Sign Up

Get the latest ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

All Cozy Mystery Coverage

Review by

One of the biggest challenges faced by the author of cozy mystery series is finding original and convincing ways to involve his or her amateur detective protagonist in murder investigations book after book. After all, the best part-time sleuths have much in common with their readers and it is unlikely that most of them get involved in homicides on a regular basis. That the connection to the crime is in some way personal is a given for the first book; after that, more invention and imagination are required, or, perhaps, just honesty.

That’s where Clare O’Donohue is to be commended. The first death in A Drunkard’s Path (the second Someday Quilts Mystery after The Lover’s Knot) is connected to heroine Nell Fitzgerald only because the local police chief, stands her up on their first date without even calling to explain—a body has been discovered in their quiet Hudson River community. That’s enough to pique Nell’s active imagination, but her life is too full at the moment—she’s working at her grandmother’s quilt shop, starting art classes, meeting a talented but mysterious and apparently homeless fellow student—for her to get too involved in the investigation.

But the next death is someone she knows, and the young woman is killed in the backyard of Nell’s grandmother’s house. One of the suspects is Nell’s teacher, Oliver White, a famous artist who’s been showing a lot of interest in Nell’s grandmother, Eleanor. Though Nell now has all sorts of reasons to be curious, she’s also willing to admit that she’s also just plain nosy, a refreshing confession for an amateur detective.

Nell gets plenty of assistance from her fellow quilters of all ages, who are happy to unleash their own inner Nancy Drews in order to protect Eleanor. She gets less support from that police chief, Jesse Dewalt, and they once again take a detour on the road to romance.

O’Donohue finds a lot in quilting that applies to murder investigations: you’ve got to step back from what you’re working on once in a while in order to see it; the process is important; and “There’s no reason that solving a murder . . . should be any less organized than a quilt meeting.” These are lessons that Nell, a novice quilter, gradually takes in: “[A]nything, no matter how scary it seems at first, can be sorted out if you take it step by step. I just wasn’t sure if I was thinking about quilting, the murder investigation, or my relationship with Jesse.”

Joanne Collings cozies up with a good book in Washington, D.C.

One of the biggest challenges faced by the author of cozy mystery series is finding original and convincing ways to involve his or her amateur detective protagonist in murder investigations book after book. After all, the best part-time sleuths have much in common with their readers and it is unlikely that most of them get […]
Review by

Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t learn anything from reading fiction. Here is an abbreviated list of things I learned from Jess Lourey’s September Fair: Neil Diamond went to NYU on a fencing scholarship, his fans are called Diamondheads (a fact that would have come in handy when I worked in an office of Neil Diamond fans), there is a competitive “sport” known as sheep riding or mutton busting, and Araucana chickens lay blue and green eggs. But September Fair is a lot more than a compendium of Neil Diamond and State Fair knowledge.

Mira James, a librarian/newspaper reporter from Battle Lake, Minnesota, is on a week-long assignment covering fair activities. She’s glad to be there, having discovered four murdered bodies in as many months after moving to Battle Lake for a quieter life. She’s considered giving up on Battle Lake but decides to stay. “It was a new idea, this sticking-it-out approach, and it looked good on paper.” Then she witnesses the death of the new Milkfed Mary, Queen of the Dairy, and reporting on the fair gets a lot more complicated.

Mira now has to look into the murder as well as the fair’s attractions. She’s assisted by her elderly friend, Mrs. Berns, major Diamondhead and winner of tickets to Diamond’s fair concert, which she shares with Mira; Berns also introduces Mira to sheep riding. Also in attendence is Battle Lake’s steamroller of a mayor, Kennie Rogers, who talks with a heavy Southern accent despite her Minnesota roots.

Lourey’s affection for the state fair is evident. She’s particularly good on the food, especially Mira’s weakness, the Deep-fried Nut Goody on a Stick. (Just about anything you can imagine—and some things you can’t—are sold deep-fried on a stick at fairs.) Mira may question how anyone ever thought of the idea of sculpting a head in butter, but she remains respectful of the talent and difficulty it takes to do this. And, since this is the fifth in the murder-by-month series, Lourey indicates awareness of the darker side of the fair: behind-the-scenes nastiness and more serious crimes and the unsavory influence of big business on the foods we consume, deep-fried or not, in this lively mystery.

Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t learn anything from reading fiction. Here is an abbreviated list of things I learned from Jess Lourey’s September Fair: Neil Diamond went to NYU on a fencing scholarship, his fans are called Diamondheads (a fact that would have come in handy when I worked in an office […]
Review by

As I read each of the delightful books in Tasha Alexander's series featuring Lady Emily Ashton, I can't decide which character I would most like to be: the spirited and intellectual Margaret, the regal and self-assured Cecile, or the gracious and lovely Ivy. However, I always go back to the leading lady, Emily.

In A Fatal Waltz, the third book featuring my favorite 19th-century English sleuth (sorry, Holmes, old chap), we find Emily right where we want her—with intrigue swirling around her. I dove into this book fully anticipating Lady Emily to be at the top of her game as a forward-thinking woman testing the boundaries of elite society, to the cheers of some and the horror of others. But a new character leaves Emily reduced to little more than stammers—a beautiful, worldly, sophisticated countess who is close to the affairs surrounding this new mystery . . . and perhaps too close to Emily's fiancé, Colin Hargreaves.

Thrown together with the countess at a house party hosted by the powerful but unpleasant Lord Fortescue, formerly verbose Emily suddenly finds herself searching for a snappy comeback, or any words at all. Then the sudden murder of Lord Fortescue pushes the household and its guests into chaos, and pushes Emily to gather her wits as she launches another controversial investigation. But her dedication to solving this crime has less to do with shocking her peers and more to do with a life-or-death vow to a friend: Ivy's husband, Robert, stands accused. The clues uncovered take Emily from the desolate moors of the English countryside, to London's Berkeley Square, to artists' studios in wintry Vienna. Alexander's descriptions of these places are spot-on, and readers will be equally drawn in by this mental time travel as by her superb storytelling.

Kristi Grimes writes from Birmingham, Alabama.

 

As I read each of the delightful books in Tasha Alexander's series featuring Lady Emily Ashton, I can't decide which character I would most like to be: the spirited and intellectual Margaret, the regal and self-assured Cecile, or the gracious and lovely Ivy. However, I always go back to the leading lady, Emily. In A […]
Review by

The older I get, the more aware I am that there are just too many books being published. There's no way to keep up and read everything, so I've made reading guidelines for myself. One I settled on a few years ago was simply not to read any featuring a non-professional as the protagonist-detective. Personally, I would rather not know if my dry cleaner is finding dead bodies on the premises regularly, and, if I had a literary agent, I would certainly prefer that he or she concentrate on selling my book rather than on solving crimes.

Now Rosemary Harris has punctured my neat, serviceable little rule with her new series, which begins with Pushing Up Daisies. Her heroine, Paula Holliday, who was downsized from her media job in New York City, has started a landscaping business in suburban Connecticut. What better profession to give an amateur sleuth—she has an excuse, after all, to be digging around in the dirt, which is a natural place to find a body. There are archeologists, true, but landscaping is a less exotic, more believable job. Paula becomes involved in a mystery when she uncovers the remains of a long-dead baby on the estate of a pair of deceased sisters. Eventually there is a contemporary crime that also catches Paula's growing interest in detective work; the solutions to the mysteries central to the plot are surprisingly complex. Paula does have professional and personal reasons to become involved, so the reader doesn't have to be distracted by wondering why she doesn't leave the police work to the police. (And the policeman here, in the person of the overweight Mike O'Malley, is a person of interest, both to the reader and certainly to Paula.)

Harris, who is a master gardener herself, takes care not to pile on too much horticulture; actually, I would have preferred more. But the strengths of Pushing Up Daisies involve place, character and often sprightly dialogue. And note the scene in which the villain is unmasked: It's highly original and involves a maze, crushed oyster shells and buttercream icing.

Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.

The older I get, the more aware I am that there are just too many books being published. There's no way to keep up and read everything, so I've made reading guidelines for myself. One I settled on a few years ago was simply not to read any featuring a non-professional as the protagonist-detective. Personally, […]
Review by

Sometimes it’s a bad day for news. If you work for a newspaper, that means that nothing is happening. News and Features lounge about, trying to cobble something together, and the editor worries about what can be mustered up for page one, or for the editorial space.

On a particular December day, the staff at the Alpine, Washington, Advocate faces such a challenge, with House & Home (Vida), News desk (Mitch) and editor/publisher/heroine (Emma) discussing the dearth of options for tomorrow’s paper. Fortunately for page one, the sound of police sirens on the street alerts the newsroom, and word that an eccentric artist named Craig Laurentis has been shot and wounded quickly spreads throughout town.

 
At about the same time, Sheriff Milo Dodge pushes open the newsroom door, carrying three anonymous messages he’s received that claim the innocence of one local, Larry Peterson, long ago convicted of murder and serving a life sentence. Milo also brings word that said convict has just died of a heart attack in prison. The anonymous notes were written before Peterson died, but the “coincidental” news is unsettling.
 
Thus begins The Alpine Vengeance, Mary Daheim’s 22nd entry in her Alpine Alphabet series, in which the author revisits a previous book, The Alpine Fury (book six, of course!) where Peterson’s crime and punishment topped off a story that involved Emma and many others in the extended-family atmosphere of small town Alpine.
 
Emma reruns these past events in her mind, but after she pens an obituary on Peterson’s sudden death, she herself is visited by a fourth anonymous message, this one coldly menacing. If Peterson was innocent, who was he protecting? Emma and Milo pursue the case, not willing to let sleeping—or would it be dead?—dogs lie. The duo also pursue their ongoing romance, liberally spiced by the compelling character of Milo.

Alpine is a veritable Pandora’s box of characters, and by this time (letter “V”) the author might have done well to append a cast of characters or family tree to help us cope with all the Petersons and their cousins and kin. The book’s action is oiled by quick-fire and frequently witty dialogue, with an occasional wet snowstorm thrown in to evoke the Pacific Northwest atmosphere. As the story develops, seemingly disconnected threads begin to seam together alarmingly into whole cloth. The events in Vengeance quickly prove that everything’s up for grabs as far as old murders are concerned.  

 

Sometimes it’s a bad day for news. If you work for a newspaper, that means that nothing is happening. News and Features lounge about, trying to cobble something together, and the editor worries about what can be mustered up for page one, or for the editorial space. On a particular December day, the staff at […]
Interview by

Lisa Lutz never anticipated writing a book. An aspiring screenwriter, she began the script for a mob farce in 1991 at age 21, and quit her day job the moment Hollywood producers came calling. But it was more than a decade and 25 revisions later that the film, Plan B, starring Diane Keaton, Paul Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne, was actually made. Following a West Coast premiere set for September 11, 2001, the movie had a week-long limited release after which with the exception of a few small film festivals it was rarely shown in the United States.

But that's OK, because Lutz herself gives two thumbs down to the final product.  "I don't recommend anyone watching the version that is out right now,"  she says. "I enjoyed to an extent how funny and silly it was. But [for this] to be my life's work? That felt so insane."  Her dream of writing a Hollywood movie had been realized, but Lutz was smarting from her bumpy road to the big screen. "Nothing went well,"  she says of the process.  "We started to call the production 'the curse of Plan B.' "   Somewhere around rewrite number six, the producers decided to cut a secondary character on which a major plot point hung, and Lutz's story caved in on itself. The finale of the writing process was a fax from the producers demanding that a lead character die by being eaten by an alligator. Lutz made the change, but was distraught that the story was no longer hers. "It's really hard to have something you worked that hard on be massacred,"  she says.

Soured on Tinseltown, Lutz vowed never to write a script again, instead holing up in a relative's 200-year-old house in upstate New York in the dead of winter in 2004. Six months later, she emerged from hibernation with a first draft of what was to become her first novel.

"I think I wrote a better novel than I ever wrote a screenplay,"  she says. The first in a planned series, The Spellman Files tells the story of Isabelle Spellman, a tough-talking 28-year-old (described by another character as "Dirty Harry meets Nancy Drew") who works for her eccentric family's P.I. business. Investigating others is their formal objective, but the family including alcoholic gambler Uncle Ray and Izzy's 14-year-old sister Rae (who is known to snap incriminating photos of family members to use as blackmail) regularly probe each other's lives as well. This comes to a head when Izzy starts dating nice-guy dentist Daniel and can't go on a date without turning around to find her mother hot on her tail.

"The truth was, I never doubted for a moment that my parents loved me,"  Izzy says of this parental over-involvement.  "But love in my family has a bite to it and sometimes you get tired of icing all those tooth marks."   To save her sanity, Izzy wants out of the P.I. dynasty. Her parents agree to let her go, as long as she completes a final assignment. As Izzy tries to solve the near-impossible 12-year-old missing persons case, Rae suddenly disappears, leading Izzy to reevaluate her priorities and put her skills to the ultimate test: finding her little sister.

Lutz didn't have to look far for research. While writing Plan B, she did a two-year stint working for a private investigator, and the tricks of the trade she picked up (such as smashing the taillights of car you're following to make it easier to spot a tactic Izzy employs on a regular basis) populate the novel. Though these details are drawn from real life, Lutz is adamant that her family is nothing like the meddlesome Spellmans. And as for Izzy? "Izzy has my sense of humor, because I don't think I could write in a totally different sense of humor,"  Lutz says.  "But I'm no taillight-smashing vandal."

The Spellman Files has been optioned by Paramount, but Lutz swears she won't play a major role in the film's production. Instead, she's wrapping up the Spellman sequel, planning her next novel, thinking about writing a play and reflecting on the lessons she learned from her ill-fated Hollywood foray.

"People think you can get what you want if you just keep trying. But the moment I tried something different and approached it from a different way, I got what I wanted,"  she says of her open-mindedness about writing form.

Then she pauses for a moment. "I think it's luck, too,"  she says. "I do think I got very lucky this time around."

Lisa Lutz never anticipated writing a book. An aspiring screenwriter, she began the script for a mob farce in 1991 at age 21, and quit her day job the moment Hollywood producers came calling. But it was more than a decade and 25 revisions later that the film, Plan B, starring Diane Keaton, Paul Sorvino […]
Interview by

Katherine Hall Page’s award-winning Faith Fairchild mysteries have delighted readers since 1991, when she released her debut, The Body in the Belfry, and introduced the world to her charming caterer and sleuth. Small Plates, Page’s first collection of short stories, is filled with wit and intricately spun mysteries, along with decadent descriptions of all things culinary. While Faith makes plenty of appearances in stories such as “The Body in the Dunes,” new characters shine just as brightly in “The Would-Be Widower” and “Hiding Places.” Cozy mystery lovers are sure to find a tale to sate their appetite here.

Small Plates is your first collection of short stories. What advantages does this format lend to the mystery genre?
The brevity of a short story gives mystery writers a chance to pack a wallop. In the traditional mystery novel, the pace is more leisurely, albeit suspenseful. The denouement comes at the end and the hope is that readers will be stunned. Yet, the end of each chapter has a tantalizing hook baited to keep those pages turning. In the short story, all this must be compressed. Poe and Saki did it best.

What are the biggest challenges in crafting a successful short story?
In the introduction I quote Henry David Thoreau: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short” and Edgar Allan Poe, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it.” Taken together, these are a fine summation of the challenge posed by short story writing: that paring-down process, the examination of each word essential for a satisfactory result. I’d also add a reminder based on advice from Strunk and White—nowhere is omitting needless words more essential!

Many of these stories feature Faith Fairchild, a sleuth you have featured in 21 previous novels. Did you discover anything new about Faith during the writing process?
This is a terrific question and something I had not considered before. One of the pleasures of writing a series is “growing” a character and Faith Fairchild has certainly changed over the years—as have we all!—yet yes, I did discover something new about the character in this book, specifically in the story, “Sliced.” Not exactly a dark side, but most assuredly darker, and it was freeing to write about her this way.

Who are some of your favorite short story writers?
A wide-ranging bunch: again Poe and Saki. Theirs are among the first short stories I read when young, as well as O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf” and, similar in spirit, de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.” Others in no particular order: Melville, Dorothy Sayers, James Thurber, Willa Cather, Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Carson McCullers. John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, James Joyce, Shirley Jackson, Agatha Christie, Flannery O’Connor, Ellen Gilchrist, Laurie Colwin, Wodehouse, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Barnard. Heresy, but I am not a Hemingway fan.

Many of these stories—especially “The Would-Be Widower”—feature some delightfully dark humor. How important is humor in your writing?
Extremely important, although in life, there is nothing remotely funny about murder. That said, I have always enjoyed crime fiction with this kind of twist. Besides the dark humor aspect to these stories and my novels, I like to add other forms of comic relief as a break from sitting on the edge of one’s chair. Often this takes the form of a character.

Are there any new characters in these short stories that could pop up in your future novels?
Yes! I became wrapped up in Polly Ackroyd in “Across the Pond,” who bears more than a passing resemblance to a Nancy Mitford-type character. I’m not sure where Polly might appear, but since I made her a friend of both Faith Fairchild and her sister, it might happen!

Many of these stories feature your famously mouthwatering descriptions of food. If you had your own restaurant, what type of cuisine would be on your menu?
Many years ago when I was young and more foolish, I thought about opening a seasonal restaurant on an island in Maine using local ingredients—the menu an earlier version of the slow food movement. While I think some of this cuisine has veered off into cloud cuckoo land (do we really need to know the name of the cow that gave the milk for the butter?), it is still what I would do. I also like borrowing from a number of regional and international cuisines with ingredients like pomegranate molasses, Anson Mills grits, elderflower liqueur and smoked paprika. I’ve never met a cheese I didn’t like, nor a salad green. Nothing fussy though, or architectural.

What are you working on next?
I am finishing up the 22nd novel in the Faith Fairchild series, The Body in the Birches. It is set on the fictitious island, Sanpere, I created in Penobscot Bay, Maine. Aside from what I hope is the gripping mystery component, the whodunit puzzle—it’s a book about families, specifically the turmoil created by the inheritance of property. In this case, the clash is over a summer home that has been in a family for generations. We all know real estate can be murder.

Katherine Hall Page’s award-winning Faith Fairchild mysteries have delighted readers since 1991, when she released her debut, The Body in the Belfry, and introduced the world to her charming caterer and sleuth. Small Plates, Page’s first collection of short stories, is filled with wit and intricately spun mysteries, along with decadent descriptions of all things culinary. While Faith makes plenty of appearances in stories such as “The Body in the Dunes,” new characters shine just as brightly in “The Would-Be Widower” and “Hiding Places.” Cozy mystery lovers are sure to find a tale to sate their appetite here.
Interview by

Digging into an old box of mixed tapes leads one direction—toward nostalgia, and most likely into the tricky land of exes. Libby Cudmore’s debut, The Big Rewind, is much like that box of mixtapes, with its mystery buried beneath affairs of the heart, wry jokes about hipster Brooklyn and a steady stream of The Smiths, Warren Zevon and Talking Heads.

Jett Bennett had originally moved to New York City to become a music journalist but is currently working as a temp proofreader who makes a little extra on the side by buying women’s lingerie for her male boss. Whatever pays the bills, right? But Jett accidentally receives a mixed tape intended for her neighbor KitKat, and upon trying to deliver it to its rightful owner, finds KitKat dead on the kitchen floor. Jett has a feeling that this mixed tape just might lead her to the killer, but as she digs deeper, her own heartbroken past comes to the surface—while she’s confronting new feelings for a close friend.

The Big Rewind is a classic cozy, with as much emphasis on romance and music as on the murder. We contacted Cudmore to chat about mysteries, nostalgia, journals, mixed tapes and rediscovering all our favorite “terribly dumb late-’90s radio garbage.”

Jett shows great promise as an amateur sleuth, but her real talent is finding the perfect music to fit a moment, the just-right song to sum up an emotion. Is this a gift you share with Jett?
Yes. I am the undisputed QUEEN of the mix CD. As soon as I realize I’m going to be friends with someone, I start compiling a playlist for them, songs I love that I want to share, songs that remind me of something we did together.

There a real art to it—it’s not just about putting a bunch of songs together. You think of a concept, a title, a theme and build on that. You put in little sound clips from movies and TV shows. You design the cover and put it all together and deliver it and hopefully the person loves it. I’ve never had anyone say, “This is garbage,” although after three CDs, my friend Jason finally said, “Darling, I love you, but one more Smiths song and I will murder you.” So you go from there and adapt.

You’ve certainly sampled details from your own life, with references to anime, music you love and even naming a character after one of your journals, Catch. Do you often sample so openly from your life? Do you think Jett’s search represents anything for you?
The music is because I have an enormous record/CD collection, so I was able to draw from that to find music that was recognizable but also unique, with the hope that the reader might discover something new (The Vapors, Warren Zevon). I had fun with it.

Is this book personal? Yes, but it’s a universal sort of personal. Everyone has had their heart broken. Everyone has relationship regrets. It’s not about sampling from my life—it’s about reaching into the universal experience and sampling from that.

Speaking of, why did you name Jett’s former love after your journal?
You did your homework! But it’s actually the other way around. When I started naming my journals, I went back and named that one for Catch, because I had started The Big Rewind in that one. But the name itself comes from Ewan McGregor’s character in Down with Love, which was the nickname of the friend who gave me the journal.

What was the greatest challenge in writing this book?
Honestly, I can’t remember. That’s how books go—you’re in the trenches, you feel like it’s never going to get finished and that it’s terrible and you want to quit, and then it’s done and you look back and it all seemed like it was so easy.

Loneliness is a hallmark of classic mysteries. Did you initially set out to write a murder mystery that explores loneliness in this way?
I did. I know my mid-20s were an intensely lonely period for me and I could observe that they were similarly lonely for my friends. Your friends from college start to drop off and your friends from high school have mostly all gone their own ways, you’re struggling to get a career and a life going and it’s rarely easy. I wanted to explore that, but I also wanted Jett to find her place in the world, to open her heart and stop resisting just because her world no longer looked exactly like the one she knew.

Mixed tapes, vinyl, Boyfriend Boxes—nostalgia is the name of the game here. In your opinion, what’s good nostalgia vs. bad?
Bad nostalgia is anything that keeps you from growing and moving forward. “Oh, I can’t listen to that band because my ex liked that band.” That’s dumb. Get out and enjoy your life and don’t let the past drag you down. Good nostalgia is being able to appreciate what you loved, even if it doesn’t suit you now. I found a bunch of mix CDs I burned in college and was live-Tweeting the horrors to amuse my followers—I’m talking Hootie and the Blowfish, “Sex and Candy,” all sorts of really terribly dumb late-’90s radio garbage. I could admit that I still like “Only Wanna Be With You” and I could laugh at the fact that for whatever reason, I thought I would want to listen to OMC’s “How Bizarre” for the rest of my life. That’s good nostalgia.

Is there anything close to making a mixed tape in the current climate of dating and love?
No, so I still make mix CDs for people I have great affection for. Spotify playlists just won’t do the job. Because it’s not just about the CD—it’s the cover art, the physical arrival of the object, whether you pull it from a purse or a jacket pocket or they come home from work and find it in the mail. Nothing is ever going to replace that thrill.

Will we see more of Jett? What are you working on now?
I’m working on a standalone and some short stories right now, but I hope to bring her out to play again. I loved writing for her, I love her neighborhood and her friends and most of all, Jett herself.

Is there a song to sum up this interview?
“Private Life” by Oingo Boingo.

“Is this book personal? Yes, but it’s a universal sort of personal. Everyone has had their heart broken. Everyone has relationship regrets. It’s not about sampling from my life—it’s about reaching into the universal experience and sampling from that.”
Interview by

The somber, serious Scandinavian noir craze gets a much-needed kick in the funny bone with The Department of Sensitive Crimes, another laugh-out-loud series premiere from confirmed smart alec Alexander McCall Smith.

Most likely, you’ve known Alexander McCall Smith, the effervescent, Zimbabwe-born Scotsman (known as “Sandy”) through his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, one of the seven mystery series in his 50-plus bibliography. But what you haven’t seen is the first installment of his “Scandi-blanc” parody of Scandi-noir, in which a Malmö-based detective team led by Ulf “the Wolf” Varg investigates crimes that “you won’t find in the newspaper or on the ten o’clock news . . . unless it’s a particularly slow news day.”

Case in point: The three sensitive crimes featured herein include a market vendor who is stabbed in the back of the knee, a lonely young woman whose imaginary boyfriend goes missing and a nudist resort that’s apparently being plagued by werewolf howls. Challenging cases? Not exactly. But it’s the earnestness with which Varg’s equally eccentric team—made up of paper pusher Carl Holgersson, fly-fishing fanatic Erik Nykvist and Anna Bengsdotter, a married colleague who’s caught Varg’s eye—seeks to solve the unsolvable that keeps the laughs rolling.

McCall Smith, who has visited Sweden on numerous book tours, found a worthy foil for his notorious wit by watching dead-serious Scandi-noir TV programs, including “The Killing,” “The Bridge” and “Borgen,” at his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“The basic idea for doing Scandi-blanc came from the general enthusiasm that people have for the Scandinavian noir,” he says by phone from Edinburgh. “I loved the idea of really deflating the body count aspect of crime fiction, where everything is so ghastly that people are chopping one another to bits, as happens in real Scandinavian noir. That’s actually the fun—there are no bodies in these, [they’re] just really ridiculous. The only person who gets damaged is a person who get stabbed in the back of the knee! I took great pleasure in that, and the nudists and then of course the lycanthropy, the idea of someone turning into a wolf. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at these stock images of Scandinavian crime.”

Scandi-blanc also offered McCall Smith the opportunity to tap into the curious cultural link between Scotland and Scandinavia.

“It’s an interesting thing,” he says, “because we are neighbors of Norway most immediately, and there is quite a lot of feeling in Scotland that Scotland is quite Scandinavian. Bits of Scotland were parts of Scandinavia in the past, and of course the Vikings came and ran quite a bit of the north of Scotland.”

Like many crime fiction fans who immerse themselves in the brutal, bloody world of Scandi-noir, McCall Smith was drawn into questions about the elements of Scandinavian culture that lead to these stories.

“There is a dark side to Sweden,” McCall Smith says. “Think about [Ingmar] Bergman films, those very intense films where everybody is looking very intense and agonized. There is that side of the typical Scandinavian approach to things. But Sweden is a very, very conformist society; they want consensus. It’s extremely important to them to all agree.”

McCall Smith also speaks to the “vein of melancholy” present in Scandinavian culture, which he explores through a plot thread of eccentric longing in The Department of Sensitive Crimes: Ulf’s unrequited passion for Anna, and the fact that it’s not completely clear whether Anna has a crush on Ulf or on his vintage light gray Saab. “ ‘The best part of any investigation with you, Ulf,’ she said dreamily, ‘is being in your car,’ ” McCall Smith writes.

“Yes, well, those unfulfilled romantic longings, that’s [a] poignant note,” McCall Smith says. “Ulf has an unrequited passion for a colleague, and he can’t do anything about it. That’s a good poignant. . . . There is quite a lot of brooding—brooding is the word.”

Ulf was originally created for a Twitter literary festival that invited authors “to write some stories that would be put out in tweets,” McCall Smith says. “A very weird way to read books—140–character chapters. I created for that a character called Ulf Varg and gave him a couple of really peculiar chapters. The whole story was about 500 words.” McCall Smith then went on to write a short story starring Ulf, published by his U.K. publisher, and now this full-length book. “I rather liked this Swedish detective and his deaf dog and his peculiar colleagues,” McCall Smith says.

Despite Ulf’s beginnings, there is one line this 70-year-old storyteller still refuses to cross: admitting modern technology into his clever tales. 

“In my Botswana books, and indeed in my Isabel Dalhousie books, nobody uses a cellphone. I think that cellphones and Google really make classic detective fiction very difficult because you can get the answer to most issues by going online,” McCall Smith says. “In a sense, modern success ruins surprise, ruins poignancy, ruins anguish, because it has so many solutions. It depersonalizes, and it takes out all the waiting and anticipation and uncertainty. How could anybody be long-lost in the modern world? Modern technology is incompatible with a good solid plot; it’s just blocked. These days, lots of technology takes the mystery out of life. It collapses time and insults the dignity of time.”

Although McCall Smith cranks out up to 3,000 words daily, he retains an unquenchable thirst for new adventures. This year, even as he celebrates more than two decades of his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (book 20, To the Land of Long Lost Friends, will publish this fall) and winds down his 44 Scotland Street series, he has not only introduced his Scandi-blanc breakthrough but also has another new release in the wings. The Second-Worst Restaurant in France, which continues the events of his romantic Italian countryside-set novel, My Italian Bulldozer (2016), is out this summer.

“It’s [about] a restaurant food writer by the name of Paul Stuart,” McCall Smith explains. “In My Italian Bulldozer, he goes to Italy and has difficulty with the rental car company and ends up renting a bulldozer, and has great fun with that.” The comic sequel finds Paul on holiday in France, where his story tangles with that of a local restaurant.

Fortunately for readers, if the past can predict the future, humor will always be a part of McCall Smith’s work. “That’s what I get great pleasure from,” he says. “With The Department of Sensitive Crimes, I’m able to have fun and enjoy the humor, and also to have behind it a novel of ideas. So ideas come up, and they have real human issues and desires and longings and disappointments where you can actually make quite a few points that you might want to make about the world. I do enjoy that.”

The somber, serious Scandinavian noir craze gets a much-needed kick in the funny bone with The Department of Sensitive Crimes, another laugh-out-loud series premiere from confirmed smart alec Alexander McCall Smith.

Coopers Chase Retirement Village is a lovely place to live: the former convent set on 12 verdant acres in Kent, England, is now home to 300 residents over age 65. There’s a swimming pool, exercise studio and restaurant, as well as roaming sheep and llamas. The Jigsaw Room is a hot spot, but not because of its exciting tabletop puzzles; rather, on Thursday nights, a quartet of clever 70-somethings gathers to engage in amateur detective work. Their mission is to solve cold cases, but the group must change focus when multiple new murders happen right in front of them. Soon, they’re wondering: just how well do they know their neighbors?

Debut author Richard Osman is a celebrity in his native England, where he hosts, produces and directs several highly popular TV shows. We spoke with him about his inspirations for The Thursday Murder Club, and what it’s like to dive into an entirely new medium.

Congratulations on your first book! Was it difficult to go from working on TV shows to crafting a novel? Were you able to smoothly transition to a new form of creative expression, or was there a bit of an adjustment period?
Thank you so much! I loved the new discipline of novel writing. Of sitting by myself, chatting to my characters, and throwing all sorts of awful trouble their way. The main thing I missed about television is that in TV there is always someone who can go and get a coffee for you, whereas when you’re writing you have to get your own. I can’t believe novelists have put up with this for so many years.

The members of the Thursday Murder Club are so smart, witty and resourceful: the charismatic Elizabeth, who hints that she was once a spy of some sort; Joyce, the observant former nurse; Pilates-loving former psychiatrist Ibrahim; and Ron, the famous trade union leader. Do you identify with any of the club members?
I think I am very similar to Joyce, who always gets her own way, but with absolute British kindness and courtesy. I also share Ibrahim’s love of lists and statistics. And also his total fear of spontaneity. I wish I was sometimes a bit more like Elizabeth and Ron, who are both able to steamroll their way through life, leaving chaos in their wake, but always with a pure heart and good intentions. I think somewhere between the four of them might be the perfect human being!

"For large periods of writing I felt I was possessed by the spirit of a 76-year-old woman . . . "

Joyce’s diary entries offer readers a peek at the inner workings of the club—her empathetic nature shines through, as does her delight in documenting the occasions when she follows Elizabeth’s often hilarious lead into extra-legal endeavors. What made you decide to structure the book that way, and to choose Joyce as the diarist?
Joyce is the character who thinks most like me. Her mind constantly wanders off in different directions. She was just a dream to write, talking very earnestly about murder, then veering off into some anecdote about her vacuum cleaner. Her insightful, empathetic nature allows her to spot things the others, particularly Elizabeth, might miss. She likes to sit and think, and work things out. I enjoyed listening to her doing that, and writing it all down for her. For large periods of writing I felt I was possessed by the spirit of a 76-year-old woman, and I have to say I recommend it to anyone.

Have you always wanted to write a mystery? What mystery books or authors are dear to your heart? Your brother Mat also published his first book this year—did you commiserate and read each other’s work? (Does this herald a shiny new era of Osman Brothers Literature?)
I have always been a crime fiction junkie. From Patricia Highsmith and Agatha Christie, through to Harlan Coben, Shari Lapena and Jeff Deaver. Writing a mystery gives you such a perfect excuse to think up the perfect murder, just in case you ever need one.

My brother is so much cooler than me, just effortlessly hip, and his writing is so beautiful and dark and clever. I adored his novel, and I was thrilled he loved mine. It is a rare and happy day when your older brother tells you he’s proud of you.

How do you think your work in television has influenced and informed your work? For example, did your quiz-show experience give you confidence as you crafted characters who piece together clues and evidence? And do you think producing and directing aided you in managing big-picture aspects as well as fine details of your narrative? Were there any aspects of your story or characters or the writing process that you were uncertain about?
In television formats you have to grab people’s attention, and you have to keep it. They could switch over at any second. People will read maybe 30 pages of a new book before making their mind up. They’ll probably watch about 30 seconds of a new TV show, before switching over to “Grey’s Anatomy” reruns.

So in a TV quiz, you grab people quickly, you explain the rules quickly, you give viewers a reason to stay to the end (Who’s going to win??? How much???), and then you give them a host and contestants who they want to spend a bit of time with.

And I suppose that’s naturally how I went about writing. Grab them, and then entertain them, and then give the answer they were looking for. I worried that if I started describing the color of the sky for a page and a half, people would simply put the book down and watch “Judge Judy” instead. And I wouldn’t blame them.

Many of your characters must reckon with the consequences of their past choices, whether through daily efforts to manage emotional pain and regret, or a sudden and dramatic need to avoid getting arrested. The need to take personal responsibility also resounds through your characters’ lives. Is that something that intrigues or is important to you, in terms of themes you explore in your work?
I’m a great believer in eventually taking responsibility for who you are, and for the choices you make. We are not defined by our mistakes and failures, we’re defined by how we respond to our mistakes and failures. Some people respond by becoming better human beings, and some respond with anger and self-pity. We all know examples of this. I’m a believer that the qualities of kindness and hard work should be rewarded. In the real world it’s not always the case, but in books we can create the world we want.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Thursday Murder Club.


You mentioned in your acknowledgments that a visit to a retirement community sparked the idea for your book. What aspects of that visit especially caught your fancy? Did you also visit police departments or interview detectives as you created the characters of Chris and Donna, the police officers who work in collaboration—and sometimes competition—with the murder club?
I loved the friendships I witnessed, and the mischievous nature of many of the residents. So much laughter, so much wine and so much wisdom. It was a beguiling mix which I wanted to show to the world.

Some of the residents of the real village are worried that the book will be a hit, and they’ll have to deal with coachloads of tourists disturbing all their beautiful peace. So I promised I would never tell anyone where the real village is.

The truth is, they would love it if tourists came to visit. I guarantee it. They’ll be selling t-shirts and refreshments. You wait. If the book takes off, they’ll have a sign put up within a month. “You are now entering Thursday Murder Club Country.” They’ll be charging for entry.

At various points in your book, the characters muse on the seasons of their lives, and often make swift decisions due to a heightened awareness of time passing. What was it like to inhabit characters who are a few decades older than you are now? Did it feel freeing, or daunting, or something else entirely?
I am turning 50 this year, and that seems absurd to me. Basically, in my head I feel like I’ve got about five years left. However, in the next book Ibrahim goes through a statistical analysis of life-expectancy statistics (he is nothing if not cheery) and according to the official numbers I have at least 35 years left, so I think maybe I’m overreacting.

What’s up next for you—and for the members of the Thursday Murder Club?
I am writing the follow-up now, and everyone who survives the first book is back. And rest assured, there is plenty of trouble ahead for them all.

I have had such a lovely reaction to the book in the U.S. I am desperate to come out to visit readers and bookshops and libraries. Hopefully, that will be possible sooner rather than later.

Coopers Chase Retirement Village is a lovely place to live: the former convent set on 12 verdant acres in Kent, England, is now home to 300 residents over age 65. There’s a swimming pool, exercise studio and restaurant, as well as roaming sheep and llamas. The Jigsaw Room is a hot spot, but not because of […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Reviews

Author Interviews

Recent Features