Mrs. Mallory Investigates by Hazel Holt is the first book in a modern cozy mystery series featuring a middle-aged widow in a seaside English town. I saw it recommended in A Common Reader last year. I recently found a copy of this book, so I decided to give it a whirl. Earlier this fall, I had read a later book in the series, but without the back story on the character, it was hard for me to get into it. This one was a little more accessible, but still not quite as entertaining as I had hoped. The whole thing is told in first person, so that’s at least something different from my usual reads.
Murder and mayhem on the coast of Maine
In 1984, TV viewers were introduced to Jessica Fletcher, mystery novelist and amateur sleuth. “Murder, She Wrote” ran for twelve years before going off the air in 1996, and the mark it left on the American public cannot be denied. Although the formulaic nature of the program and the disturbing volume of murders that occurred around the central character left it open to criticism from audiences eager for more hardboiled mysteries such as Law & Order and CSI, the show filled a niche for a generation that grew up on cozy mysteries by authors like Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen. The appeal has remained strong enough that twenty years after the original broadcast, Universal has released the second season on DVD.
There were few central characters besides Jessica Fletcher, so each episode had a handful of guest actors ranging from the very-well-known to never-seen-again. What does “Murder, She Wrote” have in common with early 1980s TV favorite “WKRP in Cincinnati”? WKRP actors Frank Bonner, Gordon Jump, Richard Sanders, and Howard Hesseman all appeared as guests in the second season of “Murder, She Wrote”. However, you wouldn’t know this from the episode descriptions on the box set. A full listing of guests can be found at the Internet Movie Database, if you’re interested. Some notables not mentioned include Brock Peters, Robert Culp, and John de Lancie. John Astin is in three episodes as a re-occurring character of note.
To me, this is indicative of the lack of care and attention paid to the creation of this box set. There are no extras or frills to entice buyers, and the episodes still have that slightly grainy quality prevalent in 1980s television filming. One must also be careful in handling the discs themselves. They are double-sided so as to hold eight episodes on two discs and six on the third disc.
One thing this collection has going for it is the script writing. Season two of “Murder, She Wrote” had the advantage of fresh ideas and mostly realistic plots. Locations alternated between Cabot Cove (Fletcher’s home) and someplace else. The murders were complex and the identity of the murderer wasn’t quite yet obvious from the start. The set is well worth getting if you’re a fan wanting to wander down memory lane and re-visit the show back in the golden years. Just don’t expect anything else from it.
chick lit disguised as a cozy mystery — a pleasant but unsubstantial read
My Very Own Murder by Josephine Carr takes place in an upscale and venerable Washington apartment building. Aside from mentions of retired Senators, nothing particularly distinguishes the inner-beltway setting, and it could be any major American city with a sizeable international population. The focus is entirely on the protagonist and her worldview from the eighth floor. Recently divorced at fifty and living off of a generous inheritance, Anne quickly grows bored with the usual time fillers. It is at this point in her life when she is seeking direction that a message comes to her. A voice in her head tells her that a murder will be committed in the building within thirty days and she must prevent it. Deciding to take it seriously, she enlists the aid of her ex-husband, two grown children, and the cleaning lady to sleuth out the murderer and prevent the murder. Between the sex, drinks, and shopping, a bit of sleuthing occurs, but this is definitely in the cozy mystery category or borderline chick lit.
The author seems to have spent more time on Anne’s relationships than on developing a solid mystery. Through the events of the story, Anne rediscovers herself and grows in ways she was unable to in her failed marriage. In and of itself, that aspect of the story is quite compelling. However, the problems occur when Carr attempts to wrap this into an armchair detective story. At times, it is difficult to tell if the red herrings are red herrings or if in fact they are the fumblings of a not-very-well-thought-out plot. Sinister or suspicious characters are introduced and then never fully explained away. In the end, and almost paranormal science fiction explanation is given for the voice heard by Anne — an explanation that seems out of place. The author would have done better to leave this as a self-discovery coming of age story, rather than attempting to use the mystery genre for that purpose. Still, it is a pleasant escape from reality for a few hours, and likely to be popular with the chick lit crowd.