Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cozy or Cruel? Reflections on Good Crime Fiction

Dave and I have been on a binge of reading the mysteries of Louise Penny. Set in a Canadian village, and at first resembling a Miss Marple "village mystery" where everyone knows everyone else's business, they've been labeled "cozy" (even among the blurbs on the books!). But -- they're not.

Okay, that's a pretty bold assertion. The thing is, Dave and I completely agree about this. He won't read cozies unless there's an overwhelming "other" reason (he does collect the Harry Kemelman series, because he likes the subjects). And he struggled through the first fifty pages of Penny's STILL LIFE because of this. But suddenly he was declaring, "This is NOT a cozy," and making eager sounds as he turned the pages.

I enjoyed STILL LIFE, with its bizarre personalities and poigant cruelties. There, that's a word you won't find in a description of a cozy mystery: cruelties. In fact, Penny's second book, A FATAL GRACE, has me stalled at page 25, because the cruelties have already piled up to a level that raised the tension too high for my weekend. (Don't ask; if you've ever lived in a rural area at harvest season, you might have a guess at what my list of kitchen tasks is like just now...) In other words, if the level of vicious, nasty, twisted stuff being exposed in a mystery or suspense thriller gets in your face to the point where you think the characters are more and more likely to want a stiff drink or a well-tailored escape plan -- it's not a cozy. Nothing that Alfred Hitchcock directed was a cozy. Is this making sense?

So, with this long lead-in, I'm back to reconsidering Colin Cotterill's offering from this August, THE MERRY MISOGYNIST (Soho Crime). Here's what I wrote about Cotterill's series, last April:
So here's Colin Cotterill, providing a series about an elderly coroner working on disrespected remains in his confused and often corrupt city of Vientiane, Laos. It's 1978 and the "novice socialist republic" is squeezing the fun and color out of life. Dr. Siri Paiboun and his assistants, Nurse Dtui and the tongue-tied Mr. Geung, become increasingly stubborn about seeking justice for the deceased. And readers of the series know that Dr. Siri and the noodle seller Madame Daeng are waking up to an affectionate and humorous relationship that lets each of them be whole, and give wholly.

So why isn't THE MERRY MISOGYNIST a cozy, with so much affection and humor among the protagonists? I maintain it's because the crimes revealed in the book are actions of enormous cruelty.

Some of the chapter titles make this clear: Five Dead Wives; Dancing with Death; A Honeymoon in Hell. Siri and Inspector Phosy investigate a series of deaths that appear to be the work of a sexual sadist. Stopping the sequence requires the ability to think like a sadist -- and get ahead of the action. Complicating the sequence are appearances by the spirit of Siri's dead dog, Saloop. Although the dog and man had an affectionate relationship in life, Saloop isn't coming for friendly visits -- he's coming as a warning.
Siri had learned to observe rationally. There were times when he braved nightmares like a confident swimmer, knowing he'd end up on the bank unscathed. There were malignant ghosts like the Phibob of the forest who hounded Yeh Ming's spirit. They constantly hummed around him like vindictive wasps, waiting for a moment of weakness when they could sting. Had it not been for a sacred amulet at his neck, Siri would certainly not have made it to his second marriage. But the vast majority of spirits were harmless.

Siri sat on the saddle of his Triumph and shook his head as Saloop rose creakily on his dead legs.

This is the sixth in the Dr. Siri series, written by a London-born teacher and writer who now lives in Thailand. It's well worth visiting Cotterill's web site, too -- check out the results of a person who balances the dark side of crime fiction with a strong and well-aimed determination to do some good in Laos.

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