I’m a pretty normal gal. I have a part-time job running the clinical research center at the Virginia Tech vet school. I’m a mom who shops at Kroger, walks the dog, and makes pasta salad. I do yoga, volunteer, and have Friday-night drinks with the neighbors. One thing I don’t do is solve murders.
Readers of the traditional or “cozy” mystery genres will know that one of the criterion often used for defining these books is that the protagonist should be an amateur sleuth. (There are notable exceptions to this, but it generally holds true). In other words, the person who solves the mystery is just a regular Joe or Josephine. Hence, my Reverend Lindsay Harding Mysteries fit the bill. Lindsay is a hospital chaplain. She’s not a police officer, a member of the armed forces, or even a private investigator. She’s a normal person, thrown into murder investigations by chance (actually by me, but don’t tell her that!).
I’ve been working on the third book in the series, and I find myself wondering — what would it mean for Lindsay, as a normal person, to be confronted frequently by the horror that accompanies the sudden, violent taking of a life? How might it change her as a person? Some mystery writers have addressed these questions with considerable skill. My religious-based mystery-writing hero, Julia Spencer-Fleming, is one of these. As personal tragedies pile on top of repeated exposures to the darker shades of human nature, Spencer-Fleming’s Reverend Clare Fergusson character grows, changes, and becomes more complex. And, crucially, Rev. Clare buys a new car. You read that right. She begins the series owning an impractical sports car, but at some point she realizes that she needs something that handles better in the snow. So she gets a Suburu. I know this may seem an odd thing to fixate on, but this exemplifies what’s right about Spencer-Fleming and wrong with so many other mystery series.
Way too many books, especially in the cozy genre, fail to recognize the deep wounds that would accumulate if a person were constantly confronting life-threatening (and life-ending) situations. Experiences, especially traumatic ones, change people. But some authors seem to take their characters and plots in the opposite direction — as their series progresses, they write about murders with all the the gravity and emotional depth of a game of Uno. Their characters’ quirks become like the pun-heavy jokes your weird old uncle trots out every Christmas — they may have been amusing the first few times, but now they make you want to stab yourself in the neck with a shrimp fork. By way of example, I’ll pick on two of the most successful series is the genre (the writers of which are both conveniently deceased, and therefore unable to argue with me): Lilian Jackson-Braun’s “The Cat Who…” series and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. In these books, bodies stack up, but the equilibrium of the main character is totally undisturbed. Miss Marple might give a little frown or an exclamation of surprise as she steps over yet another corpse, but then she calmly returns to sipping her Earl Grey. In the last few installments of “The Cat Who…” murders roll in and out of the pages like buses out of a Greyhound station. They might occasion a quick-witted quip, but they don’t “stick” to the characters.
What’s a writer to do? Part of the charm of traditional mysteries, and cozies in particular, is that they provide an easy, often funny, read, free of the kind of gruesome violence that so many of us find overly disturbing. I love the humorous elements of these books, as they remind us that there is light to be found in even the darkest of places. But I personally can’t stand to read a character who remains static while the world around her repeatedly throws dead bodies at her feet.
Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean that the Lindsay Harding series is suddenly going to change from being fun beach reads to being a meditation on the hopelessness of existence. But it does mean that, if I achieve what I set out to do, that Lindsay will evolve.