Hannah Swensen runs a bakery, specialising in cookies, called The Cookie Jar, in Lake Eden, Minnesota. When a delivery man is found, shot dead, in her loading bay, Hannah decided to take matters into her own hands and find the killer herself. With the help of her brother-in-law, a local deputy, and her sister, an estate agent, Hannah starts her investigations, armed only with countless bags of cookies. But can she find the killer before the killer finds her?
Yup, it’s cozy time. I figured that in my recent review of The Probability of Murder, I may have been a bit dismissive of the genre, so I figured that it was only fair to give it a fair crack of the whip. Hence this review. So, a quick checklist:
- Lack of blood and gore? Check!
- Specialised non-murder related hobby for the sleuth? Check!
- Owns a cat? Check!
I think this one qualifies as a cozy. But, most importantly, is it any good?
Hmm. The generally accepted theory is that the cozy mystery started as an attempt to mimic the Golden Age style of mysteries, in particular the Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie – a small selection of most nice people with a single villain who generally kills people in a non-messy way. Of course, anyone who’s read any Miss Marple will spot that this theory is abject nonsense, as that doesn’t describe those books, but that’s basically how I understand it. If anyone has a better description as to where this genre evolved from, feel free to let me know.
Now, it thrives, particularly in the US I think, as themed mysteries (cookie shops, cheese shops, magical dressmaking shops, etc) and has certainly evolved beyond the original idea. If you look online, there is certainly a large readership for these books. This series alone has generated fifteen books, all of which follow the “NAME OF CONFECTIONARY Murder” style, all of which have a 4/5 or better score on Amazon. I think it’s fair to say though that some mystery readers have a very dim view of such books, so to try and redress the balance, I thought I’d have a look at some of them.
The first thing to say about this book is that it’s very readable. The action jollies along nicely as Hannah moves from one suspect to the next, and Hannah herself is a likeable character. The chapters are interrupted occasionally with cookie recipes, but the story certainly keeps moving forward. Unlike some books that I’ve read, at no point did I feel like putting it to one side for a while. I had absolutely no issues with the setting – indeed, the “coziness” of the book did not bother me at all.
The plot did, though. This isn’t in any way an Agatha Christie style story – it’s much more like a noir mystery. Basically Hannah goes around town, accuses someone, they provide an alibi and another clue, so she moves on to another suspect. The only difference is that she doesn’t have a gun but a bag of cookies. Eventually, rather than give an alibi, a suspect tries to kill her, so bingo, we have our murderer.
It’s a very linear tale – each suspect, once they are eliminated, is never re-visited. There are a couple of places where it seems like the alibis are going to be rendered moot, but that never comes to anything. It was about 75% through the book when the pattern began to get rather boring for me. There was a nice surprise when the killer turned up before where I thought the end of the book was, but there was a novella attached to the end of the book on my Kindle, but to be honest, I didn’t really care at that point – note, the novella was rather nice, but again, not a play-along whodunnit.
So, in summary, it’s a perfectly pleasant read, but, for me, it wasn’t much of a mystery. As far as I could tell, it wasn’t a fair play mystery and in hindsight, it does seem rather odd that the killer acted as they did – no spoilers, obviously.
I certainly haven’t given up on the cozies – as I said, that aspect didn’t bother me, but I don’t think I’ll be back to The Cookie Jar in a hurry.
I did like the cat…
This is counting as Minnesota in my Mystery Tour of the USA.
This is another case Steve where I am left certain that your excellent review will be much more fun than actually reading the book – i thank you for your services to crime fiction and shall move swiftly on! Hope it was a good Easter.
All the best,
That’s probably fair enough. But I really want to understand the appeal of these books – not sure why, but I do – and it won’t be the last of these cozy reviews. In fact, coming very soon (hopefully tomorrow) is Murder On The Rocks (no, not a cocktail waiter-cum-detective) which, at least, is a “proper” mystery… but I’ll leave that until tomorrow
I completely understand your fascination and (ahem) puzzlement – I totally get the appeal of the cozy in terms of ‘comfort food’ for want of a batter analogy: familiar elements that provide reassurance but which aren’t supposed to stray too far from the beaten track therefore. it’s the suppression of virtually all critical faculties that goes with this desire for old fashioned- backward looking sustenance that is more than a little suspect. A lot of these books are so ‘ersatz’ as to leave no aftertaste what so ever and yet seem to be so popular ..!
I haven’t read many cosy mysteries (my current Kindle fascination is bizarre and rushed-out thrillers) but I’m always interested to try and understand how people approach reading mysteries, so I can try and work out how to write them better.
With the thrillers there’s a definite whiff of review fixing. There are often a lot of reviews, and they’re pretty heavily polarised. Some 5-star ones seem to be cut and paste jobs using info from the blurb, and the 1-star ones are usually complaints that even 75p was too much to pay.
Have you noticed anything similar with the cosies? I haven’t as yet. There’s a lot of cross-fertilisation, with authors reviewing each others books, but that just seems like sensible marketing and the behaviour of a genuine and supportive niche community. When the thriller authors cross-review, it’s more likely to be a 1-star slagging match!
I think the linear plotting can be ascribed to writing methods. I read a few of the Hamish Macbeth mysteries, and it was clear that they’d been written straight through without much planning beyond the central gimmick of the crime. If you’re going to write mysteries as you go along, you really need to keep the different plot chunks separate if you’re not going to write yourself into a corner. And if you’re not allowing yourself much time for editing, it’s helpful not to have anything too complex. With intricate plots and lots of clues, changing one thing often leads to a chain reaction of necessary edits which can quickly become overwhelming.
I think the reviews on Amazon are genuine – I think most people who wouldn’t like this mystery probably wouldn’t have bought it in the first place!
The low reviews that annoy me are the ones from people who didn’t notice that they’d bought a short story or a novella before paying a pittance for it. Generally, I don’t rate things on Amazon unless I disagree vastly with the general populace and want to give a bit of balance… or to plug a good book with no reviews.
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