Uncomfortable cozy

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Charlie Lovett First Impressions Alma Books 2014

Murder is not nice, ever. And yet cozy mysteries — a popular sub-genre of crime fiction, often termed cosy crime in the UK — absolutely thrive on murder — their life-blood, as it were. Cozies are where violent death can be regarded with a polite shudder from the comfort of an armchair, perhaps curled up by a cheerful fire. Details are rarely visceral; the sleuth is usually a talented amateur; and the malefaction has a purely parochial significance. First Impressions certainly partakes of these aspects, but it also shares elements of the academic mystery: here the amateur detective is often a scholar, or the crime takes place in collegiate surroundings or some such bookish environment. In Lovett’s novel the deed is done close by the well-stocked library of a bibliophile.

But First Impressions includes yet another genre, the historical novel, because alternate chapters are set at the turn of the 19th century, focusing on the just-out-of-her-teens Jane Austen. But this is not a now fashionable mashup of Regency heroics and zombie apocalypse either: no, this is the follow-up to Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale, his first whodunit with a literary theme.


Imagine this: young Miss Jane, resident in Steventon in Hampshire, embarks on a friendship with an aged visitor to the locality, Richard Mansfield; a retired clergyman, he shares her enthusiasm for contemporary novels and encourages her in her ambition to be a published writer. Nearly two hundred years later Sophie Collingwood, contemplating a master’s at Oxford while she assists in a London bookshop, is approached by two buyers; they want her to locate Richard Mansfield’s A Little Book of Allegorical Stories, an obscure work published in Leeds in 1796. As we follow these strands separated by two centuries we begin to notice, in addition to the Mansfield connection, certain parallels: two young women obsessed by stories, the close friendships with a much older kindred spirit (Jane’s Reverend Mansfield, Sophie’s bibliophile uncle, Bertram) and a predisposition for the gentility of rural life. But for both Jane and Sophie there is also tragedy mixed with personal guilt.

As we progress through Lovett’s First Impressions (the title is, of course, that of an early draft of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) we shift between the points of view of the fictional Jane and that of Sophie, a blessedly proactive protagonist. As first impressions can always mislead us Lovett is clearly signalling that we can’t take things for granted. Is the assignation in the garden what the young Jane thinks it is? Is Uncle Bertram’s death from a fall an accident or truly murder? Are the two young men whom Sophie meets, seemingly by chance, really what they appear to be? Is Busbury Park, where all strands are finally tied up, more like Northanger Abbey, Pemberley or Mansfield Park?

This cozy deliberately sets out to be a distorted reflection in a glass. Lovett carefully weaves together literary clues, timelines, cross-references, intrigues and red herrings to make this a pleasant enough read — aided, despite her klepto tendencies, by the likeable Sophie — though I found I started to lose interest roughly two-thirds of the way through once I’d worked out where things were heading. I was also more than mildly irritated (as I was in his previous novel) by Americanisms such as “gotten” and “drapes” in the mouths of British speakers.

Above all I was not in the least convinced by his portrayal of Jane. What we know of her is that she was immensely sociable, but Lovett portrays her as one who was only able to confide a dark secret, which she’d kept from her schooldays in Reading, to a retired clergyman, a man moreover whom her family were never allowed to meet, and whose name was her last utterance before she died (her “Rosebud” moment, perhaps). My credulity was not only strained but broken irreparably at this point. Not nice, any more than murder is.

Blaise Castle House
Blaise Castle House
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10 thoughts on “Uncomfortable cozy

    1. Thanks, Gert! The British may have specialised in the cosy but the Americans seem since to have taken to it with a will, christening it the cozy (instead of the more unwieldy ‘murder mystery’ or similar). I haven’t read the Orwell yet — I know I ought to.

  1. I was so disappointed by this book. The portrayal of Jane Austen was completely ridiculous! I’m not always good at spotting Americanisms (I didn’t know about “drapes” for instance) but I would expect this book to be full of them when the author can’t even get his main character right.

    1. I agree absolutely, Lory, Lovett would have done well to read some of Jane’s letters to her sister so as to get her irrepressible humour and dry wit into the fictional conversations with Mansfield. I can’t imagine Jane, even burdened with the guilt that she is supposed to assuage by writing Pride and Prejudice, maintaining such po-faced seriousness throughout her lifetime. Lovett’s plotting is so clunky that one feels he has just shoehorned an Ugly Sister’s foot into Cinderella’s slipper, cutting off a few toes to facilitate the process. A shame as I quite enjoyed The Bookman’s Tale.

      By the way, I’ve scheduled a review of The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen for tomorrow, which I hope will undo some of the damage and distress caused by First Impressions!

  2. I was introduced to the American version of the cozies about 10 years ago, about the time the genre was gaining popularity with readers and budding writers alike. Like the U.K. version the protagonist was an amateur sleuth or had somehow found herself (usually all American cozies have female leads) inexplicably asked to solve a murder. The popularity of the cozy was due in large part to each author’s unique premise and gimmick. For instance, one series involved a baker, with recipes peppered throughout the book. Another had herbal recipes, &that one involved cats.

    At first I was delighted with the genre as the reads were easy and contained likable characters but after a while it dawned on me that these books made light of murder; the victim was either someone whom the community did not like or was treated as a throw away plot devise.

    Having said that, I did rather enjoy the Scottish Hamish series. But at least he was a professional detective and the author did not make light of the victim.

    1. Do you think cozies took off in the States after the success of the Murder, She Wrote TV series, Sari? Angela Lansbury had, after all, taken the part of Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d, a cinematic link to the Golden Age of Murder Mysteries; and the notion of a clever and observant woman underestimated by most males around her (and often not a few women) seems to have struck a chord in the 80s and 90s.

      I’ve consumed few enough cozies (I prefer to use the US spelling, as that seems to be where the term originated though not the genre itself) but prefer to ration my reading of them so as not to get too much mental indigestion. 🙂 There’s clearly a place for fictional murders in people’s minds — I suppose it’s the equivalent of gallows humour for surgeons — but the current fashion for so-called Scandi-noir novels, films and TV mini-series seems to be indulging a more unhealthy taste for violence and abuse in the public’s imagination. One, I hasten to add, that I don’t share myself.

  3. I so enjoyed The Bookman’s Tale that I was excited when I found this. But I was so disappointed when I could barely get into it. Even though Jane Austen figured it did not hold my interest and I put it aside…Now I know why.

    However, with your perspective, maybe because it articulates my dislike in a way I could not, I may try it again. Funny how that works 🙂

    1. I have to say it wasn’t bad, Laurie — but it wasn’t good either! If I hadn’t read any Austen I might have thought it was OK, but this Jane seemed to have had her sense of humour surgically removed. On the other hand Sophie was more admirable, a proactive and resourceful modern heroine, even if she still needs a White Knight (maybe more off-white than pristine) at the end. I’d be keen to hear your verdict if you do decide to try it again!

      1. I will try it again, because I don’t want to give up on Lovett. I have had a tendency of late to stop reading something that does not grab me right away, because there are so many books to read. I am trying to break myself of this!

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