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August 15, 2006

Bookish murders - bookshop owners and librarians as detectives: Death of the Party - Carolyn Hart; Murder by the Book - D. R. Meredith; Bookmarked to Die - Jo Dereske

Posted by Helen Szamuely

Death of the Party
by Carolyn Hart
Avon Books, 2005
Paperback, 3.67

Murder by the Book
by D. R. Meredith
Berkley Publishing Group, 2006
Paperback, 3.67

Bookmarked to Die
by Jo Dereske
Avon Books, 2006
Paperback, 3.67

The traditional detective story is alive and well in the United States. In fact, it is flourishing. While British reprints of American novels seem to consist of the tales of a few tough 'tecs - male or female but mostly the latter - and never-ending gruesome tales of serial killers who always seem to target the detective/doctor/forensic scientist, over on the other side of the Pond there are many series of "cosy mysteries". Quite a few of them can now be bought in the UK, certainly in London, in the excellent Murder One bookshop in Charing Cross Road.

The series tend to centre on various communities, which has the extra advantage of the reader being able to travel round the United States without leaving his or her armchair and the detectives have well described jobs and professions. Many of them are women and few are professional investigators. Sometimes the books provide examples of the detective's work, if she is a cook or, as I noticed a little while ago, a candle maker. Needless to say, not all of them are good. In fact, I would go further and point out that the vast majority of these cosy mysteries are extremely bad, being far too cosy and not at all mysterious.

The three books reviewed in this article are the latest examples in three very highly thought of series. Their common theme is bookishness - the heroines are all either bookshop owners or librarians and two of them are particularly interested in detective stories themselves. In fact, an interest in thrillers, mysteries and detective stories is a recurring theme in modern detective novels, though few of these are as entertaining as the adventures of Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in Partners in Crime.

There is a problem with all these series and it is not simply the fact that after a while the characters cease to interest even the author (as faced by Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie among others). I blame the critics, starting with Julian Symons and his seminal Bloody Murder. As the author of a number of extremely interesting detective novels himself Symons ought to have known better. But he and his many successors have been advocating the theory that the best detective story writers ought to go beyond the genre and write "real" novels. Symons, for example, who always prefers thrillers to detective stories, despite his own achievements, repeatedly shakes his head over someone like Ngaio Marsh failing to transcend the genre.

Transcending the genre is all very well but a good detective story is considerably more difficult to write than a sloppily constructed and written "real" novel. In fact, all that happens is that we get a romance with a little detection thrown in instead of a detective story, not a work of literature. And that is what has befallen many of the series of cosy mysteries.

Carolyn Hart's Death of the Party has her usual couple of sleuths, Max and Annie Darling. She owns a mystery bookshop on the island of Broward Rock, South Carolina, called Death on Demand and he is a would-be crime investigator who also has a dippy but delightful empathetic mother. (To be fair to Ms Hart, Laurel Roethke does come across as delightful, unlike the rather ghastly supposedly charming aristocratic bullies described by Margery Allingham or Ngaio Marsh.) In this book the latter day Nick and Nora Charles (no cocktails, not too many wisecracks but still attractive) go to another island, invited by the owner to find out who had killed her brother-in-law a year previously.

The scene is set for a very traditional murder mystery. The island is cut off as the handyman - who turns out to be a drug smuggler - escapes with the launch, the rowing boat and the ham radio. There are a large number of suspects. Needless to say, another murder happens and . Well, nothing or not much. A good deal of atmospherics, a lot of emotions, various characters painfully enacting their parts but precious little detection for a book that is about 100 pages longer than its predecessors. In the end the murderer, whose identity becomes clear to the reader within the first twenty pages, is uncovered by the sheerest accident and Annie barely escapes with her life. Perhaps, one should be generous and say that the book is teetering between a romance and a detective story. The next one, already advertised, will show us which way Ms Hart will go with this series (she has another one about a journalist turned crime investigator, Henrie O).

G. K. Chesterton wrote somewhere that one of the main problems with having an amateur sleuth was to explain how that person managed to fall across so many dead bodies. The number of bodies in St Mary Mead, the surrounding countryside and towns would surely have given the Chief Constable some very uneasy moments. The way a number of writers choose to deal with the situation is to provide their characters with a convenient and moveable amnesia. Thus, Annie Laurance Darling, who has already solved a number of murders, shivers with apprehension at the thought of being involved with violent crime. One longs to remind her of the many previous involvements with it. In D. R. Meredith's Murder by the Book the heroine's propensity for stumbling across corpses becomes a rather amusing joke, with various people muttering about the statistical unlikelihood of a white middle class woman finding any more of them.

Needless to say, Megan Clark -

a twenty-seven year old woman with a doctorate in archaeology and anthropology with a speciality in palaeopathology or bioarchaeology
- finds one again. Well, actually, she finds three bodies, thus defying statistics. Apparently, there is a serial killer on the loose, who turns out to use one of Agatha Christie's best known red herrings. There is also a parallel plot about a skeleton buried in the old laundry and a car in a lake, both dating back to 1938.

Megan Clark cannot get a job on a proper dig, possibly because of her propensity for finding fresh corpses, causing accidents (to other people) and being an all-round nuisance, so she works as a reference librarian. She is also a member of the Murder By the Yard Discussion Group, all of whom are described by her as the Skeleton Force. They are supposed to be the Baker Street Irregulars to her Sherlock Holmes and a great deal of indignation is displayed when they refuse to do so.

The real problem with this book is the heroine. In any other circumstance, real or literary, someone would shake her quite hard, tell her to butt out of other people's business, get a life and bed the professor she is lusting after, especially as he is lusting after her. They do ride off into the sunset together at the end of the book.

Instead of which we get chapters in the third person from the point of view of Police Officer Jenner, who thinks Megan is wonderful; third person chapters from Megan's point of view, which also seem to think she is pretty good; and first person chapters from the Professor's point of view, which are frankly knee-tremblers. What we do not get is much detection. Megan concentrates on the old mystery and using her full armoury of winsome bullying, total certainty that she has the right to everybody's private secrets and self-pity when she feels her victims' pain, she pieces some of it together. Eventually she is told the full story. In the meantime the serial killer strikes again and in a flash Megan understands who it is and why the killings have been going on.

The drooling about the cute red-headed Megan is rather a pity as the parallel plots would have made a very good book together, if properly developed and detected. As it is, D. R. Meredith has decided to produce a rather poor romance with a bit of a crime theme to it.

Which brings one on to the best of this bunch, Jo Dereske's Bookmarked to Die. Miss Helma Zukas, the heroine of Jo Dereske's series is a professional librarian in Bellehaven, Washington, having, as she erroneously thought, escaped her Lithuanian-American family in Michigan. Though Ms Dereske and Miss Zukas clearly share various qualities and biographical details, the former manages to retain a detached and slightly ironic attitude to her heroine. This makes for much easier reading and the books are less likely to be thrown viciously against the wall.

Miss Zukas is proud of being a very efficient librarian and happy in her job. Well, she would be if she were not being blackmailed by her scheming New Age-y boss to attend group therapy sessions; if she were not being undermined by a cute new red-haired librarian with bubbly manners (it's as well that Megan Clark lives in Texas, otherwise one would get very suspicious); if she knew why her close friend and possible future husband had dropped her without a word; if her cat had not disappeared and if those wretched murders did not keep happening. Fortunately her best friend Ruth, a bohemian artist to Helma Zukas's extremely organized librarian, is around and together they unravel who is killing women after meetings that Helma also attends in between trying to find Boy Cat Zukas and straighten out their various entanglements.

Helma and Ruth do actually detect and investigate. What might have turned into a romance, remains this side of the divide. Jo Dereske's stories remain well-written, highly entertaining page-turners. Long may that continue.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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Avon has cancelled their cozy mysteries so they can be replaced with trendier psychic mysteries. Miss Zukas is one of the series Avon cancelled.

Posted by: Ruth at November 25, 2007 05:12 AM
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