Review: Peridale Cafe Cozy Mystery Series

I’ll put this out front: I don’t like cozy mysteries — generally speaking.

That’s the qualifier: “generally speaking”. Exceptions abound and that is what makes life interesting. The syncopation that shakes up the rhythm of life.

And Agatha Frost has provided wonderful syncopation by creating a delightful amateur sleuth in Julia South, and a most enchanting village in Peridale.

So, if I don’t like cozies, why am I reading them in the first place? That’s a very good question and the answer, in a word, is research. Research? Yes, indeed. You see, I’m thinking of writing my own cozy mystery series and I thought I should read a few and see if I could stomach them enough to write my own.

I tried this decades ago with romance novels, found they darn near made me regurgitate, and gave up on the idea of writing the things.

To my utter surprise, Ms Frost provided me with entertaining read after entertaining read. I blew through the six novels she had published — pre-ordered the 7th, which has now been delivered to the Kindle app on my iPad. Amazon is already flying the “Bestseller” banner on the book and it’s only been out for 2 days.

What is it that Ms Frost does right? Again, in a word — characters. The Peridale Cafe Cozy Mystery series is filled with interesting and entertaining characters. There is, of course, Julia herself. She is such a dear. Very likable for the most part. Like most people. Then there’s her crazy (as in unorthodox) grandmother. Dot is the perfect comic relief. We also have Julia’s ward, Jessie, and Julia’s blossoming romance with Barker, the police detective. The banter between Barker and Julia and Barker and Jessie provides lots of laughs as well.

The characters are simply wonderful and so is the humor. Lots of humor. There are also the day to day goings on of small town life and the murders and the social commentary. All are combined into a recipe guaranteed to produce a few hours of satisfying entertainment.

And the things I detest about cozies — the police being bumbling idiots, the amateur sleuth being simply brilliant, and the constant meddling of the amateur in a police investigation and not getting herself arrested — are pretty much absent from Ms Frost’s tales. And that is refreshing.

Julia is a bit more savvy than Barker on the crime solving. But then she grew up in Peridale and Barker is an outsider, a big city guy, unfamiliar with small town dynamics. So I can accept her superior puzzle solving ability.

Ms Frost’s writing style is straight forward. Nothing fancy. The dialogue is realistic and the description just right. The books are on the short side: 48,000 words or less. Which suits me just fine. I’m getting too old for ponderous tomes, where I might die before I can finish the thing.

My only gripe is that her proofreader sucks. The constant use of “her” instead of “she” is very annoying. Julia South became Julia Smith for a brief moment in one book. And the other grammatical and typographical errors that are so obvious one wonders how they got missed.

Ms Frost’s saving grace is that she writes a truly fab story. Her writing lets me be forgiving of the less than stellar proofreading. But just barely. I’m very fussy when it comes to such obvious errors in such numbers.

So what did I learn about writing cozies from my experiment?

  • Make sure the main characters are interesting, as well as the important supporting cast.
  • Give the amateur sleuth a police connection (which we also see in TV mysteries such as Grantchester and Castle, for instance).
  • Humor. Lots of humor. Doesn’t have to be rolling on the floor belly laughs. Wit, whimsy, and amusing interactions work just fine.
  • Introduce the murder early on. Second or third chapter. We are reading a murder mystery after all.
  • The pacing doesn’t have to be fast. Character, humor, and the murder can hold sufficient interest. Which is fine with me. I don’t care all that much for these full-throttle thrillers. They’re usually light on character and heavy on the action, and for me that gets boring after a while.

On the marketing side, I noticed, since this is a culinary mystery, the covers all have food on them and are brightly colored. The titles are also alliterative and have a food theme as well.

I highly recommend Agatha Frost’s Peridale Cafe Cozy Mystery series. It’s a winner.

Comments are always welcome and, until next time, happy reading!

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What is a Cozy Catastrophe?

In the book Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss coined the term cozy catastrophe. He used the term to describe a particular type of post-apocalyptic writing as famously seen in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. This form of the post-apocalyptic tale was particularly popular in the UK in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Aldiss’s use of the term was at base pejorative. Coming from what seems to have been a politically radical leftist position, Aldiss dismissed the sub-subgenre as being some manner of wish fulfillment: the return of the Empire, praise of nature and the simple life, or a criticism of science and industrialization.

Time, however, marches on and even if we give Aldiss his due for the fiction published prior to 1973, the cozy catastrophe itself has changed and Aldiss’s observations are no longer accurate for today – if they were even accurate in his own day, which they may not have been.

Blogger russell1200 on his blog reflexiones finales posted a short but important article about the cozy on July 14, 2011. My thoughts have been influenced by his article.

If Aldiss’s description of the cozy catastrophe is no longer relevant, than what are the characteristics that make a cozy a cozy?

Why the term “cozy”?

Let’s begin with the term cozy itself. Why a cozy catastrophe? What on earth can be cozy about a world wide catastrophe? The general consensus is that the term was borrowed from the cozy mystery subgenre.

So what is a cozy mystery? It is a mystery solved by an amateur sleuth. Think here of Miss Marple, Father Brown, Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, or Sidney Chambers in Grantchester. An ordinary person solves the murder when the professionals cannot. Likewise with the cozy catastrophe, a group of amateur survivalists survive, when others cannot.

The Catastrophe

A group of ordinary people have survived a catastrophe. What kind of catastrophe? In the cozy, the catastrophe, the apocalyptic event must be worldwide and pretty much wipes out most of the human race. Animals and plant life may also be affected, but the emphasis here is on the destruction of people. The rest of the world remains basically intact.

Recognizable Setting

The setting needs to be recognizable and the story plausible as a real world event. Something that could happen right now, today, to us.

This is very much like the cozy mystery. The amateur sleuth comes across a murder in his or her everyday world and for one reason or another must solve it when the police can’t or won’t.

One thing to keep in mind here is that distant future stories must somehow be coherently and realistically connected to our present day world. If not, they fail the real world test. The Time Machine and After London pass this test. The Planet of the Apes, a nifty story in and of itself, unfortunately, does not.

The Small Group

The story generally focuses on the survival of a small group of people or perhaps several small groups. The group comes together, or sometimes is already together at the start of the story, and then sets about trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Conflict can come from both outside sources, other groups perhaps or wild animals, and internal dissension.

A Survivable World

Is the world survivable if the group makes the effort to survive? This goes back to the nature of the catastrophe. The worldwide disaster needs to primarily affect people, leaving much of the pre-catastrophe infrastructure intact, which allows the group a base upon which to rebuild society. Whether or not they succeed is the telling of their story.

In my mind, this is a key feature of the cozy catastrophe. The survivors are not mere survivalists. They are the recreators of civilization. Or they at least make a valiant attempt to recreate the world they lost.

A New World

Society, civilization, at some point is rebuilt. Generally speaking. An exception is On the Beach by Nevil Shute. The new society is hopefully better than the old, but in fact may not be. But the human race does not die off, it survives and a new world is born. Much like at Ragnarok, where the old world of the gods is destroyed and out of the destruction Lif and Lifthrasir survive and begin a new world.

The Message of the Cozy Catastrophe

Frequently the cozy catastrophe is a vehicle for anti-establishment rhetoric. The “evils” of the status quo, the establishment, brought about the catastrophe. Whether those evils be nuclear weapons or biological experimentation, or GMOs not turning out as intended — it is our own messing around with nature or our inability to live in peace with each other that very often causes the demise of our world.

In that sense, the subgenre can be made use of by radical liberals and libertarians alike to promote their agenda. There is often a philosophical underpinning to the cozy. Issues of morality and how we should be as people are very real parts of the story.

 

Next week, we’ll take a look at what the cozy catastrophe isn’t. Until then, good reading. Comments are always welcome!

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