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What We Don’t Remember

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Okay. I’m going to try this for the second time today. With any luck it will work, instead of doing one of the seventeen million other things it’s been doing to me so far this morning.

And I know that I’ve been a little spotty lately, and not exactly fixated on one subject for very long, but it’s been a big start to the New Year.

And, given the way things are going, it’s probably about to get bigger. I have a child who may or may not be sick, or have a medical problem, or whatever–he won’t tell me, or won’t say the same thing twice, so I’ve just called the doctor for an appointment and figure it can get sorted out there.

And now this program won’t double space between paragraphs unless I make it. Which I suppose is better than what it was doing before, which was refusing to actually exhibit any of the letters I typed. The cursor would move, but no type would appear on the screen.

This, I can at least function with.

After all that–once I finished reading Rich, Radiant Slaughter, I went on to rereading Martha Grimes’s The Man With A Load of Mischief.  That’s another book I haven’t read again since 1988 or so. 

I don’t know what my mania is these days with rereading things from around the time I first started working on the first Gregor, but here I am.  And I’m doing a lot of it.

A few things about what I did and did not remember about The Man With The Load of Mischief.

The first thing is that I distinctly remember reading this book, and being sure, at the time, that the chief character was Melrose Plant.  There was also Richard Jury, who was a CID inspector, but I thought of him as the necessary professional-to-provide-cover-for-the-amateur that a lot of detective novels with amateur detectives use to make things seem more plausible.

I also remember, as the years went on, thinking that it was too bad that Grimes had given up on Plant in order to focus more on Richard Jury.   I liked Plant more than I liked Jury. 

Now that I’m almost finished with rereading it, though, it’s obvious that Jury was the main detective all the time.   Plant was one of the suspects–albeit the one who is declared almost at the beginning to have nearly a perfect alibi–but under no circumstances the focus of the majority of the book.

Then there’s the matter of the dead bodies–halfway through the book, we’ve got at least three of them.  A little farther on (and I do mean very little) we have five.

I take a lot of flak, even now, when my books have three dead bodies in them, never mind five, and never mind having the five in totally bizarre circumstances.

In fact, multiplying bodies and supplying them with bizarre circumstances are two of the big no-nos in writing detective fiction these days.   You can get away with it, sort of, if you’ve got a serial killer who is supposed to be butt-wild crazy.  In that case you blame the dressing up of bodies in purple superhero costumes or the draping of bodies over highway overpasses on abnormal psychology, and it doesn’t matter if any of it makes any sense.

To do this kind of thing in a traditional detective novel these days, and especially one set in villages with cutely-named pubs, it to brand your book a cozy.   And to brand your book a cozy is the kiss of death for any kind of serious attention from anybody, anyway.  You’ll certainly never win an Edgar.

I know we’ve been over this before, but I’ll go over it again, just in case:  a cozy is not just a book set in a village with an amateur detective.  It’s a lightweight, cutesy, giggle-funny (meaning, not really funny) silly little piece of fluff, in which there is never any gore, never any swearing, and never any religion, politics or other topic that might be considered “controversial” or “upsetting.”

Agatha Christie did not write cozies, even though every cozy writer on the planet claims she (and it’s almost always she) is trying to write just like Dame Agatha.   Christie was a lot of things, but cutesy-pie was never one of them.  She took a light hand to the world around her, but what she wrote about was the world around her, and not some made-up fantasy land where everybody talked like they were on a sitcom.

Which brings me, of course, back to a topic I’ve go over before, but that I can never shake out of my head.

What usually happens when you have somebody who writes good books but the books have the characteristics–set in a village or small town, for instance, not a lot of sex and gore–of what would otherwise be labeled “cozy” whether it was or not, is that it gets labeled something else.

The books of P.D. James, for instance, are usually called “police procedurals,” even though you couldn’t learn much about police procedure from them and the detection largely maintains the structure of a Poirot.

With Grimes, however, what has happened is nearly unprecedented–everybody seems to just pretend not to notice.

There is, in this book, much of what makes a cozy a cozy.  There’s the village thing.  There are the cutely named pubs.  There are the exaggerated characters.

And those characteristics carried over into a good number of the books that followed in the series.

As far as I can tell, people just decided to pretend it wasn’t all there. 

And, I think, they were right.  Not only the sheer excellence of the prose and the construction, but also the sensibility, which is not cutesy and not fake, means that these are not cozies as I have defined them here.

But what I want to know is this–what did it take to get the media, the reviewers, and all the rest, not to treat them as cozies, and therefore not sink them into the ghetto that is cozy-dom?

Because I could list a good dozen mystery writers whose books have been condemned to cozy-dom and whose careers have never really gone anywhere because they were labeled “cozies” when they were not. 

Which means that cozy readers bought a volume and hated it and never went back, and the kind of readers who would have liked the books never touched them because those readers can’t stand cozies.

I just wish I understood what made the difference–what made so many people, first reviewing these, not slap the label on Grimes, and instead not only take her seriously, but allow others to take her seriously?


It’s a good book.  If you’ve never read it, you should.  I haven’t given anything away.

I’m going to go see what’s going on with the chickens.

Written by janeh

January 7th, 2011 at 10:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'What We Don’t Remember'

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  1. This is interesting. I fetched out my Copy of MURDER INK (1977). The contributors–most of them professionals–are using “cozy” as I normally would–as the opposite pole to “hard-boiled.” A cozy involved a murder where violent death is nominally unusual, occuring for rational reasons and to be understood–means and motive both–by the last chapter. Country villages, amateur detectives and incompetent constables were just common trappings, like handguns and dark alleys in hard-boileds, and highland castles in gothics. By that standard, Agatha Christie is most certainly a cozy writer, and it seems to be the standard used by most web sites and discussion groups. What Jane is describing is not “cozies” per se, but BAD cozies from that point of view.

    The professional definition seems to have diverged from that of readers, and this makes for a mess. If I ask a publisher for more cozies, using the word as we both used it in 1977, and he publishes, say, MISS SCARLET IN THE LIBRARY WITH A CANDLESTICK, neither of us will get what we want.

    I’m inclined to blame the publishers. When the “green light” men–the ones who can spend the corporate money–are selling something they don’t like or understand, this is what happens. Does anyone remember the terrible SF movies in the wake of STAR WARS? The bad Indiana Jones imitations following RAIDERS?

    It isn’t just Hollywood. Publishers saw Georgette Heyer selling briskly, and instead of original plots, solid characters and sparkling dialogue, they gave us Barbara Cartland regencies. When Robert Howard’s “Conan” went big-time, no one imitated his memorable dialogue and outsider’s take on civilization. Instead, they gave us a gymnasium’s fill of illiterates, with BRAK THE BARBARIAN leading the headlong charge. (Conan of Cimmeria was literate in several languages, and made his own maps. The fur jockstrap crowd? Not so much.) Don’t get me started on bad imitation Tolkien.

    So now it’s the mysteries’ turn. My advice to publishers? If you don’t understand why it sells, don’t try to imitate it. Find something which sells you DO understand, and imitate that instead.

    My previous experience with Martha Grimes was THE OLD CONTEMPTIBLES–a bad mystery by any standard, I think. I’ll try MAN WITH A LOAD OF MISCHIEF soon.

    As for not being called a cozy writer, without knowing who the writers with stunted careers were, it’s hard to speculate. Perhaps she started earlier, and so was a known quantity when the reviewers started applying “cozy” to certain settings?


    7 Jan 11 at 6:32 pm

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