Welcome back to Mysteristas friend Mary Feliz, author of the Maggie McDonald Mysteries!
The British Influence
The amateur detective mystery is nowhere quite as popular as it is in the United Kingdom. But why? I’d like to believe it’s an ongoing celebration of the spirit that brought the nation back from the verge of destruction during the Blitz. It was an effort that relied as much or more on the strength of its civilian or amateur population as it did on trained military personnel.
At their heart, cozy or traditional mysteries are about that sense of community that we all need, what happens when violence rips a hole in the fabric of the community, and what ordinary people can do to restore order. No matter how bad things get, the murderer will be discovered, the fabric is repaired, and the balance between good and evil is rebalanced.
But the traditional British mystery predates the 1940s by nearly 100 years. Wilkie Collins, a British writer who’s often considered the father of detective fiction, launched the genre with the first full-length detective novel, The Moonstone, published in 1868.
Collins set his groundbreaking work in an English country house, with a limited number of guests, servants, and residents. The detective, an outsider, is brought in to solve a murder, and begins interviewing the likely suspects, any one of which could be lying to protect themselves or someone else.
It’s an outrageously successful pattern for an unfolding murder mystery, and one that Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and a slew of other authors have emulated for nearly 150 years.
Before Collins, Edgar Allen Poe wrote the first short detective story in 1841. The Murders in the Rue Morgue sets up an ingenious locked room mystery when two women are brutally murdered.
Agatha Christie’s mash-up of the two popular formats is a tour de force. And Then There Were None expands the locked room into a remote island made inaccessible by a storm. It capitalizes on the limited cast of characters initially utilized by Collins.
When I think of the British influence, though, I think of the English village mystery, the tropes of which are both lovingly spoofed and honored in the extraordinarily popular Midsomer Murders mystery series, now in its 20th season.
Made popular by Miss Marple and her tiny hamlet of St. Mary Mead, these cozy mysteries typically feature a pastoral setting with a limited number of characters whose lives are closely intertwined. The stories begin when a murder disrupts the sleepy life of the town and an outsider arrives to investigate. Nothing is as it seems. The peaceful community harbors disturbing secrets and resentments residents will do anything to hide. The highly suspect and clumsy outsider who ruffles feathers becomes the key to restoring order. As the townspeople begin to warily eye each other and question their long held assurance of safety, they realize that only in giving up their secrets can they renew their bonds and restore the strength of their community. Slowly, they begin to trust one another, help the detective track down the murderer, and restore goodness to their little village. Much tea is consumed. No animals are hurt.
So popular is the format that it’s been uprooted and transported to other continents and worlds. Laura Van Wormer recreates the traditional mystery in the heart of Manhattan in Riverside Drive, a novel in which the residents of an upscale apartment complex share the same cleaning lady. In subsequent novels, she examines the hard-working employees of an award-winning studio news program.
The genre has been transported to the outback in Australia, to steamy Asia, and to Mars, Jupiter, and orbiting space colonies, and the Wild West.
In my Maggie McDonald Mystery series, Orchard View, a small enclave outside Silicon Valley, stands in for the English market town. A professional organizer with access to the secrets concealed her clients’ sock drawers and the skeletons stashed in their closets, becomes the outsider who tramples on tradition in her effort to restore order.
In Orchard View, like St. Mary Mead, dogs abound, violence is minimized, and there’s no foul language or explicit sex. The sole horror is the potential for violence that lies within any human who is pushed too far. The mystery tracks the community’s efforts to repair the damage done when evil erupts. To restore order, professional organizer and amateur detective Maggie McDonald must rely upon her new neighbors and friends, and help them regain faith in one another.
In Dead Storage, the third and most recent Maggie McDonald Mystery Maggie’s chaos erupts when an undocumented person is witness to a crime. Does he report the crime and risk deportation? Does he stay mum and let bad guys run amok? Or can Maggie come up with another solution without putting herself, her family, and her friends in danger?
Like so many novels that preceded it, Dead Storage follows a familiar narrative structure, adding a different twist.
Dead Storage releases July 18 from Kensington Books’ Lyrical Press.
Mary Feliz writes the Maggie McDonald Mysteries featuring a Silicon Valley professional organizer and her sidekick golden retriever. She’s worked for Fortune 500 firms and mom and pop enterprises, competed in whale boat races and done synchronized swimming. She attends organizing conferences in her character’s stead, but Maggie’s skills leave her in the dust.