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22nd-Jun-2006 01:14 pm
A Quiche Before Dying
M.C. Beaton

I read a lot of mystery books. Most of them fall in the subgenre of 'cozy' mysteries. (As opposed to 'hard-boiled.') Since I don't know how many of you reading know what I'm talking about, I will explain. Cozy mysteries most often feature an amateur sleuth, usually but not always a woman, some kind of gimmick, and quite often some kind of punny or otherwise 'clever' title. Most of the time they're also written by a woman. Cozy mysteries don't generally include gore or graphic situations, and by and large would never, ever be described as 'gritty' or 'realistic'. They're pleasant, nice, fun, whatever. Anyway, I generally like cozies.

A Quiche Before Dying is the first book of MC Beaton's Agatha Raisin series, and as far as pure mysteries go, it's not the best. As far as cozies go, it's quite good.

It's hard to review mysteries - I can't say who the culprit is outright because that's the point of the book! On the pure mystery level, MC Beaton does not cheat; all the clues are in place to figure out the killer ahead of time. Not much of consequence is kept hidden, and nothing comes out of left field as a GOTCHA, SUCKERS!! moment.

I have to say that for me, mysteries end up being more about the characters and their interactions and history than about the actual mystery itself. On that count, A Quiche Before Dying is certainly a good beginning.

Agatha Raisin is a London PR executive, feared or respected (or both!) by everyone she knows. She is a rather classic success story, having pulled herself up from nothing to her present success, but we find out quite early that she has done so at the expense of her personal life. She has no real friends, no connection to anything except business.

Of course, she doesn't realize this until she sells her PR firm in order to retire early to a cottage in the tiny village of Carsely in the Cotswolds: an area that she has romanticized as 'heaven' from a very young age.

Once she arrives, she finds herself an 'incomer' and very politely shut out of actual village life. Agatha, not one to rest on her laurels, notices a flyer for a quiche competition as part of a village fair, and decides that if she wins it, she'll definitely be accepted. Unfortunately, Agatha can't cook.

This doesn't stop her - she goes into the city and buys a quiche to enter into the contest. She doesn't worry about the cheating at all... at least, not until the man who judged the quiche competition dies. (Poisoned, by cowbane in the spinach quiche instead of spinach.)

Other characters include one of Agatha's former subordinates from London, who she does not like but nevertheless clings to because he's familiar, a young police detective who seems to find Agatha extremely funny, Mrs. Bloxby the vicar's wife whose pure niceness brings everyone else up to her level, and later in the book, new neighbor James Lacey who is very handsome, very antisocial, and the subject of immediate infatuation.

For the best part of the book, the death is regarded as accidental, and the reader is allowed to focus on Agatha's trials in a small village and how very little she actually knows about dealing with people. This is a very, very good thing because the actual solution to the murder isn't creative at all - I remember figuring out who the murderer was in the first few chapters.
22nd-Jun-2006 11:39 pm (UTC)
To me, it'd be kind of interesting to read something like this and follow it (or precede) with somebody like Raymond Chandler or (if you're feeling like you want a mystery and also really want somebody to get punched) Mickey Spillane and compare and contrast. In those cases, generally the mystery is the point of it all (and generally pretty formulaic, usually involving the Dame Comma With Legs Up To Here), where here it the people are the point.
23rd-Jun-2006 01:41 am (UTC)
Yes! A few authors bridge that plot/character centrism gap nicely... a few examples are Earl Emerson's Thomas Black series for one and Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr series for another. Both have excellent characters and genuine focus on them and their lives (Earl Emerson more than Lawrence Block, IMO) but I would still classify both series as hard-boiled if pressed to it.

I wondered for a while if it wasn't just the male-writer aspect that makes me do that, but it really is the focus of things. I would cheerfully read one of Mary Daheim's B&B series even if there were no mystery element at all, I'm that invested in the characters... in fact now that I think of it I can actually say for sure that that's true. In fact, I'd have to put that particular book in my top three. I'm not sure I'd be able to read Thomas Black or Bernie Rhodenbarr as gleefully without the mystery element.
23rd-Jun-2006 05:18 am (UTC)
I only dabble in mystery-novels, so actually, Chandler and Hammett make up most of the mysteries I've read in the last year or so. *L* With them, I think they do balance the plot vs. character issue--but I think you're right, so many others just pick which one they're going to favor and stick to it.

But the advantage definitely does go to those who favor characters, I think, because there is still some degree of plot...whereas those who write excellent plots investigated by cardboard cutouts end up being a much worse snoozer, because the character! drives me! crazy! with its badness.

You make me curious about Mary Daheim, I think I am saying.
23rd-Jun-2006 06:02 am (UTC)
She goes overboard on the character over mystery department, meaning that on occasion her mysteries and their solutions are at least a little implausible. There's also a very real possibility that if you don't like her characters, the entire series will be a wash for you.

Mary Daheim actually writes two series: the Emma Lord series (also called the Alpine series) and the Bed and Breakfast series. I can't stand the Emma Lord series; I find Emma rather self-righteous, stuck in the past, and unnecessarily bitchy at times. I love the Bed and Breakfast series, which is rather sitcommy and ridiculous at times, but... I don't know, it resonates with me because my family is insane.

I'll try to pick one of the Bed and Breakfast series to review at some point, probably.
23rd-Jun-2006 06:03 am (UTC)
Also: I've read neither Chandler nor Hammett, so I do not feel qualified to weigh in on their plot/character ratio.
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