Tag Archives: mysteries

From My Bookshelf: Lorna Barrett

Cozy mysteries, anyone? Sometimes it’s good to sit down with a book that’s not moving at a blistering pace with graphic violence and brutal shocks. Sometimes, for me at least, a welcome alternative is a book that can tease my brain without making me feel I’ve walked in the shoes of a sadistic psychopath.

If you haven’t already encountered her, meet Lorna Barrett, aka L. L. Bartlett, aka Lorraine Bartlett, the prolific author of numerous snuggle-in-your-armchair-with-a-good-read novels.

A stroll past the mystery shelves at your local bookstore will yield up a plethora of subgenres: forensic mysteries, classic mysteries, traditional mysteries, historical mysteries, and the cozies. The latter stand out because they’re primarily published by Berkley, with a distinctive cover style and also because they have groaner-pun titles, such as Barrett’s Chapter and Hearse.

Within the cozy subgenre you will find food cozies, antiquing cozies, quilting cozies, thrift shop cozies, knitting cozies, decorating cozies, chocolate cozies, paranormal cozies, home renovation cozies, etc. If a reader has a hobby, there’s a cozy out there that panders to it.

These days, if you want to write a cozy mystery–meaning a small community, numerous quirky characters, and little if any blood–then you need to think series. You also need to create a lively setting as a reappearing character.

Barrett’s pretty good at coming up with interesting settings that hold up across more than one book. Her  cast of characters remain viable from book to book, and sometimes a repeated secondary character becomes the next victim just to put you on your toes. Her story people are distinctive without being so gol-darned quirky they’re too weird for words.

She’s had wonderful, bestselling success with her Booktown series. The tiny community revolves around downtown shops that are nearly all specialty used bookstores. The protagonist Tricia owns a mystery shop–which allows Barrett to throw in mention of current and classic mystery authors in the Carolyn Hart tradition.

Tricia’s sister Angelica owns a cookbook store, along with a lunch eatery. The two sisters have had a rocky sibling relationship in the past, but they’ve patched up many of their differences. Now there’s just enough of the old rivalry to keep up the flavor of conflict as a subplot to Tricia’s investigations.

I like that Tricia does get out and gumshoe. She has no official authority, but she’s curious and suspicious and thoughtful and active. Unlike some of the cozies that feature discovery of a body and then the characters pretty much putter along their everyday lives and chat about the victim from time to time with varying degrees of pity and/or sympathy, Barrett’s protagonist makes a real effort to uncover the culprit.

While I personally prefer the Victoria Square series written under her pseudonym Lorraine Bartlett, that’s primarily because I like its setting better than Booktown. But all her books deliver gentle entertainment that will keep you curious as to whodunnit without giving you nightmares thereafter.

 

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Building Urban Fantasy — Part III

When it comes to plotting an urban fantasy story, keep in mind that you need more than just a weirdly cool setting and a character waving around sparkles of hocus-pocus.

Urban fantasy has roots that reach into both horror and film noir. Let’s deal with them separately:

Make It Criminal

Noir means dark and gritty, with shades of gray in the protagonist and shades of gray in the villain. Everyone has a dark past or has made mistakes or has weaknesses. No one is all good or all bad. If you’re still not clear about what noir is, then read the mysteries of Walter Mosley or Raymond Chandler. Watch some of the great film noir classics to get a feel for the flavoring your story needs. I recommend one of the best noir movies ever made–DOUBLE INDEMNITY from 1944. Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the film is based on a James M. Cain novel of the same title. It features an insurance agent seduced by a beautiful woman into helping her murder her husband so she can collect on a life insurance indemnity clause.

In crime plots, if the villain’s identity is known from the beginning and the plot is focused on stopping this individual from continuing evil deeds, then we call this type of story a thriller. And thrillers require lots of action and danger; in other words, chills and thrills.

On the other hand, if the identity of the villain is hidden and if the protagonist is trying to determine the identity of whoever is behind the crimes, then the story is a mystery. That means investigating the situation through the protagonist asking a lot of questions, checking information, thinking, reasoning, and deducing. Mysteries have less dramatized violence than thrillers. Crimes still happen, but off-stage.

Urban fantasies generally feature crime plots. Which is why you need to understand how mysteries and thrillers work if you’re going to write this type of fantasy. The chief difference will be found in the presence of magic and the occult. But there will be criminal activity. There will be a force of evil seeking to gain from those crimes. There will be victims–some deserving of disaster, others innocent. There will be someone determined to end the crimes and save the day, even if it’s only to personally survive.

Whether you shape the story as a mystery or a thriller–and choosing which approach you’ll take will help you determine the events you’ll include–there’s a third option if you feel adventurous. And that is to combine mystery and thriller elements together. Generally in a combo plot, the mystery investigation will come first until the villain is identified in the book’s center. Then the pace will pick up with exciting chases and thrilling fight scenes filling the second half of the story.

 

Bring on the Horror

Besides the crime-centered plot, urban fantasy needs to deliver the atmosphere and mood of horror. To do this, it can feature the following elements drawn from the horror genre:

Shock–This will come through surprises, threats, and/or plot twists.

Atmosphere–There should be a dark, brooding tone, which can be achieved through the setting details and coded language. Can we say Edgar Allen Poe?

Coded language–This means special vocabulary chosen to reflect the desired imagery. It is sometimes known in erudite circles as diction.

Most genres have their own coding, and such language will be familiar to their fans.

Here’s an example of description employing coded language:

Drake flitted from shadow to shadow along the deserted alley. Out in the street, most of the lights had been shot out long ago, leaving vast pools of night undisturbed. Spiky weeds grew through cracked, broken sidewalks. Rusted hulks of abandoned cars–wheels long since stolen–rotted where they’d been left. The air smelled lightly of sulfur.

Do you see how every adjective has been chosen to stick with a dominant image? Do you see how this description is laden with atmosphere and mood?

Is this passage subtle? Nope. Coded language isn’t supposed to be. Just ask Mr. Poe.

Danger–This element should pervade the story. It keeps the tension high and the outcome of the story less certain.

A sense of danger is established if threats to the protagonist or other characters are real. Victims are attacked, injured, and possibly killed. The protagonist is also in harm’s way. If the supernatural villain stays hidden, then its minions are actively attacking the protagonist or those the protagonist cares about.

Gore and violence–These go along with danger and real threats like tomatoes and basil, but generally in urban fantasy they are presented only as an aftermath to violence not shown.

Because urban fantasy isn’t as intense as horror, the gore will usually be presented obliquely through how a victim is found and what’s been done to it. The actual violence isn’t dramatized through scene action while it’s occurring.

In Jim Butcher’s novel, Storm Front, protagonist wizard Harry Dresden is called in by human homicide detectives as a consultant. Two victims have been found in a hotel room, apparently killed by supernatural means. Their chests have been cracked open and their hearts removed.

As a crime scene, it’s dreadful and shocking, but because readers do not see the crime committed in moment-by-moment story action, it is less horrifying than it might otherwise be.

What’s at Stake

The final aspect of urban fantasy that I want to address in this series of posts has to do with the scale of the stories.

In traditional, high, epic fantasy, the whole world may be at risk. Vast armies are often pitted against each other. It is Good (capital letters) versus Evil (capital letters). If the side of Good should fail or be vanquished, DOOM will encompass the world and all will be lost forevermore.

However, in urban fantasy, the scale of the story situation is smaller. A few people are endangered, but not everyone. We have a mostly good (lowercase letters) protagonist versus a pretty bad (lowercase letters) villain.

In other words, the protagonist–perhaps with a few companions or allies–is trying to stop the supernatural menace. If the protagonist should fail, he or she will probably die or be enslaved, but the entire world as we know it won’t end. It’ll just be a bit worse than before.

Lesser stakes than traditional fantasy doesn’t mean a lesser story. After all, the life-or-death struggle of a lone hero against the Houston vampire queen means a tremendous amount to that hero. And readers bonded with that protagonist will care deeply and intensely about what happens.

 

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From My Bookshelf: Perry Mason

To quote from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem: O frabjous day! Calloo! Callay!

I have just acquired a copy of the 1953 Perry Mason mystery, THE CASE OF THE HESITANT HOSTESS, by Erle Stanley Gardner, and I am thrilled.

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As some of you know, I shun used books that are too musty for my allergies. And all too often, Gardner’s mysteries turn up foxed, cocked, gnawed on by mice, and reeking of mold. Just two weeks ago, I found a Mason mystery but regretfully had to pass. It was very hard to walk out of that antique mall without it, but breathing trumps reading every time.

However, good fortune was shining. Over the July 4th weekend, I stumbled across a  copy of THE CASE OF THE HESITANT HOSTESS in Texas. Not only does it have its dust jacket, but it isn’t musty at all. Thank you to all its previous owners (whoever you are and were) for taking such good care of it! I came galloping back across the Red River in triumph.

Now, in case you don’t know about Gardner, let’s just say he was a writing fiend who got his start producing short stories in the pulp era. It was his goal to write 1.2 million words a year, and, during the Great Depression when most of America was out of work, he made $20,000 a year writing stories that paid 3 cents a word. Gardner was also an attorney, although he found the practice of law beyond litigation and strategy to be boring. From 1933 to 1973, he wrote over 80 Perry Mason novels in addition to his short stories, radio dramas, and other projects. He favored action and dialogue over characterization or complicated plots. He preferred to focus on “speed, situation, and suspense.”

Not a bad formula, folks. His characters are paper-thin, under-described, and far from stereotypical. And until his death in 1970, he was the best-selling author in America. I can’t remember the exact figure now, but I’ve read about how–in the 1960s–bookstores would position a clerk near the cash register with a stopwatch to clock how many thousands of copies the latest Perry Mason mystery sold in an hour.

It’s been said that the last decade of Perry Mason books are less than great. I haven’t read enough of them to know. Still, I prefer the earlier Mason stories, when Perry was a tougher and more hard-boiled character than later on when Gardner softened him to be more appealing to mass audiences.

As for digging up more of Gardner’s work, yes, there is Kindle as a potential alternative to inhaling mildew, but Kindle lacks the lurid pulpy covers of the tangible books and offers a scant selection to the contrarians like me who don’t subscribe to Amazon’s lending library or Prime.

Besides, I enjoy the hunt for those old, inexpensive, battered hardbacks–even if I have to leave most of them alone. (What did the public do decades ago with old Perry Mason books? Let them float in flooded basements?)

Meanwhile, I’ve got my nose in THE CASE OF THE HESITANT HOSTESS. Is it amazingly, breathtakingly good?

Nope.

Can I stop turning the pages?

Nope.

 

 

 

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Fatal Summary

Controlling reader involvement is another necessary component of suspension of disbelief. Making readers care about your story is the first step. Thereafter, making them continue to care will encourage them to stick with your characters, willingly following the events in their imagination.

However, reader involvement can be discouraged, diminished, and even lost altogether when an author relies too heavily on narrative summary.

One of the five modes of discourse available to writers, narrative condenses story events or information into a summarized capsule that can boost story pacing, skim over trivial incidents, manage background or explanation, and transition quickly from one setting or time to another.

Narrative is extremely useful, but it carries a price in that it doesn’t lend itself to reader involvement.

Think of how you feel when a friend starts telling you about a terrific novel she’s just read. You’re interested at first, thinking you might want to read the book yourself, but when she launches into a lengthy summary of the entire plot, your interest flags, then you become bored, and finally you stop listening. Eager friend has spoiled it for you by skimming through the best parts, giving away the plot twists, and–worst of all–making it impossible for you to experience the novel in your imagination as it unfolds.

Therefore, when you write fiction, try not to fall into the trap of thinking you’re quickening pace by summarizing the dramatic action. Unless forced by length restrictions to shorten a story, you should never condense important scenes.

By their very purpose and construction, scenes are the most involving dramatic points a short story or novel can offer. Because of that, they are written in a way that immerses readers into the situation, the conflict, and every moment of the action and dialogue that transpires. But summarize a scene or important event, and you render it insignificant in a reader’s perception.

Suddenly, having set up reader expectation for exciting scene action, you drop kick your readers out of that vicarious experience.

It can be quite an unpleasant jolt when it happens. If readers enjoy the story otherwise, they’ll forgive such momentary turbulence and continue. But do this too often in the same tale, and you may well lose your audience completely.

For example, for the past week or so, I’ve been trying to read a mystery novel called PHOTO FINISH by Dame Ngaio Marsh. I’ve known about this author for years, but never acquainted myself with her work until a few months ago. She is considered one of the four original “queens of crime” from the golden age of mystery writing in the 1920s-1930s.

So far, I’ve read perhaps three or four of her books, all of them competent mysteries that I enjoyed. This one, however, I am struggling to finish. I’ve read another book since starting PHOTO FINISH, and I find myself doing other things instead of picking up the book. Worst of all, after several days, I have only reached the halfway mark.

(All fairly fatal signs, don’t you think?)

Now, in all fairness, PHOTO FINISH was published in 1980, two years before Dame Ngaio’s death. It was the next-to-last book she published, and I hope that I can do as well in my nineties after such a lengthy, distinguished, and successful career. The story is set in her native New Zealand, and her depictions of the scenery take me to a remarkable, most unusual backdrop.

Yet despite the flamboyant characters and exotic setting, despite the by-now familiar protagonist–Inspector Alleyn–and his wife Troy, the story just isn’t holding my attention.

The story premise is rock solid and exciting. The plot itself has a few hiccups, chiefly because at the halfway point there’s been no crime committed and as yet there’s still no mystery to solve. However, I realized that the primary reason I’m not engrossed is due to the author’s over-reliance on narrative.

The moment something exciting happens, Dame Ngaio pulls back the camera, so to speak, and relates the event in summary rather than letting the story action take place in moment-by-moment conflict. This unfortunate tactic, coupled with a lack of “real trouble” for the characters to handle, has created a slow, rather circular plot that’s stalled. And all the lovely scenery, vivid characters, and likeable protagonists are insufficient to hold my attention.

I’m going to finish reading PHOTO FINISH, even with gritted teeth and sheer determination, because I think it’s intriguing to see a notable author’s final works as well as her early efforts, but I am having to work much too hard to suspend disbelief in order to stay involved. Unfortunately, this particular story has become a curiosity for me rather than a novel that can carry me away.

Summarize too much of a story, and you end up with readers who just don’t care.

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Reading Potato Chips

Today I broke away from my computer and headed off to the local bookstore. I had three books on my list. One was Jim Butcher’s latest–SKIN GAME. The other two were baby books–GOODNIGHT MOON and something with LLAMA in the title.

I had a yard-long list of errands to run today. My plan was to whip into Barnes & Noble, grab the books, and whip out.

Ha! Like that was going to happen.

There’s a reason I don’t let always let myself browse in bookstores. Today, despite my hurry, once I hit the board book section (“Books for Little Hands”), I was a goner.

Years ago, I collected picture books. I sought out certain illustrators and went for the lavish, ornate ones. Before I knew it, I had a whole bookcase full of these marvelous stories. Eventually I moved to a house where there just wasn’t space for them. With great reluctance, I pared down my picture books to a cherished few and donated the rest to an elementary school.

Today, well aware of the pitfalls in the picture book section, I headed straight for the board books like a race horse wearing blinders. (Do not walk by the picture books. Do not check out the new arrivals in the YA section. Don’t peek at the middle-grade stories. No, no, no!)

I didn’t even have to scan the board book spines. The Llama books and GOODNIGHT MOON were prominently displayed as the bestsellers they are.

Now, I’m fully aware that GOODNIGHT MOON has been captivating kids forever. It’s mega-popular, and all new parents-to-be request it. It’s probably been read at more bedtimes than any other twentieth-century story I can think of.

Alas, I’ve never cared for it.

That’s not to disparage the book. It wasn’t written for me. I know it has huge appeal for its intended readership. Even so, I plucked it from the shelf, glanced at its pages, read its gentle text, and then put it back on the shelf. Why? I wasn’t buying it for me. All I had to do was buy it as a gift and be done.

But no … I next picked up a book that I used to own as a picture book. Even abridged for the board-book set, THE NAPPING HOUSE remains charming. Once I peeked inside, I was lost. I forgot my long list of errands. I forgot time. I had to look at more!

I browsed through little books about freight trains and dump trucks and caterpillars and polar bears and dancing hippos. I looked at puppy books and counting books and books with plots. I skimmed through books with colors and books with concepts but no words.

A friend of mine had told me PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was now in board-book format. It’s a counting book, very clever.

But I also found ROMEO AND JULIET. Really? And, perhaps most astonishing of all, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. For babies? Come on!

I had to open it, and it was all dark, brooding gothic illustrations and single-word pages. For example, one spread had a dark silhouette of a grandfather clock on the left page and huge bold letters on the right, spelling out “Ticking.” It wasn’t an abridgment of the story. It was just concepts.

Weird.

I didn’t look at ROMEO AND JULIET, but now my curiosity is afire and I wish I had.

Of course, I realize that these adult classic tales have been designed to delight the parent or grandparent or fond auntie who will buy it and present it to an eleven-month-old who could care less.

Even so. I was suddenly glad to go back to weighing the merits of THE RUNAWAY BUNNY versus a charming tale about a giraffe who learned to boogie.

Before I knew it, an hour had flown by. I had a hefty stack in my hands because how do you stop with just one of these charmers?

Problem was, I needed one gift, not a dozen. But buying books is like eating potato chips. How do you stop?

With great reluctance, I finally made my choice. I pushed my way out of the kids’ department, yet somehow on the way to the checkout stand I happened to walk past the mystery section. All the new cozies were faced out. Puns for titles were in full array.

Did I want to read about cat mysteries, dog rescue mysteries, or home improvement mysteries? What about mysteries set in libraries, quilt stores, knitting stores, coffee shops or bakeries? Did I fancy a new Alan Bradley or any of the new Alexander McCall Smith titles? What about Walter Mosley or James Lee Burke? I wanted them all!

Can you tell that I’ve been just a wee bit bookstore deprived lately?

I went in with a list of three titles. I came out with a sack-load of eight, along with the names of several authors unknown to me that I want to investigate further.

Where does it stop? How does it end?

When the checkbook–and the potato chip bag–are empty.

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From My Bookshelf: PLEATING FOR MERCY

Occasionally, I crave the comfort of reading a cozy mystery … just as from time to time I want a hot-fudge sundae.

On a recent browse through the bookstore in search of comfort reading, I came across PLEATING FOR MERCY by Melissa Bourbon. Like so many of today’s American cozies, it’s part of a “themed” series, with the requisite pun title.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the plethora of “cupcake” mysteries, “scrapbooking” mysteries, “library” mysteries, “dog viewpoint” mysteries, “cat” mysteries, “herb-growing” mysteries, any number of “cooking” mysteries, “closet organization” mysteries, “antiques” mysteries, “knitting” mysteries, “home renovation” mysteries, etc. etc. etc. (The mind boggles!) Bourbon’s series is called “A Magical Dressmaking Mystery.”

Why in the world did my hand reach out to pluck this novel off the shelf? Well, I have an interest in sewing. Not in the sense of I’m-going-to-sew-my-own-clothes interest, but in sewing as a domestic art and a pleasant hobby. Personally, I sew only to piece quilts. However, the idea of reading about a couturier protatonist appealed to me. It hit several other appeal buttons: small-town setting; prodigal daughter coming home from a big city; multi-generation family life.

Bourbon–no doubt attempting to hit every possible marketing angle–also has a Texas locale, paranormal elements including a ghost, and a touch of history. (The protagonist is a descendent of Butch Cassidy.)

Conceptually, it feels like she threw in the kitchen sink along with everything else.

In reality, the book is a pleasant read. The characters are quirky, yes, but not so bizarre that you wonder, who came up with these oddballs?

Forensic details are swept mercifully to the background. The protagonist is under the pressure of finishing the bride’s dress before the wedding, while wondering whether the bride or the groom is going to be arrested for murder.

Granted, this is no hard-hitting, suspenseful murder mystery. Finding a clue in a broken jar of vintage buttons may be too simple for your tastes. But the plot is solid. There’s enough of an internal conflict in the protagonist to make her interesting. A couple of romantic subplots add more questions. While I found Bourbon’s transitions to be rather rough and the paranormal aspects annoyed me only because they always do, these were minor things that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of a quiet, easy-to-read cozy.

Even if my favorite character was the grandmother’s pet goat, I will read the next book in the series. (Title: A FITTING END)

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From My Bookshelf: THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE

I’ll be the first to admit that my shelf of to-be-read books gets overloaded and dusty at times. Some of the novels on the bottom of the stack are so far from recent their publication buzz has long since faded to silence.

If I mention Alan Bradley’s mystery, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE, to people, I get either a blank look or a quick shrug with the comment, “Sure, I’ve read that!”

So I’m late to the party with this one. I think Bradley has added two or more novels to the series about little Flavia de Luce since PIE was published. Still, who says we have to read books the instant they’re published? Maybe you’re like me, not quite sure about PIE’s premise or its odd title.

All I can say is, Don’t be as slow as I was to pick it up!

Set in England during 1950, only five short years following the ravages of WWII, PIE is a delight from start to finish. Flavia’s entry action in the opening pages is so characteristic of her. It leaves a memorable first impression, plus it foreshadows a later event.

Back in cave-dwelling times, when my writing career as a professional novelist was just beginning, I sent Official Manuscript #2 to my New York agent. It was a young adult adventure set in the Middle Ages. She called me to have a serious talk about whether I intended to write more books for kids. (Please realize that in cave-dwelling times, a long distance phone call was a big deal.)

In 1980, the kids’ market was all but dead in the water. My agent advised me away from that direction, fearing that I intended to target my fledgling career toward a dead end. Should I repeat the word dead one more time in emphasis?

Neither of us could see into the future, much less predict that today the young adult market would rule.

Nevertheless, in 1980 editors would have glanced at the opening pages of PIE, seen that the protagonist is eleven, and rejected it because they weren’t interested back then in publishing children’s fiction.

Let’s get this point established: PIE may be about a child, but it’s not a book written for children. Flavia is as smart as any adult protagonist. The little genius is a clever investigator, and her youth keeps her constantly on the move. The book doesn’t plod. It doesn’t bog down in the middle. The plot twists do their job well, and the clues are puzzlers.

Beyond the central plotline, we have several subplots to keep things lively. Flavia’s ongoing rivalry with her eldest sister Ophelia leads to some brow-raising methods of revenge. The poignant character Dogger, so faithful to Flavia’s father, may be the loyal servant, but he’s more than a stock character as he gives Flavia the emotional support that she critically needs–although she’d rather die than admit it.

The backstory of Flavia’s beautiful mother injects another layer of mystery to the tale. Add several small threads about various villagers, and you have a complex, fast-paced, intricate mystery with a good villain and a very real dose of danger.

Although Bradley’s a Canadian author, he’s managed to evoke a believable post-war England setting. If you’re an Anglophile, enjoy yourself. If you’re not up to speed on mid-century British slang and customs, let alone some of the famous movie stars of the ’50s, you may find yourself puzzled by more than the mystery. Don’t let that keep you away, however.

Just find a comfy chair, put your feet up, set a cup of tea or cocoa at your elbow, and enjoy turning the pages.

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