Friday, 9 May 2014

A Body in the Backyard by Elizabeth Spann Craig, 2012

Review & Interview

“Dusty found a body in my yard this morning. We’re trying to figure out who he is, when he died and who was responsible.”

When Myrtle Clover’s insufferable yardman stumbles upon a dead body in her backyard, you can’t help feeling that the amateur sleuth in her late eighties is secretly pleased as it gives her a chance to investigate a crime in the sleepy town of Bradley, North Carolina. Red, her son, neighbour, and chief of police, goes as far as suspecting his mother of flipping out and killing somebody just so that she can play detective again. 

Red is wary of his mother’s intentions. When Myrtle observes that she is getting too old to clean floors and lift heavy things, Red says, in a gently mocking tone, “But not too old to chase criminals down.” In this particular case, Myrtle thinks she has an obligation to the corpse.

The initial banter between mother and son sets the tone for this lighthearted and delightful mystery that revolves around the murder of Charles Clayborne, a young and handsome conman who grew up in Bradley, went away, and came back penniless. Until his murder, executed with one of Myrtle’s precious garden gnomes, Charles was trying to lure the inhabitants of the town, including his cousin Miles, into investing in his nefarious schemes.

During her not-so-subtle inquiries, Myrtle enlists the help of Miles, fifteen years her junior, and her neighbour, friend, and sidekick. Miles lacks Myrtle’s spirit of adventure and is a reluctant accomplice in her investigation. In one of the many funny moments in the story, Myrtle uses Miles as a guinea pig at a dentist and a barber, all because she wants a reason to pop in and ask a few indiscreet questions about Charles.

Even as Myrtle sniffs around for clues, with a little help from Elaine, her daughter-in-law—another dead body turns up in her backyard, on the same day as her reception for Charles’ funeral. This time it’s Lee Woosley, her handyman, whose daughter Peggy Neighbors was one of two women hung up on Charles. Myrtle’s probing instincts, annoying at times, lead her to the discovery of unrequited love and blackmail and, more importantly, the fact that she is no longer safe in her own house.

A Body in the Backyard, the fourth in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover mystery series, is a charming tale of a small town where everyone knows everybody, and especially Myrtle Clover who once taught English to most of the townsfolk. Now she is a woman of many parts—brave and adventurous in her own quiet way, a doting grandmother, a reporter for the Bradley Bugle (a position she uses as a cover for her detective work), and a good friend. But the old lady is not without her foibles; for instance, she can’t tolerate her pesky neighbour, Erma, and she doesn't hesitate to tick off her lazy and superstitious housekeeper, Puddin.

I think this was the first cosy mystery I read and I liked it for all the reasons that make a good story very readable—a lucid style, an uncomplicated plot, and lively characters. A big plus for me was the humour associated with Myrtle and Miles. For example, when Miles reveals that Charles was his cousin, Myrtle comes out with this gem: “Your cousin Charles is dead in my yard? How—well, how careless of you Miles!” If I’d issues with the book, it was Myrtle’s ripe old age (about which I asked Elizabeth in the interview below), but as the octogenarian was herself blasé about it, who was I to object? Recommended.

Elizabeth, who lives in North Carolina, writes the Memphis Barbeque series, the Southern Quilting mysteries, and the Myrtle Clover series. You can follow her work and her blog here and buy her books here. Over to the author...


‘Writing is a joy. It’s cathartic and creative’


Elizabeth Spann Craig spoke to the 3Cs in an email interview which is split into three parts: the book, the characters, and the author.

Photograph provided bv the author.

THE BOOK

Elizabeth, A Body in the Backyard is a cosy mystery. How would you describe “cosies”?
Cosies are basically traditional mysteries featuring an amateur sleuth. The reader receives the same clues as the sleuth and solves the case alongside her. These mysteries are frequently humorous, character-focused, often (not always) set in small towns, and are part of a series. You’ll never find explicit descriptions of violence, dark themes, or much profanity in a cosy mystery.

How popular are cosy mysteries and who reads them the most?
Cosies have become quite popular in the last thirteen or fourteen years. Readers tend to be female and older, although the genre has also drawn young readers due to its lack of profanity/disturbing content.

In these times of violent crime fiction, is it easy to carry off murders in a small idyllic town?
Surprisingly, it’s not so tough to carry off. I think there is an audience that loves the puzzle aspect of mystery reading (the whodunit), but isn't so interested in some of the more gory aspects. Gentler stories are doing amazingly well.

Small towns are interesting backdrops for murder. I grew up in a small town and gossip there was rampant. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. It was idyllic on the outside, but tensions could run high on the inside.

How did you get the idea for A Body in the Backyard?
I wanted to write a book where both Myrtle and her sidekick, Miles, were very close to the victim. So I chose to put the body literally in Myrtle’s backyard, and to have Miles be related to the victim. That definitely solved the “how to get the amateur sleuth believably involved in the investigation” problem, too.

I liked the cover of this book. Can you tell us who designed it?
Thanks! It’s one of my favorite covers. Kendel Lynn was the designer. Sadly (for me) she’s now a successful publisher of mysteries at Henery Press and out of the cover designing business.

THE CHARACTERS

Elizabeth, there are many sides to Myrtle Clover. She is a brave woman, a doting grandmother, a newspaper reporter, and a good friend among others. Who or what was the inspiration behind her character?
My late grandmother, Mary Spann, was my original inspiration, although I like to say that Myrtle’s good traits are my grandmother’s and her bad traits are perhaps some of my own. My grandmother was a retired English teacher who wrote for various local publications. She had a keen sense of humor and a very sharp mind.

What prompted you to cast Myrtle as an amateur sleuth well into her eighties? Did you feel that you may be taking a risk with an octogenarian living alone and solving murders?
I did feel as if I were taking a risk and I had a little early pushback from my editor. But to me, Myrtle was very realistic. The women in my family tend to live extremely long, active lives…and independent ones. I did add Red in the mix, though, in an attempt to rein Myrtle in and provide some conflict as he tried to slow her down.

Next-door neighbour Miles is not as old as Myrtle. I couldn't help thinking that had she been a few years younger, perhaps, Miles could have been more than a friend, a sidekick, and a sounding board. Do you get a lot of this?
Yes, I get a lot of it…ha! I think it’s human nature to match folks up into couples. To me, Miles and Myrtle have a very close, special relationship. They do feel a strong connection with each other. To me…it’s friendship. There’s something like a fifteen year age difference between them, although that doesn’t completely rule out a relationship, obviously. But readers are open to their own interpretations—the books are for them.

How did you decide upon character names like Myrtle, Miles, her son Red, her cat Pasha, and her yardman Dusty and his wife and her housekeeper Puddin?
In the American South, funny names come with the territory. There are lots of nicknames here, which are considered endearments. I spent my first twenty-two years being known as Little E by my family (even though I was taller than some of the people calling me that). My uncle was known by everyone as Brother, so he became Uncle Brother to me when I was born. Myrtle is an old-fashioned Southern name…my mother knew a Myrtle when she was in college. I latched onto the name once I heard it. Miles is a serious name and Miles is a serious guy…a good straight-man for Myrtle. Red, Dusty, and Puddin are all nicknames and represent similar names I've come across in the South.

Considering that the mother-in-law—daughter-in-law kinship is something of a myth in India, I was amused that Myrtle confides more in her daughter-in-law, Elaine, than her own son, Red. What makes their relationship fetching?
I can imagine how surprising that successful relationship would seem in India! I think the key here is that Myrtle is so much older than her daughter-in-law. Elaine feels as if Myrtle is more of a grandmother figure to her…since Elaine is also a good deal younger than her husband, Red. Also, Red is something of an antagonist of Myrtle’s and Elaine is an ally of sorts.

THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth, can you take us through your journey as a writer and an author?
I've always been a writer. Or, I’ve been a writer since I was seven, anyway. I wrote for magazines for a while until I felt as though I just couldn't keep from writing fiction. Realizing there would never be a good time to write a book, I decided to write a page a day while my then-toddler daughter napped or watched a short television show. A page a day adds up after a while. Then began the long, harrowing process of querying until I got a publishing deal.

Which books and series have you published and what is in store for your readers?
I've got several series. I write the Memphis Barbeque mysteries (as Riley Adams) and the Southern Quilting mysteries (as Elizabeth Craig) for Penguin-Random House. I write the Myrtle Clover mysteries (as Elizabeth Spann Craig) independently, although it started out with Midnight Ink.

As far as 2014 goes, I've got a Southern Quilting mystery, Shear Trouble, set to release in August, and a Myrtle Clover release, Death Pays a Visit, to release this fall.

Do you also write short stories or books in other categories?
Currently, I'm only writing mysteries. But I do plan on writing other genres, once my schedule lightens up a little. I’d like to try my hand at Young Adult fiction or possibly even a saga.

I’m sorry to say that I'm not a very good short story writer, despite being a real fan of them.

What does writing mean to you? How would you describe the experience of writing?
Writing is a joy. It’s cathartic and creative. When I write, I feel as if I’m doing what I was born to do. It’s also one of the hardest things I do—in terms of keeping discipline and handling the business end of the craft.

Where, when, and how do you write?
I reach about half of my 3.5 page goal at five o'clock in the morning before my family wakes up. Then I fit in the rest of my goal in bits and pieces during the day…frequently in the carpool line outside my daughter’s middle school.

I do use an outline now, although many of my books were written without one. After a couple of disasters when taking an ‘organic’ approach to writing (sans outline), I realized that my production schedule (three-four books a year) doesn’t lend itself well to winging it.

What kind of books do you read and who are some of your favourite authors?
Mysteries are my favorites, although I read many other genres. Favorite mystery authors include Louse Penny, Elizabeth George, and M.C. Beaton. I also enjoy reading nonfiction (particularly biographies), poetry collections, literary fiction, women’s fiction, and some fantasy.

Do you have a specific time and place for reading?
I will nearly always read before falling asleep at night…but I also have books on my phone so that I can read at a moment’s notice—whenever I unexpectedly have a few free minutes.

What has your award-winning blog Mystery Writing Is Murder done for your writing career?
My blog has connected me to a supportive group of other writers who share ideas and resources with both me and my blog readers.

Lastly, what is your advice to budding writers?
My advice to budding writers is to keep your writing goal simple. Make it something that you can easily meet, even on the craziest day. Those daily successes when meeting your goal will help motivate you, moving forward.

Thank you, Elizabeth.

25 comments:

  1. I like that opening sentence!

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    1. Mystica, that's not the opening line though it appears in the first chapter. I know what you mean; they're the key elements in a murder investigation.

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  2. The concept reminds me a bit of Murder She Wrote, which I always enjoyed. Great interview!

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    1. Charles, thank you. Interviews offer keen insight into writers and their work. I'm a big fan of writers at work. I recall watching most episodes of MURDER SHE WROTE with Jessica Fletcher as the sleuth. It'd be nice to revisit the series.

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  3. Prashant--Thanks so much for the interview...it was a pleasure. And thanks to your blog readers for the kind words--much appreciated!

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    1. Elizabeth, you're welcome. Thank you very much, too, for taking time out and speaking to the 3Cs. I'd a lot of fun putting the review and interview together.

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    2. What a fabulous interview; I learned so much about "Little E" and her writing. Such endearing names in this book and it wsrms my heart to have an 80-something sleuth. Thank you for showing that us older folks still have plenty to offer.

      Looking forward to reading the book so much. Thank you.

      Cynthia

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    3. Excellent interview. I was reminded from the start of Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. Always loved her.I believe one of the first Marple novels was THE BODY IN THE LIBARY (1942).

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  4. Cynthia--Thanks so much. The matriarchs of my family had a tremendous influence on me and I hope their strength shows through my sleuth.

    Ron---I'm a huge Miss Marple fan. :) "Body in the Library" is a fantastic mystery. I loved that no one took her seriously...and then she'd always come up with the solution to the whodunit.

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    1. ceblain, thank you for visiting and commenting. I appreciate your kind words. A BODY IN THE BACKYARD has some fascinating characters with some unusual names. While Myrtle Clover is obsessed with "her' case, she goes about her daily routine like watching her favourite soaps on television.

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    2. Ron, thank you. Myrtle reminds you of Miss Marple in many ways although I must admit that I've read more Poirot novels than Miss Marple novels. I also have vague memories of Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. I think her films were shown on Indian television several years ago.

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  5. Great post Prashant. I have heard of the lady before but haven't tried any of her books. It's always interesting for me to get a bit for of an insight into the person behind the writing.

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    1. Col, thank you. I strongly recommend this mystery. It made a very pleasant change from all the serious books I usually read not counting vintage books and the classics. A BODY IN THE BACKYARD is a light read but there are undertones of a serious mystery.

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  6. Glad you liked this book, Prashant. I have the third in this series and I should get to reading it sometime this year. I am especially interested because they are set in the South, although I have found at times that reading books set in the South bothers me.

    I should try the Barbeque series also; I love Southern Barbeque. The barbecue I grew up with in Birmingham Alabama is the best. Can't be beat.

    Very good review and interview.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. I'm sure this was the first cosy I read and I enjoyed it. It was a very nice change from the conventional mystery and espionage fiction I read. I intend to read some of the other titles in this series as well as those in the other two series that Elizabeth writes.

      Out of curiosity, why do books set in the South bother you? Does it have anything to do with the Civil War?

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    2. Thanks again to everyone for the comments. Prashant, you have such a great community here.

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    3. Prashant, it is hard for me to explain why stories set in the South bother me. Many of the books I have read in the last few years remind me of the way the South was when I was growing up, with racial prejudice (and worse) and other problems. I don't think things have changed a whole lot there, although I know that the problems the South has are also in many other areas of the US and the world. I am sure that I will benefit from reading a wide variety of stories set in Southern states.

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    4. Elizabeth, thank you. Blogging has connected me with some wonderful people and there is no better community platform than books and the delights of reading them together and sharing notes.

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    5. Tracy, thanks for coming back and explaining it to me. I think of the American South largely in the context of the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement and the racial prejudices associated with them. I agree, we too have our own share of social and economic prejudices. They're subtle but they are there and they more often crop up in everyday conversation. India is a caste and class conscious nation.

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  7. I really like your blog! Great interview with Elizabeth. Her cozy mysteries are great. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

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    1. Clarissa, thank you very much. I'm glad you liked the interview too. Elizabeth was generous with her time and her answers. I enjoyed reading A BODY IN THE BACKYARD and hope to follow Myrtle Clover's sleuthing adventures in the near future. There is an old-world charm to cosy mysteries.

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    2. Clarissa--Thanks for the kind words! Hope you're doing well.

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  8. Really enjoyed your departure Prashant and thanks for the interview - I'm not really a reader of cosies (not exactly the target audience either) but hey, if I were, I'd definitely giove this a go - thanks chum.

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    1. Thanks very much, Sergio, you're welcome. It's definitely worth reading. Generally speaking, a cosy would appeal to both young and adult readers and, I think, it could well be classified as YA fiction.

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    2. Sergio--Thanks for coming by! Your blog looks interesting...I'll enjoy exploring there.

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