book review: death of a cozy writer

Death of a Cozy Writer by G. M. Malliet (2008)

I am a fan of cozy mysteries and golden age detective fiction.  So when I saw Death of a Cozy Writer as the Kindle Daily Deal a while back, I bought it without hesitation.  Maybe there should have been some hesitation.

I don’t want to give away the entire plot, so my summary will be brief.  This is the story of the Beauclerk-Fisk family, whose patriarch, Sir Adrian, is a cozy mystery writer.  He manipulates his four children—Ruthven (the heir apparent), George, Albert, and Sarah—with frequent changes to his will, threatening to disinherit one or all of them as suits his fancy.  When the story begins, Sir Adrian has sent all of his children an invitation to his wedding to Violet Mildenhall, and this puts his children in an uproar because they realize this will further jeopardize their inheritance and make their cuts of the inheritance smaller.  The children mobilize and descend upon Sir Adrian’s home, Waverley Court, with the intention of preventing the marriage.  Only, they discover that Sir Adrian has already married Violet.  Throughout the novel, Sir Adrian’s children are shown to be motivated by greed and self-interest, and so there really isn’t one person for readers to like. Enter the figure of the Great Detective—St. Just.

Now, I said earlier that I like golden age detective fiction, and Death of a Cozy Writer certainly intends, at least superficially, to take its position within this style of detective fiction.  Which means that the central character of the novel must be the Great Detective (think Hercule Poirot) and Malliet follows this convention by giving us Detective Chief Inspector St. Just of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary.  The first problem I had with this book grows out of Malliet’s use of this convention in that it’s more than a third of the way through the novel before the central character appears (I read this on my Kindle and it was at about 38% that St. Just made his entrance).  This was a problem for me because when I find all of the suspects to be petty, selfish, manipulative, self-absorbed, and generally unlikable, I want a character I can like and who will provide balance and contrast to the other characters.  I know that that character is intended to be St. Just, but he doesn’t come into the story soon enough.  When he did appear, well, he was kind of boring and bland.  The conventional Great Detective possesses some quality that makes him eccentric but brilliant. He is often isolated and somehow outside of the social order and it’s through this position that he is able to restore order to society.  I didn’t get this with St. Just at all.  There was nothing to attract me to him.  Yes, he was definitely a more likable character, but in this novel of generally unlikable characters, that wasn’t going to be too difficult.

Malliet also draws upon the familiar convention of providing a cast of characters before the first chapter begins.  I don’t usually find myself having a reaction to these lists one way or another, but as I was reading through this one, I kept thinking that there were a lot of characters. I can see why Malliet gave the character list—it was a way of describing the characters for the reader before actually meeting them and a way to help the reader keep all the characters straight.  Still, the character list was a preview of how flat the characters would be.  They are character types, and yes, that is often a complaint leveled against golden age detective fiction, but the character list seemed to make that deficiency even more apparent.  I will say that I think Malliet tried to fill the characters out and make them more round, and I think it is for this reason that the murder doesn’t actually take place until a third of the way through the story.  Again, the problem for me is that the first third of the book was used for character development, which would have been fine, if there had been any likable characters, or if through the character development the characters became more likable or even appealing and interesting as characters. For the record, no, I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that all characters must be likable, but all characters must be interesting, and this is doubly true when it comes to unlikable characters.  The author needs to give me a reason to keep reading about these characters I dislike so much.

Malliet employs the isolated setting convention and gathers all of the suspects in the same room at the end of the novel so that St. Just can reveal the killer and unravel the mystery.  In this respect, I do think Death of a Cozy Writer fits into the style of golden age detective fiction and readers of this subgenre will enjoy the familiarity.  However, I think the novel breaks the rule of “fair play” in providing all of the clues so that the reader can solve the puzzle if she has been paying attention.  I don’t think the novel gave all of the clues, and so the revelation of the murderer was a complete and unexpected surprise, to the point that I couldn’t even say “oh yes, that was a clue and I just didn’t catch it.”

Overall, I felt like it took too long for the murder to occur and too long for the central character, St. Just, to make his appearance.  I have written this elsewhere and I’m sure I’ll write it again, but the purpose of the first book in a series is to make me want to keep reading the series, and for me, Death of a Cozy Writer failed in its purpose.  This novel won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel in 2008, so apparently a lot of people liked it.  I’m just not counting myself among their number.

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