STUMP » Articles » Meep Media: Wacky Mysteries » 22 October 2017, 15:54

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Meep Media: Wacky Mysteries  

by

22 October 2017, 15:54

One has often heard of the mystery niche called “cozies”.

Cozy mysteries, also referred to as “cozies”, are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. Cozies thus stand in contrast to hardboiled fiction, which feature violence and sexuality more explicitly and centrally to the plot. The term “cozy” was first coined in the late 20th century when various writers produced work in an attempt to re-create the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.1

Thing is, while some are definitely cozy-ish, involving cats, tea, cakes, and knitting, there seems to be a subbranch I call “wacky” mysteries.

I’m not going to define these, because the books I’m going to go through here are not necessarily well-connected. Pretty much all, but one, of the books I’m writing about I picked up either at a library sale or used book store. These have been part of my paperback purge — these books were all in poor condition, and so as to skinny down my library I pull out pages as I read.

NOT WACKY…BUT WEIRD

So, I’m a longtime Christie fan. Yes, I noticed when she re-used plots (though what was more common were particular elements she exploited the hell out of, and almost always involved issues of identity). I do re-read the books.

So I am about to tell you about what I consider her worst mystery novel: The Big Four.

Part of the indignity is that it involved Hercule Poirot, her most famous detective (followed close on by Miss Marple). The plot, such as it is, involves an international conspiracy… but not really ideological. Think more Joker than Koch Brothers or Soros & Co.

It is so clearly Christie trying to cash in on a fad: it was published in 1927, during the period when there really were a lot of anarchists/fascists/communists/etc. throwing literal bombs at buildings. (and people) Also something something Russia/China/America/eeeeevil.

There is one plot point that gets referred to in later stories and novels, and it’s good to know. You may read the story and may not get what I’m referring to. Basically, read this only if you’re a Christie completist. It’s plain embarrassing.

That said, there are a pair of novels that I much prefer for intrigue, etc,: The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery. I prefer the second one over the first, but it’s more satisfying if you’ve read the first one as you get to know major characters from the second, which makes it more satisfying. Thank goodness she stopped with that pair for the main characters, and used Inspector Battle for a later novel I also enjoyed: Towards Zero. (Cards on the Table also involved him… AND Poirot and a couple others.)

Check out one of these others — they’re not particularly wacky, but the Chimneys stories are a little different, involving international intrigue, and a lot less insulting to the intellect than The Big Four.

LITERARY WACKINESS

Jasper Fforde is definitely a wacky writer. It’s hard to describe his books, other than he definitely has a comic outlook (as in, none of this is serious at all) and others who have tried to dip into this kind of wackiness have not turned out all that well.

I got into Fforde with his Thursday Next series: I’m tearing apart (and re-reading) Lost in a Good Book, in which the hero, Thursday Next, hides out in the Bookworld. One could call it an alternate history – but it’s not – a fantasy book – which it sort of is… it’s just better not to think of it as a genre other than comedy. It has elements I hate in scifi/fantasy, like time travel, but it sort of works.

Thursday Next is a LiteraTec who generally runs down faked manuscripts. In the first book of the series, The Eyre Affair, she ends up in the original manuscript of Jane Eyre (yes, I said “in”) and ends up changing the plot to the “happy ending” we currently have. Along the way, she reconciles with an old boyfriend who she got pissed off at due to a modern era version of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and she has a dodo as a pet.

It helps to know some history as well as British Literature (esp. 19th century lit) to get some of the points, but you don’t really need to know a lot.

But this is supposed to be about mysteries, and that series sometimes has elements of mystery, but not really. What I want to talk about is a spin-off series: the Nursery Crime series.

In one of the Thursday Next series, nursery rhyme characters go on strike, and want better terms. There is a negotiated settlement where they get to live in a little-known novel and then develop their own plots. The Nursery Crime series is kind of the result…

The first book is The Big Over Easy, where the main character, Jack (who has a reputation for killing giants), has to investigate the apparent murder of Humpty Dumpty.

The second book is The Fourth Bear, involving the serial killer the Gingerbread Man out on the loose…

Those two books are all that are of the Nursery Crime series at this point, and you really don’t need to know much literary anything. Even knowing the nursery rhymes won’t necessarily help… but it wouldn’t hurt. You don’t need to have read the Thursday Next novels – because it only explains, if comic mysteries involving Mother Good characters need explaining, why there is a mix of a “real” novel with these obviously fictional characters.

Look, it’s postmodern, but the point is to entertain, not to muddle the mind. It’s enjoyable.

SOMETIMES WACKINESS IS ALL THERE IS

This is probably not fair to this particular author, because evidently I happened upon the end of a series. Charlotte MacLeod wrote a number of mysteries, and the one I just finished was The Odd Job. The thing is, once one is on Book 11 involving particular characters… there may be a bit of machinery going on.

In this particular case, it’s one of those mystery-solving couples, however, one half the couple is missing for almost the entire book. The backstory is that there’s a musty private art museum in Boston that’s part of a bequest, and that a bunch of the artwork had been forged and stolen/sold off over the years. One half the couple, Max Bittersohn, is off in Argentina trying to track down some Watteaus. The other, Sarah, meets the new chair of the board of trustees, who is a big cattleman (whose cows seem lacking in the beef flavor) who made his money some other way…and then the woman who had forged the paintings over the years ends up dead and….

The problem with this is that there are the gratuitous references to all the previous plots (so if I ever go back to earlier in the series, I already know main plot points — Christie made this mistake once — but it wasn’t overly obvious. You wouldn’t know which novels they were unless you either had already read them, or someone told you.)

But the big main problem is that there are too many characters for no good reason. Too many recaps of the action thus far with no new info, too many extraneous details of locations that aren’t important at all, and too much literal phoning-it-in. Also, I don’t find mere wackiness of characteristics of characters to be all that interesting. It may be that the earlier books were better, and MacLeod was mainly milking it at that point.

Also, there wasn’t anything particularly satisfying about the solution to the mystery. Indeed, I figured it out well before the end. That just ain’t right!


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