Discomfort

It’s never a good idea to criticize one’s fellow writers. It’s a bit like fouling your own nest. For one thing, you might someday send a query to a literary agent, only to find that that agent is also the agent of the writer you recently eviscerated. There’s also a whiff of sour grapes: This writer has a contract with a major publisher, and you don’t, so who’s the expert and who’s the nattering nabob of negativism?

There are, however, lessons to be learned from a close reading of a published novel, lessons that the three regular readers of this space might find helpful; and if I present the lessons without naming the source, you could be forgiven for suspecting that I was talking through my hat.

I’ve just finished reading The Book Stops Here, a cozy mystery by Kate Carlisle. There are at least nine books in Carlisle’s Bibliophile Mystery series, so we can safely guess that she’s doing something readers like. I took the trouble of doing a scene-by-scene outline of the whole book so as to try to figure out what exactly she’s doing.

Before I get to the blow-by-blow, I’d like to introduce a couple of terms.

In card games such as Magic: the Gathering, each card has what’s called flavor text. The flavor text is a sentence or two that makes absolutely no difference to the play of the game; it’s there simply to stimulate your imagination, to enrich the experience. All mysteries have, I’m sure, some flavor text. When Rex Stout introduces some clever byplay between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, that’s flavor text. In a Ross McDonald novel, there may be very little, and most of it adds an atmosphere of futility, desperation, and doom. In a mystery, flavor text is anything that doesn’t contribute to the geometrical advancement of the plot.

When Carlisle devotes several pages to the delectable cupcakes baked by the new neighbor of her sleuth, that’s flavor text. When the sleuth tells us, over and over, how much she loves her boyfriend, that’s flavor text. When the sleuth and her beau debate, at some length, what to name their adorable kitten, that’s flavor text. The kitten itself is flavor text. Oh, and let’s not forget the three hours the sleuth spends trying on gorgeous party dresses.

My suspicion is that cozies have a balance with more flavor text and less crime than, say, a Michael Connelly police procedural. That’s not a criticism, it’s just the nature of the genre.

My other new term is “kitchen sink suspense.” Kitchen sink suspense is when the author throws in, almost at random, yet another danger that the sleuth must escape — falling objects, let’s say, or a rattlesnake — not because it advances the plot but merely to provide a moment of pulse-pounding drama.

Without the moments of kitchen sink suspense, The Book Stops Here would stop dead. Carlisle’s heroine, expert bookbinder Brooklyn Wainwright, does almost no sleuthing at all. Hints about the nature of the crimes and the identities of the criminals are handed to her on a platter. But every few chapters, there’s some kitchen sink suspense. Including, yes, an attack by a rattlesnake.

It seems not to have occurred to Carlisle to research rattlesnakes. They don’t attack. When Brooklyn is locked in a backstage dressing room (and that makes no sense either) with a rattlesnake that advances toward her threateningly, the scene is plainly included not because it advances the plot in any way but because it adds some excitement.

Same deal with the falling objects. Somebody pushes a “stack” (presumably a vertical stack) of tall, heavy backstage flats over on Brooklyn, but she and her companion don’t see anyone doing the pushing. A few pages later, Carlisle claims it was too dark to see anything, yet at the moment when the pushing starts, Brooklyn is admiring the painting on the flats, so that rationale falls, as it were, flat.

At various points in the book, Brooklyn mulls over (in a first-person interior monologue) what’s probably going on, or discusses it with her boyfriend. This may serve to keep the less attentive reader wired in to the story line, but such scenes do not advance the plot. As a point of comparison, my favorite writer of awful mystery novels, Erle Stanley Gardner, routinely avoids this. In Gardner’s Perry Mason paperbacks, we seldom learn what Mason is thinking. He just takes action. Action is good. Gardner’s plots are often absurd, but by golly they’re full of action!

The final term I want to mention is “idiot plot.” An idiot plot is a plot whose events can only occur if the lead character is acting like an idiot.

Now, Brooklyn has an amazingly hunky and amazingly competent boyfriend, Derek, who after the danger starts swears he will be with her every minute to protect her. This loyalty will, I suspect, have Carlisle’s readers swooning with pleasure. But somehow, at several points in the book, Brooklyn manages to give Derek the slip because she’s certain there will be no danger, only to run promptly into a moment of great danger. Brooklyn is an idiot.

What we have, then, is a story in which the flavor text is bound to appeal to Carlisle’s target readers while seeming frankly dumb to anybody else, in which the sleuth does no sleuthing, and in which the very implausible moments of suspense arise only because the sleuth is being an idiot.

The eventual explanation of the main mystery plot makes no sense either. Spoiler alert! Read on if you dare.

A woman steals a collectible book from her rich brother because she figures the brother won’t include her in his will. This is a $20,000 book, the brother has tons more valuable stuff, and the woman has no visible idea how to sell a collectible book, but that’s what happens. The rich guy’s former girlfriend then convinces the sister’s idiot son to give her the book, supposedly to get back at the rich guy for dumping her, though that makes no sense because the book has already been stolen, so her acquiring it will have no impact at all on the rich guy. And then, rather than sell the book (not that she knows how to sell collectible books), she goes onto a TV show closely based on Antiques Road Show and shows the book to book expert Brooklyn, so it’s on TV (which doesn’t make sense either, because the show is being taped and won’t air for weeks), after which the sister stabs the woman for no particular reason and the sister’s idiot sons start trying to kill Brooklyn, which isn’t going to help them get the book back.

There’s another whole plot in this novel, the one with the rattlesnake and the falling flats. It includes a few more absurdities; no need to go into them.

One of the primary challenges of writing a good mystery novel is that you have to write it from two directions at once. From one angle, the reader is seeing only what the sleuth sees, and that has to make sense and provide good rising action. From the other angle, the author has to know what the bad guys are doing offstage, even though the sleuth doesn’t know anything about it yet, and that has to make sense too.

One possible lesson to be learned from The Book Stops Here is that cozy readers really don’t care about the second angle. If the narrative provides some moments of danger, they’re never going to stop, scratch their heads, and say to themselves, “Wait — that doesn’t make any sense.”

Another possible interpretation is that cozy readers may notice these defects and be momentarily annoyed, but the publishers are buying the best cozy manuscripts they can find because they know there’s a market.

Writing a mystery novel that actually holds together is hard! Maybe Carlisle is doing the best she can, and has bills to pay and a deadline by which she has to deliver a manuscript, come hell or high water. I’m sure her readers like the cupcakes, the kitten, and the heartthrob boyfriend. As long as there’s a new moment of danger every two or three chapters, they’re probably happy.

I don’t plan to take this one book as an archetype of the whole genre. If I have the stomach, I’d like to do the same kind of analysis with several more cozies. Two things are already clear: Readers like this stuff (which means Carlisle is actually doing a lot of things exactly right), and it’s just not my cup of oolong. I love mystery novels, but my personal taste runs more to plots that make logical sense and sleuths who do some actual sleuthing and don’t act like idiots.

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