[Jessica Fletcher] always manages to trap the real murderer. Murder occurred with such regularity in her vicinity that the term "Cabot Cove syndrome" was coined to describe the constant appearance of dead bodies in remote locations. Indeed, if Cabot Cove existed in real life, it would top the FBI's national crime statistics in numerous categories, with some analysis suggesting that the homicide rate in Cabot Cove exceeds even that of the real-life murder capital of the world.
The Cabot Cove Syndrome. Dum dum dum DUM! If you’ve been a reader of mysteries for any length of time – or a fan of Angela Lansbury – you’re doubtless aware of this label that stalks the mystery genre, particularly cozies. It’s a milder counterpart of the derisive term, bodice ripper, that was applied to historical romances of the 1980s. Fans fondly chuckle about the CCS, and some authors even give a tongue-in-cheek nod to it in their novels.
Oops, Janie Sleuth is involved in yet another murder. What, is she related to Jessica Fletcher?
But, amusing as it is to laugh about the CCS, it’s not funny dealing with it when you’re plotting yet another entry in your (hopefully long-lived) cozy mystery series. Plotting a crime story is hard enough work without having the specter of Angela Lansbury’s iconic character hanging over your amateur sleuth. I mean, how many dead bodies can your protagonist logically stumble over before mystery devolves into farce?
Pausing here to confess that I’ve been listening to a catchy little techno instrumental EP (extend play single, for us old folks) I discovered called Cabot Cove Syndrome. Well, it started out catchy. After the first minute or so, I realized it was the same few bars repeated over and over and over again for what turned out to be a full 5:17. At that point, the song title made sense. I just wasn’t certain if the piece was a cheeky homage to the television series, or a snide commentary on same. You can find the song on YouTube if you feel inclined to listen and judge for yourself.
But I did decide that particular EP is a great example of how not to kill off your requisite murder victim when you write a cozy series. You can’t play the same few notes for minutes on end without beginning to bore your listener. In the same vein, you shouldn’t repeat the same murder you used in Book One for every succeeding book you write about your amateur sleuth. Alternate the murder weapon – this time, a gun; next time, a knife, the time after that, poison—and so on. And don’t always have the murder occur on the first page. Maybe in Book Two, Joey Murder Victim doesn’t get his until the end of Chapter Three.
But that still doesn’t solve the problem of how to logically explain -- to yourself, to your readers, even to your characters -- why so many folks are murdered on your protag’s watch.
Now that I’ve reached Book 6 in my Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series, I’ve settled on at least a partial solution. First off, I do alternate the manner of death. I’ve used anything from a hit-and-run driver to a deadly Botox injection. I’m not quite as versatile, it seems, on timing the murder. For me, it usually happens about page 60, the reasons for which are grist for another blog post. The bigger problem is that the Black Cat Bookshop mysteries are set—surprise—in a bookshop. And though the larger setting is Brooklyn, the neighborhood surrounding the bookstore is my protagonist’s stomping grounds….not a lot of territory.
That’s why in Book 4 I decided to expand my characters’ horizons. By that point in the series, I was feeling Ms. Lansbury leaning in a bit too closely; thus, I sent my amateur sleuth, Darla, on vacation to Fort Lauderdale. Of course, Hamlet the cat accompanied her. The excuse for that vacay was that Hamlet had starred in a viral YouTube video and so was asked to be feline guest of honor at a major cat show in Florida. Darla’s BFF, Jacqueline “Jake” Martelli, accompanied the pair as unofficial body guard for the fuzzy celebrity. And Darla did keep in touch with her bookstore staff via phone and text, so we didn’t stray far from the usual cast. Unfortunately for Darla, she couldn’t avoid encountering yet another corpse in her travels, but at least this time it wasn’t in her own backyard.
Books 5 and 6 took place back in the bookstore again. By this point, I had Darla angsting about the whole dead body situation. While Jessica Fletcher’s name is never brought up, a distraught Darla can’t help but notice that she seems to have an uncanny knack for attracting murder ever since she inherited her great-aunt’s bookstore. Has the shop turned her into some sort of awful homicide jinx? Her elderly neighbor, Mary Ann, doesn’t exactly quote this line from Wikipedia -- From a statistical perspective, coincidences are inevitable and often less remarkable than they may appear intuitively – but she says much the same thing. Bottom line, she tells Darla, it’s just one of those things you can’t explain.
And that’s my response these days when the subject comes up with a cynical reader who’s not a cozy mystery fan. True cozy aficionados accept the premise and let themselves simply enjoy the ride, and the heck with Mrs. Fletcher.
Now, excuse me while I hit replay on Cabot Cove Syndrome.
ALI BRANDON is the New York Times bestselling author of the Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime. This popular cozy series features Hamlet the cat and his transplanted-Texan caretaker, Darla Pettistone. Together, the pair work and sleuth out of Darla’s Brooklyn-based independent bookstore. Whenever a murderer is on the prowl, Hamlet and Darla are ready to pounce—and they always manage to collar the killer! The sixth and final book in the series, TWICE TOLD TAIL, hit the shelves on November 1. But Ali promises that more cat fiction from her is on the horizon.
A native Texan with a degree in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma, Ali now lives in South Florida with her hubby, four dogs, and four very spoiled cats. She’s a member of Mystery Writers of America, a member of the MWA Florida Chapter, and a member of the Cat Writers’ Association. You can find her and Hamlet at: