Vandriel: Wearying of the cozy

Caroline Vandriel’s monthly book review

When I was a teenager (way back in the dark ages, when dinosaurs roamed the earth) I loved candy corn. I could never get enough of it. One day I bought a large bag of it and ate it all in one afternoon, like you would eat popcorn. Wretchedness ensued. I couldn’t even look at another piece of candy corn for years after, and when I was able to eat it again, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much.

Alas, the same is true for me and cozy mysteries. I’ve been reading so many of them lately that they are becoming too formulaic. A youngish to middle-aged single female (with or without a kid), who owns her own business, gets roped into solving a murder because a close friend is accused. Often there is an adorable dog or clever cat woven into the tale as well, along with an attractive male, on either the police force, or some other position of authority. Our heroine is plucky and nosy, but solves the crime by sheer luck rather than smarts.

Granted, some are better than other cozies are, and some still manage to magically transport the reader, despite adhering to some of the tropes listed above. One such cozy is The Cracked Spine, by Paige Shelton. The main character, Delaney, impetuously takes a job in Scotland in a bookstore, thousands of miles from her native Kansas. She easily lands on her feet, finding surrogate parents and a great place to live almost immediately. She is so fortunate in how her new life pans out that her middle name could be Serendipity.

While she doesn’t own the business, the role she plays is remarkable, because the bookstore is more than just a bookstore. Of course. The bookshop is stocked mostly with used books, many of them antiquities costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Delaney’s job is to go to the secret auctions and acquire these items. It’s all very mysterious.

The murder hits close to home for the employees of the bookstore, with more than one of them becoming suspects. Delaney sets out to solve the case, just because. The romantic interest is the owner of the bar across from the bookstore, with a bit of a bad boy reputation. The other employees at the store have slightly shady pasts that need to be investigated. There are more than one red herring, and the ending is surprising and dangerous. Plus, there is the obligatory dog.

What sets this cozy apart from the others is its ability to transport the reader to Scotland. The main character is likeable, although her nosiness crosses the line into rudeness from time to time, and no one calls her on it. If I were to meet such a character and confronted by her questions, I would be seriously upset, give her the side-eye and scuttle away. Not through guilt, just due to the effrontery.

I enjoyed the book enough to check out the next one in the series, and again was drawn into the story immediately. Shelton renders the setting skillfully, and makes clever use of the Scottish accents so that the reader is transported, and hears the dialogue in Scottish and mid-western American. The overall effect of The Cracked Spine is utterly charming. The main character does face danger and is injured, but not in an overly graphic way. I recommend the book to those who prefer their mysteries to be less gruesome and more character driven. It is book candy, but with enough bite to keep the reader’s interest.