HALLIE EPHRON: Christopher Lord wondered if the world was ready for a cozy mystery series featuring a gay guy, Simon Alastair, a bookseller/sleuth whose Pips Pages features a lopsided inventory: strong on Capote and Faulkner, short on Clancy and Follett.
I laughed and laughed when I read that. If it makes you laugh, too, then Christopher Lord's Dickens Junction series will be right up your alley, too.
I asked Christopher if there is a writer in particular whose work inspires him...
CHRISTOPHER LORD: In the early nineties, a friend gave me a grocery sack full of used paperbacks. “Read this,” she said, pulling Charlotte MacLeod’s Rest You Merry from the top. “It’s you.”
At the time, just like MacLeod’s protagonist, I lived in a neighborhood where every house “blaze[d] like a Baptist window” during the holidays. I had lost my mother, ended a relationship, and was faced with bedizening my two-story home with fifteen strings of outdoor lights. I’m afraid of heights.
I was a big mystery reader (Rendell, James, Christie, and Elizabeth George), but didn’t know cozies. Ms. MacLeod to the rescue—Balaclava Agricultural College and its rutabaga-inventing curmudgeon Peter Shandy were just what I needed. A crazy little town, absurd goings-on, loopy (and looped) eccentrics, and a murder or two. By the time MacLeod introduced a corn-fed co-ed with the improbable name of Heidi Hayhoe, I was hooked.
I read all of the Shandy novels (several of which were also in that grocery bag), and loved them even when the plots veered from merely madcap (Vane Pursuit being my favorite of those) to preposterous (the phantasmagorical Curse of the Giant Hogweed).
Elizabeth Peters (no slouch herself in the mystery-writing department) wrote that “Charlotte MacLeod does what she does better than anybody else does it; and what she does is in the top rank of modern mystery fiction.”
Years later I decided to start a mystery series. I had a strong sense of what I wanted—an offbeat setting, colorful characters, slightly unusual murders, and a strong sense of whimsy. Oh, yes, and a holiday theme, just like Rest You Merry. My love of Dickens and classic Christie puzzle mysteries resulted in Dickens Junction (located near my home town of Astoria, Oregon), and my well-to-do bookstore owner Simon Alastair owes much to Peter Shandy (and a nod to the girl who started it all when I was eight, titian-haired Nancy Drew).
I published The Christmas Carol Murders last year; its sequel, The Edwin Drood Murders, just released in September 2013.
I thought the world was ready for a cozy series featuring a gay male protagonist. And, since Shandy found love (Peter’s uxoriousness and “canoodling” with wife Helen is MacLeod at her most racy), Simon has a love-interest, People magazine’s 14th “sexiest journalist alive,” Zach Benjamin. They meet in the opening chapter of The Christmas Carol Murders, and I promise their relationship will grow as the series continues.
In addition, just as Dickens used A Christmas Carol to “strike a [political] blow” against the injustices of 1843, I introduced a gentle jab at some of the greedier notions of our time (let’s just say that Ayn Rand is not my Facebook friend).
I asked Jungle Red Writers if I could write about Charlotte MacLeod because many of her books have been gloriously returned to print in paperback and/or e-versions, and are certainly worth reading or revisiting, especially at this time of year.
Rest You Merry was published in 1978. Fully two generations of cozy writers since then owe Ms. MacLeod a great debt of gratitude. I recently reread the book, and can say that all of the charms I remember—the light touch, the humor, the dignity and promise of the cozy world—are still intact. Balaclava Agricultural College may not be a real place, but it’s a place you want to visit again and again.
I hope my readers will feel the same way about Dickens Junction. If they do, I owe much to Charlotte MacLeod. I wouldn’t have written a cozy series without her.
Rest YOU merry, Charlotte MacLeod.
HALLIE: Thanks so much for reminding us of Charlotte MacLeod's delightful novels, Christopher. And I'll be lighting the fire and snuggling up with The Christmas Carol Murders. I trust the ghost of Marly will pay me a visit.
So who are the classic cozy writers who continue to inspire?