British novelists still seem to retain their virtual monopoly of murder mysteries and detective stories that take place in particularly genteel settings and are called "cozies" because there is something so reassuringly familiar and repetitive about most of them.
In the classic cozy, some sort of crime takes place, frequently a murder, often in the English countryside. An outside investigator, either amateur or professional, is lugged in by the author willy-nilly to help the well-meaning but understaffed or incompetent local constabulary with its inquiries.
Likely suspects abound. Red herrings are dragged hither and yon. Obvious and not so obvious clues are carefully planted. Everything eventually points at Mr. X until the sleuth, using brilliant if occasionally incomprehensible logic, exposes the real culprit as none other than that far less likely suspect, the charming Mrs. Y, thus allowing a reader to close the book with the satisfied feeling of time well-wasted and esoteric knowledge of South American poisons or 14th-Century armor painlessly acquired.
There are of course writers who can take bits and pieces of the cozy formula, discard the rest, and create novels that offer not only intricate plots but also stylish writing and interesting characterization. But all too frequently in cozies, characterization and style are sacrificed to the rigors of plotting.
However, two experienced British authors, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendell, offer a pair of very short novels (or very long short stories) that can be warmly recommended. Weldon's "The Rules of Life" doesn't even pretend to be a cozy but rather is a satiric fantasy that breaks a cardinal rule of fiction by starting at the end of her principal character's life and working backward. Rendell's "Heartstones," set almost within the traditional confines of the vicar's garden, nicely stands the cozy formula on its head.
There are also two other British novels, published more than 25 years ago and recently re-issued, that deserve either discovery or re-examination. "Call for the Dead" and "A Murder of Quality" were written when John Le Carre, the pseudonym of David Cornwell, was quite young, not more than 29 or 30. Both are far above average and notable for having introduced that now famous British spy, Mr. George Smiley.
When Le Carre created Smiley, he chose to make the short, fat and chronically rumpled secret agent both a cuckold and a scholar of obscure 17th-Century German poetry who, even then, more than a quarter century ago, was well into middle-age and (since he joined the British secret service in 1928) must now be approaching 80.
To compensate--and in view of the retiring Smiley's general unprepossessiveness there would need to be considerable compensation--Le Carre also endowed him with a curiously shy charm and an absolutely brilliant mind. It may be that
Smiley, as Le Carre himself has hinted, was intended as a fictional counteractant to the excesses of the late Ian Fleming's glittering and bibulous James Bond. If so, Le Carre succeeded admirably.
After reading or re-reading these first two novels, it's obvious that the rich and occasionally ripe style that Le Carre would use in his subsequent books was already well-formed. What is passing curious is that he may not yet have been sure whether he wanted to use this style to write spy novels or murder mysteries--or both.
His first novel, "Call for the Dead," is a precursor of most of the espionage novels that would follow, particularly those involving the redoubtable Smiley who appears only briefly in "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" but is a principal character in "The Honorable Schoolboy," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People."
In "Call for the Dead," Smiley, still with the secret service, conducts an amicable interrogation of a minor Foreign Office official. It's a loyalty check of sorts, a routine matter that he dismisses from his mind until the minor official commits suicide, leaving behind a note accusing Smiley of harassment.
A semi-official cover-up follows: Smiley resigns from the service in disgust and sets off on his own to find out what really caused the death of the minor official. This starts him down a trail that leads back to his own spying days in Germany both before and during the World War II. Smiley neatly solves the puzzle, of course, and Le Carre thriftily recycles both him and an East German agent called Mundt into his third novel, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," which is the one that made the author's reputation.
In "Call for the Dead," Smiley is part homicide detective and part secret agent. But in the second novel, "A Murder of Quality," he steps squarely into the role of the classic cozy's outside investigator who helps the local bobbies with their inquiries into the grisly murder of the wife of a man who teaches at a famous public school.
Most writers use whatever lies to hand in the way of background and, since Le Carre once taught at Eton, he makes full use of the experience (as he would later in "The Honorable Schoolboy") to create a setting permeated with academic backbiting and snobbery. And he also follows the standard cozy formula to the letter.
This second novel by Le Carre is an altogether satisfying mystery and demonstrates what a fair hand can do with an old formula. It also seems safe to assume that once Le Carre demonstrated to his own satisfaction that he could handle the conventional mystery with ease, he and George Smiley went on to other and presumably better things.
Ruth Rendell started writing novels in 1964, a few years after Le Carre, and thus far has written 32 books. Using her "Heartstones" as a gauge, this prolific output has not interfered with quality, for "Heartstones" is something of a gem.
In it a precocious 16-year-old girl, Elvira, lives in a British cathedral city "near, though not in, the cathedral close" with her recently widowed father who teaches at the university and her gluttonous 13-year-old sister. The house they live in, part of it built in the 15th Century, is said to be haunted.
The elder daughter is far, far too obsessed with her father, and when he decides, after a decent interval, to take a new wife, Elvira becomes more than a trifle upset and seeks refuge in two dangerous forms of escape--anorexia and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, whose florid style she imitates with remarkable accuracy in her diary that recounts the dire events that follow.
So here we have the perfect cozy setting--if not exactly in the vicar's garden from which Raymond Chandler thought murder should be removed and dumped back into the alley--at least hard by the cathedral. And it's from the scaffolding of the cathedral that the intended bride of Elvira's father falls to her death.
Was it an accident or was it murder? Elvira slips into a coma caused by her prolonged anorexia. When recovered, she wonders whether she herself might not have caused the death of her father's intended. And through Rendell's considerable skill, the reader is also kept wondering until the very last page.
"Heartstones" is a nicely chilling tale that's just long enough to qualify for what the pulp magazines once classified as a novelette. Poe himself would have approved of its elements: a haunted house; a brooding father twice-stricken by grief; a young and perhaps half-mad daughter slowly starving herself to death; a murder or two, and a rather nasty surprise at the end.
Fay Weldon's "The Rules of Life" ignores the cozy mold altogether and takes place in the year 2004 when the Great New Fictional Religion (GNFR) is in full sway, and the dead, through some sort of electronic wizardry, can be called back to recount their life histories.
There is some element of mystery in this witty satiric fantasy, but it mostly concerns Miss Gabriella Sumpter and why she ever thought that the universe revolved around her. One of the civil servants who records the reminiscences of the dead has just begun to take down her thoughts when she insists that there are no rules in fiction and, if she so chooses, she will "start with her death and end with her birth."
Born in 1941 and dead at 61 in 2002, Miss Sumpter asks rhetorically if hers was a successful life and answers her own question with: "I think so. I did not marry; I did not have children. That was my great achievement. . . . There is more than enough life about . . . and most of it is painful, and the briefer the experience the better."
The recorder of these silly musings at first despises Miss Sumpter for her feckless life, her countless love affairs and her upper-class snobbery that permits her to describe a faithful housekeeper as having "always been old, even when I was young, as the serving classes tend to be."
But gradually the recorder is captivated and eventually falls in love with the dead woman who was the only daughter of Sir William Lacey-Sumpter, an inveterate and unlucky gambler, who once bet her hand in marriage against a clean shirt and lost.
This is another long, long short story (80 pages), but Weldon serves up more than a novel's worth of clever biting satire. You may not much care for Miss Gabriella Sumpter and her ridiculous posing, but she should provide a half-dozen cool smiles and at least a spiteful chuckle or two.