Cozy mystery and darkest noir


Cozy mystery and darkest noir

DEBORAH STEINMAIR is a sucker for horrific family dramas that gaslight the reader.


COZY mystery or cozies is a subsection of crime fiction in which sex and violence take place offstage. The detective is usually an amateur and often a woman. The crime and detecting happen in a small, intimate space like a village, on a ship, in a hotel. It's less hard-baked than crime fiction. There's a sociability and the characters are cute.

The Mystery Guest loosely belongs to this category. The main character is an eccentric who elicits sympathy from the reader. Molly Gray is the head cleaner in a fancy hotel and wears her Head Maid bar with pride above her heart. She is a perfectionist and polishes every room to a high shine. She even wrote a manual for the other cleaners with all sorts of odd remarks, like in a safe hotel, the guests sleep well. Her beloved grandmother, who raised her, was also a cleaner or housemaid and gradually the reader learns more about her childhood: her mother was a druggie who disappeared from her life early. After her grandmother's death, she has no family left.

Her life ran smoothly until a famous guest at the hotel died before her eyes: the crime writer JD Grimthorpe, her grandmother's employer in whose mansion she played and worked as a child. He was a distasteful character and the police smell a rat. In addition, two more guests were shot dead in their rooms. Is there a connection?

Molly realises she holds the key that can unlock the mystery. She knows Grimthorpe's darkest secrets but hesitates to reveal their connection.

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The hotel is suddenly crowded with rubberneckers and crime fiction aficionados. At the time of the writer's death, there were all sorts of eccentric guests present, such as a fanatical group of fans of crime fiction and Grimthorpe, the LAMBS. There is no shortage of suspects.

Molly has some faithful friends like the chief butler, Mr Preston. Her beloved, Juan Manuel, went to visit his family in South America and she is determined to resolve the unpleasantness before he returns, so life in her beloved hotel can resume its normal course. But Detective Stark is not impressed with Molly's tips and clues and considers her odd and slightly unbalanced. In time, she does gain respect for Molly and finally invites her to join the police. Do I smell a sequel?

Nita Prose is a skilled writer — with such a surname it was probably easy to make a career choice. Like Agatha Chrisie and other predecessors in the genre, she knows how to give body to characters. Sometimes it became a little too cute and sweet for me but it held my attention. Prose's debut novel, The Maid, sold over a million copies in more than 40 countries. It won a series of prizes.

Who, what, where and how much?

The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose was published by HarperCollins and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.

The next book's title grabbed me from the word go. It's pure domestic noir, in the tradition of The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. These novels are usually set in Britain. The cover has yellow and red on it. The protagonists are often a married couple, they are quite well-off and all is not well with their relationship.  The narrator is mostly a woman, often with a drinking problem or emotional and mental health issues. She's unreliable and you shouldn't believe a word she says.

Beth and Tom Hardcastle lead a fairy-tale life with a pretty house in the countryside and an adorable little girl. Tom commutes to London where he has an important job and Beth owns a coffee shop and pottery studio. Everything is rosy until one day the police arrive to arrest Tom for murder. Beth is totally blown away — how can this be? It doesn't fit the picture in her mind of their perfect life.


The reader asks herself how you can be married to someone for years and have no idea that he is a psychopath. The locals also do not buy it and see her as an accomplice.

She doesn't want to visit her husband in jail and the police are quite surprised that she seems to have moved on so soon and is apparently already in a new relationship.

It becomes clear that Tom has committed quite a few murders over the years. Did Beth stay silent to protect her marriage and her child, and what kind of logic is that?

The book is not particularly well written but you devour it because you want to solve the mystery.

Expect a twist in the tail. That's how they roll in domestic noir. Read with attention and watch the main character's behaviour rather than what she says.

Sometimes the story is told from Tom's point of view and it is clear he is an unsavoury character. It's Beth we are trying to figure out.

I happen to be a sucker for this kind of family drama that gaslights the reader, perhaps because I too was once married, had small children and tried my best to maintain the semblance of a happy home life in the face of enormous challenges and faltering mental health.

It's nice escapism that will keep you awake. I see they've already made a TV series.

The author has a background in psychology and criminology and it's her first book.

Who, what, where and how much?

The Serial Killer's Wife by Alice Hunter was published by HarperCollins and costs R280 at Exclusive Books

What are we listening to?

Lady Gaga sings “Bad Romance":

♦ VWB ♦

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