Daily Archives: September 22, 2017

Cozy Up To A Good Mystery – Agatha Christie Style

By Sharon Reily, Reference Department

It’s a chilly Sunday afternoon and the rest of your family is parked in front of the large screen watching a football game. You, however, are nestled into your favorite comfy chair in front of a glowing fireplace, steaming cup of tea in hand, a soft throw over your knees. You sigh happily as you open another installment of your favorite “Miss Marple” mystery series. This singular pleasure was brought to you courtesy of Agatha Christie, one of the creators and the chief purveyor of the mystery genre known as the “Cozy.” Forty-one years after her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is still one of the top-selling authors of all time, with novel sales in the billions. This September marks the 127th anniversary of Agatha’s birth. So in Agatha’s honor, we’ll look at this traditional mystery genre closely associated with her novels, and explore ways to find works by other authors that will appeal to Cozy fans.

The heroine of Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden series is a librarian.

Mystery fiction is divided into several major categories. Hard and Soft Boiled Mysteries generally feature a seasoned professional detective who often must contend with personal demons while investigating a crime. Procedurals offer blow-by-blow analysis of how a crime is solved, either by detailed detective legwork or scientific investigation. Thrillers and Suspense novels don’t always hinge on solving a crime or murder that occurs at the start of a novel, but instead focus on some ever-intensifying threat to the protagonist and feature lots of plot twists. There are also countless mystery sub-genres – Capers, Domestic, Historic, Noir, Romantic Suspense and True Crime, to name a few.

And then there are the Cozies. Sometimes called Traditional Mysteries, the Cozies are distinguished from the darker, grittier mystery genres by several crucial characteristics:

  • Instead of a hard-boiled detective, the Cozy crime solver is an amateur sleuth who is almost always a woman. Agatha’s Miss Marple is a prime example. The amateur sleuth usually has some other vocation – caterer, chef, cat fancier, bed and breakfast owner, or librarian.
  • In a Cozy, the setting is key!

    The setting of a Cozy mystery is critical and helps provide the novel its “cozy” character. It is often set in a small rural town or charming village, or in some cases a closed environment such as an isolated estate or even a train. The intimate nature of the setting allows most of the suspects to know each other. Bishop’s Lacey, the quintessential English village featured in Alan Bradley’s delightful Flavia de Luce series, and Cabot Cove, the location of Donald Bain’s “Murder, She Wrote” novels, both illustrate the perfect Cozy setting.

  • Cozies are lighter in tone than other mystery genres. They are considered “gentle” mysteries with little or no graphic violence or explicit sex. The murder almost always happens “off stage” and the victim is sometimes a less-than-sterling character who may have had it coming. Any sex occurs strictly “behind closed doors.” [Quick note: some current Cozies tend to be edgier than earlier examples of the genre.]
  • The amateur sleuth is not a police officer or forensics expert, but almost always has a friend or significant other who is one. Through this friend, our sleuth gains access to information, such as an autopsy report, not usually available to your average person.
  • The local law enforcement tends to underestimate and dismiss the amateur sleuth, allowing her to “casually overhear” key details at a crime scene.
  • Many Cozy Mysteries are parts of series.

    A Cozy usually features a “red herring” – a clue that steers the reader away from the actual criminal or suggests an inaccurate conclusion.

  • The victim and possibly some of the suspects are often known to the amateur sleuth. They could be old college friends or coworkers.
  • Cozies usually boast a cast of colorful, likeable, eccentric secondary characters who are often as important to the reader as the amateur sleuth.
  • Cozy mysteries are often written as parts of a series. Readers become emotionally involved with the amateur sleuth and other recurring characters and feel they’re “coming home” to a familiar place and old friends when they begin their next Cozy. There are MANY series to choose from, but a few notable ones include Agatha’s Miss Marple series, M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series, Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, and the previously mentioned Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley (my personal favorite).

    Two intrepid Siamese, Koko and Yum Yum, help their human solve crimes in the “Cat Who” series.

  • Cozies sometimes center around a hobby or theme – everything from cats and the culinary arts to knitting and holidays to tea shops and libraries. A link to a great list of Cozy mysteries arranged by theme is included in “Further Reading” at the end of this article.
  • The good guys usually win and the evil-doers get their comeuppance.

Once you’ve devoured all of Agatha’s Miss Marple mysteries, what’s next?  The list of possibilities is literally endless. To help narrow the field, check out three of Agatha’s contemporaries who helped establish and refine the Traditional Mystery formula and, along with Agatha, comprised the four great “Queens of Crime”:  Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), famous for her Lord Peter Wimsey series, Margery Allingham (1904-1966), known for her Albert Campion series and Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), creator of the Inspector Roderick Alleyn series. WCPL has a good selection of works by each of these writers.

For contemporary Cozy novels, there’s no better place to look than the list of winners and finalists of the annual Agatha Awards. Since 1988, Malice Domestic, an organization celebrating the Traditional Mystery, has honored mysteries that best typify Agatha Christie’s works, defined as mysteries that contain no explicit sex, no excessive gore or gratuitous violence, and can’t be classified as “Hard-Boiled.” The 2015 and 2016 Agatha Awards winners and finalists are listed below with titles available at WCPL noted in bold. A link to the complete list of winners and finalists since the Awards’ inception in 1988 is included below under “Further Reading.”

2016

2015

If you’re already a fan of Cozies or just ready to try them, one thing is certain — you won’t run out of reading material any time soon. See below for lists of works that will keep you reading for years to come. Enjoy…and stay Cozy!

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The Proper Way to Read a Book

By Lon Maxwell and Rebecca Tischler, Reference Department

Damaged Books

I blame my sister, it is completely her fault that I refuse to lend out books without making sure the other person understands that if it is not returned to me in the condition they borrowed it, they will buy me a brand new book. I’ve been reading, a lot, ever since a teacher told me to try actually reading the books instead of just looking at the pretty pretty pictures and making up a story.  I was hooked, and bought ridiculous numbers of books.  So of course, at times I was treated as a miniature lending library because of my “surplus.” I was very generous at first, especially to my sister, until she brought back one of my Harry Potter books SPLIT down the spine. SPLIT!! I repaired my poor book to the best of my abilities (I’m still waiting for it to fall apart again), and then my sister brought back another book that had WATER DAMAGE.  It’d been sitting in the RAIN! THE HORROR!!!

Needless to say, I was tired of being brought back books that I had to repair (it wasn’t just my sister, but as the little sister, I feel it is my duty to put as much blame on her as possible for my quirks).  Then I found out that someone who had been reading my copy of Pride and Prejudice until it was literally falling apart (who shall not be named), was buying themselves a brand new copy because they loved it sooo much they needed a copy of their own (after destroying mine).  So when they showed it to me, I gave them the book they had destroyed and told them that the new copy was now MINE!!! There may even have been evil laughter.  And glowing eyes… and the possibility that I grew three feet…. ANYWAY, suffice to say, that I now have rules about book lending and how others treat my books.  And then I realized, these are good ideas for ANYONE.  ALL books should be treated well.  So a co-worked and I have decided to share ideas for, HOW TO READ A BOOK!

Take it away LON!

This entertaining infographic designed by Michael Rogalsky for Quirk Books presents twelve yoga poses that combine the body simulation of yoga with the mental simulation of reading.

There are many suggestions on posture and physical attitude for reading properly, but I think they’re really just nonsense. Find the way you like to read at whatever moment you have. I have known people to hang upside down in chairs and read like that for hours. How you adjust your body is whatever suits you and your environment (I certainly wouldn’t recommend the upside down posture for, say, the bus). Maybe try book yoga.

This brings us to the book itself. For something made out of trees, books are remarkably fragile. You never want to bend a book cover back around the spine of a book. I’ve see many a paperback fall apart because someone felt it would be easier to read if they could view one page at a time. In hardbacks, this is impossible, but paperbacks are sufficiently pliable to be contorted this way. The problem is that the signatures (the individual sections of pages) are glued to the spine. When you bend the book past a certain degree the glue cracks and you can end up with chapter 27 floating free in the wind while you run after it.

When you want to mark a page, never dog ear the corner. Folding paper creates a point of weakness. Over time the corner will break off. Use a bookmark whenever possible, which means always. You don’t need one of those tasseled slips of laminated card from by the register at your favorite book store. Use whatever you have to hand. If you search your pockets wallet or purse you will most likely find a receipt from something. These make excellent improvised place holders. You will want to avoid things that may have food residue or adhesives on them as these can degrade the paper over time, so that gum wrapper is not the best idea.

Often you will find that you run across a section or passage of a book that you want to preserve or share. Writing and highlighting in books has two camps, those who shudder at the thought and those that think we who shudder need to take a deep breath more often. I hate running across a used book that I’ve been seeking for ages only to find the pages marked up by some prior bibliophile, and librarians will go apoplectic when they find it in the lending books. Personally, I endorse the use of sticky notes and flags, but only for temporary use. The preservation department of the Smithsonian Institute thinks differently. The notes and flags do leave behind an adhesive that will attract dirt and can contain chemicals harmful to the paper over time. If there is something that impresses you so much that you want to preserve, annotate or expound on it, then purchase a little journal to record the passage and your thoughts. You can even note the page in your book journal to return for later perusing.

Now for the big no-nos:

  1. Don’t read while you eat. Think about a bag of Cheetos and your favorite tome. Imagine how every page would end up with greasy orange fingerprints if you ate them while reading. I’m pretty sure that my wife would murder me and never feel a moments remorse if I got cool ranch powder on her first edition of Visions of Cody. The thing is, all food has these residues. They’re just not the color of orange highlighter.  Food residue contains acids and oils that damage paper as well as attract bugs that eat paper like roaches. Always eat lunch while reading? Your bookcase is full of enough food particulates and paper to make a cockroach buffet.
  2. Don’t read in the tub, regardless of whether the book is in the tub with you or not. Paper and water do not play well. That includes the humidity that steams up your mirrors.  The same goes for the beach with the added dangers of sand and salt, camping with its grime and weather, and boating with all of the above and an unsteady platform on which to place yourself. I know the joys of reading on the beach and while camping, so if you do decide to chance it, try to save it for those cheap mass market books you pick up at the pharmacy or grocery store.

After all this you may think that I’m some sort of book preservation fanatic, and you’d probably be right. I work in a library after all. However if you enjoy books, you most likely want to share that love with others. Give them the best possible book when you loan them out by avoiding simple damage. If you like these suggestions and want to learn more about preserving your collection as a whole, please see our printed material preservation article.

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