Saturday, February 13, 2021

Enrolling in Cozy College


Scott D. Parker

I’m going to school again, and I couldn’t be more excited. I call it Cozy College, a year-long look into cozy and traditional mysteries. And I even have a professor.

My Preconceptions

Even though I spent my youth reading novels featuring The Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys, I didn’t truly become introduced to mystery and crime fiction as an adult until 2001 when I read Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I liked the harder-edged material and started to amass a list of like authors. Couple this reading with my discovery of pulp novels and authors of the past and I was firmly in the realm of the hard stuff.

When it came to traditional mysteries—the kind whose Golden Age was between the world wars, usually featuring a quirky detective with violence largely off-screen—I just never got into them. Throw in cozy mysteries with their cutesy titles and eccentric hooks and I dismissed them out of hand.

But something changed over the past few years and it all started with television. Masterpiece Mysteries and online streaming services showcase fantastic programs from around the world and many of them, while not cozy, are certainly firmly ensconced in the traditional mystery field. I’m thinking Unforgotten, Broadchurch, The Killing, Hinterland, Elementary, and, most recently, Knives Out and Before We Die. What they showed me was there didn’t have to be a lot of violence, blood, and language to create some rich characters and stories.

These shows were traditional mysteries, but not cozies, so something else needed to be added to the mix.

The other thing that helped change my mind also involved television. It begins with the word “Hall” and ends with the word “Mark.” Yes, I’m talking Hallmark, specifically Hallmark Christmas movies. In past years, I’d kinda sorta check the Hallmark Channel’s Christmas lineup and watch barely a handful, many of them unmemorable. In 2020, I went the opposite direction. I actively sought out and watched as many of them as I could. I would earmark certain movies and make sure to watch them or tape them. I’d set the VCR (yeah, really) to record the ones I wanted to finished if I had to go to bed on work nights. I started to recognize the actors, where they showed up in other movies, and basically had a field day in the coziness of a Hallmark Christmas.

That’s when I basically looked over at the mystery genre again with a decidedly open mind about cozy mysteries. Maybe they weren’t all that I thought they were.

The First Step

In December, seeking to merge my love of Christmas, Hallmark, and mysteries together, I went over to Houston’s Murder by the Book bookstore and picked up a couple of cozy Christmas mysteries. I finished one during the season, Dachshund in the Snow by David Rosenfelt. With a title like that, my preconceived ideas were all cutesy things where the titular hound solves the case. I was prepared for saccharine.

Didn’t get it.

I got a darn good book with a good mystery and a likeable narrator who is a chip off the block of past detectives like Donald Lam and Archie Goodwin. The novel was traditional but not necessarily cozy. Nonetheless, I was definitely intrigued, so much so that I went to my Libby app (for public libraries) and downloaded another audiobook in the series. And I decided to spend 2021 reading a lot more traditional and cozy mysteries. But I would need a guide to help chart my course.

Tthat’s when I got the email.

Murder by the Box’s Subscription Service

Just in time for Christmas, the owner of the bookstore, McKenna Jordan, sent an email describing the new Murder by the Box subscription service. In either 3-month or 12-month choices, readers can choose one of three themes and receive books. There is Best of the Month (a new hardcover), Crime Fiction Legends (two trade paperbacks) and—yes, I literally scanned the email quickly to make sure it would be a choice—Cozy Corner.


I was set. One mass market paperback in the cozy/traditional genre per month. I eagerly signed up in December—it was my Christmas gift to myself—and waited for January.

The book was brand-new: Bait and Witch by Angela M. Sanders. With the book came a postcard with a welcome message, the reason the book was selected, and immediate recommendations for similarly themed stories. Like Rosenfelt’s book, Batch and Witch was a good mystery but definitely more on the cozier side. I enjoyed it and am definitely looking forward to each month’s selections.

Maybe all those preconceived ideas I had about cozy mysteries were wrong from the jump. I hope this reading list of 2021—and the jumping off points—prove me wrong. It’s already started.

The Professor Is In

But what makes the Cozy Corner special is the person selecting the books, the Professor at Cozy College. John McDougall is the Event Coordinator at Murder by the Book. If you’ve seen the many author talks via the store’s YouTube channel since 2020, you’ll recognize him. He is the resident cozy expert. I reached out to John this week to ask him a few questions, including how this subscription idea came about and what drew him to cozies.

“A few years ago when Helen Ellis (author of American Housewife) signed at the store, she said she wished I could send her a cozy every month, and that's what unofficially started it. As subscription boxes became more popular, McKenna started playing with the idea of starting one for the store, but we never got all the logistics nailed down. In one of those weird coincidences, I mentioned to McKenna that I wanted to start something more official for the Cozy of the Month and she told me that she had also been thinking about wanting to start a subscription service. We were both really excited to get the program started for the holidays and offer the three different options.”

The genesis of his love for cozies stemmed from him reading Posted to Death by Dean James. “At that point I was just a customer at the store and David [Thompson] gave me a copy because he knew I liked other paranormal mysteries. After that I devoured the Ghost Hunter books by Victoria Laurie and I was hooked.”

“The thing that draws me to cozies is the character development. Cozy authors have to quickly create a main character you'll fall in love with, and a community that you'll want to return to over and again. But there's also depth there that people might not expect based on the covers or by calling them cozies. A prominent trope in the cozy genre is the main character going through a bad breakup or divorce and returning to her hometown to start over. A lot of times, that breakup is the thing that allows her to follow her dream, and the dream is usually starting her own business and rebuilding her life on her own terms. The genre has a lot of heart to it, in addition to some really stellar plots.”

In light of the chain of events and mindset shifts I had experienced, John’s words in this last paragraph really hit home for me. Here I was, having a predefined idea of what a cozy was, and basically, I was wrong. And the two books I’ve read so far have proven John’s point. I have already returned to the Andy Carpenter series and the second book in the Witch Way Librarian series will be published in September.

I haven’t been this excited about “reading assignments” in a long time. I am eager to learn more about the cozy genre, and I’m happy to have Professor John McDougall as a guide.

And it’s not too late to join Cozy College for 2021. The February book hasn’t been released yet. If you subscribe now, you’d have to buy Bait and Witch on your own, but you’d get every book from here on out on your 3- or 12-month subscription. If you’re in Houston, a full year is only $99. For twelve books! It’s only $135 if you're out of town and need the books shipped to you. The other themes have different prices, so I encourage you to head over to their website and have a look for yourself. 

You never know. Maybe one of your preconceived notions will disappear just like mine did.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Beau goes apocalyptic

This week, Beau takes a bit of a turn.

Who doesn’t love a good apocalyptic story? They come in all kinds, from the nightmare terrors of superflus and zombie invasions to quieter, more reflective tale of loss and survival. Stories that feature people struggling through the end of the world or fighting to survive in what little bits of civilization still remain are always compelling. What better way for readers to safely explore the extremes of the human condition without actually having to fight off the ravening hordes themselves?

APOCALYPTIC features stories from fourteen old and new favorite ZNB authors: Seanan McGuire, Aimee Picchi, Tanya Huff, Nancy Holzner, Stephen Blackmoore, Zakariah Johnson, Violette Malan, Eleftherios Keramidas, James Enge, Leah Ning, Thomas Vaughn, Marjorie King, Jason Palmatier, and Blake Jessop. Flee the Baboon King, die of thirst in the White Mountains, brew up a bubbling blob of nanotech road kill in the back of a garbage truck, or, worst of all, try to reintegrate yourself back into society as a former zombie. Then ask yourself, would you survive the Apocalypse? Would you even want to?

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Return of Rudolph Fisher

What excellent news it was last month when a brand new edition of Rudolph Fisher's 1932 mystery novel, The Conjure-Man Dies, came out.  Set in Harlem, it is, of course, the first non-serialized full-fledged detective novel ever published by an African-American, a novel with nary a white character in it, and it's both a very entertaining mystery story and a rich witty look at its time and place. I won't go into detail about it now because I wrote a piece about it a few years ago for the Los Angeles Review of Books -- a piece you can find here,, if you're interested.  I will say that if you haven't read Fisher's only mystery novel, you're in for a real treat if you pick it up.  The Conjure-Man Dies holds up extremely well today, a mixture of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers style plotting with hardboiled, as in Dashiell Hammett-like, realism.  Social observation and commentary are fully embedded in the characters and the story.  And it's loaded with humor; as Langston Hughes said of Fisher (in the language of the time clearly) Fisher was the "wittiest of these New Negroes of Harlem.  [He] always frightened me a little because he could think of the most incisive clever things to say, and I could never think of anything to answer."  There is much to chew on in The Conjure-Man Dies, but Fisher almost always delivers even serious points lightly.

This new edition comes with an introduction by mystery writer Stanley Ellin, and these five or so pages are themselves interesting to read.  Written for a 1971 edition of the novel, Ellin's comments are surprisingly bare-knuckled.  Commenting on the way Fisher's novel stood out and broke new ground when written, Ellin says, "The mystery novel of that day, where it dealt with Black people at all, played both angles.  They were either servitors or hardboiled crap shooters, take it or leave it.  Hardly surprising when one considers that, first, the mystery novel is popular fiction, and popular fiction tends to cater to popular prejudices, and second, that the genre itself had, by and large, used as its subjects the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant middle and upper classes, always acknowledging their superiority to the non-WASP world without question."

Ellin says a bit more along these lines, his tartness refreshing. 

As an added bonus, this edition also has the one other work, besides The Conjure-Man Dies, featuring Fisher's NYPD detective Perry Dart and his friend, Dr. John Archer. It's a 45-page short story called "John Archer's Nose," published in a magazine a month after Archer died, at age 37, in 1934.  The story involves a killing in a Harlem apartment building that the two investigate, and while following the rules of a Golden Age mystery to the letter -- a limited setting with a small cast of suspects and a touch of the improbable about the crime -- skillfully touches on a theme Fisher delves into deeply in his mystery novel:  that is, the tension that exists in people between rationality and superstition,  It's a tension that existed in the Harlem he knew, and well, seems to still be around now, and not only in Harlem.  It's worth noting that Fisher himself was a doctor by profession and placed a high value on reason and science, though not in a way anyone would call doctrainaire.  

Gotta give credit where credit is due and thank the publisher, the Collins Crime Club, for putting this new edition out.


Sunday, February 7, 2021

Lupin—c'est fantastique

By Claire Booth

Netflix has been upping its global game lately, and I don't mean by exporting American entertainment to more and more places. I mean by exposing Americans to more and more international content. Hooray! 

I'm here today to enthusiastically endorse Lupin, the French limited series thriller that pays homage to the great French books of that name about a “gentleman thief.” It’s also suave, sexy, fun, and paced as well as anything I’ve seen in a long time. Sure, it sometimes stretches the bounds of plausibility, but what heist movie or book doesn’t?

Omar Sy stars as Assane Diop, whose father, a Senegalese immigrant, gets a job as chauffeur for a wealthy businessman. Things end badly, and Assane grows up vowing revenge. Not guns-blazing revenge; that’s not his style. Instead, he molds himself into the hero of his favorite childhood books, Arséne Lupin. (Tip for those who, like me, didn’t take French in high school: it’s pronounced Lou-PAN.) Lupin was the refined burglar and master of disguise who could solve any problem and steal any object.

Sy has been some English-language movies, including Jurassic World, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. The magnetic French native is truly at home here on the streets of Paris, whether it’s outside a tenement or in the courtyard of the Louvre. And I love that he’s of African descent. The casting of Sy adds a whole other rich layer to the show, with the problems of class and race that exist in French society. Plus, he’s perfect for the part – meticulous yet mischevious, and with a cat-burglar grace that not a lot of tall men can pull off.

The Arséne Lupin series by Maurice Leblanc, featuring the exploits of the “gentleman thief,” began in 1905 and lasted for 23 books. In other words, there’s plenty of material to inspire Sy’s character for many seasons to come. And based on Netflix’s assertion that more than 70 million people worldwide have at least started to stream an episode (which is more than even other hits like Tiger King or The Umbrella Academy), it seems likely the company will keep it going.

In fact, the second part of Season One (i.e. the other five-episodes of the ten that have been shot), will be released on Netflix sometime this summer, the streaming service said last week. Don’t wait that long to start. Watch it now. It’s perfect how’s-he-going-to-pull-it-off escapism for the dreary days of winter.

And don’t make the mistake I did. I just clicked play and it came through dubbed into English. Horrible. Bad voice acting in addition to the usual awfulness of the lips you see moving not matching the words you’re hearing. Switch to the French with subtitles. It’s less distracting that way, I swear. And more – how should I say? – l’original est magnifique.