Blog Archives

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!

Read the rest of this entry

Advertisements

Gone Girl — A Puzzling Disappearance

By Sharon Reily, Reference Deaprtment

An accomplished young woman goes missing and is presumed murdered. Is her cheating husband the culprit or is she deviously punishing him for being unfaithful? After a massive search and media frenzy, she turns up alive. Sound like the premise of Gone Girl, right? Guess again. This actually happened to one of the world’s most beloved novelists!

The titles Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, And Then There Were None might seem a bit familiar as some of the best known mysteries by the queen of whodunits, Agatha Christie. September 15 marks the 126th anniversary of Agatha’s birth in 1890. During a career that thrived from 1920 until her death in 1976, she penned 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, the world’s longest running play (The Mousetrap), and created the beloved fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. She also wrote romance novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott. Her intricately plotted tales of love, murder, greed, and jealousy have sold more than a billion copies, making her one of the most popular writers of all time.

agatha-in-1925-how-she-looked-near-the-time-of-the-disappearanceBut in 1926 Agatha, already an established writer, became the subject of a mystery herself – one that has never been solved. She simply vanished one wintery evening. She was found safe 11 days later, but with no memory or explanation of what had happened to her.

At 9:45 on the evening of December 3, 1926, 36-year-old Agatha Christie kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind, and then drove away from Styles, her English estate. Her abandoned vehicle was found on a slope not far from her home with the hood up and lights on. There was no sign of Agatha, but her fur coat, driver’s license, and overnight bag were still in the car.

Her car had been left near “the Silent Pool,” a natural spring where several children reportedly had died. There was much speculation that she had drowned herself or had been murdered and a massive search ensued.  The search for the author (whose recent novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was already selling briskly) was at the time the largest manhunt in British history with over 1,000 officers and 15,000 volunteers on Agatha’s trail. A fleet of planes was employed – the first time they’d been used in England in a missing person’s case. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got in on the action, taking one of Agatha’s gloves to a famous medium. Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series, examined the scene around the abandoned car. Their efforts turned up no clues.

By the end of the first week, Agatha’s disappearance was a national obsession, and was reported on the cover of the New York Times. Theories abounded. Some thought the disappearance was a publicity stunt to boost sales of her latest book, but it was already selling well before she vanished. Others thought she might have been injured in a car crash and wandered off suffering from amnesia. But the car showed no sign of an accident.

Some also suggested that Agatha was missing because of her husband’s affair. Her husband, Archie Christie, a former Royal Flying Corps pilot, didn’t hide his philandering ways from his wife. He was currently having an affair with Nancy Neele, a young friend of the couple, and Agatha’s car was found near a house where her husband was planning a rendezvous with Nancy. This suggested to some that Agatha was trying to thwart the affair, or even frame Archie and Nancy. Many even suspected Archie had killed Agatha.

christie_at_hydroOn the 11th day of her disappearance, Agatha was recognized by a musician at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel, a luxury spa in Harrogate. She had registered there as “Theresa Neele” from Cape Town, curiously using the last name of her husband’s mistress. Later Agatha’s husband claimed that she was suffering from complete amnesia – she reportedly didn’t know him when he came to collect her at the hotel and she had also failed to recognize herself in newspaper photos during her stay there. Agatha, her family, and friends maintained a lifelong silence about the lost 11 days. So the mystery remained a mystery.

After the incident, Agatha resumed her prolific writing career, which continued with enormous acclaim for many decades. She also divorced Archie in 1928 and made a happier match with the renowned archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930. They were married until her death.

In his 2006 book Agatha Christie: The Finished Portrait, Andrew Norman advanced a new theory that during her disappearance Agatha was experiencing a rare deluded condition called a “fugue state” — a psychogenic trance brought on by trauma or depression. The facts of her life in 1926 seem to back up his conclusions. Her mother passed away, and with immense sorrow Agatha spent a great deal of time alone clearing out the family home. This added strain to her marriage. She was also struggling to write her next novel. To top it off, Archie revealed he had fallen in love with a family friend, Nancy Neele.

Agatha completed her autobiography when she was 75, and one might assume this work would offer the definitive explanation of those 11 days in 1926. Wrong! Not one word about the disappearance is included. Still, Agatha offers some clues about her state of mind around the time of the incident that seem to bolster Andrew Norman’s theory. Of her time spent cleaning out her late mother’s house, she writes, “I began to get confused and muddled over things. I never felt hungry and ate less and less. Sometimes I would sit down, put my hands to my head, and try to remember what it was I was doing.” She later mentions her extreme loneliness and a sense that she was ill. She once started to write a check and could not remember her name. She also suffered a meltdown when her car wouldn’t start. Years later, she believed she had been suffering a nervous breakdown. Could Agatha have been offering an explanation of her odd disappearance, or was she covering up the fact that the incident was an elaborate hoax?

agatha_poster-page-001Almost 90 years later, the story of the missing author still sparks the imagination and has found its place in popular culture, a lot. While not touching on the disappearance, Agatha’s semiautobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait mirrors the disintegration of her first marriage to Archie at the time of the event. Dorothy L. Sayers, who failed to solve Agatha’s disappearance, used elements of it in her novel Unnatural Death. The disappearance was the subject of the 1979 film Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave as the author and Timothy Dalton as Archie. There are also two new movies in the works about Agatha, one reportedly starring Emma Stone and the other Alicia Vikander. And of course, the Doctor Who episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp” offered a completely plausible explanation of Agatha’s disappearance involving a giant alien wasp (Series 4, Episode 7).  It makes complete sense.

We’ll never know what really happened to Agatha Christie in December of 1926. The incident remains the greatest mystery in the life of one of our greatest mystery writers.

Read the rest of this entry

%d bloggers like this: