Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Study in Cozy

Day 60 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.

Jo is still reading mystery after mystery, and I have just been re-reading the opening chapter of Reasonable Doubt, by Steve Vogel, a true crime book.

Today I want to share with you Jo's categorization system for mystery, and also ponder that "scarlet thread" as it winds through real life.

Jo says there are two main kinds of mystery: cozy and not cozy. Within these are a number of subcategories and degrees. A cozy murder mystery is often set in a small town or other non-metropolitan setting. The reader will not be exposed to a lot of blood and gore, and good will prevail in the end. That is, the murderer will be found out, caught, and punished or sent off into the legal system, or meet his/her own bad end.

A subcategory of cozy is fluffy, where the detective or investigator is often unconventional, maybe even more of a busybody than a professional. Fluffy mysteries are cute and often come in series. There can be lots of sidetracking and silliness, but justice will prevail in a happy ending.

My parents were listening to another in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith in the car on our recent road trip to Ohio. A delightful, cozy mystery. I got interested in the people.

Not cozy mysteries are gritty, often set in big cities, and don't shy away from tough language and the hard realities of life. In a gritty mystery, the reader may well see the murder take place, in all its blood and gore, in present action, or in imagined re-enactment during the autopsy or a court proceeding flashback. The violence may be gross and extreme.

A subcategory of either cozy or gritty mysteries is the police procedural, where we learn what happened during the investigation, which has its own intrigues.

Those Swedish mysteries by Stieg Larsson sound pretty gritty to me. But I haven't cracked open my Girl With the Dragon Tattoo yet. Eww.

Reasonable Doubt, by Steve Vogel, opens as a police procedural. We discover the bodies with police officer Mike Hibbens. And we see lots of blood, eventually, when flashlights give way to room illumination, and a horrific scene of a mother and children murdered in their home. The horror is in the idea. Vogel spares us what he can, and does not manipulate or exaggerate. He wasn't there; he is re-enacting the scene from the point of view of Hibbens and is giving us the realizations as they come. But the axe and the butcher knife are right there in the middle of the bed.

This is a true crime story, by a radio news director who was troubled by discrepancies in the case. David Hendricks, a traveling salesman, was accused and convicted of the crime of killing his family. He sold prosthetic limbs, designed & sold a medical back-brace, perhaps dallied with the models for his catalogues, and belonged to an evangelical Christian sect, so there was an icky factor as the police investigation and trial progressed. Icky after the horrible fact of the deaths.

An important book, raising, well, reasonable doubts, Vogel's own investigation as a writer caused the case to be re-opened, and Hendricks was retried and got out of jail. What really happened remains a mystery, and telling you the readily available reported facts of the case is not really a spoiler for this book. It grips you and makes you want the real killer, whoever it is, to be found out, caught, and punished. Especially, in my case, because it happened in my small, cozy town.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cosy and not cosy - or perhaps it's cosy and anti-cosy.

I think that in the public mind, the Sherlock Holmes stories have settled into the cosy category, though they pushed the boundaries in their time: alcoholism, infidelity and murder (in The Cardboard Box), miscegenation (The Yellow Face), a drug-addicted college professor (The Twisted Lip), blackmail, kidnapping, vampirism, and more. (Some of it overtly surreal, some of it even more surreal in context – such as that Oscar Wilde was one inspiration for the character of Thaddeus Sholto in The Sign of Four, after Doyle had lunch with him and their mutual publisher.) One thing I love about the Internet is when forgotten gems come to light – like the following review of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes from the New York Times of 1894, which reveals how at least some of his contemporaries viewed Doyle’s stories of murder and mystery: (On the other hand, the broader public disagreed with the reviewer, and put on mourning when they read The Final Problem.)

After all, how many people have copies of the Times, or the Strand, from the 1890s still kicking around the house?

More recent, but period pieces nonetheless, are what may be anti-cosy novels - Rosa and Shadow and Light, by Jonathan Rabb. I describe them as period pieces because of how well I think Rabb conjures up the inter-war atmosphere of Berlin in 1919 and 1927. But as violent, gritty, and dark bookends to the Weimar Republic, I think they probably qualify as anti-cosy, too. (I know the Republic lasted another five years after Shadow and Light, but as the story notes, the Republic was sliding downhill fast.) Synchronicity – right after I read Rosa for the first time last year, they began to investigate whether a body that had been in the Charite Hospital for 90 years was Rosa Luxemburg. So, the search for the truth goes on - both inside and outside of the covers of our books.

And, yes, the Stieg Larsson books qualify as gritty, too. Gripping, and not, I think, cosy. But very good. That scarlet thread runs through the three Millennium novels, too.