Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, pondering this question, which was inspired by a recent email from a reader. He wrote that he has read and enjoyed all of my Liss MacCrimmon mysteries and plans to buy the new ones as they appear. Having said that, however, he went on to explain that since he considers my books “realistic fiction” (at least compared to Harry Potter), some of the things I had Liss do in the third entry, A Wee Christmas Homicide, were “almost insulting to the reader” in that there was “no way that could happen.” He referred specifically to the chase scene with snowmobiles, in which Liss, a novice, had to go after the bad guy at high speed in less than ideal conditions. He wasn’t convinced that she was strong enough to handle such a powerful machine or that (thanks to her former career as a dancer) she had the extraordinary balance necessary to maneuver it.
Since this criticism was expressed in a polite manner, devoid of snark, I took my time composing a reply to explain why I chose to write the scene that way. To tell you the truth, I had some of the same concerns when I was working on the book, which is why I had several people with experience driving snowmobiles read the pages in question and offer suggestions. None of them indicated that they found it hard to believe that Liss could do what she did.
A side note: one of the reasons I had her take risks during the chase scene was to make her, and State Trooper Gordon Tandy, realize that she was getting to like that sort of thing a little too much. Continuing their relationship on a personal level wasn’t going to be a good move, emotionally, for either of them.
Anyway, getting back to Liss’s “superpowers” and the whole subject of realism in a cozy mystery, I came to a couple of conclusions in writing my reply. Keeping in mind that I do think it’s important for details of geography, police procedure, weather, local customs, etc. to be correct, here’s part of what I wrote in my email:
“The entire concept of the amateur detective forces the reader to suspend disbelief. In what real situation do former Scottish dancers or little old ladies from St. Mary Mead succeed in finding the killer where trained police detectives cannot? For that matter, if Maine had as many murders as are found in novels set here, let alone in episodes of Murder, She Wrote, I would seriously consider moving. . . . in a broader sense, realism doesn’t come into the equation. The exciting chase scene is a literary device. Liss isn’t James Bond, but in a crisis situation, she’s able to go above and beyond what someone might realistically be expected to do. If I were in her shoes, I wouldn’t be trying to track down a killer in the first place. Like most people, I’d leave that to the police.”
It seems to me that the protagonists in most mysteries, no matter what the sub-genre, have a little of the superhero in them. I can’t count how many times I’ve read a novel in which the detective, amateur or professional, gets knocked unconscious, sometimes more than once, but never seems to suffer a concussion. Recovery time from other injuries, some of them quite serious, is remarkably swift. Sometimes the narrator says something like, “I don’t know how I found the strength” or “what happened next is a blur” to skim over a remarkable physical feat that allowed the protagonist to overcome the bad guy.
Then there’s that old standby, the berserker rage, used to such hilarious effect in one of Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody mysteries. Realism? Not so much. Did it spoil the book for me? Not a bit. As a reader, I was very willing to suspend my disbelief and accept that it could happen that way. Of course, when the mystery is supposed to be humorous, as Peters’s historicals are, then much can be forgiven for that reason alone. I like to think my own mystery novels are, if not laugh-out-loud funny, at least mildly humorous, and all cozies, by definition, are on the light-hearted end of the mystery spectrum.
In creating a cozy sleuth, the writer usually gives the amateur detective a special skill, physical attribute, or occupation that allows him or her to solve a specific type of crime. People who own specialty shops are so popular as cozy sleuths because they come in contact with customers who talk to them and tell them things they haven’t told the police. Realistic? Well, people do gossip, and most readers will accept the coincidence that one or more of them just happen to know something related to the murder.
In the first Liss MacCrimmon, the fact that Liss had been a professional dancer made it realistic that she could escape from the bad guy by means of a well-aimed kick. Is it that much of a stretch to have her dance training endow her with extraordinary balance and motor skills? Since this is fiction and I’m making stuff up, I’m allowed to give my heroine the abilities she needs to survive.
In the new series, where my protagonist is sixty-eight years old and wears glasses and hearing aids, and her same-age sidekick is partially disabled and spends much of the book riding a mobility scooter, physical superpowers are in short supply, but you’d be amazed how much a couple of ticked-off senior citizens can accomplish! Realistic? You’ll have to read Crime & Punctuation when it comes out in late May and let me know.
Or, you can comment on this post. One lucky reader will win an Advance Reading Copy and won’t have to wait until May to weigh in on the subject.
Added note: I’ll draw a name out of the proverbial hat on Monday, February 5, and notify the winner by email on that day.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of more than fifty-five traditionally published books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation—2018) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. Her most recent collection of short stories is Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women.