Friday, July 4, 2014

In Search of a Good Light Mystery Book

It's that time again. I'm looking for more mystery books of a specific type. I tend to call them cozy mysteries, but I don't think this category quite fits the standard definition since it somehow managed to include Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books, and I suspect that both Wolfe and Archie would be quite irritated at being called "cozy." So, let's call them "light" as opposed to hard-boiled or noir (I suppose I could call them "over easy" for the contrast to "hard boiled').

So, recommendations are being sought for a mystery (or more) that

Has a strong sense of place , a sense that the location matters it doesn't need to be the same location, but it should be a familiar one that the author likes. Nero Wolfe's brownstone is the primary example here: There's the comfortable chair, the famous globe, the bookshelves, the paperweight… Walk into that room and you know where you are.

Seaside towns, country houses, knitting shops, and the like are also welcome. I suppose this place could be a big city, but I don't think I've read any books set in big cities where the city as a whole felt like a solid setting.

Has more than one detective, or a detective with friends who help. Sometimes I like the Lone Detective. Sometimes I don't. This time, I'm looking for someone whose friends and relations are there to help, not just as accessories. Nero Wolfe needs Archie Goodwin (and Saul Panzer, Fred Derkin, and sometimes even Orie Cather) if he's going to solve his cases; Sherlock Holmes seldom really needs Watson as anything more than a biographer.

Or, to put it another way, when I was growing up, I preferred the Dana Girls and the Hardy Boys to Nancy Drew because the first two pairs needed each other. Nancy tended to smile graciously and refrain from pointing out that the clues her friends had found were quite out of date by now as she was busy investigating some other part of the case.

So: Friends, not accessories.

Does not feature stupid police

The idiot police are a staple of cozies, and I was fine with that for a while, but it does get tiresome. I'd rather have Cramer, who is good with most cases, or Alec (of the Daisy Dalrymple books) who is entirely competent (and who sometimes steals the scene, but that's a different matter). They don't have to be thrilled that the amateur detective is nosing in on their case, they just shouldn't be stupid.

Does not have a constantly catty enemy

Loads of cozies seem to feel like their female lead needs an evil alter-ego, the over-dressed, shrill, harridan who makes life miserable for everyone and yet is somehow always invited to the same parties, engaged to handsome men, and possessed of inordinate wealth. I'd rather skip that, thanks. It's not that everyone needs to be nice all the time, it's just that I see no need for the author to make her lead character seem nicer by giving her a shallow, stereotyped contrast.

Is not spectacularly gory

In fact, it might be fun to read a mystery that did not feature a murder, but those seem to be rather thin on the ground, so I'll settle for quiet poisonings and out-of-sight gunshots that serve to start the puzzle off rather than spreading gore or grief liberally through the book. Yes, it's unrealistic, but I never said I was looking for realism—not this time around.

Has reasonably good writing

It doesn't have to be deathless prose, but I'd rather it be readable. I can, at need, overlook a man whose chuckle "drifts down" to the woman standing right next to him, or the odd word "flitting up the stairs," but I'd rather avoid cauterized souls, thanks just the same. Likewise, I'll forgive the odd grammatical glitch in an otherwise good story, but an addiction to sentence fragments may make me put the book down.

Preferably does not feature a gorgeous heroine

This is optional, but if the first few pages include the information that the heroine is flawlessly beautiful, I start taking off points mentally. It can work, at least some of the time; I was quite beguiled by The Phryne Fisher Mysteries by Kerry Greenwood for several books before I tired of her perfection. I might never have done so if I had rationed my reading instead of going through several all in a row.

I may have missed a few desirable qualities here and there, but I'm not aiming for perfection, just amusement.

Suggestions of books or or modifications to the list are welcome.


  1. You've read the Harriet Vane books Dorothy Sayers wrote, right? If not, read those. Or if so, still read those. They are great. They can stand up to a reread.

    1. Read, reread, and will certainly read again at some point.

      BTW: I love it that you call them the "Harriet Vane book" and not the "Lord Peter Wimsey" series.

  2. Have you tried Harriet Quigley by Nicola Slade? She's a retired headmistress with a cousin. Only a couple of books but quite fun. Murder Fortissimo and A Crowded Coffin. Nicola Slade as another heroine but I've not tried her.
    And do you know Death in the Stocks by Georgette Heyer? I expect you do.

    1. I've never read Nicola Slade, thanks for the suggestion! Neither of the library systems around here carries anything by her, so I'll have to go further afield.

      Georgette Heyer is a favorite of mine, both for her Regency romances and for her mysteries.

    2. You can get Nicola Slade on kindle on Amazon UK if you do kindle. She is a friend of a friend and Facebook keeps offering her as a possible friend… which feels a bit creepy!
      I just love so many books by Georgette Heyer. Actually The Talisman Ring is an ace mystery. And funny too.

    3. I'm not a Kindle person.

      Oooh, I'd not read The Talisman Ring before. Now on hold!

  3. You might try Deborah Crombie's series featuring police detectives Duncan Kinkaid and Gemma James. The series gets grittier as it progressed, but is never quite too hard-boiled for me to stomach, and I'm pretty over-easy myself.

    1. Thanks! A Share in Death is on hold at the library now.

    2. And I thoroughly enjoyed it! I have another Deborah Crombie out now---not the next in the series, because that wasn't in the library & I haven't patience to wait for a hold, but another one in the series.