Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Branches on the mystery tree

The mystery genre has developed many branches since its introduction into fiction. Like any old and flourishing tree some branches are very large, and have developed branches of their own, and even those smaller branches produce offshoots. Sometimes a branch depends on its uniqueness because of the character or occupation of the primary detective. This has given us Priests, Nuns, Rabbis, Ministers and University Professors (as samples) who find themselves in positions which require them to untangle mystery knots and solve crimes. Another sub branch of the cozy is what I call the theme cozy. This usually involves people with special interests, is often as interested in the skill set or occupation around which the plot revolves, and depends as much on the lives of the main characters as on the mystery being solved. So, we have, among other things, cat mysteries, dog mysteries, knitting, cooking, cookie shop, wine making or collecting, and house renovation mysteries. These are almost always in series, and, while each presents a crime (usually murder, of course), the series itself tells the story of a specific person, that ‘person’s immediate family and environment, (town, village, etc.) and love life if not married, and family life (kids spouse and pets) where appropriate. While there is almost always a police presence of some sort, the indomitable sleuth is either barely tolerated or outright discouraged, because, after all, the owner of a cookie shop or the president of a knitting group is emphatically not a professional law enforcement officer. At some point in the series, the detective usually wins the grudging respect of someone in law enforcement and gains some access, albeit with many reservations. Sometimes the market seems to be flooded with these theme mysteries, and many readers find them shallow. Well, usually they *are*, but they are popular because they work. The crimes are often cleverly constructed, the characters are often very well drawn, sympathetic and believable, the continuing story of the main character’s life and experiences is engaging, and, last but not least, the theme provides interest of its own, and not just for people who are interested in the topic. I have absolutely no desire to renovate an old house, for example, but I enjoy the “Home repair is homicide” series by Sarah Graves, partly because I collect tidbits of home renovation knowledge I may never need, but which is still interesting. One of my favorite series is the “cookie shop” mysteries, especially because I love to bake, and the recipes included are an extra treat. Of course, any mention of this type of story must include homage to Dick Francis, who brought the world of horse racing brilliantly to life during his long and illustrious career, and to Lillian Jackson Braun, who delighted readers (including this reader) for many years with her charming “cat who …” books. In short, most of the books in this sub-genre are mind candy, but at their best, they are pure, and scrumptious, Godiva!

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