Cosy Crime?

Assigning their books to the most suitable categories in online databases is an important part of marketing for self-published authors. People looking for new reading material often search under these categories, but will be disappointed if the content of what they get is different from what they expect. Several different categories would often seem equally appropriate for the same book. Determining which of them will achieve optimum exposure on Amazon is a complex process, and there are websites giving expert advice.

In my own experience I have found that classification of non-fiction books is usually quite obvious, but finding the best category for novels – many of which could be described as “cross-genre” – is more challenging. Thinking back to my medical career, it reminds me of the difficulties faced by doctors who are required to give diagnostic labels to that large number of patients who are clearly ill but whose symptoms do not match any officially recognised disease.

Taking crime, mystery and detective fiction as an example, classification systems such as BISAC (an acronym for “Book Industry Standards and Communications”) include many different divisions and subdivisions. Both as a reader and a writer I find it somewhat overwhelming to have so much choice, though I realise the development of these subject headings is based on extensive market research.

A code I have avoided up till now is the one called “cosy” (UK) or “cozy” (US). I feel this term sounds uncomfortably twee and – given that books about murder are designed to entertain – that it goes too far towards trivialising such a serious topic. The phrase “cosy crime” is surely an oxymoron, though perhaps this is the key to its appeal. Some “cozies” – an even more irritating name – are far too whimsical for my taste. But a recent conversation with a writer friend prompted me to Google descriptions of the genre, and I found that it was broader than I realised. According to the entry in Wikipedia, typical features include:

  • an amateur detective, usually female
  • a closed community setting such as a village or a house party
  • murder by a non-violent method such as poisoning, often occurring off stage
  • murder motivated by greed, jealousy or revenge, often rooted in the past
  • little or no sex
  • emphasis on character and plot rather than action
  • a thematic element relating, for example, to pets or hobbies (BISAC has introduced the subdivisions of general, cats and dogs, crafts and culinary)

Most of the books by the great Agatha Christie meet these criteria, and they are now classified as “cosy” – though I think this gives quite the wrong impression, a view apparently shared by her great-grandson James Prichard, who administers her estate. What other term would be better – “traditional” perhaps?

My own novel Fatal Feverfew, a rather lightweight and old-fashioned murder mystery set in England’s west country, fits well into the cosy genre as described above. A while ago one reader gave this book a negative review, and I think this was partly because I had referred to it as medical fiction and it did not align with her conception of that genre; medical crime novels are usually more graphic and dark. I have now moved Fatal Feverfew into the cosy category on Amazon and Smashwords, and hope this will help it reach an appropriate target readership.

Top twelve books of 2017

Once again, with the help of the annual summary provided by Goodreads.com, I have looked back at the books I read last year and selected twelve of the best. It was a difficult choice because I had listed 44 books and these were only the ones I really liked, because out of respect for fellow authors I no longer post ratings of less than 3 stars or review books written by friends. Not having done much writing of my own lately I spent more time on reading books by other people, spanning a wider selection of genres besides my usual focus on mystery/crime/psychological thrillers, and including some that were heavy in more ways than one.  In alphabetical order:

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne: a powerful novel about the mental conflicts of a devout but somewhat naive Irish priest who is unwillingly forced to acknowledge the issue of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.

A Very English Scandal by John Preston: a “non-fiction novel” about the politician Jeremy Thorpe, who was accused of the attempted murder of his homosexual lover. Writing with brilliant dead-pan wit, the author manages to turn this sad and sordid story into a gripping black comedy.

Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert: the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill has been voted “the greatest Briton who ever lived”. This huge book is his authorised biography, and though I cannot claim to have read every word it is certainly a monumental achievement.

Daisy in Chains by Share Bolton: an intriguing if far-fetched psychological thriller about the relationship between an imprisoned surgeon, convicted of murdering some overweight women in and around the Cheddar caves, and an enigmatic female lawyer.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: Eleanor is an obsessional and isolated woman with a troubled past. Through a chance encounter on the streets of Glasgow, she gradually begins to relate to the world around her and make some friends. This perceptive and original novel is both funny and sad.

Floating by Joe Minihane: a memoir about the physical and mental benefits of wild swimming, as experienced in lidos, rivers and seas around the UK.

He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly: during a Cornish music festival at the time of a solar eclipse, a young couple witnesses what might or not have been a rape. The repercussions of this event will haunt them both for years. A complex psychological thriller with a shocking twist at the end.

Holding by Graham Norton: although I am not a fan of Graham Norton’s TV show I enjoyed reading this, his first novel. A gentle mystery story set in an Irish village, it is cleverly plotted and the characters are sympathetically observed.

If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm: a detailed and meticulously researched history of the appalling events at Ravensbruck, Hitler’s concentration camp for women. A harrowing but salutary read.

The Five Side-Effects of Kindness by David Hamilton: “Scientific evidence has proven that kindness changes the brain, impacts the heart and immune system, is an antidote to depression and even slows the ageing process”. In contrast to the dark character of some of my other choices, this is a positive inspirational book describing the ways in which everyday acts of kindness can benefit both others and ourselves.

The Ice by Laline Paull: an “eco-thriller” set in the near future. An ice-cave in the Arctic collapses, due to global warming, revealing the body of a man. The intricate plot revolves around the conflict between commercial and environmental interests.

The Student Body by Simon Wyatt: I wanted to include a New Zealand book, and this first novel by a former police detective describes the investigation of the murder of a young woman near a West Auckland beach. Plenty of local colour and procedural detail.

I hope you enjoy some of these recommendations.

Book reviews: the good, the bad and the ugly

I depend almost entirely on reviews for discovering books that sound interesting and enjoyable to read. The best reviews, I think, provide a balance between a factual description of the book and the personal opinions of the reviewer. They usually include a summary of the content, though in the case of a novel it is infuriating when they reveal too much of the plot. There is also a discussion of the context, perhaps citing similar books and filling in the historical or cultural background, acknowledgement of the book’s good points and constructive criticism of its flaws. Writing a review, as I was sometimes asked to do during my former academic career, is quite an art. It takes a lot of time to read through the book and take notes, perhaps do some research about its subject-matter, and then compose a piece that is fair to the author and will hopefully prove interesting and informative for potential readers.

The detailed reviews in quality publications such the Listener, Spectator and Literary Review are often worth reading as essays in their own right, even when the books in question do not appeal. Many of the shorter reviews on public platforms such as Amazon and Goodreads are also well written and thought out, but a few of them represent individual opinions of an extreme kind, ranging from lavish praise to abusive condemnation. Some of the good ones have been paid for by the authors; some of the bad ones say more about the prejudices of the reviewer than about the book itself.

Many books never get reviewed at all, so from the authors’ perspective perhaps any review is better than none for publicity purposes. However, all but the most stoical authors feel a certain trepidation before looking at their reviews. Some have been so badly angered or upset by reading them that they no longer do so. While most of my own books have received positive reviews, and these are highly gratifying, it is the occasional negative one that can stick in the mind and feel soul-destroying. And it is baffling when there are completely different verdicts on the same book. Having recently been devastated by a 1-star rating of my Three Novellas on one site, I was comforted to find on its Amazon UK page a 5-star rating with the comment “Jennifer brings together all her experiences from previous work to produce a superb trilogy finishing with an interesting twist.”

I would encourage reviewers to be kind as well as honest, remembering that all books have both good and bad points, and that those they hate might be loved by someone else and vice versa. Personally I no longer post ratings or write reviews for books I dislike, but prefer to give up reading them and move on to something else.

 

 

A writer’s purpose

My writing career has been at a standstill lately, perhaps due to being distracted by various health concerns and family events, and discouraged by a couple of negative reviews. Looking back at my own advice about dealing with writer’s block, taken from my short ebook Wellbeing for Writers:

“Inspiration tends to come in waves. There are times when writers are full of ideas. At other times they may have none, which is always frustrating, and presents a major problem for those who earn their living from writing or have publishing deadlines to meet.

There may be an obvious reason for feeling blocked. I always find myself unable to engage with a new book immediately after finishing the last one, even though I am only really satisfied and happy when I have a writing project underway. I make use of such fallow periods to organise and de-clutter the paperwork in my office and the files on my computer, and to market the book I have just completed.

Some of the other causes for writer’s block, for example striving too hard for perfection, feeling upset about rejection or criticism, adverse experiences in another sphere of life, having too many other things to do, or suffering from a depressive mood swing, are discussed in other chapters.

Besides dealing with any remediable underlying causes, there are various strategies for overcoming writer’s block. If circumstances permit it can be a good idea to take a complete break from writing, and do something else for a day or two or even much longer. Preferably this will involve activities, people and places completely different from those encountered in your usual routine, which may provide new ideas. Other forms of creativity, such as painting or dancing, can help.

The opposite approach is to discipline yourself to keep on writing for a set period each day, but again try doing it with a new approach. Clear the clutter from your desk to encourage a fresh start. Write a short and simple piece instead of attempting the major work on which you feel stuck. Some authorities suggest inducing a relaxed state with deep breathing or slow music and then using your non-dominant hand to write something – anything – which even if it turns out to be nonsense may still stimulate the creative flow. Or try writing late at night or early in the morning, when you are half-asleep and more able to access the reservoir of images and memories in the subconscious mind.

Getting started again often presents the biggest barrier, and if you can get past that it will usually be much easier to continue.”

Fair enough, but I also find myself asking what is the point of writing at all? This is what I said in Wellbeing for Writers:

“The most fundamental and compelling motive for writing is for the sheer love of it. Some people feel they were born to write, in the same way that others know from early childhood that they were born to climb mountains, to heal the sick, to do scientific research or to make music. Writing is their vocation, destiny or soul’s purpose; the one activity which brings them ‘into the flow’ and if they are prevented from doing it they will feel frustrated and unfulfilled.

Even if you do not feel quite such a passionate commitment, you may find that writing brings other personal benefits. These could include making sense of your life experiences and challenges, expressing emotion, exploring new subjects, exercising your intellect, or feeling that you are creating something original to form a lasting legacy of your time on Earth.

These inner rewards of writing can be seen as doubly important when you consider that it takes long hours of solitary work to complete a book, and that the fate of the eventual product is unpredictable. Finishing your book, getting it published, receiving positive responses from readers, and receiving royalty payments are all worthwhile outcomes and not to be devalued. But not all writers will achieve these goals. Some books are never finished; others do get finished but are never published; many of those that do get published are seldom read or reviewed; and few authors make a good living from their royalties. The market is currently supersaturated with self-published books many of which, however good they are, will be overlooked. So it is highly desirable for the actual process of writing to be perceived as satisfying and worthwhile. In other words it is just as important to enjoy the journey as to reach the destination.”

I hope my inspiration for writing will return again soon. Meanwhile, remembering what I put in the section on writers’ health, it is better to spend time walking outdoors in the bright sunshine of the New Zealand winter than sitting down at the computer.

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Murder in the Library

Last night, along with two of the other authors entered for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award, I had the pleasure of taking part in a “Murder in the Library” event in Takapuna. Besides describing our own books, we discussed some questions about crime fiction in general.

My husband came along for moral support but he is not a fan of this genre, and had asked me privately why on earth people enjoy reading novels about something so unpleasant as murder. I agree it is a challenge for writers to create entertainment out of such a serious subject. But crime novels are enduringly popular, and I think there are several reasons for this. They have a clear structure and focus, with a mystery to be solved and a solution at the end. They can provide insights into criminal psychology, and raise ethical and moral issues. The good ones have interesting characters and settings as well as convincing plots.

The crime genre as broadly defined covers novels of many different kinds. The traditional whodunnit, often featuring a private detective who is more competent than the police, begins with discovery of a body and ends with unmasking of the killer – usually the most unlikely of suspects from a circle of middle-class characters. This format may now seem old-fashioned but the books of “Golden Age” writers such as Agatha Christie are still very readable. Modern sub-genres of crime fiction are many: cosy, hard-boiled, police procedural, courtroom, spy, psychological thriller, and “noir” from diverse places including Scandinavia, Scotland and New Zealand.

There may be an overlap with other fiction genres, as with my own entry Unfaithful unto Death which combines crime with black comedy, and touches on the themes of corruption in medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. It could almost qualify as a historical novel, because I wrote the first draft in the 1980s following a spell of working as a doctor in general practice in rural England. I had nearly forgotten about the manuscript until I found it among some old papers last year. Reading it through again, parts struck me as rather outrageous compared to my more recent work, and the practice of medicine has certainly changed a great deal since it was written. All the same I decided to publish it without changing the content too much.

The protagonist is Dr Cyril Peabody, who also made a brief appearance in my other two 1980s novels. He is a clever and hard-working doctor who means well but has developed a hefty dose of the arrogance and cynicism which besets his profession, and his bedside manner is appalling. Having failed to gain promotion as a hospital cardiologist because of his awkward personality, he takes what he considers to be an inferior position as a country GP. Predictably he soon clashes with his partners, his patients and his wife. He sets out to improve his status by mounting a trial of a new drug, but finds it has some unexpected side effects. One of the men who has been taking it dies, apparently from a heart attack. Cyril is called to his house in the middle of the night. Having examined the body and considered the history he decides that a post-mortem is indicated, but encounters vehement opposition from the dead man’s wife …

As discussed in a previous post the medical setting provides ample scope for murder both in fiction and in real life.

Writing a medical memoir

Regular readers of this blog will know that in 2015 my husband Brian had a near-fatal heart attack, and that this was followed by a whole series of medical and surgical emergencies affecting our family. I had spent many years working on the medical staff of hospitals and hospices, but experiencing serious illness from the perspective of patients and relatives was very different.

After recovering from the traumas I decided to write a short memoir about them, and this is now available on Smashwords, Amazon US and Amazon UK under the title Across a Sea of Troubles. The first part tells the story of what happened, and the second part is a review of various topics including life event stress, the mind-body connection, post-traumatic syndromes and the role of  the carer.

I wrote this partly for myself as a way of coming to terms with things. Whether it has actually been therapeutic I am not sure – revising the manuscript involved rather too much focus on painful memories. So even if it still not a perfectly finished book, I have decided to publish it and move on. I hope it will hold some value for people who are coping with illness, whether as patients or relatives or health care professionals. But as always when publishing something new, I feel apprehensive about its reception: have I revealed too much personal information about myself or others? does it come across as morbid and self-pitying? is the medical information accurate?

A memoir can be defined as “a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation”. In contrast to an autobiography, it describes one particular aspect of experience rather than a whole life. Naively perhaps, I have always tended to assume that both memoirs and autobiographies are historically accurate. So I was a little shocked to be advised on one on-line site that it is acceptable, even desirable, to alter the facts to make them more interesting or inspirational for the reader. Although I did wish there were more positive aspects to my own story I resisted any temptation to embroider the truth, and wrote it exactly as I remember, checking all the dates from my diaries. So, rather than one of those books about “illness as a precious gift that transformed my life” it is an honest account of a rather gruelling sequence of events. Here again are the links for Smashwords, Amazon US and Amazon UK. I will share a short extract in my next post.

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Top twelve books 2016

My reading for 2016 once again included mostly mysteries and psychological thrillers set in the UK, a few novels in other genres, and a few non-fiction works on medical and metaphysical topics. Here are the ones I enjoyed most. It was too hard to choose only a top ten, or to rank them in order of preference, so I have included twelve books and listed the titles in alphabetical order. The links refer to the pages on Goodreads.com.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton: an original and brilliant novel about the aftermath of the Nagasaki bombing.

After the Crash by Michel Bussi: translated from the French, a mystery novel about the sole survivor of an air disaster.

Black Widow by Chris Brookmyre: a woman surgeon, nicknamed “bitchblade”, is on trial in Scotland for murdering her husband …

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh: reflections of a British neurosurgeon, with numerous case histories.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore: London 1960, the Cold War at its height and a secret file goes missing …

One Mind by Larry Dossey: evidence for the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious.

Spare me the Truth by CJ Carver: a man recovering from a breakdown is challenged to remember the circumstances of his son’s death.

The Light between Oceans by ML Stedman: set in Australia after World War 1, a rather harrowing novel about a lighthouse keeper and his wife.

The Widow by Fiona Barton: should a woman remain loyal to a husband accused of child abduction?

You are the Placebo by Joe Dispenza: neuroscience and self-help are combined in this book about the mind-body connection.

You Belong to Me by Samantha Hayes: a psychological thriller about a woman and her stalker.

When I was Invisible by Dorothy Koomson: two girls, once best friends in ballet class, have become estranged as adults due to a secret from their past.

I hope you enjoy some of these recommendations.