I’m not really a fan of the adjective ‘cosy’ (actually, being an Americanism, technically it’s ‘cozy’) when applied to classic detective fiction, but I appreciate that it serves a purpose. It paints a picture of a land far from sadistic serial killers and pulse-pounding races against time, a land inhabited by little old ladies and bloodless death where everything is resolved, or at least halted, for scones and cream at 3pm, where the unpleasant never prosper and where thuggery and what little violence is allowed are perpetrated at the severe risk of extradition. A great many classic crime authors couldn’t actually be any further from ‘cosy’ if they tried, hence my opposition to the term, but right now that’s beside the point.
Our First Murder, the debut and 50% of the fictional output of Torrey Chanslor (another pseudonym, making it three reviews in a row now), is, however, about as close to a ‘cosy’ mystery as I’ve ever read. Indeed, the two flashes of rather disconcerting violence are tossed is so casually, so disaffectedly, that it feels like a conscious attempt to not appear too soft, too comfortable, and to heighten the peril at the core of a book overseen by three women the youngest of who is in her middle-50s. This is a conflict throughout – the mystery must be solved by these heroines, but too much complexity or too many escapades will be beyond them, limiting the scope of both – and, while a very charming read at times, it is much weaker for this immediate restriction placed upon it.
The elderly Beagle Sisters – sensible, sharp-minded Amanda and fluffy, twinkling Lutie – inherit a Noo Yawk PI business from their brother and move, along with younger cousin and narrator Martha Meecham, from the Boondocks to the Big Apple. They are almost immediately called in by an existing client to help with a murder and, of course, their charming small town ways and good common sense will prove superior to the efforts of Inspector Moore and his squad. In this regard, and many others you can predict, it plays out exactly as you’d expect. The boarding house where the murder occurred is full of Various Types who must all be cleared (and, to be fair, Chanslor does a very good job with the distinct personalities of the denizens, though only really strikes an original note with the aging and bitter Dotty De Vere), information is withheld from the police and passed on to the more personable elderly spinsters, great wisdom is contained in Lutie’s seemingly empty-headed prattling, and it’s all very delightfully done.
Lutie gets most of the page space, keenly diving head first into the investigation following a lifetime of devouring crime novels from the local library, falling somewhere between the inevitable Jane Marple and Ariadne Oliver. Every so often there is a spryness in her dialogue that threatens to stir into more exciting life, such as the following brief exchange…
“Are you insinuating that I can’t do much with my little–with my head?”
“Oh, dear me, no! I think insinuating is so unladylike, don’t you?”