Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Pick up a New England cozy mystery; add a cup of tea!




Go ahead: pick a comfortable chair in a warm, well-lighted corner. Settle down with your favorite beverage. Open to the first page.
It may be about a cat. Even a talking cat.
It may be set in a library, or at a vacation location you crave. It may center around a favorite holiday. Count on it: There's a whole lot of baking going on.
You've entered the slime-free zone: no vicious murders and body parts here; no flagrant language; no terrifying presences. Perhaps, though, you'll find a good recipe.
This is the world of cozy mysteries, where you'll likely be amused, puzzled and left happy. Isn't that what cozy conveys: comfortable, inviting return visits to a feel-good space inhabited by people you actually like and understand? Think of death—by chocolate Lab. Sneaky Pie Brown, the curious crime-solving cat. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, who solves mysteries without pausing in her knitting.
Cozy mysteries, a sub-genre of detective stories and other traditional mysteries, developed during the late 20th century, through writers like Charlotte MacLeod (Professor Peter Shandy of Balaclava Agricultural College), Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency), Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series (though Christie in not, per se, a "cozy" writer), and Lilian Jackson Braun ("The Cat Who ..." series of detective novels). There are even television shows based on cozies, such as "Murder, She Wrote."
Today, hundreds of cozy authors type away in their favorite mystery settings as their fan base expands, thanks to the online universe of books. Don't make the mistake of thinking they're simplistic or poorly executed; some are very well-written. As in everything, the options vary in strength.
Several New England authors are among those hard at work on cozy series. Barbara Ross bases her stories in the Maine coastal area where she lives part of the year; J.A. Hennrikus of Somerville, aka Julianne Holmes, sets mysteries in the Berkshires; Leslie Meier lives seasonally on Cape Cod and writes holiday-themed series centering on Lucy Stone, a mother of three with a phone sales job and a penchant for discovering bodies. Sherry Harris writes about a fictional Air Force Base in the Concord/Bedford-area. Gardener-writer Edith Maxwell of Amesbury writes historical mysteries and cozy mysteries like "When the Grits Hit the Fan," "Mulch Ado About Love" and "Murder on Cape Cod."
Some of them will attend the April 29 Agatha Awards ceremony, hoping their nominated books win. There are dozens more out there, specializing in different regional or interest areas.
The cozy's setting is enticing: characters are normal folks and the mysteries revolve around homespun themes like cooking, animals, coffee shops and travel. The aforementioned "Death by Chocolate Lab" is a real book, in the Lucky Paws Petsitting series.
They're not all available in print; some are audio and e-books; the lucky ones are in all mediums. E-books have allowed the volume to escalate, adding self-published writers, so if you're new to the field, research authors (or use word of mouth and online book talk sites) before ordering. Some are good; others more run-of-the-mill. The variety is rich, from "bad hair days" mysteries to country stores and "a cat in the library stacks." A lot of the wry hangs about these books and some are very, very good.
The name for this sub-genre originated in an essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," by the gifted mystery writer Ray Chander. Writer Barbara Ross explains.
"In it, he savages the British detectives of the Golden Age as unrealistic. At one point, he refers to one of the protagonists as 'an insouciant gent named Antony Gillingham, a nice lad with a cheery eye, a cozy little flat in London, and that airy manner.' So the term cozy began as a pejorative, but now many of us in the field have embraced it."
To some degree, cozy mysteries are a balm for the weary. Ross has heard from many readers who like the books as a sort of comfort food for the tired or sorrowing soul.
To be marketable these days, labeling is necessary—a book can disappear into the unknown otherwise. "In the age of Amazon, it's become very necessary for books to be categorized by genres and subgenres, so that people can find them," Ross said. "In days past, it wasn't necessary to know what you'd call yours—an agent or publisher would figure that out, and to some degree that's still true."
Kensington Publishing Corp., an independent traditional publishing house in New York, handles Ross's books, along with those of Fern Michaels, Lisa Jackson, Joanne Fluke and others. They are not a one-genre publisher, releasing 500 fiction and nonfiction titles each year, only about 50 of which are cozies. Publicist Karen Auerbach says she's excited about writer Edith Maxwell's organic farming series debuts soon with "Mulch Ado About Murder."
She also praises Ross. "Barbara's terrific because she's a member of the New England Mystery Writers ... she has a great blog, called maineclambakemysteries.com. She attends Sleuthfest and Malice Domestic (book conventions). She's very active, doing marketing for her books, which is part of the key of selling these books. Her agent, John (Talcott), knows she's tailor-made for the program. He knew it would be a good fit (for us). Her books have been very strong; they're getting terrific reviews in Suspense magazine, the Library Journal, etc. Her fans are really embracing the series."

Auerbach calls cozies "a guilty pleasure."

"I think they've been increasing in popularity because they're exciting; they're escapism," she said. "There are a lot of stresses in the world today and this is a refuge of interest—intrigue that takes you out of what's going on in the world."


J.A. Hennrikus/Julianne Holmes
Hennrikus, as Holmes, writes books based out of a clock shop, while her Hennrikus-penned series, launching in the fall, will revolve around a theater cop. Berkley-Random House launched her books, and a new publisher has commissioned the second group.
She began writing mysteries after a fellow writing class student suggested she "drop a body" within the first three chapters of her book, to attract readers. It worked, so she stuck with it.
She reads cozies as well. "I like the puzzle, and there's a justice component," she said. "Injustice is righted."
Working in theater, as she does, provides plenty of reality for her backgrounds. Also helpful, she says, is having a good publisher. "You write, you build up readership; slowly, more and more of your books sell. Chances are, you're gonna keep doing your day job, then figure it out." It's not a get-rich-quick scheme for most writers, she warns.
First, there's the writing, then the editing, rewriting; she follows a process. "I am a huge plotter; my process is to sit down, come up with an idea and plot it out, scene by scene. I put them on note cards, decide what will happen and who will do it. I create 60 to 70 scenes, then wrestle with the cards and move them around. Then, I put them into Scribner's—a wonderful writers' tool. Then I edit, and maybe edit again with an editor."
Typically, an author is working with the publisher's editor on more revises before it's final. Then, the writer helps proof the pages. For marketing, the writer is often involved. "With a mainstream publisher, they do some of it," said Hennrikus. She shares the Wicked Cozy authors blog, uses Amazon,  Goodreads website giveaways, co-markets on social media. "We're starting to play with Facebook ads, to see if they are useful. Publishers all have marketing teams, but writers these days have to do a lot themselves. We all celebrate when somebody has a new book out."

Barbara Ross
Hennrikus, who loves to read cozy mysteries, calls Barbara Ross a favorite. "She writes wonderful stories, and she's up for a best contemporary book this year." ("Fogged In" is up for Best Contemporary Novel in the mystery-related Agatha awards—winners to be named in April). Ross's second book, "Clammed Up," was twice nominated for mystery awards and made the short list of Maine Literary Award nominees for crime fiction. "Boiled Over" received an award nomination as well.
Ross summers in Maine. She's a good writer and her mysteries keep one reading until the end. Dubbed Maine Clambake mysteries, "Clammed Up," "Fogged In," "Boiled Over" and "Mussled Out" have attracted a growing audience. The latest, "Iced Under," is for anyone who wants to vicariously experience Maine in winter, from the safety of a warm house.
She and her husband, Bill Carito, own the former Seafarer Inn in Boothbay Harbor, and she can be found on its porch some summer days, writing away. Winters, she's either at Key West or home in Hingham. She worked for three decades, co-founding two successful start-ups in educational technology, before seriously following her muse.
"I'd been member of a writers group since 1996," she said. "That had kept me writing through the years of jobs, kids, etc. I mostly wrote short stories during that period—it was all I could keep in my head, quite honestly. In 2010, my company was bought by a competitor. I committed myself to writing full time at that point."
From her early days of reading Nancy Drew mysteries she was a mystery fan, and her first novel, "Death of an Ambitious Woman," was more traditional.
"I wasn't interested in writing cozy mysteries. In our society, books written by women, for women, are always at the bottom of the barrel. I pictured gray-haired women with knitting needles in their hair—that wasn't me. I've since learned cozy is a much broader category that I ever thought. I always read what are called 'traditional' mysteries—P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Louise Penney and Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George." In an additional twist, she's begun to accrue male readers since the inception of e-books.
Her agent, John Talbot, urged her to try one, certain it would find readership. The publisher (Kendall) took "Clammed Up" and the next books she created in what became a series. Think lobster, summer waves, local history, likeable people. When her agent asked for recipes, however, Ross balked. "I don't cook, and I don't grocery shop." She gets help from her husband. "I tell Bill the setting, the character cooking, etc., and he puts together a menu. He experiments until he can create a couple of recipes. Some, like lasagna, are her own, although, she admits, "I'm kind of the family baker."
"Typically," Ross said, "a cozy will have an amateur sleuth—not always, but very often, the sleuth is not a policeman or a private investigator, but will have some other profession. The murder takes place within a community; it's not a vast conspiracy. And, typically, justice will prevail in the end: The world is a pretty nice and orderly place, then something terrible happens and story is about restoring justice and order. There's not a lot of graphic violence, sex or swearing. You don't typically linger on the entrails."

Just for fun, here's a partial list of cozy subjects:

Bad hair day mysteries
Country store mystery series
Paws and claws mystery series
Cat in the stacks mystery series (about librarians)
Dangerous Type mystery series (Bookman Dead Style)
Cat Rescue Mystery Series

There's a plethora of food-related cozy mysteries:

The bread shop mysteries ("Kneaded to Death")
Chocolate covered mystery series
Georgia Peach mystery series
Gourmet Popcorn Shop mystery series
Charmed Pie Shoppe mystery series
Memphis bbq mystery series
Soup lovers mystery series

The character-driven:
Aunt Dimity mystery series by Nancy Atherton
Casebook of Dr. McKenzie Mystery Series by Claudia Bishop
Zoe Donovan mystery series by Kathi Daley
Scarpetta's Winter Table by Patricia Cornwall - recipes from the kitchen of her famous character Dr. Kay Scarpetta.
Place focus:
 Martha's Vineyard mystery series
Irish Village mystery series
Key West food critic mystery series (combines food and locale)

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