It’s a mystery to me…
Ever since 1841 when Edgar Allen Poe penned “The Murders in the Rue Morgue“—arguably the first modern detective story—readers have loved detectives. And we especially love amateur ones. Because, let’s face it: there are relatively few amateur brain surgeons or nuclear physicists, but who doesn’t believe they could tell a roomful of suspects, “You’re probably wondering why I’ve gathered you all here?”
[Check out the clip below from The Mirror Crack’d, the 1980 Agatha Christie adaptation that provides a seamless transition from the traditional (male) detective summation to the archetypal cozy mystery trope. Miss Marple becomes Murder She Wrote!]
But I think it goes even deeper than that. Hard-coded in our DNA is the need for things to be fair. The bad guys aren’t supposed to win. And if it seems that there are way too many times when they do, well…that just means we need a little old lady who knits, or someone with a cat, or the owner of the neighborhood cupcake bakery to step in and catch the bad guy. Because it’s only fair, and oh yeah—it’s elementary.
For example, check out my detective mystery prototype below. [With much, much thanks to the incredibly fun Plot Generator, of course!]
THE SYMPATHETIC STRANGER
Penelope Marysue has the perfect life working as a head janitor in the city and dumpster-diving with her brilliantly insightful boyfriend, Guy Hero.
However, when she finds an iridescent stuffed giraffe in her cellar, she begins to realize that things are not quite as they seem in the Marysue family.
An International Clown Convention leaves Penelope with some startling questions about her past, and she sets off to the ugly underbelly of Anaheim to find some answers.
At first the people of Anaheim seem kickass and spunky. She is intrigued by the curiously sympathetic washed-up race car driver, Cliff Overthetop. However, after he introduces her to the street-version of Animal Crossing, Penelope slowly finds herself drawn into a web of lust, vote rigging and perhaps, even texting while driving.
Can Penelope resist the charms of Cliff Overthetop and uncover the secret of the iridescent stuffed giraffe before it’s too late, or will her demise become yet another Anaheim legend?
- If this is a hard-boiled detective story, Penelope may start out with a partner. If so, said partner will probably be older, perhaps dishonest, but certainly not long for this world. (Especially if Penelope starts delivering a running monologue, at which point the only thing left for her partner to do is make sure the life insurance is paid up and the whiskey polished off.) The high mortality rates must make Detective Partnering one of the most hazardous lines of work ever, second only to those guys who wear the red shirts on Star Trek and get killed between the first and second commercial breaks.
- If everything happens too fast for you to keep up with clues but there’s blood everywhere and probably several explosions and chase scenes and Penelope has a knife to her throat at least once, it’s a thriller.
- If Penelope is a member of the police force who ignores direct orders from his/her superiors, it is a police procedural.
- If Penelope is a little old lady, speaks with a southern accent, or has a cat, it is a cozy mystery.
- If the cat answers back, it is magical realism.
- If the talking cat belongs to a wizard detective, it is an urban fantasy.
Updated for today’s reader, mystery sleuths might might be cupcake bakers, tarot card readers, or Southern ladies with vampire neighbors. Or—as D.B. Borden introduces Cat Callihan in her upcoming revision of her 2005 One For The Money—widows of a certain age who aren’t quite ready to be little old ladies.
After decades of marriage, motherhood, and grandmotherhood, Cat Caliban is looking for a new career. Detective work seems a logical choice. So, she sells her suburban house, buys an apartment building in a “transitional” neighborhood, and begins her training, only to discover a dead body in an upstairs apartment. What’s the connection between a murdered homeless woman and the Golden Age of Hollywood silent movies? Cat races to discover it before the killer can strike again. In this first book of the popular Cat Caliban series, Cat assembles her colorful cast of helpers and neighborhood hangers-on.
Suspicion is second nature to any woman who’s raised three kids.
- Book Title: One For the Money
- Author: D.B. Borton
- Genre: Mystery
- Length: 188 pages
My Review: 4 out of 5 stars for One For The Money by D. B. Borton
What this book isn’t. In its original release, D.B. Barton’s One For The Money came out about six months before the Janet Evanovich blockbuster of the same title, although both star tough women just starting new careers in male-dominated fields (private investigator and bounty hunter). Both are set in pre-cellphone days, and neither woman is the least bit interested in baking cupcakes or knitting.
What this book is, though, is a frequently funny, fast-paced coming-of-age detective story where the one growing up is a woman in her fifties who has been what everyone else expected and is finally ready to be herself. Catherine—Cat to her friends and really…everyone except her husband and his friends—Caliban has finally figured out what she wants to be when she grows up. A detective.
Her grandson Ben objects that detectives don’t have white hair. Her two older children are appalled (although her youngest does offer to exchange the monogrammed hankies she had been intending as a birthday present for a secondhand semi-automatic). Her husband Fred says nothing at all because he’s dead, and because he stopped paying attention to her about twenty years earlier, which Cat verified by taking up swearing.
One day I got the impression that Fred hadn’t been listening to me for a while. Say, twenty years. So I thought I’d try a little verbal variety to see if he’d notice.
Without much further notice, Fred quietly drops dead, freeing Cat to finally get a life. From there, she purchases an apartment building in a working-class neighborhood as income hedge against the vicissitudes of the detective biz, buys a copy of The Landlord’s Handbook, and looks for tenants. This is complicated when she shows her first applicants the upstairs apartment which is unfurnished except for the dead body.
“Melanie spoke for the first time, her voice deep and husky. ‘I don’t think your last tenant has vacated, Mrs. Caliban.’
There was nothing in the goddamn Landlord’s Handbook about this.”
Cat decides she’s personally insulted by the murder. Not only did it occur in her building, but she’s appalled by the lack of interest among police or press. Despite the fact that she hasn’t yet taken karate or shooting lessons, let alone gotten a gun, Cat decides to investigate. After all, she’s read a lot of Nancy Drew. She’s bought a wardrobe of dark pantsuits like V.I. Warshawski. And most importantly—she’s a mother.
‘Hell, I’d investigated things all my adult life. Who left the freezer door open so all the ice cream melted. Who left their new purple T-shirt in the washer so that everybody’s underwear turned lavender. Who drew stripes on the cat with Marks-a-Lot. Why couldn’t Fred ever think of anything to give me for my birthday.”
Along with plenty of snark, granny jokes, and a fair sprinkling of f-bombs, the mystery unfolds in standard Murder-She-Wrote formula. After a longish initial bit of tell that might have been better worked into the action later in the book, Cat discovers the murder and begins investigating.
The police, naturally, tell her to back off and leave the investigation to professionals. Equally naturally, Cat ignores them as she gathers her posse of tenants and friends, uncovers another murder, and slowly unravels a web of lies and star-crossed love that includes a Hollywood star, an arab sheik, a retired sewer engineer, a missing fabled emerald necklace, and a sizeable portion of 1980’s Cincinnati street population.
Tracking clues takes her through much of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods. But it’s her experience as a mother that lets Cat figure out who the murderer must be and what happened to the missing treasure.
In One For The Money, author D. B. Borton takes just enough liberties with the standard detective formula to have me rooting for Cat and her unlikely assistants. I particularly enjoyed her confidence in herself, her ‘because-I’m-the-mother-and-I-say-so’ approach to crime solving, and her conviction that a lifetime of reading Nancy Drew, decades of motherhood, and The Landlord’s Handbook are the perfect preparation for her life as a detective.