Wednesday, December 07, 2011

What's in a Name? Change "Cozy" to "Amateur Sleuth" and Then ...

A lot of emotional attachment to mystery genres seems to begin with the books that first turn us into "readers." Those who teethed on Nancy Drew have an itch for adventurous detection; dare I guess that readers of the Hardy Boys were primed for espionage? And if you start with Sherlock Holmes, or with Father Brown ... Well, to be honest, I'm attached to all of those. And Agatha Christie and John D. McDonald and and John Creasey and "The Saint" and more. Some I read on my own; some were books my mother took out of the library and I gobbled up after she'd finished them, before they were due back.

But the childhood mystery series and teenage discoveries can't fully be what forms our adult tastes. I don't think there's a children's or young adult sequence that clearly pushes a person into devouring James Patterson's books, or Lee Child's (although I have a theory that people who respect steady, affectionate marriages make up a large part of Donna Leon's readers, along with those who adore Venice). Sometimes it's recognition of protagonists who resemble us; sometimes it's wishing we could be doing the same investigation, even though we know we never will (how many crushed archaeology dropouts delved into Elizabeth Peterson's books with relief and exhilaration?).

Mysteries that feature amateur sleuths may be the most direct in appealing to us to put ourselves into the shoes of the would-be detective. The amateur sleuth relies on cooking skills, or a good memory for flowers, or kindly curiosity (and friends in the police force). She or he could be -- us.

Kaitlyn Dunnett's November 2011 release, SCOTCHED, is a great example. Liss MacCrimmon owns the Scottish Emporium in the small Maine tourist town of Moosetookalook. Her friend Angie owns the bookshop down the road. Nola Ventress, giving back to the town with great energy, has just organized a mystery authors' convention at its sole hotel. And as authors local and regional (many with the names of real Maine authors!) check in, friction among them rises -- particularly in every person spoken to by journalist Jane Nedlinger. When the needling, meddlesome, cruel reporter turns up dead at the foot of a cliff, routine police work reveals the death to be homicide. And soon Liss and her fiancé Dan and her friends in local law enforcement are digging through a compost heap of rotten reasons that Nedlinger deserved to ... well, maybe not die, but at least get out of town. Too bad, too sad, and only the accused people with motives (lots of them!) are unhappy with Liss's efforts.

There's plenty to identify with: the excitement of meeting the Big Authors, the fun of seeing a small town pull itself together, the gentle romance between Liss and Dan. You don't need to know the difference between various firearms, as you might in a Patricia Cornwell suspense novel -- you just need to follow along with Liss and you may even guess the murderer a few pages before she's clear about it herself. That's it: You've identified, been a careful reader alert for clues, and enjoyed realizing you're just as smart as the person solving the crime! It's charming, entertaining, and -- that's the point of an "amateur sleuth" mystery, right?

(PS to those checking on authors -- Kaitlyn Dunnett is a pen name for Kathy Lynn Emerson, a Maine writer herself, who has four different series in action, two of them historical. Her website is unfortunately not helpful, but here's a nice Wikipedia entry on her.)

Jeffrey Allen (a pen name for Jeff Shelby) is bringing out his first mystery in a new series, available in January 2012. STAY AT HOME DEAD features Deuce Winters, dad to precocious three-year-old Carly, living in the town where he grew up and where his old high school buddies turn up connected to a dead body left in Deuce's car ("Daddy, who's the man in my car?" his daughter demands to know. She's already smart enough to disagree with the suggestion that the man is sleeping in there.) Equally an amateur in tracking down a criminal, Deuce wouldn't get into any of this if it weren't for those high school chums trying to blame him. "So I'm gonna need a lawyer," he concludes, and his wife Julianne responds, "Good thing you married one." But Deuce needs more than just his wife's backing -- it's one thing when people try to hurt him, but when they do things that can hurt his three-year-old ... wait a moment, did I just notice you "identifying"? I know I did at that point. My kids are long grown, but I'd still do a LOT to protect them if I saw the hurt coming at them. And tag, there we go: Amateur sleuths make it easy for us to see ourselves in the investigative shoes. No need for an extra passport or a stash of Dutch currency. We have, we are, what we need to solve the mystery. And it's a fun read!

Note that I'm not the same gender as the protagonist, but I enjoyed the story and connected with Deuce's problems. NOTE to all "amateur sleuth" readers and writers: Gender doesn't frame us into particular books. Let's stop talking about "cozies" as chick lit. In fact, let's talk about them as "amateur sleuth" mysteries. That's always been their central characteristic!

Here's one more example, a book I'm delighted to have purchased a month or so ago -- NIGHT OF THE LIVING DANDELIONS. This is from the prolific author Kate Collins (a pen name for Linda Tsoutsouris) and is the 11th in the series featuring Abby Knight, now a flower-shop owner in a Midwestern college town and engaged to Marco, who's being called back to active duty in the Army Rangers. Marco's former foxhole buddy Vlad is in town, and Abby may be one of the last to realize that Vlad's Romanian heritage, pale face and dark hair, and black attire have caused a flock of townsfolk to assume he's a vampire. Women are swooning, their boyfriends are furious, and when a nurse turns up dead with a pair of neat puncture wounds at her throat, the case against Vlad as a bloodsucking killer turns furious and violent. Abby and her support crew -- a handful of sensible women and a few sweet nuts -- dig like crazy for the strands connecting people in town, until they unearth the real motive for the killing.

You won't be checking the door locks while reading this -- again, it's light reading, and poses a set of puzzles that the reader is challenged to solve, perhaps a little ahead of Abby herself, or else right next to her as she struggles to stick up for Marco's buddy and for justice. By the end of the book, you'll know a bit extra about vampires (how clever to toss in this "hot fad" term!) and more about some flowers and unusual plants (wolfsbane? strangleweed??). And you may have had a few hours of relaxing, imagining how you'd solve the situation yourself, and enjoying watching Abby tackle it.

By the way, Collins is more than prolific, actually -- NIGHT OF THE LIVING DANDELIONS came out this spring, and the sequel, To Catch a Leaf, followed in autumn. Wow!

Three amateur sleuths -- three casually enjoyable mysteries. I hope you'll be inspired to read one or more of them!

PS to COLLECTORS: Are you feeling like all these pen names must mean something?? Consider this: Donald Westlake, one of the greatest American mystery writers of the 20th century, used 22 of them ... at least! (He told us he might have forgotten one or two.) And John Banville, a compelling literary force of the 21st century, uses at least one.

Discussion? Comments? Revelations of pen names to come??

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