Part of the How They Do It Series
JH: Cozy mysteries have well-loved formats and styles, but sometimes it's okay to bend those rules a little. Please help me welcome Glenn Nilson to the lecture hall today to share how he changed the rules of the cozy for his "sleuth on the road" series.
A native of California, Glenn grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, spending his time doing farm chores, hiking, and even panning for gold. After earning his doctorate, he moved east to teach sociology in Connecticut. Upon retirement, the West drew him back, this time to New Mexico, the setting for a novel and several short stories. He still revisits the West by motorcycle, camping and visiting old riding buddies. Currently Glenn divides his time between living in rural Florida and up-state New York, refurbishing an 1870’s era creek-side cottage and writing.
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Take it away Glenn...
The Typical Cozy
Cozy mysteries are typically set in a small town or village, with an amateur sleuth solving the murder. They avoid explicit sex and violence, and they end on a positive note. That makes cozies predictable, pleasant, and—cozy. A village or small town sets a perfect tone for cozies. People know each other, their interactions create a good backdrop for murder and intrigue, and an amateur sleuth can believably poke around and uncover the villain’s identity.
Cozy protagonists, being amateur sleuths, have no official status, such as that enjoyed by a police detective or private eye. They need a good reason for becoming involved in the investigation, and must uncover what took place without having recourse to search warrants or an ability to take someone into custody for questioning. Of course, these challenges also provide much of the charm of a cozy.
When I think of cozies, the author’s name that always comes to mind is Agatha Christie. In Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. While Miss Marple has the hometown advantage of knowing people when she solves a mystery in her own village, I enjoy how she readily strikes up acquaintances on her travels. Her unassuming demeanor delightfully allows her to become the proverbial fly on a wall and both observe and overhear essential information allowing her to solve the murder. People automatically trust her and want to confide in her, and miscreants and villainous types ignore her—to their eventual undoing.
But I did something a little different.
A Different Cozy Protagonist
When my protagonist, Bobby Navarro, rides into town, he must build an identity and gain people’s confidence to even talk with them, let alone investigate any murders with which he becomes involved. His motorcycle can help overcome this problem and give him an identity—that of a biker. In Murder on the Mother Road, Bobby connects with an important character because the two share an interest in motorcycles. Bobby is also friendly and approachable. He needs to be. Like Miss Marple, Bobby must poke around in the business of relative strangers to solve the murder.
Setting, Entre, and a Place to Interact with Others
A village or small town offers social intimacy. Everyone knows everybody. However, Bobby is an outsider. He is a blaster who rides a Harley motorcycle on cross-country trips where he becomes involved in the lives and tragedies of people he encounters along the way. (Think of the old television series Route 66.)
Miss Marple interacts well in hotel lobbies, cruise ship lounges, sipping tea on the grounds of some wealthy estate she’s been invited to stay at or in her own parlor. For Bobby Navarro, a diner, restaurant, or burger joint offers a great place for him to get a glimpse of the community.
I set Murder on Route 66, in Tucumcari, New Mexico, a small community offering a desired sense of social intimacy. I had to introduce him in a way that would allow access to the community. The solution was to give Bobby a job helping the cook on a nearby cattle ranch—a working vacation. Most of Bobby’s interaction takes place among members of the family and ranch hands, but his acquaintances include a waitress at a steakhouse in town.
People are often happy to talk with a lone traveler sitting at the counter of a diner. It provides them with a fresh set of ears with whom they can share their views of whatever is of current interest in the same way people on an airplane are often eager to share their life stories with whomever is sitting next to them. In my own travels by motorcycle, I’ve often had people approach me to see where I had come from and ask where I was headed while they looked over my bike. The bike seems to strike people as romantic and interesting. It gives them a reason to approach me and works the same way for Bobby.
Motivation for Involvement
An amateur sleuth must be provided motivation to do something other than be an onlooker when a murder takes place. Bobby’s motivation in Murder on Route 66 lies in his friendship with the victim and his family. As it turns out, the victim is the cook who hired Bobby.
In the second novel of the series, Murder on the Mother Road, Bobby visits Williams, Arizona after blasting the entrances of some old, abandoned mines that were feared to present a danger to unwitting explorers. Bobby discovers a body has been left in the trunk of a car parked on the main street of town. At a local diner, patrons are discussing the incident as the news buzz de jure, when Bobby overhears a local eccentric claim to know who did it. The overheard statement provides Bobby with his initial motivation for involvement. Police question Bobby as a suspect and seem to think he had something to do with the murder, providing him with additional motivation to find the real killer. On top of that, one of the investigating officers turns out to be a woman Bobby had a crush on in high school. Ultimately, she asks him to help her as an informant, and the two form a team to catch the killer.
In the third novel, my work-in-progress, Bobby is attempting a vacation in the Florida Keys. In Murder in Key Largo, Bobby has been invited to come down to the Keys and go fishing with an old friend who is a private detective. When they discover a body, Bobby becomes involved through helping his friend conduct an investigation on behalf of the victim’s family. Finding the body and working with a private investigator provide Bobby a basis for his involvement. His sense of caring and fair play provide him motivation. Needless to say, there are also numerous restaurants in the Keys and excellent seafood, so Bobby has plenty of places to interact with others as he works to solve the mystery.
Writing about a protagonist who has some wanderlust in his soul is fun, even though being a stranger in town presents a challenge to his work as an amateur sleuth. His outsider identity can also give him a bit of mystique, and a local diner can solve the problem of needing a place to meet people and interact with the community.
About Murder on Route 66
Bobby Navarro, bad-boy biker with a big heart, interrupts a cross-country trip on his Harley to help the cook of a New Mexico cattle ranch. New challenges, an “adoptive family”, even a new girlfriend—life seems perfect. Then, Bobby finds his boss robbed, beaten and stabbed to death.
Bobby lets himself be talked into staying on as cook for the ranch until a replacement can be found, and promises Tim, the victim’s son, he’ll find the killer. His attempt at sleuthing angers the detective in charge of the case, infuriates Ned, the ranch foreman, who resents Bobby’s friendship with the family, and raises major concerns on the part of Bobby’s girlfriend, Sally.
Police focus on the cook of a neighboring ranch, owner of the murder weapon, but who Bobby believes to be innocent, and on Bobby himself. Bobby looks for evidence against a pack of three bikers who admit to the savage beating preceding his boss’s murder, and a bum who has come into extra spending money following the murder/robbery.
Before Bobby solves the murder, Ned fires him, his girlfriend dumps him, and somebody rams into the back of his Harley, hurtling him off into the desert night—a bundle of cuts, bruises, and twisted steel wreckage. Worse, someone wants to kill Tim as well.
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