Do You Know What I Mean

The traditional mystery often gets a bum rap by mystery fans. I’m not sure why that is; these books have never gone out of style, have never decreased in popularity, and have always been the backbone of the crime/mystery genre. They are often (wrongly, I think) identified with Agatha Christie–if anything, Christie should be identified with every sub-genre of crime/mystery fiction. She wrote private eye novels (Poirot); dark noir (Endless Night); spy fiction (N or M?, The Man in the Brown Suit, They Came to Baghdad); historicals (Death Comes as the End); and even romantic suspense (as Mary Westmacott). Sure, she often relied on the amateur sleuth–her most famous amateur being probably Miss Marple–but she literally did everything first, really.

Probably why everyone refers to her as the Queen of Crime Fiction.

But the traditional mystery, for some reason, gets short shrift in our modern world, despite being one of the most popular subgenres of crime fiction. Why? I don’t really understand it. Sure, there’s not any blood or sex or violence–the sort of thing generally used to sell everything from television shows to movies to laundry soap and deoderant. Many of us grew up reading books about amateur detectives, from Nancy Drew to the Hardy Boys to Trixie Belden. So why do so many turn their noses up at the traditional mystery, also known as the cozy mystery?

I think it’s much harder to write about crime without using the tough guy male lead (stereotype), blood, violence, swear words, and sex. Is it this lack of the “rougher” aspects of crime that earned these books the nickname “cozy”?

What precisely does the word cozy mean, used as a book descriptor in this way? Ask five mystery fans/writers, and you will get five different answers. It’s often hard to quantify the variety of subgenres within the mystery/crime field. Everything else aside, I think the most important thing, the key, for a mystery novel to get this kind of classification is that the book focuses, on one level, on a sense of community; the reader develops a warm, comfortable feeling, the kind that you usually get from visiting family and friends you don’t get to see all of the time. You open the book and start reading and already feel relaxed and at home; happy to see people you care about, are interested in, and are excited to find out what they have been up to. Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series is an excellent example of this; so is Leslie Budewitz’ Spice Shop mystery series (both series, obviously, are favorites of mine). These books welcome you in, invite you to put your feet up, get comfortable, and spend some time with your old friends you’ve not seen in a while.

This, naturally, is very difficult to establish when writing the first book in a new series of this kind; how do you immediately establish this warm environment where the reader feels comfortable enough to kick off their shoes and relax? It’s not the easiest thing to pull off for an accomplished writer; so it’s all the more remarkable when someone nails it in their very first book.

Mia P. Manansala nailed it in her debut.

My name is Lila Macapagal and my life has become a rom-com cliché.

Not many romantic comedies feature an Asian-American (or dead bodies, but more on that later), but all the hallmarks are there.

Girl from an improbably named small town in the Midwest moves to the big city to make a name for herself and find love? Check.

Girl achieves these things only for the world to come crashing down when she walks in on her fiancé getting down and dirty with their next-door neighbors (yes, plural)? Double check.

Girl then moves back home in disgrace and finds work reinvigorating her aunt’s failing business? Well now we’re up to a hat trick of clichés.

And to put the cherry on top, in the trope of all tropes, I even reconnected with my high school sweetheart after moving back to town and discovered the true meaning of Christmas.

Okay, that last part is a joke, but I really did run into my high school sweetheart. Derek Winter, my first love.

First of all, can we talk about the voice?

It is impossible not to fall in love with Lila’s voice from the very first sentence of the book. She is smart and funny and eminently likable, which is important in a traditional mystery (no one wants to read a cozy whose main character is an unlikable bitch) and much harder to do than most people who don’t actually write books think it is. Lila is a remarkable character; very clear-eyed about what she wants and what she doesn’t, as well as who she thinks she is and wants to be. She’s returned from her big escape to the big city to the small town she wasn’t terribly happy in when she was growing up–her past experiences continually are reminding her, and not in pleasant way, of why she left in the first place. She never intended to return home (as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again), but she is back and rather than focusing on what she is certain everyone she knows or is related to sees as her “failure,” she intends instead to focus on helping save her aunt’s restaurant business.

The immense strength of this story rests upon those family bonds, and Lila’s recognition of just how important those bonds–family, friends, community–actually are to her; and her growing realization, over the course of the books, that those things she once thought were strangling and restraining her are actually where her own power comes from.

The mystery itself is also strong: Lila’s wretched local ex, whose mother has since married a businessman who rents Tita Rosie’s building to her and is a total dick, has taken to writing shitty reviews of local restaurants, apparently targeting one and trying to destroy its business before moving on to another. Lila’s relationship with him is also strained; and she also doesn’t like the dickish stepfather either. It is while she is serving them lunch that her ex keels over face-first into his plate–dead from arsenic poisoning. In the food Lila fed him, and came from her aunt’s kitchen. The financially strapped business is shut down pending an investigation into the murder and a health department inspection, and there is the very real fear that Tita Rosie may lose her restaurant. Lila takes it upon herself to investigate and find the real culprit, to clear herself as well as her aunt and the beloved family business of any wrongdoing and scandal. The journey, which introduces us to her friends and family, and welcomes the reader into their charming world and community, twists and turns and is full of surprises every step along the way–as Lila also learns just how much the restaurant, her family, and her friends really mean to her.

This book is absolutely charming, well-written, and very fun. I cannot wait to revisit Lila and her crew in the second book, Homicide and Halo-Halo. Mia P. Manansala is definitely one to watch, and it’s going to be fun watching her career reaching even more heights than she has already achieved.

Ooh Baby Baby

There is no question that Agatha Christie is one of the giants (if not the giant) of crime fiction.

Agatha Christie was one of my gateways to adult crime fiction (along with Charlotte Armstrong, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Victoria Holt); if I remember correctly the first book of hers I bought was Witness for the Prosecution (which I didn’t know was a short story collection) and the first novel of hers I read was Murder in the Calais Coach (best known as Murder on the Orient Express; the former was a short-lived American title for the book, and frankly, isn’t an improvement; why make the title about something no one would know what is was? Everyone knew the Orient Express). I eventually read everything she wrote, with a few exceptions (I still haven’t read Murder in Three Acts or Death in the Air) but the first Miss Marple novel I read was A Caribbean Mystery. I always preferred Miss Marple to Poirot, but I kind of want to give a Poirot or two a reread; Donna Andrews made a very clever observation about him on one of my social media posts which provides another lens for me to read through.

I found a hardcover copy of A Caribbean Mystery somewhere since we moved into the Lost Apartment; I’m not sure where. I certainly don’t remember buying it on eBay (the only other Christie I have in hardcover, Halloween Party, is missing its dust jacket, and I think I got it at a yard sale? But wait! It’s a Poirot! And has Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s stand-in! Yes, that’s a reread for the new lens for Poirot! And now that that’s sorted…), so there’s no telling where it came from. I don’t know why it took me so long to reread it–it’s actually on the short side–but it did take me a while. Maybe because there was no urgency because I remembered who the killer was?

“Take all this business about Kenya,” said Major Palgrave. “Lots of chaps gabbing away who know nothing about the place! Now I spent fourteen years of my life there. Some of the best years of my life, too–“

Old Miss Marple inclined her head.

It was a gentle gesture of courtesy. While Major Palgrave proceeded with the somewhat uninteresting recollections of a lifetime, Miss Marple peacefully pursued her own thoughts. It was a routine with which she was well acquainted. The locale varied. In the past, it had been predominantly India. Majors, colonels, lieutenant-generals–and a familiar series of words: Simla. Bearers. Tigers. Chota Hazri–Tiffin. Khitmagars, and so on. With Major Palgrave the terms were slightly different. Safari. Kikuyu. Elephants. Swahili. But the pattern was essentially the same. An elderly man who needed a listener so that he could, in memory, relive days in which he had been happy Days when his back had been straight, his eyesight keen, his hearing acute. Some of these talkers had been handsome soldierly old boys, some again had been regrettably unattractive; and Major Palgrave, purple of face, with a glass eye, and the general appearance of a stuffed frog, belonged in the latter category.

Miss Marple has bestowed on all of them the same gentle charity. She had sat attentively, inclingin her head from time to time in gentle agreement, thinking her own thoughts and enjoying what there was to enjoy, in this case the deep blue of a Caribbean sea.

I decided to reread this book for several reasons. First, I am reading a lot of “cozy” mysteries (mysteries with amateur sleuths as the main crime-solver) because I am writing one myself; second, because I’ve been wanting to revisit Christie on a smaller scale (there’s no way I could reread her entire canon again); and third, because I read a piece recently somewhere (Crime Reads, perhaps?) about the enduring legacy of Christie despite some problematic aspects to some of the books (I was well aware of the classism and anti-Semitism, and VERY WELL AWARE of the various problematic title changes for And Then There Were None over the years), and this one was mentioned. I remembered the book, I remembered the story; I remembered that this was the book where Miss Marple met Mr. Rafiel and she became, in some ways, Nemesis to the two of them (one of the later Marples was, in fact, Nemesis, and Mr. Rafiel sent her a murder to solve from beyond the grave); but I wasn’t so sure I remembered why precisely this book was problematic, could be see that way. So, I took it down from the shelves, and started reading.

The premise of the book is this: Miss Marple had a rough winter, having contracted pneumonia, and her nephew, bestselling novelist Raymond West, has decided to send his beloved elderly aunt to a warmer climate to recuperate–St. Honoré, to be exact, in the Caribbean, or the West Indies–at the Golden Palm Hotel resort. (St. Honoré is, of course, fictional; I may use it if I ever need a fictional Caribbean setting) As she sits in the warm sun, knitting and observing the people around her–she is always watching–and half-listening to the pompous bore rattling on to his captive audience (this scene, and her thoughts about Major Palgrave being of a type who really doesn’t need anyone to really pay attention, but to just be in hearing range with the proper noises being made when necessary, is quite insightful and brilliant; haven’t we all been there in that situation?), when he asks her if she wants to see the picture of a murderer? Since she isn’t really listening, she assents and continues to observe and watch everyone around her, and as he is reaching into his wallet to show her a picture of said murderer, he stops, turns quite purple, shoves the photo back into his wallet and loudly changes the subject. This does catch her attention, and she turns around to see what he saw–but doesn’t see anything or anyone that could explain this behavior change. He then makes excuses and leaves.

And of course, he dies that night–and this incident nags at Miss Marple. His death is explained away by him having high blood pressure, and having drank too much on top of his medication; but she isn’t so sure. And then she makes up a lie about the photograph, which she tells the doctor, and it turns out the photograph is missing.

Obviously, the Major was murdered, and did he really have high blood pressure, or is that merely gossip? As Miss Marple observes, “it’s very easy to get a rumor about, and people will just repeat it. There’s never any first-hand knowledge; it always A heard it from B who heard it from C and no one can really pinpoint where the story started.”

It’s a good story, with lots of suspects and suspicious behavior and trying to sort rumor from truth, but two more people wind up dead–a very common theme in Christie is a murderer having to kill others to cover up their original crime–before Miss Marple remembers something and figures out not only who the killer is, but who their actual target was from the very beginning.

And yes, there’s some serious problematic views of the islanders from the British paternalistic colonialist point of view. But Christie herself never says anything problematic–it always comes from the mouth of one of her characters, who, given the time period, would inevitably think that way–side comments about how many of the islanders are in committed relationships without benefit of clergy; etc. etc. etc.

So, I would say it held up about 95% on the reread; yes, there’s some problematic stuff that might be jarring for someone to read now for the first time and would probably not be allowed past the editorial process today–and excising it wouldn’t harm the book in the least.