By Maureen Corrigan
Sunday, January 8, 2006

'Tis the season to read cozies. With its holidays and snowfalls, winter is sodden with nostalgia, which also happens to be the cozy mystery's signature tone. The props that decorate the landscape of cozies come courtesy of the Agatha Christie warehouse: English villages trapped in amber, mansions that harbor spooks and moth-eaten family secrets, meals heavy on pre-cholesterol-consciousness items like clotted cream and rashers of bacon, and sharp-eyed amateur sleuths who hold fast to quaint notions of justice, truth and an ultimate order to the universe. Though these formulaic ingredients have been refashioned in some of the mysteries that follow, all these tales preserve the crucial cozy atmosphere of wistful longing for, as Tennyson put it, "the tender grace of a day that is dead."

Death Amid William Morris Wallpaper

Elizabeth Ironside's Death in the Garden (Felony and Mayhem; paperback, $14.95) is the real deal: a mystery that resurrects the upper-crust world of England between the wars without making readers feel as though they're strolling through a Disneyland simulacrum. Ironside's omniscient narrator speaks in smoothly erudite phrases that evoke -- rather than hollowly mimic -- the presiding voice of Dorothy L. Sayers's masterpieces. Here, for example, is how the narrator describes a triangle of doomed relationships that haunts some of the principals at a 1920s' house party:

"Charles had fallen distressingly in love with Diana, whom he met on his last leave before his departure for France in 1915. She had kissed him and given him a photograph which he carried until his death four weeks later. Jono, too, had kissed her, chastely. . . . "

How elegant that succinct explication of messy emotional history is! Ironside's storyline matches the delicate intricacy of her language, snaking around like the vines on a panel of vintage William Morris wallpaper. In contemporary London, a young attorney named Helena inherits the estate of her ancient great-aunt Diana Fox, who turns out to have led a more scandalous life than her kin ever imagined. Back in 1925, Diana was accused of poisoning her boorish husband, George Pollexfen, at the aforementioned house party held in honor of her 30th birthday. Diana was cleared of the murder (I'm not spoiling any surprises here: We learn the verdict in the first sentence of the novel), proceeded to go undercover and later married the obliging Mr. Fox. But doubts about her guilt linger. In order to accept her great-aunt's legacy with a clear conscience, Helena resolves to investigate the decades-old murder and, through diaries and interviews with still-living relics of that age, summons up the company of bohemian migrs and Bloomsbury wannabes who once composed her great-aunt's world.

This is the first novel by Ironside to be published in the United States. (It was published in Great Britain in 1995 and was short-listed that year for the Golden Dagger Award, England's equivalent of the Edgar.) The secret is out by now that Ironside is the nom de plume of Lady Catherine Manning, the wife of David Manning, Britain's ambassador to the United States. In a way, it's too bad that Ironside has been less successful in preserving the mystery of her identity than her notorious creation Diana. Mystery readers are a naturally suspicious lot, and many may assume that Manning/Ironside is a mere dilettante whose way into publication was eased by her husband's connections. A few minutes spent reading the first pages of this superb mystery will blow that snarky hypothesis to smithereens.

Much Have I Traveled in the Realm of Death

Nineteen-twenties Britain in the company of the terribly bored and bejeweled is also the territory explored in a debut mystery by Catriona McPherson, After the Armistice Ball (Carroll & Graf, $25). McPherson's detective, Dandy Gilver, bills herself as a "society sleuth" since she moves with ease in the company of those who, like herself, are used to being cosseted by trust funds and faithful retainers. Dandy's is a droll if dithery voice. Here, for instance, is her description of the layout of her husband's rooms in their Scottish pile -- rooms that she refers to as "the Realm of Death":

"In this part of the house are the business room, library, gun room and billiard room. They sit in a miasma of cigar smoke, stale gunpowder and damp leather, and are adorned by corpses -- no creature being too mean to be stuffed and stuck behind glass. I always avert my eyes from the pitiful squirrels, scuttle past the horror that is the eel case, and hold my nose as I round the corner past the forty-pound salmon landed by Hugh's father and most inexpertly stuffed.

As that snippet of description indicates, Dandy is an entertaining enough creation, but her world and the characters who populate it, no matter how wittily Dandy presents them, are the literary equivalent of a Clue gameboard. Ditto the plot, which involves stolen diamonds and seething family envy. Afflicted by post-World War I restlessness, Dandy is determined to find some kind of purpose for her life and talents -- and so she does, but not until long after this reader grew weary of caring about who stole the Duffy diamonds at the Armistice Ball armed with a fossilized set of mystery conventions.

The Talk of Taviscombe

Like Lady Catherine Manning, Hazel Holt is partly defined by the illustrious company she's kept. As the biographical paragraph on the inside back cover of her latest paperback declares, Holt was "a personal friend and literary advisor to Barbara Pym, and is Pym's official biographer." At their best, Holt's Mrs. Malory mystery novels contain some of the deft wit and social observation that also grace Pym's marvelous books. Mrs. Malory and No Cure For Death (Signet; paperback, $6.99), though, is a middling Sheila Malory mystery -- pleasant enough to read, easy enough to forget. The plot involves an unpopular local doctor, murdered as he's sitting in his office, awaiting his next patient. But enough about that: The real draw of the Malory mysteries is not their plots but their invocation of the timeless atmosphere of Taviscombe, an English village by the sea where the locals still shop at Woolworths and take tea at places called "the Buttery." This is the kind of mild, backward-looking mystery to reach for after a day spent battling the hordes at the local mall.

The Detective as Yenta

Time to flee the damp gray climes of Britain and luxuriate (if only through literature) in the winter warmth of Florida. Imagine Miss Marple wielding bronzer, a sure command of Yiddish profanities and a mean elbow on the Early Bird Special buffet line, and you've got Gladdy Gold. Billed as "Florida's oldest private eye" in her paperback debut, Getting Old Is Murder (Dell; paperback, $6.99), by Rita Lakin, Gladdy resides in the contemporary American equivalent of Miss Marple's quaint village of St. Mary Mead -- that is, a retirement community near Fort Lauderdale where the village yentas gather to gossip around the swimming pool and all the homicides committed are gently unreal. (By the way, AARP-card-carrying sleuths are a fast-growing mystery phenomenon. I'm not sure whether Gladdy is indeed the oldest of them all, but she has plenty of senior sleuthing company, including Kate Kennedy, a fellow Floridian snoopster who stars in a series written by Nora Charles.)

Gladdy is a hoot. Her running commentary on everything from dinner at the deli with "the girls" (separate checks, please!) to fast-walking (or fast-shuffling) exercise sessions at the mall will divert readers from the arthritically creaky murder plot. Besides, as Gladdy admits, it even takes her a while to notice the homicidal goings-on at Lanai Gardens. As she philosophically observes: "Considering that the youngest of us is seventy-one and the oldest eighty-six, [death] is not something unexpected. I mean, everybody is on the checkout line."

Maureen Corrigan is the book reviewer for the NPR program "Fresh Air" and the author of a recent memoir, "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading."

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