Thursday, June 16, 2016

Guest Post: Jeanne on "Riding Your Own Hobbyhorse"

Please welcome back Jeanne of the Bookblog of the Bristol Public Library with some thoughts on the rise of the hobby mystery. My talented wife is a serious crafter so I have spent a lot of time over the years in craft shops of all types. Seems to me that a shop owner who sold something later used as a weapon might be deserving of a series…..

Riding Your Own Hobbyhorse

One of the most obvious trends in cozy mysteries these days is the “hobby hook”—the lead character is an expert in cake decorating or needlepoint or vintage clothing. This is to entice readers who like that sort of thing and it must work because the hobbies are proliferating: scrapbooking, antiques, quilting, home improvement, baking pet treats, casting spells,  you name it and there’s probably a mystery for it.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you; I find a book appealing if I learn something while I read.  It was one of the reasons I enjoyed the Dick Francis mysteries.  Many of them featured a protagonist in a specific profession such as wine seller or toy maker, bookmaker or banker, and Francis would take the time to explain how the profession worked.  I almost understood betting after a Francis book. Whatever the profession, it was central to the mystery and it was something the protagonist loved.

Even though the hobby or profession is part of the selling point, sometimes there is a relative lack of enthusiasm on the author’s part.  For example, there are at least three series I can think of that feature vintage clothing but only one which stands out to me. In one, females kept turning up wearing pencil skirts but there was no hint as to its significance, if any. At that point, I’m not sure if I know the real definition of a pencil skirt but I knew if one more character came in wearing one I was going to take Dorothy Parker’s admonition to heart and make this not a book to be set aside lightly, but to be thrown with great force.

On the other hand, another series would probably have given me a brief history of the pencil skirt (the successor to the hobble skirt, a piece of clothing designed to restrict movement that lost favor as women became more active, now enjoying a resurgence of sorts in the “mermaid dress”) and offer the main character’s take on it, revealing a bit more of her character.  There might have been an emotional reaction to the fabric. 

In short, that second series example would have made me care about a pencil skirt.  At least for a minute or so.

The whole point is whether or not the author can convey excitement and joy in the hobby. If so, then I’m probably going to like the book, all things being equal.  (Heroines who rush in where angels fear to tread or who can’t figure out a clue if it walks in holding a sign saying “I’m a clue!” may be a deal-breaker, but I digress.)  I may never shop for vintage fashion, but I’ll enjoy reading about someone who thrills at the sight of antique watered silk (whatever that is) with no shattering (whatever that is).  I just appreciate that the character is moved by it and wants to tell me.  Isn’t that what collectors do? They want to talk about their specialty.

If what I read sounds as if it’s done by rote—if the author has looked up some terms and used them to play fill in the blank—then I’m not going to be engaged with the hobby of the week. It comes off as a paint-by -numbers piece.  Give me a history and an emotional connection from a character, make me believe the author cares about this stuff and maybe I should too, and I’m in.  I think of it as the book’s VAT—Value Added Text.

Juliet Blackwell is an author who does very well with vintage fashions, pointing out things as shape of the modern American woman has changed: women are taller and heavier than their counterparts of, say, the 1940s so the clothing will need to be altered. She may tell me the origin of a particular style or fabric and she makes it interesting.  This is quite an accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned.  If you look up “fashion impaired” in the dictionary, you’ll see my picture.

Jane Cleland’s Josie Prescott owns an antique store, so each book is a mini-lesson on all sorts of items.  I especially enjoy the peeks into the process of authenticating items.  For example, in one book Josie is trying to determine if a snow globe could have come from pre-Revolutionary Russia.  She even checks inventory from an early globe maker to see if he had ordered the right size globe in that time-frame.  She doesn’t drag these things out for pages, but she does give the reader a feel for how the process works.

In Molly Macrae’s first Haunted Yarn Shop Mystery, I didn’t get much of a feel for knitting or crochet or piece goods.  However, Plaguedby Quilt her character visits a living history farm where the character seemed both comfortable and informed about the historical living.  To bring fibers into it, there’s a retting pond for flax.  Again, I felt the character had a real enthusiasm for the subject and made the book much more interesting to me.

I’m still waiting for someone to do a series with comic books or science fiction collectibles.  Any takers?  Or have I just missed out?

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