. And really, not so secret. If you look, even Amazon’s About the Author paragraph for Richard Castle lists me and my credits.”

But once the new seasons of Castle ended, “There seemed no reason to keep my head down,” Straw said. “Plus, I wanted Castle fans to know where they could come to find a book with the same satisfying flavor—even though it had different characters and was set in a crime world outside the yellow tape.“

And now the time is right for Straw to concentrate on his own novels, under his own name. He is launching a series about Macie Wild, a New York criminal defense attorney working as a public defender, with Buzz Killer.

Straw describes his new character Marcie as “a young idealist who has what she calls ‘the Kennedy gene of public service.’ Macie is whip smart and capable, but her efforts are constantly hindered by a lack of investigative resources,” he said.

Marcie catches a client the tabloids have dubbed the Buzz Killer for his technique of gaining entry from apartment lobbies. She’s struggling to get evidence to clear him when she crosses paths with ex-NYPD detective Gunnar Cody. Gunnar, a brash guy who plays it loose with the rules, was recently dismissed from the NYPD’s elite surveillance unit and is now shooting a freelance documentary that overlaps her case. With Cody continually stomping on her trail, Marcie sets aside her misgivings about his ethics and methods and seeks his investigative help.

“Marcie and Gunnar form an uneasy partnership that not only is full of moral conflicts but also romantic sparks as they unearth a big conspiracy. The whole book is kind of a thrill ride that keeps them in constant danger from a badass contract killer while they bump up against an unscrupulous pharmaceutical CEO, a playboy prince, rogue FBI agents, a high-tech cat burglar, and a scheme to launder illegal Russian billions through Manhattan luxury real estate,” Straw said.

And Straw says that his experience with the Castle books helped him create these new characters.

“After seven years of writing those Richard Castle novels based in Nikki Heat’s Twentieth Precinct, I was ready for some new turf so I could tell gripping New York mysteries but from another perspective. I wanted to explore the quest for justice from the public defender side of the fight. One thing I also knew, was that I loved writing the romantic tension between Heat and Rook and wanted to keep that burning with some sort of equivalent relationship in my new series but with fresh characters, different backgrounds and new points of view,” he said.

“If Wild and Cody have shades of Heat and Rook, I may have to plead guilty, but these two are coming from different places. If they have one thing in common with my Heat duo, it’s that I can’t wait to write their next adventure. I’m thinking six more,” he said.

“Or my name’s not Richard Castle.”

Photos: Top, Tom Straw, photo by Jill Krementz; center, Nathan Fillion, ABC photo.

Tom Straw, the Author Behind “Castle”
Oline H. Cogdill