Silly Sleuthing 

Murderless mysteries and other crime fiction genres.

Want to read about murder? Most people do. Newspapers are packed with them. Little murders; big ones in which buses and buildings blow up. But more to the point, on a more intimate level, millions of Americans carry murder stories in their backpacks or their purses, to linger over on BART and during lunch breaks and at home, curled up in lamplight.

We know this because crime novels comprise today's best-selling fiction genre. Clive Cussler might not win the Booker Prize, but with nearly one hundred million copies of his Dirk Pitt mysteries in print, he isn't complaining. Mary Higgins Clark might never be taught alongside the Brontës in a graduate lit course, but with a $35 million/six-book contract from Simon & Schuster, she's chillin'. The Pope himself has bestowed upon Clark honorary titles including Dame of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great and Dame of Malta. Money talks. John Grisham became the best-selling author of the 1990s by moving 60,742,288 copies of his legal thrillers. That's ten million more than the entire population of Ukraine.

The latest move in mysteries is to specialize them, creating genres within the genre. Sleuths who sew. Scrabble-playing sleuths. Embroidering sleuths. Scrapbooking sleuths. Chef-sleuths, as in The Perils of Paella. Fat sleuths. Sleuths assisted by cats. One major New York publishing house alone, Berkley, issues no fewer than seven such mysteries every month under its Prime Crime imprint, with new series such as Joanna Carl's "Chocoholic Mysteries" featuring a spunky confectioner-sleuth, with "Chocolate Chat" sidebars peppering the text, vouchsafing facts such as "The Olmec probably domesticated cocoa." Claudia Bishop's Hemlock Falls series follows two sisters who run an historic New England inn. (Typical line: "How would we of caught the saboteur?") Retired celebrity bandleader Peter Duchin writes a series featuring, of all things, a celebrity bandleader. A Crossworder's Gift is the new Christmas volume from a husband-and-wife team of crossword-puzzle enthusiasts who, using the pseudonym Nero Blanc, write mysteries in which a husband-and-wife team of crossword-puzzle enthusiasts ... right.

These series don't describe blood spurting or gouged-out eyeballs rolling or dead bellies bursting, as hard-boiled mysteries (and real life) do. Series like these are what the industry calls "cozies" -- murder mysteries in which we do not see corpses, in which justice is served satisfyingly at the end, along with pfeffernusse and cocoa. The murder is a plot device. It's there -- but it kind of isn't.

Who wants to read murderless murder mysteries?

"Ladies," says Mary McCorkle, owner of the Book End in Newark. Female customers clamor for the latest by the likes of J.D. Robb (a pseudonym for the prolific Nora Roberts, whose career spans well over one hundred books) and Diane Mott Davidson, whose sleuth is a caterer and who incorporates recipes into novels such as Dying for Chocolate.

Cozies, McCorkle says, keep everyone's hands clean. "There's no slicing and dicing. These books don't get into killers' minds. Somebody stumbles over a body, but you get so wrapped up in the main character and her friends and their little town that you actually don't give a damn whether or not there even was a murder."

Is it horrific or cute that so many series involve talking cats? Lilian Jackson Braun, Rita Mae Brown, and Shirley Russo Murphy have made a bundle chasing this angle. Brown's cats talk to each other and to dogs; Murphy's cats talk to perceptive humans. Cats in cozies operate fax machines and computers and make anonymous phone calls to cops.

Jim Friel of Berkeley's Dark Carnival bookstore started reading Brown's feline whodunits because the shop specializes in mysteries and because his wife is a veterinarian. "But when the cats started lecturing about Thomas Jefferson, I couldn't take it anymore," he says. "Sure, Jefferson was great. But why would the cats know that? And why should I have to hear it from a cat?"

Cozies are safe and predictable -- a controlled thrill, like when hospital patients can regulate their own morphine drips. A far cry from the recently translated, upmarket intellectual mysteries by the likes of Italy's Andrea Camilleri and Sweden's Henning Mankell, homegrown cozies don't cross over: Either you love them or it's barf-bag time.

But at least they're books. More unnerving than cozies' arguable silliness is readers' collective need to clean up the concept of killing, to have loose ends tied up on the last page, with murderers' motivations clear and evident and, after all, only human: envy, greed, resentment, tainted love. The public mind is unwilling to concede that whacked-out psychos actually walk among us with an insatiable lust for death. In the real world, the butler never did it. Killers' motivations are usually pathetic, awful, twisted, sexually sadistic, or -- most frightening of all -- incomprehensible. Could this be why on the world stage, right now, we keep seeing the worst kind of killing justified to suit the psychological needs of a public desperate to assign reasonable and rational human motivations to warlords and terrorists? They were angry. It's a class struggle. Right. And pass the pfeffernusse.


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