The St. Nicholas Murders- A Cozy Mystery

St. Nicholas of Myrna Episcopal Church and Father Robert Bruce

The first of my Father Robert Bruce mysteries, The St. Nicholas Murders, will be out in a few weeks. Unlike so many crime-solving priests in novels, Father Robert Bruce is young, fit and handsome.  As an Episcopal priest, he can marry, although he hasn’t thus far.  This makes him the target of matchmakers and lonely women.  When a strange phone call leads him to think a murder has been committed in his small town, he starts investigating.  It is a cozy mystery, which is normally defined as a mystery that has no graphic sex, violence or language.  The crime-solver is an amateur, but normally has help form a professional detective or law officer.  That’s what happens in this book and the law officer is none other that Lee Garcia, who made a brief appearance in the last Morg Mahoney mystery, It’s Bad Business, as a detective in Colton P.D.  He has since retired to the Sierra Nevada Foothills, where he has taken the job of chief of police in Buggy Springs, CA.  Morg also plays a part in Father Robert’s investigation, but this is not her tale.  It is Father Robert’s, the rector of St. Nicholas of Myrna Episcopal Church in Buggy Springs.

Blue, a.k.a. The Dude

Never heard of Buggy Springs?  That’s because it is based upon Nevada City, which is also in the Sierra Nevada Foothills.  While the book is fiction, places in the book were inspired by living here and people I have met, not only here but throughout my life, influenced characters in the book, but there are no carbon copies.  If you’re too young to understand that term, Google it.  All names of people, places and things have been changed to protect the guilty.  What I’m saying is that no one in the book is a real person except for Blue, a.k.a. The Dude.  He’s my Aussie and has given full permission to use him in the book as long as I give him doggie treats every week.

Take a look at a few chapters on this website.  This story ends on Christmas Day, so the St. Nicholas title refers not only to Father Robert’s church, but the holiday.  Hopefully, you will like what you read enough to get the whole book, either in hardcover or Kindle.  Amazon will be carrying it.  The next in the series, The St. Christopher Murders, is already written and going through multiple editings.  It starts at a Fourth of July parade in Buggy Springs.  Stay tuned.

 

Cozy Mystery

St. Nicholas of Myrna, Father Robert Bruce's church

St. Nicholas of Myrna, Father Robert Bruce’s church

My next book, The St. Nicholas Murders, is what is known as a “cozy mystery.”  That brings to mind sitting in front of a warm fire, sipping tea and uttering, “My, my,” as one reads the yellowing pages of a hardbound book.  As with many generalities, there is an element of truth in that.  One website seems to say that (click here) and I find much of the description to be right.  However, I must clarify what my book is and what it is not.  If you checked the website, she says that the amateur sleuth is normally a woman.  Well, Father Robert Bruce is very manly.  Unlike Father Brown, he is tall, handsome and fit.  I will defer to the “usually” and say that Father Robert is very unusual.  He is an amateur who is drawn into the case and becomes a friend of the local chief of police, the Chief.  I think they are very likeable, unlike my favorite P.I. Morg, who is the protagonist in two of my books and often lashes out at those who get in her way.  Still, I think she’s lovable, too.   Anyway, there is no graphic sex or violence.  The language shouldn’t be offensive, unless one is a total prude.  I mean, if bitch or bastard singes your ears, don’t read any of my books.  Hopefully, that will not be the case for most cozy mystery readers.  But enough about my latest book, let’s talk about what makes a cozy mystery such an oxymoron.

Important Update:    I went to a writers’ conference on Kauai this month.  I met with an agent who is looking at The St. Nicholas Murders, so I will not self-publish until I hear from her.  Although I do hope she will take me on as a client, I am too old to count on it.  More as soon as I know what will be the fate of my latest book, but it will not be by Christmas.

Freddy Kruger, not my kind of guy.

Freddy Kruger, not my kind of guy.

Most cozy mysteries are about murder.  Merriam-Webster defines cozy as “providing contentment or comfort.”  How can murder be linked with cozy?  Perhaps it is just because there’s no blood and guts spewing in any of the scenes, but still has all the drama.  Still, it is odd.  Since I am not a fan of gory books, movies and TV shows, I feel much the same about sanitized crime, but it doesn’t explain why I love a good murder mystery.  Is it because murder is the ultimate violation of another person and we wish to see the perpetrator brought to justice?  For me, part of it is my love of solving puzzles, but why isn’t the puzzle about robbery or embezzlement?  True, there are mysteries about those crimes, but ones about murder far outnumber all of them combined.  Perhaps there is something in the human psyche that is drawn to the macabre.  After all, people slow and gawk when there’s an accident on the freeway.  And look at the popularity of Halloween.  There’s also the thrill of fear, evidenced by the popularity of roller coasters and scary movies.  Is the fear of death and cheating it part of this fascination?  And might reading about a murder be a safe way to get that thrill?  I’ll let you decide.

Sherlock Holmes in a three-pipe case

Sherlock Holmes in a three-pipe case

I do find it interesting that the murder mystery is a particularly English art form, the people known for polite restraint.  I remember reading about an accident in the Tube.  People started panicking and cramming the exits.  One gentleman said, “Here, here!  We’re English!”  Everyone queued up and orderly got off the train without injury.  While the yobs rioting at football (soccer) games have been far more common in the last few decades, the murder rate in the British Isles is far less than in America, about one fourth.  Yet the British have long had an obsession with murder.  Is this a paradox?  While, with the exception of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, the murder-solving detective was the invention of the Brits while the “hard-boiled” detective was an American innovation.  Sherlock Holmes solved crime by observation and logic rather than with fists and guns.  Poirot only uses a gun once, in the last episode when he dies.  It was published in 1975, just a few months before Agatha Christie’s own death and may reflect her failing health.  The idea of a little old lady solving crimes in her little village also came from the English.  Miss Marple far predated Jessica Fletcher.  As an aside, I do wonder how her village could continue to exist with so many people being murdered, but that’s a problem with a cozy mystery series. The English have long enjoyed reading about a good murder, both fictional and non-fictional.  Jack the Ripper was great for newspaper sales.  For the English person who reads of murder, it might be a way to break out from conventions of polite society without doing any harm.

Now that you have explored why you read cozy murder mysteries, indulge in one.  Make a Christmas present for yourself or someone you know of The St. Nicholas Murders.  It will be out by Christmas and would be a killer gift.

Don’t Kill the Cat

Yeah, I know I'm great.

Yeah, I know I’m great.  But you’re chopped liver.

Let me state that, although I’m not really a “cat person,” I do get along rather well with those domesticated tigers.  In fact, when we saved one from certain death at our business, it adopted me.  Yonke Gato (Junk Cat) would crawl up my arm and go to sleep across my shoulders as I did paperwork at my desk.  He would also bite and claw about anyone else.  Maybe it wasn’t so much love, but mutual respect and honesty about how we felt about each other that formed our relationship.  I didn’t pretend to love cats and he didn’t pretend to love people.

Pet me, pet me.

Pet me, pet me.

I did own a cat for several years.  Her mother abandoned her and her siblings in our garage in Lake Arrowhead, CA.  We named her Fosbury after Dick Fosbury, developer of the Fosbury Flop.  Like Dick, she was a high jumper, even though she was the runt.  All of her litter mates died (sorry cat lovers, but it’s the truth).  She became the proverbial “Cat from Hell.”  She would rub up against your leg, but when you reached down to pet her, she would  grab your hand with her front claws and bite it.  Hard.  She also would leave us “gifts” on the front doormat.  Heads of gophers, skinned grey squirrels, blue jay feathers and body parts.  They made for pleasant surprises when you opened the front door.  When we moved overseas, a couple we knew offered to take her and we gladly accepted.  They were afraid, however, that their big tom might pick on her.  Vain fear.  She tormented him so badly that he kept throwing up when he ate.  They finally gave her a private room in the house so tom could keep his dinner down.  Amazingly, the couple still corresponded with us and sent occasional photos as Fosbury morphed in Jabba the Hutt.

Maybe that’s why I found it interesting that when author Alan Beechey recently gave a talk on mystery writing at the Unicorn Writers’ Conference in Portland, Connecticut, he cited the first rule of writing a mystery as being “Never kill a cat.”  It gave me pause.  No, not paws, pause.  He said that it wasn’t good to kill a dog in your book and that it was rarely good to kill a child, but you should never kill a cat in your story.  It’s better to kill off an innocent child than a cat?  Why is it that cat lovers make them sacrosanct?bast

In ancient Egypt, cats held a special place.  They were near and dear to the goddess Bast.  In fact, killing a cat got you the death penalty.  That, I must say, is a fate even worse than having your book be a flop because you have a killer knock off kitty in your mystery.  However, it just goes to show you that love of felines is a long-standing tradition.  It seems that mystery readers walk like an Egyptian, at least in their pet preferences.

Being a dog lover, I don’t really understand the puss aficionados.  Dogs will mourn their masters (or mistresses), even loyally tending their graves. (click here).  Cats are more inclined to view late owners as a source of protein.  (click here)  This is not to disparage Tabby.  If anything, it makes the feline more pragmatic than  the canine.  After all, will starving yourself help bring back a loved one?  You just want to make sure kitty knows you’re taking a catnap rather than having a coronary.

Back to the first rule of mystery writing, perhaps it has to do with many mystery readers being cat owners.  I’ve never seen the pet demographics on whodunit readers, but it could be.  Perhaps many mystery readers are ancient Egyptians with long life spans.  That sounds like the basis for a new series to rival Twilight.  Whatever the case, I am wise enough to heed the warning.  I can assure any potential readers of my books that no cats will be killed in any of them.  In fact, no cats will be harmed in the making of them or in their plots.  I pledge that I will respect the rights of all cats.  So if you’re a cat lover, you can indulge in reading my books without any guilt.  Sort of like having a Diet Coke that tastes like a hot fudge sundae.  Enjoy.

Christmas Cracker: Why Did I Write It?

The protagonist in Christmas Cracker is Morgana “Morg” Mahoney, a wise-cracking, female private investigator.  Like there are not enough of them around in books already?  But she is not a clone of all the others, nor is the story the same setting and plot line as so many that have gone before.  I originally wrote the story in 1999, oh so many years ago.  I had read many detective novels through the years, but never one with a woman P.I.  Then I saw the movie V. I. Warshawski with Kathleen Turner.  I fell in love.  I admit that Kathleen Turner herself made her contribution to my fascination, but her witty, sarcastic lines were what bowled me over.  The critics didn’t care for the movie all that much, but I often disagree with them.  So Morg sprang, like Athena from Zeus, full grown from my mind.  I admit that I incorporated characteristics of women I have known through the years.  I have two sisters and no brothers.  The office of our small, family business had four or more women over the years and only one other man in it.  I trusted them far more than him.  A couple of them had wit and sarcasm to match Morg.  I like strong women (I married one) and it is from all those I have known that Morg, like Frankenstein’s creature, was created.  However, those who contributed to her Morg existence are still alive and Morg is normally not homicidal.  She’s a lot better looking than the creature, too.

The next question is why set the tale in Northern England?  Having lived on the Isle of Man, which lies in the Irish Sea midway between Northern England and Ireland, I experienced much of what Morg did as far as both weather and “culture shock.”  As George Bernard Shaw may have said, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”  In so many ways, that is true and Morg experiences that in Christmas Cracker as I did.  With cars alone, fenders are wings, bonnets are hoods, hoods are convertible tops, etc.  When my mechanic said he would “give me a tinkle in the morning,” it was hard not to laugh.  Yet the Brits enjoyed joking over these differences as much as I did.  I treasure my time there and would have no problem living there again. I cannot think of one person I met there who was not a pleasure to know. So, of course, Morg would go there and find many people like the ones I knew.  However, I am glad to say that I never met the villains she did.  That’s why it’s called fiction.

Being Accurate vs. Being Anal

It’s a novel, right?  Novels are fiction, so is being accurate in fiction about details regarding places all that important?  Like if your book has someone in England pay to gas up their car before filling their tank instead of after, does it really matter?  Or does it make any difference if the book has traffic markings that are not really on the road in a certain town?  After all, it’s fiction, isn’t it?  I suppose that call is up to the individual author.  For me, I like to keep it as accurate as possible, while not going overboard.  I created fictional places, like Haniford Hall, Knowe Castle and The Reiver’s Bastle pub in Christmas Cracker because the people who owned them were fictional, but I did try to make them consistent with similar structures in the same region.  However, other named places do exist and I tried to be as accurate as possible about them.  For instance, the Esso filling station (no, in England it is not a gas station) on the M6 near Carlisle in chapter 30 is real.

Esso Filling Station on the M6

If you’ve read the book, you will see that I have tried to describe the physical structure correctly as well as how it operates.  I even changed the scene where payment for the petrol (gasoline) purchase was made before filling up to having payment made after the fact, just as it actually is done in England.  Well, I can’t say for sure payment is currently done that way everywhere in England, but I can say that particular station did  it that way at the time of Christmas Cracker because I filled up my car there.  I consider that kind of accuracy important.

Then there is the post office in Gisland described in chapter 9.  Gisland is, by any definition, a small, out-of-the-way town.  It’s location is perfect for the setting of the scene where Morg and Heather meet Mike, the British cop.

Gisland Post Office

I wanted it so that Heather does something illegal.  Not a major breaking of the law, but a minor infraction.  The problem was that the one that I liked involved double yellow lines along the road in front of the post office that do not exist.  So I put them there anyway.  Double yellow lines are used in England, just not in Gisland.  While maybe not perfectly accurate, changing the entire scene because of missing double lines seemed to be rather anal.

In one case, I would have to ignore the English method of paying at a filling station if I left my story in its original form while in the other instance I merely added traffic lines that were in common use in England on a road where there were none.  Accurate versus anal.  I have seen authors go far to either side on this issue, but I will stay in the center of the road.

 

Horse Racing and Haltwhistle

Even though my parents were from Kentucky and married in Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby, I’ve never been that interested in horse racing.  I knew little about American horse racing and much less about how it was done by the British.  I had the idea of interweaving a race horse, Brian’s Bane, into the plot of Christmas Cracker, so some research was in order.  While touring north Cumbria and Northumberland, my wife and I stumbled into the Manor House Hotel in Haltwhistle.

Manor House Hotel in Haltwhistle

Actually, I didn’t stumble since I hadn’t yet indulged in any alcoholic libation.  We sat at a table in the bar and I had (of course) a pint of house bitter and Kelly had a diet Coke.  Our standard order.  We noticed that the walls were covered with pictures of race horses.  It seemed the ideal place to learn about the sport.  Being the promoter and mingler that she is, Kelly found someone at the bar she felt I should meet.  I took my place at the bar next to a most interesting fellow.

Manor House Hotel Bar

My new-found companion was as picturesque as the bar he sat in.  He was probably in his late-sixties or early-seventies, somewhat grizzled in appearance, a small, wiry, unshaven chap wearing tweed and a flat cap.  I bought him a drink, which he quickly accepted as he finished off the one already before him with alacrity.  He then proceeded to natter on (a British term, that) non-stop for fifteen or twenty minutes.  To this day, I have no idea what he said, although I did try to look interested and nod knowingly once in a while.

Regional accents in Britain can be difficult to understand, especially in rural areas.  I assumed that was the case.  Finally, after buying my companion another drink, I gave up the quest and returned to my wife at our table.  It was then Mr. K. Hind, the proprietor, stopped by our table.  It seemed the chap at the bar I had been liquoring up was the town drunk.  He was well past coherency before I ever met him.  Mr. Hind, however, was an expert on the subject of horse racing.  For the next hour or so, he gave me an education.  I have included only the briefest description in Christmas Cracker, but I have far more extensive notes than I needed.  So what, in short, are the differences in racing on the two sides of the Pond?

In America, we have what the British term “flat racing.”  Our oval tracks are, obviously, flat and without any obstacles.  The British have those as well, most notably at Newcastle, Epsom and Ascot, but National Hunt racing is also very big there.  The simpler type is the Hurdles, which, as you might guess, has hurdles for the horse to jump.  The other type is Steeplechase and the only way to describe it is an obstacle course for horse and rider, with ditches, fences and water hazards that vary from course to course.  Cheltenham and Aintree host the most famous locations of those.  I gained knowledge of these races, their locations and winners, especially local ones.  It was fascinating and I do wish I could have used more in the book.  But at least what I wrote has some authenticity.

I cannot seem to get hold of Mr. K. Hind at Manor House Hotel (now Manor House Inn) in Haltwhistle.  I do not know if he still owns the establishment, but I did use pictures from the hotel’s website here.  If he still owns it and reads this, I hope that he will contact me.  I owe him my thanks and a copy of Christmas Cracker.

 

 

 

Just what is a Christmas Cracker?

Many people may not know what a Christmas cracker is.  If you’ve ever lived in the British Isle you will, of course, be very familiar with these holiday treats.  However, since it is the title of my book, I need to make sure everyone knows exactly what a Christmas cracker is.  It is a cardboard tube, usually about an inch or more in diameter and six or more inches long (much like a an empty toilet paper roll, if you’ll pardon the comparison), that is wrapped in Christmas paper and twisted shut at both ends.

Intact Christmas Cracker

Inside are normally a joke or two (often trite and not very good), a paper crown of some sort and a toy or trinket that can vary from a Cracker Jacks-like piece of junk (like the use of cracker again?) to a Tiffany bracelet.  The price of the cracker, obviously, is the major factor in the quality of the toy or trinket. Normally the person next to you grabs one end of your cracker and you grab one end of the cracker belonging to the person on the other side of you.  Then everyone pulls at the same time.  The Christmas crackers pull apart with a loud pop, caused by a cap-like explosion.

Opened Christmas Cracker

This one is a rather cheap Christmas cracker that I was willing to sacrifice out of the Christmas season as a demonstration.  This toy train engine would not survive the day and is definitely not suitable for small children..

Cheap Christmas Cracker Toy

Then everyone puts on the paper crown.  I have been with bankers and stock brokers at Christmas parties on the Isle of Man and they all put them on.  I’ll bet the Queen even wears one and makes the family do so as well, including Prince Philip!

After that, people read their jokes and groan.  The jokes in this cracker read:  “What do they sing at a snowman’s birthday party?- Freeze a jolly good fellow.” and “What does Santa Clause use to weed his garden?-Hoe, Hoe Hoe.”

For more on Christmas crackers, click on the name here.

By the way, the title, Christmas Cracker,  is a double entendre, since in this case the other British idiomatic usage of cracker is for a person who does something very well.  Then again, it is a triple entendre, in that Morg cracks the case.  She’s a cracker twice on.

 

Location, Location, Location

As with buying real estate, where the story takes place is important.  If I had set Christmas Cracker in Long Beach, nothing would have worked.  So I set it in Cumbria, Northern England.  Okay, so what did I know about Cumbria?  Not as much as I needed.  Time for a road trip around northwestern England.  Work, perhaps, but fun work.  Since I had a rough, rough draft of my book (then suffering from the title A Grievous Fault), I knew most  of the settings I needed.  Knowe Castle, for one.  But I needed to see some places that really existed and find buildings like those in the book.  Naworth Castle near Haltwhistle provided the inspiration for Knowe Castle, although Lord Langley doesn’t live there.   His name came from Langley Castle Hotel, which is a beautiful place about 13 km from Haltwhistle.

Naworth Castle

Naworth Castle

Notice the stone wall along the road.  They are all over England.  Fortunately, I was quite familiar with narrow roads running between stone walls (also known as dry stone hedges) and driving on the left side of the road (no, not the wrong side, as some of my American friends have said) because I had lived on the Isle of Man for four years by then.  Nonetheless, you don’t do a lot of one-handed, high-speed driving on those roads.  The idea for Lord Langley’s rather elaborate stable came from Chesters Stud in Hexham, which is an independent business near the road rather than a private stable behind a castle.

Chester Stud

Mighty fine housing for horses, if you ask me.  I also did some research about horse racing, since a champion race horse is involved in the story.  No, unlike Silver Blaze, he did not kill anyone.  Hopefully, that’s not a spoiler.  My next post will talk about my night in a Haltwhistle pub, learning about British horse racing.  Same Bat blog, same Bat website.