Cozy Hats in London

hatAt the Drop of a Hat

Hat Shop Mystery #3

By Jenn McKinlay

Cousins Scarlett Parker and Vivian Tremont’s fashionable London hat shop, Mim’s Whims, is visited by a new customer bearing an old hat box. Ariana Jackson is getting married and wants to restore her mother’s bridal hat and veil for the occasion. The elegant item was made by Scarlett and Vivian’s grandmother over thirty years ago, so Viv is delighted to take the job.

When Scarlett goes to Ariana’s office to consult about the restoration cost, she finds her outside, standing over her boss’s dead body. Though Ariana claims to know nothing about his demise, the investigation unveils a motive for murder. Now, with the bride-to-be in custody and the wedding on hold, Scarlett and Viv must find the real killer before Ariana’s future is boxed up for good.

Via Goodreads

 

I’m very picky about cozy mysteries. I’ll read at least one in any series but I won’t commit to the series unless I like the protagonist. Sometimes the amateur sleuths are a little too nosy for my liking or have too many quirks or problems that make relationships difficult for them. I’m all for complex female characters but the very nature of a cozy, as well as its structure, don’t allow for too much complexity. I enjoy watching characters develop over many books in a cozy series. There simply isn’t enough room in a cozy for a mystery and a deep dive into someone’s mind.

And I read them to escape into a charming world with lovely people I’d like to know so nothing too heavy, please.

Jenn McKinlay succeeds for me on all points. Scarlett has a primary personal problem – a previous relationship that ended spectacularly and in a public/social media way that leads to a vow to not date men for at least a year. Of course the foil is a childhood friend who is clearly interested in her and is quite attractive to Scarlett. This primary problem continues throughout the books, an undercurrent to each mystery.

This installment was nice because as Scarlett starts to resolve her primary problem a new one arises – the question of Vivian’s love life. Her cousin never dates, seems to avoid men who are interested in her and won’t say why. Scarlett is just nosy enough to want to know what is going on with Vivian since she wants her cousin to be happy.

The book ended on an excellent note – as the new problem is explained it impacts the primary problem for Scarlett. This is a great way to keep the tension within the romantic relationship. ‘Will they, won’t they’ can only go on for so long. Introducing a new element is key and well done.

I enjoy visiting Mim’s hat shop in London. Having visited London once, I have enough of a vision in my head to overlay on McKinlay’s story. Tea is constantly prepared, rain always falls and murders must be solved.

Getting Cozy with Beasties

beastiesStudies of Beasties

Iona Adair Scottish Mysteries #1

By Polly Letson

Iona Adair thought she had a simple life, with her job, draughty flat and her sweet, black and white cat. But when you are moonlighting for a secret organisation aiming to destroy all evidence of the paranormal, whilst working as a parapsychologist at the world renowned Diederich Institute of Parapsychology, things are bound to get complicated. Throw into that mix an uncanny ability for mind control, her baffling spirit guide, a fake clairvoyant mother, as well as some naked dead bodies, and mayhem ensues.

Iona is forced out of the safe world of Edinburgh academia by her new Texan boss and is suddenly in the field, exploring a small Scottish town that believes the Beast of Badnoch is behind the spate of recent disappearances. Will her dishy colleague Andy find out that the psychic he’s investigating is her mother? And will that change how he feels about her? In this, the first of the Iona Adair Scottish Mysteries, Iona finds out that the supernatural world is far more dangerous and expansive than she could possibly imagine, even if it does have some very charming characters, like blood drinking Henry, a bonafide ancient techno-geek.

The supernatural world has never been funnier, sexier or more tartan.

Via Goodreads

 

I feel like many female protagonists in cozy mysteries need to have poor social skills and be unable to interact well with others, and that over the course of the book(s) they begin to open up and learn things and trust people. Sometimes that becomes frustrating because a confident woman or an extrovert can be an amateur sleuth as well. Well, I suppose some cozy mysteries I’ve read have extroverts. And maybe it’s because I read so many book themed cozies that the sleuths are introverts. And I get it – I’m an introvert. But it’s a theme I’ve found and I wonder what that means about readers of cozies. Maybe we all feel a little set apart from others or can sympathize with the difficulties in opening up to new people so seeing a slightly heightened version of this in books, and seeing that version succeed, is helpful. Something to keep pondering.

Now, Iona Adair has a good reason to withhold herself from others; her psychic gift sets her apart. She also has a spirit guide she can’t speak about so there is much of her life that is necessarily secret. She doesn’t seem to have any friends, not even her spirit guide.

(That was a little confusing. If you’ve had a spirit guide since childhood, wouldn’t you have worked out the relationship more by the time you’re an adult? Iona learns so much about Rain in the book that it made me wonder why she hadn’t learned it earlier. Maybe that will be addressed in future books.)

She shares an office with Andy, a colleague at a parapsychology institute. There’s more than meets the eye with him. I’d hoped Iona would realize she can’t seem to use her mind control on him but that never happened. Again, maybe in future books.

Her job at the institute is a cover for her real job with a secret organization dedicated to keeping paranormal gifts, etc. a secret. She modifies students’ research results to hide legitimate findings, for example. Iona is sent to a location where a rumored beast has attacked and killed several men. While bumbling through that mystery she meets Henry, a vampire; she didn’t even know vampires exist. While she’s attracted to Andy, and he is a lovely man, Henry is someone she can talk about her secrets with. He has his secrets as well. It makes for a nice romantic triangle, although I think she can trust Andy.

The book was an enjoyable enough mystery with likable and engaging characters. I would have liked to feel more of the setting of Scotland but that’s a personal thing since I love that country so much. There were a lot of unanswered questions – about Iona’s abilities, about Rain, Andy, the organization she works for. I know series are meant to have subplots that slowly reveal over several books. I think I wanted to know more about Iona’s world and her struggle between her real, secret job and her role at the institute. Having that information might have grounded the story and her struggles a bit more.

Read it for Iona’s daft mother, her inconsistent spirit guide and her world, which is so much more exciting than ours.

Writing the Path

I am a huge fan of cozy mysteries. I skew toward book-related tales set in bookstores or libraries. I periodically expand my horizons and read a mystery set in a yarn store or a bakery or a dressmaker’s shop. I recently finished Pleating for Mercy by Melissa Bourbon about a slightly magical dressmaker named Harlow Cassidy in Texas who gets involved in solving a murder, as you do.

I’ve also been reading a book about editing as I’m entering my next round of edits on my cozy mystery in progress. (I’ll give you a spoiler – it’s set in a bookshop.) I happened to be on the chapter on interior monologue as I was reading Pleating for Mercy and once I was aware of its use to expand (or detract from) dialogue, I couldn’t help but notice it every time it appeared.

Most times the interior monologue helped clarify something Harlow was thinking but wouldn’t be saying to the person in front of her. That made sense.

There were other sections where it seemed to visually thicken the dialogue from a single line or two on the page to a paragraph. The actual words of the character were buried. I found myself skimming and needing to go back to see if the interior monologue (or a beat, as it sometimes turned out to be) was critical.

Aside from wanting to be sure that any interior monologue I include in my book is necessary and not just filler, I want to stay aware of how things look on the page. White space has its purpose, especially in tense scenes heavy with dialogue.

At some point I think I’ll print out my book single-spaced and in two columns landscape so it’s sort of like a book. That way I can see what my words look like.

Also, the characters got a bit muddied in Pleating for Mercy. Not the key characters – they stood apart from the rest. But the handful of others who are meant to mislead Harlow, and the reader, weren’t distinct enough to keep them straight in my mind. The single thing that I remember about most of those secondary characters are the clothes the dressmaker imagines in Harlow’s mind for them. But that fun fact can’t be trotted out every time the character appears.

Nancy Atherton does a terrific job of creating individuals in her Aunt Dimity series. The foundation of their distinctions lie in their relation to the village where the protagonist lives. There is the vicar and his wife, Teddy and Lilian Bunting. The couple who run the general store, Peggy and Jasper Taxman. The Peacocks who run the pub. Sally Pyne who runs the teashop and bakery. The mechanic who can fix anything.

Then specific traits are layered on. Peggy Taxman is tyrannical but keeps events in the village running. Teddy is a dour vicar offset by his lovely wife. Mr. Peacock is large and cheerful, his wife a charming cook. There are the elderly twin sisters who dress alike and finish each other’s sentences. Mr. Barlow, the mechanic, is never seen without his terrier.

There are so many people in the village and any additional characters specific to a single installment that it is a true feat to keep them as sharp personalities. I think it’s about finding ways to distinguish characters and keeping those traits consistent. The traits should also inform how the characters act which makes them more vivid. Other than the general shape and size of some of the characters, such as the rotund pub owner, I have images in my head for each other Atherton’s supporting cast. These images would probably look different from another reader but I see them and that’s what counts. There is enough detail to conjure a thick outline and then the reader can fill in the rest.

That’s what I need to remember when I go through my WIP – don’t list every little detail about a character or include unnecessary actions. The reader will fill in the gaps. I just need to write the path.