Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christopher Lord: Finding Inspiration in Charlotte MacLeod

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? 


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  2. There are so many wonderful, inspiring authors; Ralph McInerny, who wrote the Father Dowling mysteries, has always been one of my favorites . . . . Now I’ll be checking out “The Christmas Carol Murders” . . . .

  3. The Dickens Junction books are going on my To Be Read pile for sure. MacLeod's books were always a joy to read and these sound like perfect inspiration for Simon, Zack and the gang.

  4. Dear Christopher (if I may), your books sound absolutely wonderful! An addition to the Christmas stocking, for sure!

  5. I've read most of Charlotte MaCleod's books, and it's about time I started re-reading them. It's been a long, long time since I last read her. Her books always made me feel like I'd found a temporary home with her characters, no matter what the setting. Yes, I agree with the "madcap" description; some were also downright creepy, but in an exciting sort of way! I read her books written under Alisa (or Alissa?) Craig, too.

    A couple of other long gone mystery authors I read way back when were Arthur Upfield and Ngaio Marsh.

  6. Christopher has a new fan. Thanks for the introduction, Hallie!

  7. Forgot to say, Christopher, that I can't wait to read your books! There's something special about reading books about people who sell or write books or work in libraries. It's like finding a long-lost relative!

  8. I'll be reading both your books and Charlotte MacLeod's. Love a good Christmas cozy and love handsome young men as protagonists...

  9. What a delightful read to start my day - Thank You! I am very much looking forward to reading The Dickens Junction. Christopher will be gathering new fans here today, including me.

  10. What I love about Charlotte MacLeod is that she looks like she's having so much a British actress playing a cozy author. Christopher Lord looks like he's having a fine time, too, but far more dapper.

  11. New fan here! I can't wait to get to these books. They sound very entertaining.

    Thanks for introducing yourself.

  12. As I think it is becoming increasingly difficult to find good gay content these days, I am glad to hear about these books and will seek them out. A downside to our increasingly successful mainstreaming is that being gay is more 'ordinary' so we lose some of our signposts and meeting spaces, which means we lose some of our ability to both find each other and representations of ourselves in various media. I know we're out there, but how do we hear about the stuff? This interview is very helpful. Thanks!

  13. I lost count of the number of books this post has made me want to read. But first on the list is The Christmas Carol Mysteries.

  14. haWelcome to Jungle Reds, Chris.
    gsgnst FEED
    I love reading classic cozies from Agatha Christie onward--my particular favorites would be Elizabeth Peters and Peter Dickinson.
    (I'm almost becoming a classic cozy myself after 17 years!)
    And since I've read The Christmas Carol Murders I can highly recommend it.

  15. I will now definitely read Mr. Lord's books, and most likely Ms. MacLeod's as well! they sound right up my alley!
    Bravo to Jungle Red for featuring writers we might not otherwise discover :)

  16. Hi Christopher! Thanks so much for reminding me how much I loved Charlotte MacLeod's books. I'm going to hunt up the e-versions for my library.

    As for yours, they are going in Christmas stockings. Can't wait!

    Favorite cozy authors? I guess you would include Elizabeth Peter's Amelia Peabody's. I love those books. When I did my big book purge last year, I kept all my tattered copies--the ones I didn't lend and lose in the process...

  17. Love this! and so happy to hear about it.

    Did you have fun writing? Have you ever laughed out loud at what you wrote? That's always such a strange moment--when something you just thought of--makes you laugh. You know?

    Would you WANT the ghost to come visit, though? I've been thinking about this ever since Hallie mentioned it.

    And my captcha things is ALL NUMBERS. This I cannot do.

  18. Thanks so much for all of the positive feedback; Jungle Reds are the best!

    I always thought that in retirement I would open a bookstore just like Simon's, and only stock books I had read and enjoyed. Unlike Simon, however, I do not have unlimited resources, and by the time I reached retirement age, the reality of owning an indie bookstore had changed.

    But one of the things Ms. MacLeod taught me is that the world of the cozy doesn't have to be exactly real, just nearly real. In Vane Pursuit Peter and Helen Shandy are searching for a series of stolen antique weathervanes. Who wouldn't want to live in a world where that was possible?

    Photomonk: I acknowledge what you're saying. The flip side is that gay content now can command a much wider audience when it contains material that straight people can relate to. Simon and Zach have the same relationship hurdles (live together? marriage? children? money problems?) that straight couples have. And Dickens Junction, as you'll find, is a VERY welcoming community for all types.

    Hallie: thanks for calling me "dapper." I haven't had that applied to me in many years.

    Besides sending notes through Jungle Reds, please connect with me through my website, I always love hearing what people have to say. And read some actual Dickens for the holidays if you have time!

  19. Christopher, fellow Oregonian! Hello! Do you know Cindy Brown? She's one of my BFFs, and, if I'm not mistaken (and I don't think I am), then you are the super nice cozy writer she told me about. She was all for us meeting and greeting some day.

    Lovely to virtually meet you here! I'm going to send Cindy a text now. :-)

    I agree, the world is ready for a gay cozy protagonist. What could be better?

  20. Hi Christopher,
    Met you at Friends of Mystery and last year's Wordstock, but haven't seen you since I read "The Christmas Carol Murders". Love the literary theme, and want to live in Dickens Junction-well, aside from it being a murder capital and all:)

    Didn't realize "Edwin Drood" was out already- it's definitely on my Xmas list!

    that was befer I read your books. I was so impressed

  21. Sorry to be so late to the party--I hate to admit have never read Charlotte MacLeod--or Christopher Lord! Both going on my TBR list--delightful post!

  22. Read everything I could get my hands on by Charlotte MacLeod--she had another cozy mystery series set in Boston--a young woman and a love interest were the protagonists. Can't remember any titles off-hand, but the same whimsy, humor, offbeat characters! Loved the mall. Also, Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax, but also several other mysteries she wrote as well--A Nun in the Closet remains one of my absolute favorites--laugh out loud pleasure!

  23. That was meant to be, 'love them all.' And I will definitely be looking out for Christopher Lord's books!

  24. FChurch, you're thinking of MacLeod's Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn stories. I remember one being set in a version of the Gardiner museum. And I'm right with you on the Dorothy Gilman books! On another tack: Christopher Lord, are you familiar with Orland Outland's late 1990's Binky and Doan mysteries (Death Wore a Smart Little Outfit; Death Wore Fabulous New Fragrance and Death Wore the Emperor's New Clothes). Don't know if they qualify as cozy, but they're strong on charm.

  25. Lori: I'm not familiar with the series you mention. I don't read nearly as much contemporary fiction as I should, since I'm steeped in Dickens and other 19th century writers.

    F Church: I didn't care for Ms. MacLeod's Sarah/Max series as much, but I can't put my finger on why. I don't remember them being as loopy as the Peter Shandy series, and that was what endeared me to MacLeod in the first place.