I wonder whether in any of her "Death on Demand" series novels Hart has ever mentioned Carolyn Wells (if not, Wells must be about the only writer she has never mentioned), because the two women seem to share certain affinities as crime fiction authors, most obviously a liking for murders set in "nice" surroundings, a classic cozy trope.
Hart's Death on Demand series, which she launched in 1987, has reached 23 novels as of last year. She has two other series, together accounting for 11 novels. I believe her fiction writing career started with 5 juvenile mysteries, the first one published before I was born (now that's old). Between 1985 and 1987 she also published 9 non-series crime novels. In 2003 she published another non-series book, Letter from Home, and in 2012 one of those darn cat mysteries, What the Cat Saw (is this the start of another series?).
By my calculation, that makes an even fifty mysteries, but I see interviews with her as of last year say 51, so I must be missing something. In any event, that many popular novels over a half-century makes Hart a significant presence in the mystery world, a fact being recognized this year by the Mystery Writers of America. She is also someone who clearly knows and loves the classical, or as she would say, traditional, mystery, for which I salute her.
Hart's The Christie Caper is the seventh Death on Demand book, about Annie Laurance Darling and her lowcountry South Carolina mystery bookstore "Death on Demand." By this book she's married to Max Darling, who, we're told several times, looks just like one of the Hardy Boys grown up--the blonde one, whichever one that one was (Shaun Cassidy played him in the TV series). Max comes with a mother-in-law, Laurel Darling Roethke, a much-married comic sexpot (there's a vulgar acronym for this "type" today, but this is a family blog, of course, so I won't spell it out). Then there's Frank Saulter, chief of police, and Brice Willard Posey, the spectacularly stupid circuit solicitor.
|a critic at work|
Neil seems determined to make an absolute ass out of himself, in every way possible. Apparently, Neil thinks hard-boiled mysteries are the only acceptable form of crime writing. He despises cozies and wants everyone at the "Christie Caper" convention to know it.
It gets really ugly when Neil declares he is publishing a book that is going to expose Christie as a scheming tart.
Now everyone at the convention is in a positive tizzy. Next thing you know, shots are fired at Bledsoe, then a vase is is pushed off a ledge, above where he is sitting. Is a deranged Christie fan at work???
Eventually there is a death, then another and yet another. This all happens only in the second half of the book, which made the first half of the book rather slow going for me (I do like me murders, guvnor).
A lot of the book felt padded to me, with Christie trivia (I enjoyed this at first, but then got tired of it as it went on and on); the dotty antics of mother-in-law Laurel (I couldn't figure out why she kept insisting on talking about Poe at an Agatha Christie convention--maybe this was an inside joke about the Edgars versus the Agathas?); intervals of "love" (i.e., sex, demurely described) between Annie and Max; and, lordy!, lots of food (Hart constantly refers to one male character as "chunky," but by the end of the book I was expecting her to start describing Annie as such, with all the food she was putting away). Of course one person's padding is another person's pleasure--so to speak!
|a killer cozy convention|
The official investigators being idiots, it's left to the amateurs, Annie and Max, to pursue the culprit when murder strikes (Max, who seems to be something of a handsome layabout, has a "consulting" firm, we're told, but it's definitely not a private detective agency). They are aided by Lady Gwendolyn Tompkins, "England's reigning Crime Queen."
Lady Gwendolyn without a doubt was my favorite character in the book, enough so that I regret Hart never launched a Lady Gwendolyn "Crime Queen" series of mysteries. Has she ever appeared in other Death on Demand novels?
The amateur investigation seems to be conducted by Max and Lady Gwendolyn mainly over the telephone (oh! the long distance bills!), with computers making barely a blip. For her part, Annie interviews all the suspects at the convention, so that the investigation gets a bit repetitious. Still, I think Annie reaches the solution through legitimate clues--though being such a Christie fan she should have spotted the plot sooner!
Hart does provide a nice twist ending, about which I cannot say more without risking spoiling for those who have not read the book. I have one other Death on Demand book on Kindle, A Little Class on Murder (#5, where, I believe, Annie teaches a class on mysteries) and probably will read it sometime this year. However, I can't really say that The Christie Caper fired me with enthusiasm to immediately read another book in this series.
Hart keeps telling us how sexually magnetic Neil is, despite being an obnoxious, sexist, cozy-hating pig and all, but I kept thinking of the adage, show don't tell. She never convinced me that he would draw any other reaction than disgust.
Similarly, the whole thing with the convention panicking about the Christie scandal book just seemed silly. Heck, if people thought Agatha Christie actually was having it off a century ago with Eden Phillpotts that probably would only increase interest in her work! How interesting that would be were it really true (it's not, of course; there does appear to have been a sexual scandal in Phillpotts' life I only recently found out about, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Christie).
|Tuppence (Francesca Annis)|
and Tommy (James Warwick)
still the classic cozy crime couple
For my part, I certainly would love to be the owner of Annie's bookstore, where it seems she mostly just has to answer the phone to take all the orders that keep pouring in. And no doubt whichever Hardy Boy he looks like, Max makes a wonderful fashion accessory (I just knew at the Agatha Christie costume party Annie and Max were going to be Tuppence and Tommy).
For me, however, the most striking thing about The Christie Caper is the animus directed against hard-boiled mysteries and the true crime genre. Hart's characters repeatedly make comments to the effect that it is the cozies that are the realistic books, because they are about the sort of people most readers know.
This depends on the reader, of course, but I would argue that probably most people most readers know aren't involved in murder, so in this sense the genteel murder mysteries are less realistic. Still, there's no question that hard-boiled mysteries can be heavily stylized and romanticized, in their own tough way.
However, I've never been sympathetic to demands for hyper-realism, anyway. I like the stylized approaches of the classic stuff, be it tough or "traditional." I was pelased to find that Hart likes the novels of Raymond Chandler; apparently she's not as anti-hard-boiled as one might think from a reading of The Christie Caper.
Since I've mentioned Margaret Maron, I've decided I should review something by her next, to give a more positive appraisal of a so-called modern "cozy" writer. I also think I'll try to take a look at Hart's non-series and Agatha-winning Letter from Home, which unlike any of her other books, I think, is set in her native Oklahoma. It's interesting to me, given my work with the Oklahoma Choctaw mystery writer Todd Downing, who taught at the University of Oklahoma in the 1920s and 1930s, that Hart is a 1958 OU graduate. I myself have Oklahoma family connections on my father's side.
Between them Hart and Maron account for, I believe, twenty Agatha best novel nominations and seven wins, an impressive tally that no one else really challenged until the Louise Penny steamroller came along!