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February 18th, 2011

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10:32 am - Slice of Murder
 A Slice of Murder by Chris CavenderPremise: A "cozy" mystery.  Cozy mysteries typically involve murder in unlikely, homespun locales and/or involve quirky and/or amateur sleuths.
Story:  Eleanor Swift, a widow, owns a pizzeria in a small town in North Carolina, delivers a pizza on evening to find the orderer's door open, and the oderer, himself, lying, stabbed, in his own hallway.  Eleanor does the sensible thing, stays outside, and calls the police.  It turns out that there is some bad blood between her and the chief of police because of something that happened when they were both in highschool (this *is* a small town!).  Moreover, it turns out that Eleanor had slapped the victim at a public festival some month ago when he got a little too fresh.  The police chief shortly makes it clear that he regards her as his chief suspect.  Fearing the impact that this could have on her business, Eleanor succumbs to the advice of her sister Maddy, who suggests that they investigate on their own.  Taking advantage of the odd hours she has with her business, which allow her to go where she will during the morning (and the fact that people in this town seem to have no qualms about coming back into the kitchen to talk to her when she is at work), Eleanor and Maddy proceed to talk to various parties, dig up the information and evidence that the victim was a blackmailer, and eventually work out a list of suspects who the police, with their focus on Eleanor, haven't even realize had much, much more reason to kill the victim. 

  • The prose is smooth and readable; it doesn't get in your way.
  • The characters are credible.
  • There is a scene early in the novel where the protagonist goes along with her attorney to be questioned by the police chief.  I was impressed that the author did a good job not only of portraying the advice that an attorney would, typically, give to a client in this situation, but also captured effectively the tense, adversarial nature of such a conversation.

  • The banter between Eleanor, a widow, and her sister (and employee) Maddy, who has been married a number of times, was initially amusing, but by about the midway point, I started finding it wearisome.
  • As the investigation proceeds, the sisters find out not only incriminating information, but also important physical evidence -- which they then proceed to either conceal or not to disclose to the police.  By doing this, of course, they would only make Eleanor look even more suspect to the police mindset -- and conceivably destroy the chain of evidence needed to get Eleanor off.
  • None of the supporting characters were particularly interesting nor appealing to me.
  • Nor do Eleanor nor Maddy evince any special competence or insight in the way they investigate

Evaluation:  What is the source of the appeal of the cozy mystery.  Surely, it isn't realism.  Raymond Chandler memorably stated that the goal of himself and the other hardboiled mystery writers was to "g(i)ve murder back to the kind of people that commit it"  (http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/chandlerart.html).

The cozies which I have enjoyed tend to feature an interesting, exotic locale, and/or colorful, appealing, eccentric characters, or a sleuth who evidences idiosyncratic insight into human nature.  (The Hamish McBeth novels by M.C. Baird, for example, feature all three:  they take place in the highlands of Scotland, have appealing eccentric supporting characters, and Hamish McBeth usually figures out the mystery by dint of either observing physical evidence others have missed and/or by a surprising astuteness about human nature and personality).

So, how does this one rack up:?
  • Although we are told a number of times that we are in North Carolina, I wasn't really given anything distinctive that made this locale stand out:  it might have been just about any small town I've ever been in.  Although it has a place, the story has no sense of place.
  • Besides Eleanor and Maddy, who are fairly believable characters, none of the background characters is really particularly distinctive.
  • As sleuths, Eleanor and Maddy really, rather, blunder along.  Even at the end, when they have sorted down a suspect list to a few people, the malefactor is only revealed when s/he lures Eleanor into a trap.  -- Yes, we get the old "I might as well tell you why and how I did what I did 'cause I'm just about to kill you anyway" canard.  

Assessment: For only the second time on this blog, in all honesty, I have to not recommend a book.

In Mitigation:  On the one hand, I really have no inclination to get the next novel in this series -- nothing about this setting or characters lures me back.  On the other hand, I do have to give the writer, whose real name is Tim Myers, credit for having a smooth, prose style, capable, engaging storytelling and have the feeling that this novel may just be a bit of a miss.  I suspect that other novels of his might be better.  It may also be that, since I'm not a woman (and the audience for cozies is understood to be primarily women), I may not be the intended audience, since I can't, really, relate to how sisters quarrel with and yet strongly love one another.  Not being able to particularly relate to that dynamic, it didn't speak to me -- but if you are a woman with a quarrelsome, beloved sister, this might speak very powerfully and effectively to you.

That being said, here is a link to an alternative take on this book.

(2 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:February 19th, 2011 08:35 am (UTC)
I'm not sure I've actually read any modern cozy mysteries. But then I tend to stick to the crime fiction of the past pretty much exclusively.
[User Picture]
Date:February 19th, 2011 11:05 pm (UTC)
I do, strongly, recommend the Hamish McBeth mysteries my M. C. Beaton (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamish_Macbeth) and the Evan Evans mysteries by Rhys Bowen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhys_Bowen).

Both these series combine the rewarding traits I named: an exotic locale, colorful, eccentric, appealing characters, and a detective who exhibits insight and close observation in coming to the solutions to the crimes.

The one or two "Aunt Dimity" novels exhibit the first two traits (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Atherton#Aunt_Dimity_series) though the protagonist is more distinguished as a close _observer_ than a clever or insightful *reasoner*.

That being said, I'm just about to write up a review of some vintage crime fiction that is more in the hardboiled vein.

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