Life in the Box: Mystery Pet Peeves

mystery2-smI buy mysteries by the boxload. My main sources include our biannual Planned Parenthood Book Sale and the Half-Price Books store. I’d do more library reading if they had more of my genre—cozy mysteries. I read a lot, so in the past three years, I’ve read maybe 500 books.  

Over time, I’ve found Berkley Prime Crime Mysteries has the best authors and editors in this genre. But, even they let ghastly writing get published.

Why would they publish any book for adults that overexplain things? I’ve thrown most of these out, so I can’t quote directly, but think along these lines: “Sara laughed when Jane told her a joke. That’s because Sara thought the joke was funny.” I am serious, there are some authors that write this stuff, and it’s not labeled a kids’ book! Toss!

Then there are the more subtle problems. Let me back up a bit. Cozy mysteries are supposed to have a crime–usually a murder–that is solved by a clever and nosy Nancy Drew type. She typically lives in a small town and runs a small business or is self-employed.  

Part of the pleasure of reading them is learning about places and characters; the other part is having my curiosity piqued a bit about “who dunnit”. Anyway, I’ve found books that don’t even have a crime for the first 100 pages. Bad! The tension ain’t the only thing, but it has to be there!

Sometimes in reading used books, you’ll find the third mystery in a series, and that’s fine, I can read them out of order. If I like the book, I’ll search out the rest of the series online or on Kindle. If they refer to previous “episodes,” that’s okay too. But some authors go into heavy-handed explanations of other plots that really don’t have any bearing on book 3, so why didn’t the editor nix that?

And, there’s got to be some graceful way to introduce clues throughout the plot. Some books get bogged down so much that when I’m a third of the way through, I start screaming at the author, “Get on with it!!” There is such a thing as too much “cozy” and not enough “mystery.”

There are some of these cozies that seem to think they are romance novels. Sheesh, how many “hunks” can one Nancy Drew keep on the line? And, there are a few too many single detectives that hang around our heroine, either warning her to let the police take care of things or asking her out for a date, or both. That gets old.

Last month, I read some Charlaine Harris cozies. She also writes in other genres, and is best known, I think, for her southern vampire series, starring Sookie Stackhouse. She’s such a great writer, I ate up her “Shakespeare” Lily Bard series in just a few days, and went on to the Aurora Teagarden series.

I love her pacing, her characters, and her plot development.  She has a light hand with scenes, which are described through the eyes of the character, not narrated obliquely.

However, Charlaine also has a taste for “icky” which I don’t need, and she goes a little overboard in the sex scenes, of which she has many. In the Lily Bard series, a brother and sister have a relationship that builds into a marriage. They aren’t blood relatives, but still… “ick.”

I don’t know how much longer I’ll be reading this genre. It’s been an easy ride around the country, and I’ve collected a few recipes (very few—they tend to have high comfort-food caloric counts.) I’ve learned a tiny bit about a lot of different hobbies like stamping, knitting, quilting, and gardening. And, luckily, there are lots of these books circulating at the moment; from what I can tell, they’ve been around since the early 90s, so there’s lots of momentum.

Maybe Berkley will put me on contract as a consultant. I’m getting so I can spot a lemon within the first chapter. However, no matter how many of these I read, I’m never sure till that last chapter “who dunnit.” And, for me, that’s a good thing. I’ll just keep guessing along the way, and that keeps me interested and exploring.


Nancy Heather Brown is an Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process both inside and outside the box. 

Charlaine Harris official site

Fiction reviews on Escape Into Life