Puns Upon a Crime | Newberry

Puns Upon a Crime

I believe I have mentioned the phenomenon of niche mysteries. These are cozy murder tales set frequently in small towns, in which the detective not only solves a killing, but also practices an interesting but homespun profession or hobby. There are usually add-ons at the back or between chapters: fashion tips, or recipes, or gardening help, or household hints, or Sudoku games. I believe this is a fairly new phenomenon. Dorothy L. Sayers did write a mystery with a great deal of information on bell-ringing, but she didn’t devise a bell-ringing detective.

In any case, I don’t believe I ever moved on from this to a more recent phenomenon, which is the niche mystery which expresses its theme through a title which must involve a mind-wrenching play on words. We have, for example, a cooking mystery called Crime Brulee, and a Bed-and-Breakfast mystery titled Dead, Bath, and Beyond. Don’t make a face; it’s going to get worse.

Now, the play on words has been used by many mystery writers through the years. We can look back at least into the 1940s, with Craig Rice’s Home Sweet Homicide. But it was the craze for the niche mystery which really made such a title a requirement.

The niche mystery with recipes probably started when Virginia Rich, who had produced several cookbooks came out with The Cooking School Murders in 1982. The mystery itself was a good one, but it was the recipes included which caught the attention of critics and book buyers. So some other writers began to tuck in recipes with the plot twists. But Virginia Rich’s series included no punnish. When did the books start requiring a joke in the title?

Perhaps the credit goes to Diane Mott Davidson’s Catering to Nobody in 1990. She went on from that simple beginning to titles like Sticks and Scones, and Chopping Spree. Another guilty practitioner was Tamar Myers, whose Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth started a string of mysteries in 1993, followed by such titles as Hell Hath No Curry and Play It Again, Spam.

It all made sense to the marketing department. One of the selling points of niche mysteries is the theme. A play on words, based on the theme, helps a potential buyer remember “Oh, yeah, this is a new

Gardening mystery: Moss Hysteria, Bloom and Doom, Roots of Murder, Keeping Mum

Antiques mystery: Larceny and Old Lace, The Ming and I, Antiques Flee Market

Needlework Mystery: Dyer Consequences, A Dark and Stormy Knit, Died in the Wool, Only Skein Deep, Crewel World

Glassblowing Mystery: Pane of Death, Snake in the Glass

Fashion Mystery: Shoe Done It, The Masque of the Red Dress

As for Cooking mysteries, we have long since passed from that to more specialized work. There are Cheese Mysteries (To Brie Or Not to Brie, For Cheddar or Worse), Cocktail Mysteries (Shots in the Dark), Baking Mysteries (A Sheetcake Named Desire, You Cannoli Die Once), Candy Mysteries (Peppermint Twisted, All Fudged Up), Tea Mysteries (Devonshire Scream) and so on and so on, until any new mystery is going to need the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and a note from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America, of course.)

The phenomenon has spilled over into all manner of mysteries, whether they have recipes or household hints or not. It’s a theme now for mysteries with cats (Not a Creature Was Purring, The Ghost and Mrs. Mewer), mysteries with dogs (Paw Enforcement, Paw and Order, The Sound and the Furry), mysteries with horses (Horse of a Different Killer, Saddled With Trouble), mysteries with canaries (Cheep Shot Murder)….

It’s enough to curdle your blood which, of course, is the point: to get you to go home and curdle up with a good book. (Yeah, I KNOW somebody else has probably used it.)

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