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, is available now from 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.
I’d be willing to bet the farm (if I had one) that the French theorist Bruno Latour has never, in the history of the universe, been brought into a discussion of cozy mysteries. But since I want to discuss today the power of inanimate things in my new cozy historical mystery Snow White Red-Handed, I’m going to give it a shot.
Latour is famous for arguing that the fabric of what we call “the social” is made up not simply of human beings, but also of other life forms (plants, animals, microbes) and inanimate things (computers, food, furniture). All this non-human stuff is enmeshed with humans. It’s not there to simply serve humans, but to provoke, cooperate with, and even sometimes master us. An exciting idea! (Confession: I’m a Theory Nerd.)
Here’s a Latour quote that I love:
“As if a damning curse had been cast unto things, they remain asleep like the servants of some enchanted castle. Yet, as soon as they are freed from the spell, they start shuddering, stretching, muttering.” (Reassembling the Social 73)
It’s just like the moment of disenchantment at the end of “Beauty and the Beast,” isn’t it? Thinking about things as players, not backdrops, frees them and brings them to vivid life. And in a historical mystery novel in particular (like—ahem—my new release Snow White Red-Handed), things have truly vibrant roles to play. For instance:
1. Things = Clues.
One of the really cool aspects of a mystery novel is that things are extra important. Why? Because even though mysteries are character-driven, they have clues, and clues are very often things. In the cozy mystery genre in particular, specific sorts of things give books their particular flavor—cupcakes, quilts, vintage clothes—just as much as the cast of human characters. In Snow White Red-Handed, clues are often small yet intricate things, such as a cuckoo clock carved with dwarf miners, or an old tapestry depicting Snow White’s castle, or a little glass bottle labeled
Dr. Alcott’s Celebrated
For the cure of hysteria and all manner of feminine complaints
2. Things = Period Flavor.
In a historical novel, things shorthand period flavor. Sure, we historical writers strive to get our characters to talk as “authentically” as is possible and to keep our dates and facts straight. But sometimes, nothing says “nineteenth century” like a well-placed item such as a pair of Webley Longspur revolvers in a green felt-lined case, or a lady’s striped lavender afternoon gown, or a mourning locket, or a crinoline.
3. Things Connect Books in a Series.
In an ongoing mystery series, things can provide continuity. In a way, they could be considered recurring bit-part characters. When I wrote Snow White Red-Handed’s follow-on book, Cinderella Six Feet Under, the heroine Ophelia’s Baedeker (an antique travel manual) returns, and so do her toe-pinching boots. And not only is Ophelia’s friend Prue a recurring character; so is Prue’s crunched straw bonnet and her steady diet of fruit candies.
Cozy mysteries may not be high-falutin French theory, but cozy mysteries do entangle with things in all their fun, mysterious, and productive power.
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?