20 December 2013

Getting Cozy


by R.T. Lawton


Winter is just starting, and baby, it's cold outside. Now is a good time to cozy up to a crackling fireplace with a hot toddy in hand and a well-written book. Which leads me to a confession. I don't normally read cosy mysteries, they just aren't my first choice of reading material. However, when I like the way an author talks, I tend to buy their book, and if I like that one, then I go back for more.

Enter Kathleen Taylor. We met at a writers conference where she made a very interesting presentation. I bought a book and went back for four more. We talked. She personalized the books. Turned out we knew people in common through her day job and mine. She had worked in the Redfield Mental Hospital and I knew one of her fellow workers from when he and I were in the same motorcycle gang.

I'm going to say she wrote cosies, but in this day of cross genres and blurring of the lines, I will defer to Wikipedia for a definition of cozy. Feel free to argue otherwise. Here's my paraphrasing.

Cosies

Cosy (also spelled cozy) mysteries are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. The detectives are nearly always amateurs and frequently women, who are free to eavesdrop, gather clues, and use their native intelligence and intuitive "feel" for the social dynamics of the community to solve the crime.

The murderers are typically neither psychopaths nor serial killers, and once unmasked, are usually taken into custody without violence. They are generally members of the community where the murder occurs, able to hide in plain sight, and their motives– greed, jealousy, revenge– are often rooted in events years, or even generations, old.

The supporting characters are often very broadly drawn and used in comic relief. The accumulation of such characters in long-running cosy mystery series frequently creates a stock company of eccentrics, among whom the detective stands out as the most (perhaps only) truly sane person.

On to the Series and Characters

The community is Delphi, South Dakota, one of those places well off the Interstate, yet the long distance bus lines still stop here to deliver and take on travelers. If you have ever paused in one of these small towns long enough to buy gas or grab a so-called home-cooked meal at the local cafe, then you will instantly recognize the community of Delphi.

Tony Bauer is our waitress in the town's only cafe. She is a 40-something year old widow, insecure, somewhat exceeding the surgeon general's weight guidelines and is having an affair with the local feed and seed owner whom she had a crush on in high school. Her not so easy life keeps getting complicated when friends and relatives continue to involve her in community activities.

In her first book, Funeral Food, (originally titled The Missionary Position, but the editors thought that title too racy), Tory's name and address has appeared as one of the Unchurched on a list of the Plains States Unsaved. When Winston, a young Mormon missionary, shows up at the cafe looking for potential converts, Del, a fellow waitress who is Tory's cousin-in-law, makes passes at him even though her current boyfriend is a local deputy sheriff with a hot temper. Several days later, Tory discovers Winston's corpse in the cafe's mop closet, which dumps her into a crockpot of lethal, long-simmering small town secrets. If Tory's not careful, she could end up in the missionary's position: flat-out, stone-cold dead.

Sex and Salmonella sends Tory to a neighboring town to check out a carnival to make sure it doesn't have any problems which will reflect back on her cousin Junior Deibert. Junior, the strait-laced wife of Delphi's Lutheran minister, made arrangements for the carnival to come to Delphi, but then began hearing rumors. Unfortunately, Junior has eaten an ill-prepared chicken and come down with food poisoning, so she talks Tory into going in her place. When the carnival does show up in Delphi as scheduled, it's Tory who discovers the body in the Evil Hall of Mirrors side show.

In the next three books, actually four because I recently found there's a sixth novel in the series, the deceased keep showing up at inopportune times, but always in an interesting way which ties back to the small town and its past.

Samples of the Writing

With all due respect, Robert Fulghum got it wrong--kindergarten is not where life's most important lessons are learned. Sharing and napping and neatness are all well and good, but the sexless elementary school environment does nothing to prepare you for the hormonal whammy that awaits. With the possible exception of how to handle an IRS audit, everything you really need to know about the world of grown-ups, you learned in high school.
   *          *          *          *          *          * Lying is something I try to avoid, but snooping is another matter entirely. Delphi citizens pride themselves on knowing as much about each other as we possibly can, and that knowledge is not always honorably obtained.
   *          *          *          *           *          * I have a fair amount of practice in the willing suspension of disbelief. I was a book-a-day reader from the time I figured out that it was the black marks on the printed page, and not the spaces in between, that mattered. I often believe six impossible things before breakfast. And when Nick was still alive, I worked on believing even more impossible things after supper, especially when he'd amble in six or seven hours late with a cockamamie story about a flat tire.

Finally

Kathleen's most recent novel, The Nut Hut, is not part of the Tory Bauer series. From the sample pages I read, it looks like the story's background came from her days working inside the mental hospital. Guess I'll be forking out some cash soon to read the rest of the book.

Merry Christmas to all, and stay warm and cozy.

9 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

R.T., I haven't read any of Kathleen Taylor's books, but after your article, I'm adding them to my "to read" list.
Thanks for confessing you occasionally read cozies. Some men laugh at the idea of their reading them, but I was surprised how many masculine readers Callie has.

janice Law said...

The Queen Mum used to say the idea Christmas present was a new Agatha Christie. Sounds as if you've found the ideal American replacement!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wonderful voice--thanks for sharing Taylor's work. The publisher's veto of the great title The Missionary Position exemplifies the limitations placed on the writer of cozies--one reason I won't consider writing 'em.

Eve Fisher said...

I've read Taylor's work, and (since I, too, live in small town SD) feel way too at home in Delphi.

Dixon Hill said...

Sounds interesting, R.T. I'll have to check out some of her books.

Fran Rizer said...

Just a note about the publisher insisting on changing the title on one of Taylor's works. This is not unique to cozies. Most major publishers don't hesitate at all to request a title change.
Some that were changed either to a choice made by their publishers or at the suggestion the author come up with something new include:
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
WHITE NOISE
AMERIKA
PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT
WAR AND PEACE
PARADISE
VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
THE ICE STORM
THE GREAT GATSBY
MEIN KAMPF
1984
LORD OF THE FLIES
GONE WITH THE WIND
DRACULA
THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER
THE SUN ALSO RISES
BRIDESHEAD REVISITED
ROOTS: THE SAGA OF AN AMERICAN
FAMILY
and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was originally titled ATTICUS

Dixon Hill said...

Mein Kampf was the result of an editor's change? Holy cow! What did Hitler originally call it -- Mein Nut-ball Ravings ???

Leigh Lundin said...

Dixon: (laughing) That would have been an improvement. Just shows the damage when one self-publishes.

So is Kathleen secretly writing about Eve? Enquiring minds want to know.

Her paragraph about snooping reminded me of someone comments about Miss Marple. To us, she seems like a nice old biddy but to her villagers, she seemed an insufferable, nosy, pain-in-the-arse.

I confess I've read most of Fran's stories and some of Jan's and enjoyed them. I'm not sure Elizabeth's quite qualifies a cosy, but hers are fun to read.

Fran Rizer said...

Dixon, Adolf Hitler originally wanted to title his book this: FOUR AND A HALF YEARS OF STRUGGLE AGAINST LIES, STUPIDITY AND COWARDICE.
I'm thinking original titles might be a blog for me in February.

Leigh, I think Liz will come to Orlando and slay you if you call her a cozy-writer!