Cozy mysteries: Suspicious minds in homey settings

February 13, 2011

Cozy is a cloying word. Insert it in a sentence, and you can hear the adjacent nouns being snuggled to death. Yet in crime fiction, the cozy mystery and its offshoot, the village cozy, have a venerable lineage. Even Cecil Day Lewis, under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake, wrote a mystery series that now bears that adhesively sweet label. Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers are often called queens of the British cozy; Phoebe Atwood Taylor is their equivalent in the United States.

More recently, the cozy tradition has splintered, with one set of practitioners heading into darkness and the other into relentless sunshine. As always, the dark side is more interesting. There you find Ruth Rendell’s “The Killing Doll,” Morag Joss’s “Half Broken Things” and other depictions of unremarkable characters in nondescript villages becoming first alienated and then a tad homicidal. Meanwhile, on the sunny side of the village green, there are farmers-market mysteries, dog-walker mysteries, scrap ’n’ craft mysteries and so on. Like fruit-flavored coffee, these seem to be mysteries concocted for readers who can’t take their poison straight. Even established mystery writers, with substantial plots and characters to their credit, are producing lighter fare.

1 Consider Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter (Felony & Mayhem; paperback, $14.95), by Simon Brett, an author best known for two genuinely witty series, one featuring Charles Paris, an under-employed actor; and the other Mrs. Pargeter, the formidable widow of a gentleman burglar. In his new novel, however, the humor is no longer distinctively Brett’s but rather a hectic mixture of Noel Coward, P.G. Wodehouse and, at times, the Marx Brothers. The opening sets the tone: “ ‘It’s frightfully awkward, Mater, but I’m afraid there’s a dead body in the library.’ ‘Not now, Blotto. We have guests.’ And, on waves of breeding, perfume and fine silk, the Dowager Duchess of Tawcester wafted away from her younger son to continue being the perfect hostess.”

Blotto is the family dimwit, whose “thoughts rarely ran deep enough to dampen the soles of his handmade brogues,” but his sister Twinks has both beauty and brains. He refers to her as “me old biscuit barrel . . . old pineapple . . . old bloater,” while she observes that Blotto may be “the crystallized ginger.” This is indeed the 1920s when school chums have names like Twonker Mincebait, good eggs like Blotto zip around in bally fine roadsters and plots are operetta-thin. Small wonder, then, that a princess is kidnapped while visiting Tawcester Towers and that Blotto must rescue her from the lair of the usurping monarch of Mitteleuropa. It is on that alien turf that Brett’s romp loses its early fizz and limps back to England the worse for wear. “Rodents!” as Blotto might say.

2Nancy Atherton, by contrast, keeps her characters at home in Aunt Dimity & the Family Tree (Viking, $24.95), the 16th novel in her Aunt Dimity series. Home being the village of Finch, a hamlet so quaint it makes Brigadoon look gritty. Here the irrepressible Lori Shepherd lives with her adorable husband and sons in a “honey-colored cottage nestled snugly amid the rolling hills and patchwork fields of the Cotswolds.” Life becomes even cozier when Shepherd’s father-in-law buys a nearby manor house, but Lori soon becomes suspicious of his young servants. Are they hiding something? Or someone? Nothing gruesome happens; that is not Atherton’s way. Instead, odd occurrences, including a burglary, prompt Lori to open yet again the cherished book on whose pages the ghost of Aunt Dimity communicates with the energetic sleuth. As events unfold, predictably, Lori observes that “life in an English village is never dull.” Atherton’s Dimity series, on the other hand, may be getting there.

3 C.S. Challinor delivers a racier cozy in Murder on the Moor (Midnight Ink; paperback, $14.95), the fourth novel in the Rex Graves mystery series and one that transplants the well-worn country house weekend plot to the Scottish Highlands. The setting is largely beside the point, however, as Challinor assembles her somewhat stock characters. Rex Graves, barrister and hero, is hoping for time alone in his Highland retreat with Helen, his curvaceous companion and all-round good sport. But the past intrudes, first when the acquittal of a suspected child murderer brings back memories of the case, and later when an old flame of Rex’s turns up on the doorstep. Challinor skillfully choreographs all of this, and yet the novel’s tension, like the weather, remains soggy. Even the obligatory murder, arriving right on cue, can’t dispel the narcotic effect of yet another lethally cozy plot.

Mundow is a freelance journalist and critic.

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