Thursday, October 16, 2014
Cozy Mysteries do Cultural Work? @MaiaChance
LUCY BURDETTE: I saw an essay by Maia Chance a couple of months ago, and I knew we'd want to have her visit Jungle Red. She has such an interesting take on writing cozy mysteries...
MAIA CHANCE:Well, obviously cozy mysteries do cultural work.
Yet, when I’m asked to describe the books I write, oftentimes I catch myself being vaguely apologetic. My debut mystery, Snow White Red-Handed, sports the fantastical premise of a heroine who could’ve done a walk-on role in Little Women but who finds herself mired in murder and fairy tale lore in the Black Forest. Absurdity and intrigue factor in . . . heavily. Long, stony looks at Tough Issues? Not so much.
Certainly, my books must have some sort of political unconscious, because all books do. My books even have a certain amount of political consciousness, mostly about body politics and being a female person in limited circumstances. So yeah, I write about class, gender, age, and sexuality, but I only touch upon "race” and the sheer ugliness of violence. Should I blame it on the genre? Are cozy mysteries bastions of white, middle class fantasy? Are they blind to the realities of violence? Um. Maybe, sometimes. What an unnerving thought.
I've been thinking about what work a cozy mystery does, besides providing pleasure and diversion. One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s literary theory classic, Figures in Black:
"Writers present models of reality rather than a description of it." (40)
If a writer presents a model of reality, that model has power. Power to offer an alternative vision. Power to critique reality. And any piece of fiction, whether it falls in a "serious" genre or not, possesses that power. With power (as Spider Man’s uncle makes clear) comes both responsibility and opportunity.
So I won’t be apologetic anymore about writing cozy mysteries. But I will work to embrace the opportunity of writing self-contained models of what is wrong and right, ugly and beautiful, dismaying and enchanting, about the world as I find it. And readers of cozy mysteries (myself included) have the opportunity to puzzle through those Tough Issues, not with grim despair, but with optimism and humor.
About the book:
Miss Ophelia Flax is a Victorian actress who knows all about making quick changes and even quicker exits. But to solve a fairy-tale crime in the haunted Black Forest, she’ll need more than a bit of charm…
1867: After being fired from her latest variety hall engagement, Ophelia acts her way into a lady’s maid position for a crass American millionaire. But when her new job whisks her off to a foreboding castle straight out of a Grimm tale, she begins to wonder if her fast-talking ways might have been too hasty. The vast grounds contain the suspected remains of Snow White’s cottage, along with a disturbing dwarf skeleton. And when her millionaire boss turns up dead—poisoned by an apple—the fantastic setting turns into a once upon a crime scene.
To keep from rising to the top of the suspect list, Ophelia fights through a bramble of elegant lies, sinister folklore, and priceless treasure, with only a dashing but mysterious scholar as her ally. And as the clock ticks towards midnight, she’ll have to break a cunning killer’s spell before her own time runs out…
Find Maia on FACEBOOK, Twitter, and Goodreads.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM SNOW WHITE RED-HANDED:
“I simply must have you at my side this afternoon, Flax,” Mrs. Coop said. “I’ve come down with a sick headache, but I wouldn’t miss Professor Winkler’s gold test for the world. Tighter!”
“I’m doing my utmost, ma’am,” Ophelia said, straining to cinch Mrs. Coop’s corset laces.
After luncheon, Mrs. Coop had returned to her cream-and-gold jewel box of a boudoir, high in a turret of the castle, to change into her afternoon gown. She’d been breathless and disheveled, and determined to shrink her waist to a smaller compass.
Mrs. Coop’s disarray, and her sudden wish to appear pixie-like, resulted, Ophelia suspected, from the presence in the castle of either Princess Verushka or Mr. Royall Hunt. Mrs. Coop and Miss Amaryllis had made the acquaintance of these two fashionable personages at some point in the last two weeks’ frenzy of excursions into Baden-Baden.
“You must,” Mrs. Coop said, “stay by my side with my smelling salts, should I need them, and fetch me glasses of water and whatever else I may need. I am not well, Flax—even Mr. Hunt noted that I’m white as a lily—yet this is perhaps the most thrilling day of my life.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ophelia said.
“Just think! Snow White’s cottage on my own estate. And a dwarf’s bones!”
“Do I hear doubt in your tone, Flax?”
“Truth be told, ma’am, it is difficult for me to believe that that house belonged to creatures from a storybook.”
“Difficult to believe?”
“Well, ma’am, near impossible.”
Ophelia had performed with P. Q. Putnam’s Traveling Circus for two years, and she’d known a so-called dwarf. He’d been a shrimp, true, but there hadn’t been a thing magical about him. Unless you counted swearing like a sailor and smoking like a house on fire as magic.
“Of course.” Mrs. Coop sniffed. “I nearly forgot you’re a Yankee.”
Ophelia held her tongue; she was stepping out of character. It had to be the result of exhaustion. Mrs. Coop and her stepsister Amaryllis—they had, Ophelia had learned, different mothers—kept her on her feet from dawn to dusk, arranging their hair, pressing their clothing, mixing beauty concoctions, and running up and down the spiraling castle stairs fetching things.
But how could anyone past the age of pigtails think Snow White and the seven dwarves had really existed?
Maia Chance writes historical mystery novels that are rife with absurd predicaments and romantic adventure. She is the author of the Fairy Tale Fatal and The Discreet Retrieval Agency series, and her first mystery, Snow White Red-Handed, will be released in November 2014 by Berkley Prime Crime.
Maia is a candidate for the Ph.D. in English at the University of Washington. This means that the exploits of Fairy Tale Fatal’s heroine, variety hall actress Ophelia Flax, were dreamt up while Maia was purportedly researching 19th-century American literature and fairy tale criticism. The Discreet Retrieval Agency series was born of Maia’s fascination with vintage shoes, automobiles, and cocktails combined with an adoration of P. G. Wodehouse and chocolate.
Upcoming titles include Come Hell or Highball (St. Martin’s Press, 2015) and Cinderella Six Feet Under (Berkley Prime Crime, 2015). Maia lives in Seattle, where she shakes a killer martini, grows a mean radish, and bakes mocha bundts to die for.