What is a cozy mystery without one? I don’t know because I’ve never read one that didn’t have a strong sense of community in it, but for me, the depictions of community is one of the primary draws of cozies.
As I have mentioned before, the vast majority of cozies are generally set in small towns, small communities where everyone always seems to come together, everyone knows everyone, and there’s an undercurrent of caring about others that makes them cozy and comfortable to read. I was worried at first about setting one in New Orleans, to be honest; New Orleans is many things to many different people, but I’ve kind of always seen New Orleans as a darker city than most, and that darkness that is always out there on the periphery of the bright sunshine, no matter how cheerful you might be or how lovely of a day it is. Part of it is the history here–New Orleans was a center of the slave trade, after all, and you don’t get much darker than human trafficking–and of course, the city has always been a major port…and ports aren’t exactly known as sedate places. There has always been a lot of crime here, and you really can’t go anywhere in New Orleans without overhearing people talking about the “crime problem” and shaking their heads at the decline of Western civilization as we know it down here by the riverside.
So, how can I write a light, breezy novel about a city that is so dark?
The key was community, of course. New Orleans is a city, but it’s also a city of neighborhoods, and always has been. Generations of families passed homes and property down to their children and their children and so on. “Where’d you go to high school?” was a question asked because the answer told the asker lots of things. Private school or public? What neighborhood did you grow up in? And as I thought more about it, I realized my lonely block in the lower Garden District has that sense of community to it. Neighbors look out for neighbors. We’ve lived in the same place since either 2002 or 2003; I’m never really sure I can remember when we moved onto the property; those years between moving back here in 2001 and Katrina are kind of blurry for me. But we’ve gotten to know our landlady pretty well as well as some of our neighbors; others have come and gone over the years but we always all end up down at the corner for parades during Carnival, catching throws and hanging out and having a good time.
And I realized I could do the same for Valerie.
In A Streetcar Named Murder I only introduced the reader to a few members of Valerie’s community in the Irish Channel: her best friend and neighbor Lorna; the gay couple next door in one side of a double and one’s mother, Mrs. Domenico, on the other side; and her friend Stacia who lives further down the street. I also mentioned there were a couple of houses being used as Air BnB’s, which may play a part in a book should the series get picked up. I had learned my lesson from the failed Paige spin-off series years ago; the mouthy, brash and snarky best friend cannot be the main character, but the book/community needed someone like that in the book. The main character has to be kind–but there’s always a more colorful secondary character necessary to say the funny and borderline mean things in place of the main character.
This is where Lorna comes in.
Lorna is very colorful indeed, and was a lot of fun to create. She’s married to an airline pilot who is often gone for long stretches of time (his name is Jack Farrow; since he’s a pilot she calls him Captain Jack Farrow). She’s British, speaks multiple languages, is fiercely intelligent and doggedly loyal. She also writes lusty romance novels that are huge bestsellers under the name Felicity Deveraux. Lorna is a great best friend who is also always up for anything, and naturally, she has a huge imagination and a big personality. Interesting and fun as Lorna is, I don’t think I would ever write about her as the main character because, like Paige, she would need to be toned down and I don’t really want to do that to her.
It is Lorna’s ambition to join a Mardi Gras krewe that actually puts Valerie at the scene of the crime in the book. See how that works?
But her neighborhood isn’t her only community, either; there’s a community around Rare Things, the antiques store she inherits–Randall Charpentier, her new boss; Dee, her co-worker; and of course the people who are in and out of the shop–the hot guy from an outer parish who repairs and refinishes furniture, for one–on a regular basis. If it becomes a series, I can flit the cases back and forth from her neighborhood to the store and vice versa; there are all kinds of plots and stories I can tell that could come from both.
And there’s still another community that Valerie belongs to that was only touched on in the first book–the parents’ group at Loyola High (it doesn’t exist in real life, folks, but it’s based on Jesuit), the Cardirents. This is how Valerie knew the victim in this book; they were both in the group, with a fraught history (which is more fraught than Valerie ever knew).
So, yes, it is possible to create the sense of community a cozy mystery requires in New Orleans; New Orleans, in fact, is ripe for it.
And on that note, I will sign off here. More blatant self-promotion to come, no worries on that score!