Locked room cozy is a page-turner

hanged manC S Challinor Phi Beta Murder  Midnight Ink 2010

C S Challinor’s sojourns in Scotland and England and residency in Florida, her academic background, ear for language and love of the classic age of whodunits all contribute greatly to the authority of this novel. She writes sympathetically about individuals from one culture adapting to another, about the struggles and stresses of students coping away from home and the bemusement of their elders trying to get to grips with modern mores. And, for the mystery aficionado, she sprinkles the text with clues and red herrings in equal measure in best whodunit tradition. Phi Beta Murder is a fine page-turner given a sense of urgency by predetermined time-constraints and the cloistered and claustrophobic atmosphere of a second-rate Florida college where a student is found hanged. Add to that a list of dramatis personae and a taster for a sequel and you have a hugely enjoyable piece of bedtime fiction.

A confession: I’m not a great fan of mysteries, especially when they’re self-declared cozy mysteries, a sub-genre paying homage to classic detective writers like Agatha Christie. In common with many critics characterisation can often seem mechanical and the individuals mere pawns in the plot-led story; in this sense their weakness is their strength, exactly as candy-floss, while not providing proper nutrition, nevertheless gives you the pleasure that comes with a sugar-hit. What gives Challinor’s locked-room mystery its real meat, however, is the back story of Rex Graves, Scottish QC and amateur sleuth, and his all-too-human attempts to cope with family and relationships and what fate throws at him. Unlike the mystery plot there are no simple solutions to life’s conundrums, and one really warms to this well-observed middle-aged male adrift in a sea of emotion.

A final observation: there must be few detective stories, let alone tales set in Edinburgh, with as arresting an opening sentence as “From Blackford Hill, the volcanic formation of Arthur’s Seat resembled a pair of buttocks.” If that doesn’t grab your attention, I suspect nothing much will.

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8 thoughts on “Locked room cozy is a page-turner

  1. It is a long time since I have read a whodunnit. There I rather liked the more intellectual ones – E..ery Queen Jnr comes to mind. The fair planting of clues which would enable the astute reader to arrive at a solution. This one seems like something in that direction.

    1. Never read Ellery Queen, though my mother was keen enough. If I want clues I go for cryptic crosswords; I prefer my detective novels to have some human interest as well, for me to care, at least a little, about the characters involved. Rex Graves has a bit of this, Donna Leon’s Venetian policeman Brunetti even more. But, as I say, I read this genre rather sparingly.

  2. While I’m not a huge fan of mysteries, this does sound intriguing.
    And that first line surely ranks as one of the best I’ve read recently!
    Thank you for letting me peek at your bookshelves!

    Write on,
    Karin

    1. I quite liked this, Karin, having been sent it for review, though not enough to chase up others in the series.

      Glad to share what I’ve been reading, and also pleased to read your well-crafted posts as you hone your own novel-writing skills. Your blog title reminds us of advice we were given about bringing up kids: we wrap up our children in cotton wool to protect them, such as when we say to them “Take care!” whenever they embark on something outside of our control. What we should be saying of course is “Take a risk!” That’s a good way to encourage them to develop confidence and learn from possible mistakes, all good life skills.

  3. elmediat

    I suspect that the whodunnit almost falls into male and female categories. Obviously readers and writers of both genders can move from the one type to the other. However the evolution of the genre appears to have evolved out of a societal-cultural role pattern.

    Male whodunnit – How-dunnit mechanics of the mystery.
    Female whodunnit – Why-dunnit leads to mechanics of the mystery.

    The one detective figures out how it was done to discover who did it. The other detective investigates motive leads to unravelling the method. Both detectives are essentially puzzle solvers who approach the puzzle from different sides.

    The Hard Boiled detective follows a convoluted emotional path full of ethical grey areas. Lots of physical encounters where action & threat are a metaphor for detective’s emotional vulnerability. Follows a physical trail to the emotional heart of the mystery. The puzzle/mystery is cracked open (to crack the case); the detective seeks emotional whys in a hands on manner.

    This is theory today. No doubt I will have a different one tomorrow, … when my blood sugar levels are different. 😀

    1. This is a great analysis, and one that makes good sense to me at least! What you’ve written almost amounts to a synopsis of a study — or at least a blog post — which may have already been written or, excitingly, is waiting to be written by you! Maybe your blood sugar levels, if steadied now, will allow you to evaluate what a satisfying general theory this is. Quick, before I absorb this and convince myself it’s a theory I’ve come up with myself! At least I can now tag my cozy reviews as #howdunnits and #whydunnits. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Detectives Who, How & Why | Dark Pines Media

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