Have you ever taken a long trip to a completely foreign place where you’ve spent weeks treating your taste buds to one exotic surprise after another? And then comes the day when you turn a corner and find a Burger King. You look around to make sure nobody sees you, and then… in you go. There’s just something so inexpressibly comforting about knowing exactly what you’ll get, the sure and certain knowledge that whatever the outside landscape holds, that Whopper and fries will taste the same as it does back in the mall at home.
That’s what I love about reading a cozy mystery. I see a cover in icecream colors with a cupcake or a cat, and I know the tropes I’ll find inside:
- The sleuth will be an amateur, of course, and (these days) almost definitely a woman. She won’t want to get involved—unless she’s elderly and knits—but she will investigate anyway.
- Her sidekick will be slightly less intelligent than the reader, but endearing nonetheless. Bonus points if Sidekick is gay, fashion-conscious, and owns small dogs.
- The action will take place in a familiar place, preferably a small village in England so adorably twee it couldn’t possibly exist outside of a Thomas Kinkade painting or Hobbit Shire.
- Regular recurring characters will include a local member of the police and medical communities, each of whom will grumble but continue to supply information in violation of any and all conceivable policies to the contrary.
- Wherever Amateur Sleuth goes, bodies pile up offstage, but actual blood/bodily fluids are kept to a minimum. (Same goes for sex, actually.)
- Clues and red herrings are scattered liberally in Amateur’s path, but the writer makes sure the audience has all clues to solve the crime alongside Amateur.
- There will be cats. Probably cupcakes. Occasionally, knitting.
- There will not be swearing.
My idea for a cozy mystery:
Amateur sleuth (an actual baby lamb), along with her lovable sidekick (a chocolate cupcake with salt-caramel frosting) and her on-again-off-again American boyfriend (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon) runs a pop-up shop selling sweaters knit from her own wool. She solves murders!
It’s a formula, sure, but one that works like icing for cupcakes. Consider, for example, if these trope-definers were rewritten as Cozy:
- Along with her sidekick (a well-meaning if befuddled clergyman), an elderly nursemaid investigates when the bodies of two local teenagers are found. Together they follow the trail of hidden assignations and political intrigue that threatens to bring down the highest levels of society. [Romeo and Juliet]
- Along with her sidekick (a polished gay social secretary), a snarky young girl reluctantly helps a naive farm boy seek the murderers of his adoptive parents while searching for clues to his biological father. [Star Wars]
- Along with her sidekick (her sister who is ethereally beautiful but slightly dumber than carpet lint) a feisty young heroine fights Victorian conventions to thwart a sinister conspiracy and reunite lovers. [Pride and Prejudice]
Or not… My guest this week is David Ahern, who hilariously subverts almost every trope to remake the cozy mystery genre in the newest book in his Madam Tulip series, Madam Tulip and the Knave of Hearts.
Blurb: Madam Tulip and the Knave of Hearts by David Ahern
Suspense, mystery, action, a little romance and lots of laughs
When out-of-work actress Derry O’Donnell moonlights as celebrity fortune-teller Madam Tulip in an English Stately home, she is trying to make some cash. Instead, she is drawn into an alien world of wealth, titled privilege and family secrets.
A countess once a chorus girl, a gambling earl and his daughters, a cultured and handsome art expert—all caught in a terrifying web of ghastly threats, murder and abduction. As an aristocratic engagement party turns into a nightmare, Derry and her friend Bruce face the prospect of a gruesome and infamous death.
Madame Tulip and the Knave of Hearts is the second in a series of thrilling and hilarious Tulip adventures in which Derry OíDonnell, celebrity fortune-teller and reluctant amateur detective, plays the most exciting and perilous roles of her acting life, drinks borage tea, and fails to understand her parents.
- Book Title: Madam Tulip and the Knave of Hearts
- Author: David Ahern
- Genre: Cozy Mystery/Thriller
Length: 278 pages
Publisher: Malin Press; 1 edition (October 20, 2016)
- Purchase Links: Amazon
My Review: 4 out of 5 stars for Madam Tulip and the Knave of Hearts by David Ahern
I fell in love with Derry, the hapless heroine of David Ahern’s cozy mystery series, in Madam Tulip, the first book of this terrific series, as she supplemented the vicissitudes of an acting career by capitalizing on her inherited psychic gifts. As the glamorous and mysterious Madam* Tulip, world-famous psychic and fortune-teller, Derry reluctantly finds herself telling fortunes for well-heeled clients. (*That’s Madam without an “e”, because she’s not married to Monsieur Tulip.)
Just as her acting career seems poised to take off, disaster strikes their venerable old theater, and Derry is forced to take a job for her wealthy American mother Vanessa—art gallery owner, agent, and force of nature. At the same time, Derry attempts to dodge the more extreme scheming of her Irish father Jacko—famous artist, compulsive gambler, and womanizer. At times Derry wonders if she’s the only one who remembers that her parents are divorced, as she’s caught in the middle of their ongoing battles/attraction.
But in the midst of these scenes from her regular life, Derry is approached by a friend from Book 1 with a command performance request for Madam Tulip from a wealthy Countess. Reluctantly, Derry agrees and along with her conscripted sidekick Bruce, is soon ensconced in the aristocratic estate and lives of a compulsive gambler Earl and his family.
As a reader, that was about the time that I started to add up the ways that author David Ahern was systematically both using and subverting the standard Cozy Mystery tropes.
The sweet old lady amateur detective is a gray wig and a costumed role for a young woman who prefers the cash to solving the crime. “Derry and Bruce were different people in as many ways as you could imagine. But they were both actors. To be insulted by offers of money was, therefore, an existential impossibility.”
Her gay best friend is not only a handsome fellow actor but he’s also a competent ex-Navy Seal and computer expert who—in contrast to Cozy genre norms—doesn’t cook, own a small dog, or give fashion advice. (Although he is somewhat-unfortunately named Bruce, so there’s that…)
Neither the police nor local medical providers are the least helpful.
The murdered body itself might be offstage, but bits of it have taken to turning up in particularly graphic ways. Despite body bits, liberal clues, and red herrings that point to the bad guys and accomplice early on, the actual motivating factor isn’t revealed until the end, when it almost doesn’t matter.
In keeping with the Cozy ethics, there is no swearing, unless “gobshite” counts. But there are no cats, no knitting, and not much use for cupcakes either. “The neighbours of the Palace Theatre were mostly bars catering to stag parties—hordes of drunken revellers whose uses for a cupcake could prove unorthodox.”
Instead of a cozy little village, the action moves to an aristocratic estate that can only be called ‘familiar’ by Downton Abby fans. There are several sightings of “HER”, and in addition to the Queen, members of the Royal family play roles. One thing that makes American-raised Derry (and Americans like me) wonder is the whole concept of the Queen and British royalty. Like Derry, we can’t quite figure it out.
‘I’ve never understood why the Irish are so keen on the British Royal Family,’ observed Derry to Jacko in a whisper. ‘You know—all that bad history. You’d think they’d have a grudge.’
‘Sure what has history to do with it, at all?’ replied Jacko. ‘Isn’t it a grand show, with all the parades and marriages and scandals galore? All paid for by the British taxpayer, God bless them. We Irish say think you very much’ do carry on.’
The book’s pacing works well, with the scene set at the aristocratic estate, eccentric characters such as the ex-showgirl Countess, and occasional arrival of random body parts. My only complaints with the book start when the cozy mystery escalates into a thriller mode that’s less convincing, with James Bond style over-the-top villains and complex rigged death scenes that frankly would have been much more easily arranged with a strategic bullet or two and some judicious arson. Indeed, Derry willingly puts herself at risk because she feels guilty over something she had no control over or responsibility for. While this enables the thriller-style finale, I think the judges would agree that it doesn’t really make sense. Sure, if Derry had been English, she would have apologized for everything from the weather to her own incompetence in briskly ferreting out the murderer. But Derry is Irish-American. And the Irish aren’t about feel guilty about bad things happening to the English, while the Americans aren’t going to apoligize for anything except possibly Donald Trump.
And finally, there is a ‘you’ve probably wondered why I’ve called you all here’ scene that’s almost an afterthought, and a bit of cozy-mystery cheating as the final motivating clue isn’t revealed until after all the action.
But you know what? These complaints are absolutely minor next to the character building, scene setting, and snarky conversation. I love this series, highly recommend it, and suggest that readers treat themselves to both books in order. I would give Madam Tulip and the Knave of Hearts an equally-enthusiastic four stars. As I said with the first book, if you’re up for a funny, well-written genre mashup with memorable characters and a great sense of voice and style, I think you’ll love this series.
And of course, I can’t wait for Madam Tulip’s next appearance.
***I received this book from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.***