Making notes for an article I’m writing about the importance of meeting readers’ expectations, I’m forced to acknowledge that, for a cosy mystery writer, I’m a reluctant murderer.
While I love devising an intriguing and imaginative plot that provides motive and opportunity for a multitude of suspects, when it comes to delivering the fatal blow, I have to force myself to, er, bite the bullet.
There have even been moments when I’ve regretted announcing in advance that all seven titles in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series would have “Murder” in the title – although when they’re all lined up together on the shelf, they will make an excellent matching set:
Best Murder in Show
Trick or Murder?
Murder in the Manger
Murder by the Book
Springtime for Murder
Murder Your Darlings
School’s Out for Murder
I confess… a certain hesitation in bumping people off for the sake of entertainment. This may come as a relief to my family, friends and neighbours. But it’s hardly an ideal quality in a crime writer.
I’m guilty… not of murder, but of occasionally breaking the rules of what’s expected in a crime story.
I stand accused… of letting intended murder victims occasionally escape with their life at the last minute, or to have a murder turn out to be not what it first seems.
It’s a fair cop…But it’s all good fun, all the same.
Must Try Harder
But in my next book, Murder by the Book, I’ve pulled myself together and started the story in no uncertain terms: by chucking a stranger down the village well to a certain death.
But who is the victim? And who pushed the stranger, and why?
All will be revealed in April, when I’ll be launching Murder by the Book at the fourth Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April.
A post about striking a balance between crime, humour and optimism in fiction
I often describe my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries as “feel-good fiction”, which may seem odd in a series whose titles all feature the word “murder”. But I discovered long ago that I find it much easier to write fiction if I’m allowed to be funny, and this applies to my crime writing too.
Comic Relief amidst the Crime
As with any story involving tension and perhaps fear, a touch of humour provides balance and light relief – think James Bond, Indiana Jones and the Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes.
But in my own mystery books, I use a much larger dose of humour because the underlying purpose of my stories is not to frighten or thrill, but to be life-affirming, celebrating the positive features of community life in the village of Wendlebury Barrow.
Crime at the Castle Commendation
So I was particularly pleased to hear this week that Sophie’s getting a special shout-out at the Scottish crime writing event, Crime at the Castle, in the splendid setting of Glamis Castle, the childhood home of the Queen Mother.
Scottish novelist Wendy H Jones will be citing it as part of a workshop about injecting humour into crime fiction, and she’s told me she’s using the opening line of Murder in the Manger, third in the Sophie Sayers series, as an example:
“Does your Baby Jesus need a cuddle, Mrs Virgin?” said a small sheep politely.
“I’m going to use your line because I laugh every time I think of it,” Wendy told me. She’s also kindly shared it on her radio show since she interviewed me live on her programme last year.
But much as I love laughing at my own jokes, my books aren’t all about comic effect. I embed serious themes about the value of community life and the importance of tolerance and understanding, and about love, loss and consolation.
There’s the odd moment when I’ve even moved myself to tears:
In Best Murder in Show, Sophie is overwhelmed with unresolved grief when she comes to Wendlebury to take up her inheritance of her late Auntie May’s cottage.
In Trick or Murder, she finds solace in an All Souls’ Day service in the village church.
The first in my new “Monday Musings” series, in which I’ll write about whatever’s top of mind at the start of each week
This weekend while reading a classic mystery story from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Georgette Heyer‘s Footsteps in the Dark, I was startled by the irresponsible behaviour of some of the key characters:
copious cigarette smoking(the ashtrays are always full, and the cover of the edition I read shows a man chivalrously lighting a lady’s gasper)
casual attitude to alcohol(the butler brings in a tray of whisky and soda at 10pm as a nightcap, to round off the day’s drinking )
reckless driving(or rather, wreckful – when Margaret takes a corner too fast and puts her car in a ditch, she acts like its par for the course)
dangerous attitude to firearms(just about all the characters have easy access to a handgun at will and are ready to use them if crossed)
A Product of Heyer’s Age
The last of these points especially surprised me. I had never before associated such general ownership of handguns with English society.
And then the penny dropped. The guns are mostly old service revolvers, and when the book was published, in 1932, many adults would have firsthand experience of using them during the First World War, as did many of the characters in this novel.
To anyone spending any time in the trenches of the First World War, carrying a pistol in your pocket would seem relatively low-risk.
The conflict’s influence was long sustained. Heyer’s contemporary Agatha Christie’s knowledge of poisons as a means to murder was learned while she worked as a pharmacy assistant during the First World War. Dorothy L Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, who appointed his military batman as his butler, suffers from shell-shock well into the series.
The Modern Obsession with Health and Safety
This realisation makes my fretting about health and safety issues in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series seem over-cautious:
In Best Murder in Show, the murder victim is wired to the safety barrier that surrounds the carnival float on which she’s travelling to stop her falling off, and Sophie worries about the profusion of dangerous implements at the Village Show
In Trick or Murder?, the Headmistress give out health and safety instructions to the children playing with sparklers on Guy Fawkes Night, while Bob, the village policeman, patrols around the bonfire on the look-out for hazards to the public
In both books, I’ve been slightly concerned that too much alcohol is flowing, (the village bookshop serves its teas with illicit hooch for those who want it), and I’ve been thinking of making Sophie go on the wagon in a future book
My health and safety allusions are largely tongue in cheek, but the fact that I’m even thinking about them makes me realise how much more nervous we as a society have become.
It’s ironic then that one of the reasons that classic crime novels are still so popular is that they offer us the chance to be nostalgic for a bygone age. Yet behind Heyer’s facade of witty banter and genteel behaviour lies significant scars still healing.
We may still call hers a Golden Age of Detective Fiction, compared to ours, but I know which one I’d rather live in, even if a late-night Scotch and soda does have a certain appeal.
How different would the novels of Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L Sayers be if they were writing today? And will modern crime novels age as gracefully? I wonder…
Best Murder in Show is now available as an ebook and in paperback.
Trick or Murder? will be launched on 26th August at the Hawkesbury Village Show, which I hope will be free of murders.