Silver Threads and Golden Needles

If you’ve been sensing a theme in my recent reading, Constant Reader, you are correct. I have been reading a lot of traditional mysteries lately–cozies, if you prefer–and there are any number of reasons why. One, I want to read more broadly across the genre; two, I actually enjoy them, a lot; and three, well, yes, I am writing one. I am only sorry that it took #3 in that sentence to really dig into one of my favorite sub-genres of crime fiction again, since I am having the best time since I started digging them out of the TBR pile and reading them. They are called cozies for a reason; they are generally warm stories about incredibly kind and likable people who wind up getting involved in murders–usually through no doing of their own–and through their own shrewd observations of behavior and brains, inevitably wind up finding the killer’s identity before the police do.

I know I am an anomaly when it comes to this, but I always preferred Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple to Poirot. I loved that the elderly, always under-estimated by everyone spinster from the little village, simply by watching and observing human nature in the microcosm of her village–and her theory about human nature, “people who are similar often behave similarly”, is kind of spot-on. I loved how the suspects in a case would remind her of someone she knew from the village in the past, and her observations were inevitably correct. A traditional mystery is one where there’s no violence or bloodshed on the page (mild, if there is–like a punch in the nose or something like that when trying to evade the killer, etc.), no sex, not much cursing, and so forth. I tend to think of them as stories that take place in the world we’d rather live in, rather than the actual real world we do live in.

Stephen King, in his seminal treatise on horror, Dance Macabre, described horror novels as examples of the conflict between the philosophical concepts of the Dionysian and Apollonian; in which the Apollonian signifies the status quo–peace, order, reason and balance–while the intrusion of the murder/crime into that Apollonian ideal sends the community reeling into the Dionysian: disorder, tragedy, emotional illogic. The solving of the crime brings the community back into balance and returns it to the Apollonian ideal, so the amateur sleuth in these books are agents of reason. And since one of the major precepts of the traditional/cozy mystery is that sense of community–see Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series–it is the duty of the amateur sleuth to return the community to the sense of peace, order and serenity that ruled before the Dionysian influence disrupted all of that.

But Mary Feliz’ first Maggie McDonald mystery kind of turns that theory on its ear.

“Awesome! I bet it has bats!” My fourteen-year-old son, David, exploded from the car and mounted the steps of the old house three at a time. He peered through the grubby porch windows.

“Is it haunted?” Brian, my twelve-year-old, leaned into my side as we stood in the front yard. I eyed the dust motes cavorting in a light beam that had escaped the shrubs and overgrown trees surrounding the 100-year-old California Craftsman house. I put a reassuring hand on Brian’s mop of curly hair. “I doubt it, honey.” I hoped it was true.

I swallowed hard and watched my husband, Max, ease his long legs out of the Prius. Like my minivan, Max’ car was overloaded. We’d packed both cars with everything too fragile to transport in the moving van. In among the breakables, our two kids, one golden retriever and two cats, we’d tucked picnic food, cleaning supplies, and sleeping bags.

Today was Thursday. The plan was simple. The movers would arrive tomorrow. Since Monday was Labor Dat, we’d have four days to get settled. The kids would start school on Tuesday, and Max would begin his first full day at the new job the same day. I was giving myself a month to focus solely on house and gamily. After that, I was determined to restart my career as a professional organizer.

Anyone who has ever moved to a new city and started over can relate to the opening chapter of this book. I myself have moved countless times to new communities–from Chicago to the suburbs to Kansas to California to Houston to Tampa to Houston to Tampa to Minneapolis to New Orleans to Washington and back to New Orleans finally. There’s something exciting about starting over in a new place–but there’s also that little thought in the back of your head, what if you were better off where you were before? It can be both scary and intimidating to move–especially when you have children, as Maggie does. Her family was happily living in Stockton when her husband’s aunt died, leaving them the property where he grew up and remembered fondly. They visited the property while the estate was in probate, and Maggie, too, fell in love with the big old beautiful house, and agreed to give up her own business–she’s an organizer, the person you hire when you can’t organize yourself and you need help–and move to Orchard View in Silicon Valley to this big beautiful house where her husband grew up…and right away, her worst fears are coming true. The house somehow has become incredibly run down, with broken windows and dirty inside; there’s a horrible smell coming from the basement, and the power doesn’t work. It doesn’t even look like the same house…and then they find the dead body of the caretaker in the basement.

So the house is soon crawling with cops, and Maggie wants to go back home to Stockton with the kids and wash her hands of the whole mess.

Who could blame her?

But the cops are actually friendly–even if the first neighbor she meets is kind of a dick–and helpful, introducing to people around the town who can help get the house back together and under control, so she and her family can get settled in. The principal of her kids’ school is a problem–as is the recurring acts of vandalism at the house. And then Max’s job sends him off to Bangalore, leaving Maggie to deal with everything on her own. The vandalism amps up, and before she knows it she is stumbling over yet another dead body. Who is killing people who have a connection to Maggie’s family? Is the vandalism connected to the murders, or is it something else entirely? Is one of her new friends and acquaintances actually the culprit?

It’s a fun read, and I appreciated the different spin on the community aspect of a traditional mystery. Having Maggie and her family (her boys are terrific, too) resettling into a new place means that, like the reader, she has no history with either Orchard View or the people who live there; we meet them and get to know them as she does. As Maggie grows more comfortable in her new home, so do we the readers–and that was a pretty big risk to take for the author, and I respect Feliz for taking that risk. It was actually kind of cool to see her establishing those relationships and creating a history with the characters, as opposed to having to dip into a lot of backstory, which is also hard to do with aplomb and without losing reader interest.

I am looking forward to reading more of this series!

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