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 AcornOnline.com. 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).
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.
“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.