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What's so funny about crime fiction?


To me, mirth and murder are an unlikely pairing. I read crime fiction for its depiction of the dark side of human nature -- our capacity for greed, revenge, ruthlessness, etc., writ large and grippingly, and often with a sizable body count. It may be warped, but not in the style of a funhouse mirror. So there's something incongruous about a lighthearted detective novel. But in keeping with this month's focus on levity at the Book Club -- and simply to satisfy my curiosity as a reader -- I decided to sample the latest books from a couple of popular mystery series in that vein.

A Red Herring Without Mustard is Canadian novelist Alan Bradley's third detective novel featuring Flavia de Luce, an 11-year-old amateur sleuth who's a bit like a prepubescent, British version of Nancy Drew. The series takes place in the English countryside in the 1950s, where the plucky, resourceful Flavia (who's also the narrator), her father and her annoying older sisters live on their family estate of Buckshaw.

In the course of her investigations, Flavia likes to tinker in her late-uncle's chemistry lab and share snippets of arcane info like the chemical composition of tears ("water, potassium, proteins, manganese, various yeasty enzymes, fats, oils and waxes, with a good dollop of sodium chloride thrown in," in case you're wondering).

Much of the humour of the book comes from her bickering with sisters Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy), who find creative ways to torment her, and vice versa. The dynamic will be familiar to anyone who has grown up with sisters and/or brothers, and will likely elicit either grins or grimaces.

It's all very entertaining and, as the Brits might say, "jolly," even when the bodies start piling up. A gypsy fortune-teller is grievously wounded in an attack (not long after uttering the hoary cliché, "Cross my palm with silver" -- prompting me to wonder if a literary critic might be responsible). Then a local ne'er-do-well meets a particularly nasty end. (I will never look at a lobster pick the same way again -- assuming I learn to recognize what one looks like in the first place.) When the skeleton of an infant is unearthed, well, the game is truly afoot and the snoopy Flavia is in her element.

In keeping with the adolescent narrator, there's something rather callow and corny about A Red Herring Without Mustard. It seems calculated to appeal to the perpetual adolescent in all of us: the one who sees everything as a lark, and is thrilled by the bundling together of (hackneyed) plot elements like a ghostly apparition, a secret passage, stock characters (the loyal butler, Dogger) and strained whimsy (the fireplace irons are among the household items given proper names). Even the science angle seems a bit like wish fulfillment for those of us who never got that longed-for junior chemistry set as a birthday gift. For me, the biggest mystery is why these books are so popular. (A Red Herring Without Mustard debuted at #9 on the New York Times bestseller list.)

mccall.gifI had a different reaction to Alexander McCall Smith's The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party. It's the twelfth in the series featuring Precious Ramotswe, the wise and perceptive chief of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency of Gaborone, Botswana. McCall Smith lives in Scotland, but he was born in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and has taught in Botswana, so presumably he knows the territory and isn't just fabricating pleasant exotica for those of us in the sun-starved northern hemisphere.

I freely admit that I'm late to the party on this wildly popular series, partly because I was put off by the bright, cheery covers and book blurbs calling it "charming," "comfy cozy" and 'sweet." Charming? I don't want to be charmed by a murder mystery, I want to be chilled.

That said, I did enjoy the book although I don't consider it crime fiction. There isn't even a murder, unless you're a vegan -- Mma Ramotswe is called upon to solve the mystery of who has killed a local farmer's two cows. Just as much narrative consideration in this folksy little tale is given over to various subplots, including the wedding preparations of Mma Ramotswe's sidekick, Grace Makutsi, and the romantic misadventures of Charlie, a young apprentice at the garage owned by Mma Ramotswe's genial husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.

The main point of the book seems to be to poke gentle fun at humanity's foibles (the omniscient narrator often ends a chapter with a little moral based on an observation about the characters' behaviour) and to reinforce the value of courtesy and kindness ("the old Botswana ways"). It's a view of life that's sunny-side-up, though not naïvely blinkered; as the intrepid Mma Ramotswe reflects at one point, "human nature...would find its way round the best of rules and regulations." Indeed, her creator has an affable way of pointing out social injustice (the exploitation and mistreatment of farm workers and servants, for instance) without hectoring.

In the end, I was glad to make the acquaintance of Patience Ramotswe and her crew -- though I can't say I'll likely pick up any of the earlier novels in the series. In the Company of Cheerful Ladies? Blue Shoes and Happiness? Please. Give me a gloomy Scandinavian police procedural any day.

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