Bucking Conventions: A Cozy Mystery on Chicago’s South Side
5/1/16 — Bucking Convention – A Cozy Mystery on the South Side of Chicago
There’s something comforting about a world where truth and justice always prevail. In a modern society adrift in a sea of senseless violence, the cozy mystery format provides a welcome sense of moral certainty. By using time-honored conventions and well-worn tropes, the format affirms our deepest core values. It might seem predictable, perhaps even boring to some readers. But for me, a well-written cozy never fails to satisfy.
In a cozy mystery there is always an intrepid hero and there is always a murderous villain. Although crimes are committed, the messy details of the murder are kept in the background, and the story is told without gratuitous sex or violence. All events unfold in a logical sequence and (surprise, surprise) the good guy wins in the end.
I am a huge fan of cozies. As a kid I grew up reading Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha
Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. When I decided to write my first mystery novel I wanted it to follow the traditional format. But I am an African-American, born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. I did not grow up in an English country village, or in any village, for that matter.
Right away, this simple fact put me in conflict with one of the genre’s time honored conventions – that of the so-called “bad neighborhood.” In the traditional English cozies, the “bad neighborhood” conjures up Dickensian images of beggars, prostitutes and opium dens. It’s the place where crimes are plotted, desperadoes lurk and innocent victims go to die. In order for me to tell the story I wanted to tell, I need to turn this particular convention on its head.
Melody For Murder: A Bertie Bigelow Mystery is set on the South Side of Chicago, an African-American neighborhood generally considered to be one of the worst in the city. The area is plagued with high unemployment, gangs, drugs and one of the highest murder rates in the nation. Last year an unarmed teenager was gunned to death by a Chicago City policeman in broad daylight. Chiraq, a controversial new movie by Spike Lee about gang violence was filmed within a five miles of my childhood neighborhood.
It might seem an unlikely setting for a cozy mystery. But there is a lot more to the South Side of Chicago than the disaster zone we see on the six o’clock news. More to the point, the neighborhood has its own special flavor – a blend of big-city sophistication and down-home manners that you do not find on either coast.
Melody For Murder is not set in an English village. Nonetheless, it is the coziest of cozy mysteries – a light-hearted story with a satisfying, old-fashioned ending. You do not need to be a Chicagoan or any other kind of city dweller to enjoy Melody For Murder. My protagonist, choir director Bertie Bigelow, is the quintessential amateur sleuth. When her favorite student is accused of murder, she sets out on a dogged quest to uncover the truth.
If you love a good story, you will find Bertie Bigelow and her friends good company no matter who you are or where you’re from.
Carolyn Marie Wilkins
Carolyn Marie Wilkins is a Professor of Ensembles at Berklee College of Music and the author of Melody for Murder: A Bertie Bigelow Mystery; They Raised Me Up: A Black Single Mother and the Women Who Inspired Her; Damn Near White: An African American Family’s Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success; and Tips For Singers: Performing, Auditioning, Rehearsing. An accomplished jazz pianist, composer and vocalist, Carolyn’s performance experience includes radio and television appearances with her group SpiritJazz, a concert tour of South America as a Jazz Ambassador for the US State Department, performances with the Pittsburgh Symphony as a percussionist under Andre Previn, and shows featuring Melba Moore, Nancy Wilson and the Fifth Dimension. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Carolyn now lives in Cambridge, MA.
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