Category Archives: Mike Befeler

And Still We Wonder Who the Hell We Are*

lost-identitiesThere’s not much more basic – and more essential to the way we think about ourselves – than our identity. If someone asks your name, you know the answer. You may forget certain things you’ve experienced, but you have a core of memories that tells you who you are and where you’ve been. Imagine if you didn’t.

Crime fiction that makes use of this plot point (characters who don’t know who they are) can be risky. It’s a plot point that has to work hard to be credible. What’s more, it has to fit in smoothly with the rest of the plot. But when it does work, it can add an interesting dimension to a crime novel.

One novel that’s called a lot of attention to this plot point is S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep. This novel tells the story of Christine Lucas. Because of injury from a mysterious accident, she wakes every morning with no idea who she is or where she is. Her husband, Ben, knows about his wife’s difficulties, and tries to help her each day to re-orient herself. Her doctor suggests that she start to keep a daily journal, and use it to write anything she does remember during the day. The hope is that she’ll gradually remember her life. Then one day, she sees a note in her journal: ‘Don’t trust Ben.’ Now, everything gets turned upside down. With her memory and sense of identity gone, Christine has no idea why Ben cannot be trusted, if he can’t. And what if she’s the one who can’t be trusted? Perhaps her memories are wrong. As she slowly pieces together what she can of her life, Christine isn’t sure who can be trusted. What she gradually comes to know, though, is that there is something very dark in her past.

Sherban Young’s Fleeting Memory introduces his detective, PI Enescu Fleet. In the novel, a man wakes up to the sound of someone knocking on the door of his cabin. He opens the door to a young woman who asks for his help. She says she has no idea who she is or what she’s doing there. He invites her in and tries to help. When she asks his name, it occurs to the man that he has no idea who he is, either. Thinking he’s mocking her, the woman leaves. That’s when it really hits home that the cabin is unfamiliar, too. So is the dying man he finds in the living room. The man’s last words are

‘The answer lies with Keats.’

Just then, the protagonist gets another visitor, Enescu Fleet. Fleet’s looking for his dog, who’s run off. And when his host finds out he’s a PI, he thinks he’s found the solution to his problem. Not knowing his own name, he becomes Assistant PI as he and Fleet try to piece together what’s happened. This novel is lighter than some others that feature characters who don’t know who they are, and puts more of a ‘cosy twist’ on the plot point.

That’s not the case with Giles Blunt’s BlackFly Season. In that novel, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Officer Jerry Commanda is having a soft drink at Algonquin Bay’s World Tavern when a young woman comes in, covered with black fly bites, and with her hair matted with leaves. She doesn’t know who she is, nor how she came to be at the tavern. And she has no idea where she lives or anything else that could help Commanda assist her. She’s taken to hospital, where X-rays confirm that she has a bullet lodged in her brain. This means that someone was trying to kill her. So OPP Detectives John Cardinal and Lise Dorme start to investigate. They find that the woman’s injury is related to the murder of a biker gang member, and to some other ritualistic killings.

And then there’s Peter May’s Coffin Road. That novel begins as a man stumbles ashore on a beach of the Isle of Harris.  He has no idea who he is, or why he was in the water, or that he’s apparently been living on Harris for the last eighteen months. He soon learns that he is a writer, who’s working on a book about a local Hebrides mystery: the 1900 disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. The only problem is, when he looks at his outline, he finds that he hasn’t written anything. The only clue he has is a map of the famous Coffin Road. He tries to trace back his movements from the time he lost his memory – and discovers a dead man. Now, he’s faced with the terrible possibility that he committed a murder. D.S. George Gunn investigates, and finds the relationship between the lighthouse keepers’ disappearance, the dead man, and an Edinburgh teen who becomes convinced that her father (thought to have committed suicide) is still alive.

There are also novels in which characters gradually lose pieces of their identities. For instance, Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind features Dr. Jennifer White, a former well-regarded orthopaedic surgeon who has been diagnosed with dementia. Over the course of the book, we learn that there has been a murder in the house next door, and that White may be responsible. But she is gradually losing her identity and her memory, so it’s very hard for the police to establish just what happened. There’s also Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Those stories feature octogenarian Jacobson, who has short-term memory problems. So he often forgets what most of us would consider very basic things.

And that’s the thing about losing one’s sense of identity. We take for granted the knowledge of things like our names, our children’s and grandchildren’s names, our personal stories. When we don’t have that – when we don’t even know who we are – it can be thoroughly frightening. And it can make for a solid layer of suspense in a novel if it’s done well.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.


Filed under Alice LaPlante, Giles Blunt, Mike Befeler, Peter May, S.J. Watson, Sherban Young

I Know Your Deepest, Secret Fear*

Deepest FearsBoth Ian Rankin and Stephen King have made the point (‘though in different ways) that, among other things, writing helps to exorcise those fears and personal demons that plague just about all of us. And certainly writing can be very cathartic. That’s part of why so many people keep journals.

It’s possible that reading crime fiction can be cathartic, too. There are, of course, many reasons people read crime fiction. One of them might be that it lets us face some of our fears and darker thoughts in a very safe way. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if you look at some of the topics and themes in the genre, you certainly see that it addresses some of our deepest fears.

For example, people are social creatures. We need to depend on each other. That’s especially true for people in our ‘inner circles.’ And that’s why we’re perhaps most vulnerable to family members, partners and close friends. Stories that address that fear quite possibly give us a safe outlet for thinking about it. And there are plenty of them.

Novels such as S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife, and even Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives explore this sort of fear. In all of them (and many others, too, that I haven’t mentioned), the plot raises the question of how well we really know even those closest to us. Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is one example of a film that does the same thing. Such stories touch a raw nerve for a lot of people, and bring that fear out into the open.

Along with that is the fear many people have of being outcasts. Most of us don’t mind having our own little quirks and eccentricities, but we still want to be accepted and included. Plenty of crime fiction novels address that deep-seated need we have to belong.

We see this sort of fear in novels such as Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, and Wendy James’ The Mistake. In all of these stories (and plenty of others), part of the plot involves a character who is made a social pariah. That experience adds tension to the stories. But it also speaks to a deeply human fear of being all alone in the world, and the target of others’ contempt (or worse).

One of the biggest fears people have is the fear that they might be mentally ill – that their sanity is slipping away. When some people say, ‘Am I crazy?’ it’s because they want reassurance that others feel the same way, or saw/heard the same thing, or have the same perception. The alternative – questionable sanity – is so deeply frightening that it’s difficult to really comprehend.

Several crime novels address this fear, too. One of the main characters in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, for instance, starts to doubt her sanity when she begins to have a sense of déjà vu – about a house she doesn’t ever remember visiting before. And the protagonist in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is slowly losing a battle with dementia. Since that story is told in first person, readers get a strong sense of what it’s like to feel that one’s losing touch with reality. We also see this sort of fear addressed and explored in Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Jacobson is in his eighties, and has developed short-term memory problems. So he keeps a notebook in which he records everything that happens, so that he’ll be able to recall it later.

It’s hard to imagine a worse nightmare for a caring parent than the loss of a child. That may be particularly true in cases of abduction, where parents don’t know what happened to their child. That makes it even harder to come to terms with the loss.

I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that, in the last few decades, there’ve been several books in which authors address that awful possibility. Just a few examples are William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, and Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill. There are others, too, of course, many more than I have space for in this one post. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it has been explored quite a lot in recent years. And, like our other deep, dark fears, it’s in part a way to explore that darkness in a safe way – a way that allows us to keep our distance, as it were.

These certainly aren’t the only truly dark fears that people have. And it might be the case that crime fiction allows those demons to be called out and sent off in a way that doesn’t do damage. It certainly lets authors flush them out.

What do you think? Do you find it cathartic to read crime fiction? If you’re a writer, do you think people write to let out the demons? I’d be really interested in your opinions.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ Spy.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Alice LaPlante, Ellery Queen, Garry Disher, Helen Fitzgerald, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, Mike Befeler, Paddy Richardson, S.J. Watson, Sarah Ward, Stephen King, Wendy James, William McIlvanney

Here in Status Symbol Land*

Status SymbolsEvery culture and even social group has different values. So the things that confer high status on someone vary a great deal. But just about every culture does have some way of conferring higher status on some people than on others. And those status symbols sometimes take on extreme importance. Status symbols are woven throughout culture in real life, so it makes sense that they are also woven throughout crime fiction. Let me just give you a few examples of what I mean.

In some cultures, ‘blue blood’ confers high status on people, even more than money does. Several of Agatha Christie’s novels touch on this sort of status symbol. In Death on the Nile for instance, Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race are aboard the Karnak on a cruise of the Nile. One night, fellow passenger Linnet Doyle is shot and Poirot and Race begin to investigate. The most likely suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Linnet married. But Jackie couldn’t possibly have committed the murder, so Poirot and Race have to look among the other passengers. One of those passengers is Marie Van Schuyler, a ‘blue blood’ American who takes ‘birth status’ very seriously. In fact, she barely speaks to anyone on board the cruise because most don’t have a ‘good enough’ background. When Poirot asks her if she knew Linnet Doyle or anyone in her family, here is Miss Van Schuyler’s response:


‘My dear mother would never have dreamed of calling upon any of the Hartz family [Linnet’s mother’s family] who, outside their wealth, were nobodies.’


Poirot himself is just a bit of a snob, but even he sees what a status symbol ‘blue blood’ is to Miss Van Schuyler, and in a sub-plot of the novel, he has an interesting way of making use of that.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, status doesn’t come from a particular surname or birth circumstance. It comes from cattle. If you think about it, that makes sense too, as someone who can afford a lot of good cattle is likely to have more means than someone who can’t. And it’s not just amount of cattle either. Even more status is accorded someone whose cattle is healthy, strong and of high quality, as that implies that a person is wise enough to choose cattle well. Such a person is Obed Ramotswe. He isn’t extremely wealthy, but he is very skilled at choosing good cattle, and he’s amassed a herd that gives him high status. When he passes away, he leaves the cattle to his daughter Precious, who understands how important good cattle are. She uses the proceeds from the sale of the cattle to open her own detective agency, and fans of this series know that she credits her father with making her agency possible. There are a few other plots too in this series in which we see how much of a status symbol cattle is in this culture.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series takes place in Delhi, where an important status symbol is to have a driver. Even if one is perfectly capable of driving oneself, it’s still important to have a driver. And in Delhi traffic conditions it makes a lot of sense to have a driver who is very familiar with the area. Puri isn’t a particularly wealthy man. And he doesn’t have a high-status job such as a diplomat or a famous surgeon might. But he has a driver whom he calls Handbrake. Handbrake knows the roads in and around Delhi intimately and is often able to get Puri where he wants to go much faster than Puri could on his own.

Teresa Solana pokes some fun at Barcelona status symbols in A Not So Perfect Crime. In that novel, powerful politician Lluís Font hires brothers Josep ‘Borja’ and Eduard Martínez to find out if his wife Lídia is having an affair. The brothers take the case and follow her for a week, but see no evidence at all of infidelity. Then one evening Lídia is poisoned. Her husband is, of course, the most likely suspect, and he’s arrested. But he claims to be innocent, and asks the Martínez brothers to continue to work for him and find out who really killed Lídia. Neither brother has any experience on murder cases, but there’s a lot of potential here in terms of money and future clients, so they continue to investigate. At one point early in the novel, we get a clear and witty look at status symbols in the circles in which the Fonts move:


‘..when lunching with a lady friend, women from a certain social class first go shopping in order to appear in the restaurant laden with bags and, so much the better if they’re the exclusive designer variety. It’s a matter of quality rather than quantity. This way I’ve learned that a single Loewe or Vuitton bag beats any number from Bulevard Rosa or the Corte Inglés, that Armani and Chanel level peg, and that Zara is a no-no. That is Borja’s Bags’ Law. And it’s not the only unwritten code that reigns in particular zones of Barcelona’s upper reaches.’


In this case, it’s the name on a shopping bag that confers status.

The prison culture is unique and has different ways of conferring status on people. There is of course, the custom of tattoos that indicate why the person is in prison, which gang the prisoner belongs to and so on. Those tattoos are important status symbols. So is the prisoner’s reputation. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, for instance, Superintendent Frank Swann returns to Perth when brothel owner Ruby Devine is shot. The investigation hasn’t gotten very far, in part because Ruby wasn’t an ‘important person’ and in part because it’s possible that her killer was a corrupt cop, a member of the so-called ‘purple circle.’ If so, the members of that ‘purple circle’ will do everything they can to prevent the truth about her death from coming out. Swann persists though, and learns that Ray Hergenhan, who’s in prison for armed robbery, may be the murderer, possibly paid by the cops. During one of their conversations, Hergenhan admits that he’s never denied killing Ruby because being considered guilty of murder is a prison status symbol. But he also says that he really isn’t guilty. It’s an interesting example of what ‘counts’ as a status symbol in a given culture.

And then there are retirement communities such as those we encounter in Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are and Mike Befeler’s Retirement Homes Are Murder. The two books are quite different, but each one takes place at least in part in retirement homes. In those social groups, an important status symbol is number of visits, especially from one’s children and grandchildren.

Culture has a lot to do with what becomes a status symbol, but just about every culture has them. Little wonder we see them so often in crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Pleasant Valley Sunday.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Catherine O'Flynn, David Whish-Wilson, Mike Befeler, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana

Old Man, Look at My Life*

Elder Care HomesSince the beginning of the 20th Century, nursing homes and care homes for the elderly have been a part of the social and cultural landscape in a lot of places. They are by no means a universal phenomenon of course; in a lot of cultures, families see it as their responsibility to care for the elderly personally. In fact, that cultural difference is the stuff of a post in and of itself. But there are many cultures in which elder care homes have become a part of life. The people who are in such homes have a lot of wisdom and history to offer, and sometimes, they have their own secrets too. What’s more, they have the time and perspective to notice things. So it’s not surprising that we see such homes in crime fiction. 

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, for instance, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee is on the trail of the person who killed Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who had recently moved to the Reservation. At the same time,  Chee’s been looking for sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who’s gone missing from the school she attends. Chee comes to believe that the two cases are related when it turns out that Sosi is distant kin to Gorman. The search for answers leads Chee to Los Angeles, and to one of the last places Gorman was seen before he left for the Reservation. Nearby is an elder care home, and Chee notices that several of the residents spend time outdoors and might have seen something useful. It turns out that he’s right, and he gets a valuable clue from what he’s told. This story also presents an interesting perspective as Chee reflects on the difference between the way the elderly are cared for in the dominant-culture community, and the way they are cared for in his own Navajo community.

The decision to move, or to move a loved one, into an elder care home is not an easy one. And once the decision has been put into motion, so to speak, that doesn’t mean everything runs smoothly. We see that, for instance, in Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are. TV presenter Frank Allcroft has hit a sort of plateau in his life. He’s happily married and has a close relationship with his eight-year-old daughter Mo. But he’s facing some challenges, one of which is the sudden death of his mentor and predecessor Phil Smedway. Smedway was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was jogging. But a visit to the site where the tragedy occurred suggests to Allcroft that maybe this wasn’t an accident. The road is straight and clear, with plenty of room for even a sleepy or drunk driver to swerve to avoid Smedway. And the weather was clear at the time of the incident, so visibility wouldn’t have been a problem. At the same time as Allcroft starts asking questions about what happened to Smedway, he’s dealing with a complicated relationship with his mother. She is unhappy adjusting to life in the elder care home where she lives, and Allcroft, of course, feels a sense of guilt that she is there at all. Although this plot thread doesn’t involve a crime, it does give the reader a look at how difficult it is to decide that a care home is necessary, and to choose which home is the right one. It also gives the reader a sense of the way families deal with the issues that come up after a loved one has moved to an elder care home.

We see those issues too, by the way, in Elizabeth George’s novels featuring Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers. In a story arc in these novels, Havers comes to the realisation that she can no longer care for her mother, and she doesn’t have the funds to arrange for her to be in the kind of top-of-the-line home that would give Havers peace of mind. It’s not an easy situation, and George doesn’t make light of it.

James W. Fuerst’s Huge introduces us to twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls. He has his issues and problems, but what he wants more than anything is to be a detective, just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who stole the sign from the property of the elder care home where she lives. One of the steps Huge takes is to talk to some of the home’s residents and employees. He doesn’t get a vast number of clues from his interviews, but readers get to see a bit of life in an elder care home of the time (the novel is set in the 1980s). And although there are challenges and issues, it’s not portrayed as an unpleasant place.

Neither is the retirement home in Mike Befeler’s Retirement Homes are Murder. In that novel, the first of his ‘geezer lit.’ novels, Paul Jacobson has retired to an elder care community in Hawai’I after the death of his beloved wife. He makes a group of friends who turn out to be very helpful when Jacobson is accused of murder. One day, he finds the body of fellow resident Marshall Tiegan stuffed into a trash chute. Jacobson is a likely suspect, since there was no love lost between him and the victim. What’s more, Jacobson has serious short-term memory loss. He can’t remember at any given time what happened the day before, or even a short time before. One of his friends encourages him to keep a journal in which he writes down everything he does, so that he can look back at it as a reminder. That journal helps both to clear Jacobson’s name and to lead to Tiegan’s killer. In this novel, we see the daily ‘ins and outs’ of life in a modern elder care environment. We also see how the residents can form interesting friendships with each other, and a sense of community.

In Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team investigate the grisly discovery of a left food clad in a training shoe. Then another, similar, discovery is made. And another. There’s no easy way to identify the feet, so the team starts by looking for anyone who’s disappeared from the area. Interestingly, of the group of people who have gone missing in the last year, four of them are from the same elder care home. Then there’s another disappearance, also related to the home. The home itself is well-run and managed, and there’s no evidence of abuse or neglect. In fact, it seems a good place. Wisting soon learns that there’s another bond among the residents who’ve gone missing. They’d known each other for sixty years, and had a connection that started during World War II. So these deaths could be related to past incidents. As Wisting and the team sort the case out, we get a bit of a look at the way elder care facilities are run, and about the long-term bonds that can form among the people who live in them. 

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series features Ash House, a retirement/elder care home run by Ethan Ash who later shares the responsibilities with Jared Lowe. Quant’s first encounter with Ash House is in Sundowner Ubuntu, when Clara Ridge hires him to find her son Matthew, whom she hasn’t seen for twenty years. It turns out that Matthew is a former lover of Ethan Ash’s so in the course of that investigation, Quant gets to know Ash and his daughter and he and Ash begin a relationship. Saying more about that will spoil an important story arc in this series. But Ash House plays a role in a few of Quant’s investigations. And it’s depicted as a warm, home-like sort of place – a place for the ‘swinging senior’ set, as Quant puts it.

Elder care facilities are an increasingly common part of a lot of cultures as the population ages. They offer a lot of benefits to families as well as many challenges, and as I say, they aren’t by any means embraced universally. But they are interwoven into our society, and so it makes sense that they are interwoven into crime fiction too. Which depictions have stayed in your memory?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Old Man. 


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Elizabeth George, James W. Fuerst, Jørn Lier Horst, Mike Befeler, Tony Hillerman

Now Everything is Oh, so Cozy*

CosiesMystery novelist and fellow blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Knot What it Seams   was released in February. That’s the second in her series featuring retired art gallery professional Beatrice Coleman. And Rubbed Out, the fourth in Craig’s Memphis Barbecue series (which she writes as Riley Adams) is due to be released in less than a month. I’m very happy for her success, as I think she’s very talented. It’s also got me thinking about the appeal of cosy mysteries. They’ve been a part of the crime fiction scene for a long time, and they are consistently popular with a lot of readers. Of course, everyone likes one or another kind of novel for different reasons. But here are a few of my ideas as to why cosies are as popular as they are.

Many of them feature amateur sleuths and readers who like to identify with the protagonist find amateur sleuths especially appealing. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a normal, if I can put it that way, person. She’s not a cop and frankly, she’s not even eager to investigate mysteries. She’s a baker and that’s her real professional passion. She’s also not fashion-magazine beautiful. She’s one of ‘the rest of us,’ and that makes her accessible. Of course, the series features interesting characters and solid plots too, as well as a really effective Melbourne setting. But all that aside, Chapman is a ‘regular’ person. Now, not everyone might call this a cosy series because it does get a little edgy at times, but it ‘counts’ for me. Your mileage as the saying goes may vary.

Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson is also an amateur – a ‘regular’ person. When we first meet Jacobson in Retirement Homes are Murder, he’s moved to a retirement home after the death of his wife Rhonda. One day he finds the body of fellow resident Marshall Tiegan stuffed into a trash chute. When the police are alerted Detective Saito takes the case and begins to investigate. Jacobson is immediately suspected for a few reasons. First, Marshall Tiegan did not exactly top most people’s popularity lists and Jacobson had good cause to dislike him. What’s more, Jacobson has severe short-term memory loss. He can’t recall on any given day what happened the day before. So he can’t explain how he came to find the body or what happened just before the murder, and he can’t provide an alibi. Jacobson knows he’s not a killer though, so he decides to investigate the murder himself in order to clear his name.

One of the most appealing things about cosies for a lot of readers is that they tend to be low on violence and even lower on gore. Of course, murder is a violent, horrible thing and a well-written cosy acknowledges that. But the violence is generally kept ‘off stage.’ That’s what we see for instance in Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. Bayles is a former attorney who now owns an herb and tea shop called Thyme and Seasons in Pecan Springs, Texas. In Chile Death, Bayles’ policeman partner Mike McQuaid is recovering from a serious line-of-fire injury that has left him in a wheelchair, probably permanently. When he’s invited to serve as one of the judges for the upcoming Cedar Choppers Chili Cook-Off, Bayles thinks this is the perfect way to help McQuaid take his mind off his troubles. He’s unwilling at first, but finally agrees. On the day of the cook-off, one of the other judges Jerry Jeff Cody suddenly dies. It turns out that he was severely allergic to peanuts, and someone put peanuts in the chili he was asked to sample. Since she and McQuaid were both on the scene, Bayles gets involved in the investigation. There are several suspects too since Cody was not only an unfaithful husband but also a shady businessperson. In the meantime, Bayles and McQuaid also look into some disturbing allegations of some things happening at the nursing home where McQuaid is recuperating. There are stories that the director may be skimming money from the patients and has been abusive with at least one resident. These stories tie in with the murder and bit by bit, Bayles discovers the connections. There is violence in the story in the sense that someone is killed. But there is no gore and the violence that there is, is ‘off-stage.’

That’s also the case with Alan Bradley’s historical (1950s) Flavia de Luce series. Flavia is a preteen chemistry whiz who lives in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie we learn that she and her two sisters are being raised by their father Colonel de Luce in the family home Buckshaw. One morning, Flavia finds a dead body in the family’s cucumber patch. It turns out that this man is the same man she saw having an argument with her father the night before and sure enough, Colonel de Luce is soon arrested for the crime. Flavia knows that her father isn’t a murderer so she decides to find out who the dead man was and who really killed him. Flavia discovers that although the dead man and her father did have a tragic past connection, there are several other people who were just as eager to see the victim killed. In this novel, we don’t see the murder as it actually occurs, and the description of the body is kept brief. And yet, there is no doubt of what happened and Bradley gives a very authentic picture of how frightening it must be to have a family member accused of murder.

Many cosy series also feature a cast of ‘regulars,’ some of whom may be eccentric, but they’re all appealing. For lots of fans of cosies, that’s a big part of their appeal. Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Mma. Precious Ramotswe is like that. Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s only lady detective, is the main protagonist. But there are several other characters too, to whom fans of the series have become deeply attached. For instance, Mma. Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni owns Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. He doesn’t really solve cases with his wife, although she does sometimes seek his input. But his character is much-loved, and even his not-exactly-hard-working apprentices are popular ‘regulars.’ So of course is Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective with quite a lot of skill in her own right. Fans have followed the development of her character as she has evolved through the series. Also popular is Mma. Sylvia Potokwane who runs the local orphanage. There are other ‘regular’ characters too, and those who love this series are as attached to them as to anything else.

We also see that with Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series. The main protagonist is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, who lives in the small town of Pickax, in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ But there are several other ‘regulars’ who have become popular with fans. There’s Polly Duncan, head librarian and later bookshop owner, who is also the main woman in Qwill’s life. Then there’s Arch Riker, Qwill’s close friend and editor, and Arch’s wife Mildred. There’s also local police chief Andrew Brodie and luncheonette owner Lois Inchpot. As the series progresses, we see how the various ‘regulars’ interact with each other and with Quill, and fans have enjoyed the story arcs that feature them.

Well-written cosies of course also have believable mysteries and a solid setting too, just as any good crime fiction novel does. But for many people, the accessible protagonist, the low level of violence and brutality and the ‘regular’ characters of most cosies makes them especially appealing.

What about you? If you’re a fan of cosies, what is about them that appeals to you? If you write cosies, why did you choose that sub-genre?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Clarence Paul, Barney Ales, Dave Hamilton and Mickey Stevenson’s Once Upon a Time, made famous by Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells.




Filed under Alan Bradley, Alexander McCall Smith, Kerry Greenwood, Lilian Jackson Braun, Mike Befeler, Susan Wittig Albert