If last week’s self-published impossible murder didn’t work for you then, well, firstly have a quiet word with yourself, but also perhaps this week will make you more comfortable. Perhaps even…cozy.
Yup, I, the Pope of Plot, am going full-fledged Cozy this week, with a locked room mystery about a free-spirited 21 year-old who just wants her long-term boyfriend to commit so that she can carry on working in her mum’s salon in Smallsville, USA, but who must, on her 21st birthday no less, deal with a) her BF breaking up with her (when she was so sure he was going to propose, OMG!), b) his body then being found beaten to death inside his locked office (er…sadface?), and c) the revelation that she is a magical witch whose powers are about to bloom. The whole thing is…surprisingly not as bad as I might have feared.
Though it might be helped by the fact of its relative brevity: this is maybe, what, 20,000 words, which means that nothing really gets to settle before you’ve moved on — in short order we get the early life of Bluebell Knopps and her naturally blue hair, and how she meets Steve Talzer and is convinced he’s the one for her, and how they end up together and he’s a bit mysterious about his past, and then he gets angry because he didn’t know her hair was blue (she’s been colouring it orange) and the sort of almost fall out, but then her best friend heard how Steve was buying a ring in town and so it seems like he’s going to propose and then he actually breaks up with her and then her fairy godmother turns up and tells her she’s magic and then Steve is found beaten to death.
The shifts in tone are amazing, and not always in a good way, but having read virtually nothing in the cozy vein for a while (I tried one of those “Someone opens a cake shop and falls in love”-style books last Christmas because…well, because I’d never read one before) this seems to be what typifies it as ‘cozy’ — you’re never invested in anything for long enough for it to shake you out of a near-comatose level of acceptance. The events merely happen without any real need for them to be felt…and by the time you realise you should possibly have a response to something — like how Steve turns out come the end to be quite a prick, it must be said — four other things have happened and you’ve also got to process them. So, meh, why bother? This chair is very comfortable, after all, and applying critical faculties would be somewhat akin to that moment when you realise you’re dreaming…you wake up, and suddenly whatever was happening is difficult to remember and doesn’t seem worth dwelling on.
“Vera’s wandered off again…”
It’s not trying to be anything more than a sort of catch-all narrative — some romance, some crime, a bit of magic, a plucky heroine, a mysterious man, some smalltown shenanigans, a sort of ghost-thing…yup, that oughta cover everyone who reads — and it’s equally unsuccessful at everything precisely on account of refusing to pick a lane to stay in for any length of time. Yes, the writing is a little amateur — “She stared at him. It was as if the Steve she knew had been replaced by an alien” — but, hell, we’re not on the Booker longlist here: if you’re picking up a free, 80-page ebook with a picture of a cartoon witch in a cleavage-enhancing girdle on the cover and expecting deep reflection on the human psyche then, wow, I suggest you bottle and sell that optimism. More frustrating are the errors in continuity which really should be ironed out before anything gets published in any form: first Bluebell’s father is a vet, then he’s a lawyer; when she’s arrested for Steve’s murder (in true this-is-how-arresting-someone-works-right? style) the lawyer who is hired to represent her is called Oliver Holmes…until he’s called Oliver James.
There might have been others, but picking up on those two alone was coming dangerously close to forming some sort of opinion and so my mind rebelled against doing any more work. Oh, except the point where someone is offered — and takes up the offer of — coffee and nachos. Nachos? With coffee? Is that a thing in America? What’s wrong with you people?!
And so to murder.
“Steve was killed by a blow to the back of the head, but he was found in a locked room, and the only copies of his keys were locked inside that office with him,” Oliver said. “What we have here is a murder that clearly has magical ties…”
…oh, yeah, Oliver Jalmes is a magical detective, btw…
“…to it, and for the sake of magic’s future, we’ve got to solve it fast.”
Steve is discovered by the woman who cleans the offices, and there’s a double-locked aspect to the room in that someone would have first entered the building and then entered Steve’s office — thus requiring two very-difficult-to-source keys. Technically Oliver’s summation of the crime isn’t quite correct, since while “the windows were sealed” and “the doors were very definitely locked” there is another copy of the keys to hand: namely, on the key ring of the cleaner. However, she’s cleared from suspicion by a fabulous plot twi- wait, what? No-one ever looks at her or considers her a viable line of inquiry? Like, even if she didn’t kill Steve then there’s a chance someone stole or copied her keys…so, surely that’s wort- no? Okay, sure, whatever you say. Straight to “it must be magic”, then.
“What’d I miss?”
From here was a breath-holding chase to find out whether this was a rational or a magical solution, and it ends up Randall Garrett-ing it by coming up with a, er, sensible (?) explanation in the face of magical possibilities. All the ingredients are mentioned, but I wouldn’t say there’s sufficient information available to call this strictly fair play. However, as solutions go it’s not bad — it’s not original, but it uses its required parts well and holds together for the most part (I’ve read an attempt at a similar method elsewhere which defied all basics of reason, intelligence, and anything approaching logic, and this is a significant improvement on that). There’s no rigour, and it’s something like the D story overall, despite being the title, but I can safely say that this could be a decent little story if all the needless magic was taken out and replaced with something that had literally any impact on the events herein…
…and if you ignore that there’s no reason for it to be a locked room murder. This is one of those “Huh, that might be a way to make a locked room murder” ideas that never gets past the “how” to consider the “why” — like, given how rare the keys are, the single most sensible thing would be to leave the door wide open, right? The most sensible course of action would indeed be the very opposite of the situation presented here…but I guess nit-picking too greatly with a story in which a woman discovers she’s a witch and accidentally resummons to life a ghostly shade of a man who has recently been murdered is probably the dictionary definition of “a hiding to nothing”. Silly me.
So, well, as genre hybrids go it lacks, like, everything such hybrids usually need, not least that the list of genres dipped into is almost as long as the novella itself. Ignore all the stuff about magic, though, and this is a swift and weirdly engaging locked room mystery, if not one I feel you need to go out and read. I can’t say I won’t return to the Bluebell Knopps series (“Alexa, define ‘glutton for punishment’…”) but it would take another impossible crime to get me back and even then I’ve plenty of other stuff to be getting on with. However, as a change of pace from my usual I enjoyed this, and for the insight it gave me into the ‘cozy’ subgenre I will remember it…fondly? It’s all a little hazy, like, and difficult to invest too strong an opinion in (hell, even the massive arsehole Steve turns out to be feels like it’s hidden behind sixteen packets of cotton wool), but with a more confident hand on the tiller of what she was trying to write, Nancy McGovern could be a promising prospect if you like this kind of thing. So, yeah, make of that what you will.
Previous Adventures in Self-Publishing: