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  • Writer's pictureKate Schenck

Welcome to October: It's Cozy Mystery and Whodunit Season

In honor of spooky season, Her Voice at the Table will spend October spotlighting the genre of cozy mysteries and whodunits. Just like our focus last February on romantic comedies and the connections they offer us, this month we celebrate our lifelong love for reading mysteries and the magical spell they cast on us.

In the opening scenes of the 1985 whodunit cult classic Clue, Miss Scarlett is stranded on the side of the road in an evening storm, leaning over her car in a tight blue dress and high collar wrap that looks like a fan. Just in time, Professor Plum pulls up slowly behind her, rolls down his window and asks “Wanna lift?” She gasps, “Yes, please!” and hops in the car and the two realize they are headed to the same place: Hill House, off Route 41. They turn a corner; lightning strikes and illuminates a giant brown mansion, high on a hillside. Then, the engine dies and Miss Scarlett asks, “why has the car stopped?” Professor Plum responds, “It’s frightened.”

"You can use the phone in the uh, um, library"

For the record, I wrote this intro without looking up the script because I have the entire movie memorized, from start to finish. Although I was only six when Clue came out in theaters, my parents, bless them, introduced me to the movie not too many years later.

Just like the chicken and the egg, I don’t know what came first: me watching Clue, and the film inspiring my love of whodunits, or the writing of my first “novel” in third grade called “Murder at Dawn” inspiring my parents to rent Clue for me at Blockbuster. But three things happened in rapid succession, sometime around 1988: My sister and I recorded an airing of Clue on TV, so we had our own copy and could re-watch it as many times as we wanted (including the commercials, one of which is Brad Pitt pitching Pringles chips–true story); our parents bought us the VCR Mystery Game of Clue, providing my sister and I another version of the film to watch; and I became hooked for life on consuming cozy mysteries.

The VCR mystery game gave us another version of Clue to watch

I have tried and failed as an adult to recreate the escapism of Friday nights when my sister and I ordered pizza and spent the night in sleeping bags on the floor of my parents’ bedroom. We didn’t understand the dark humor in Clue, whose comic thread is McCarthyism and blackmail; jokes like Colonel Mustard asking Mrs. White how many husbands she’s had and Mrs. White responding, “Mine or other women’s?” flew right over our little heads. But after falling asleep to Clue for the fiftieth time, my parents started introducing us to other whodunit classics of the 1970s and 1980s: Murder By Death (1976) written by Neil Simon, The Last of Sheila (1973) written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, and my favorite, Death on the Nile (1978) written by Agatha Christie and Anthony Shaffer. Agatha Christie’s tale of glamor and murder in the Egyptian desert hypnotized me, and I became a loyalist of Peter Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot. But it was when I read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, the summer before my freshman year in high school, that the spell was cast: I could read mysteries, too.

Curling up with a classic

As a high school English teacher, I cannot go one school year without a student telling me that And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie was their favorite book of all time. My students use the past tense, because many of them think of reading as nostalgia, not of their current world. Many teachers know that something happens in middle school and early high school where some students stop reading for fun and start dreading reading for class. This breaks my heart because reading saved me as a bullied little kid who hid from her peers through a job at the middle school library. I, like so many other kids who are adrift, found shelter in stories.

Peter Usinov as Hercule Poirot with David Niven

But many genres offer escape; why did I lose myself in stuffy whodunits more often than fantasy novels?

I think cracking the case was fun for me because I was an observant kid and loved trying to solve both people and puzzles. My family life was tumultuous, and I spent much of my youth watching my parents closely for signs of divorce. Any child who grew up scanning for unrest in their home knows that you develop some gifts as a result; perhaps empathy, perhaps anxiety, but certainly, you are good at being a sleuth.

Also, we know life is never solved; there is no case closed on long term emotional projects like learning to love yourself or making peace with your past. But a whodunit offers an answer to a mystery, which we so desperately crave. Mysteries confound us, but they also teach us to look closely, look twice, and to never assume anything, skills that are also assets. And, the glamorous clothes, gilded drawing rooms on country estates, and handsome heroes never hurt, either.

It's October, so I’m piling up cozy mysteries next to my bed, and I’m also exploring audiobooks for the first time. I recently attended a talk by author Lauren Groff and she reads almost all the time she is not writing, consuming hard cover books but also audio books as she putters around the house or goes for runs. As an aspiring writer, reading as much as possible appeals to me. I checked out Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie, and I am listening to it on my work commute and when I go for jogs. Listening to an Agatha Christie novel soothes my mind; not only do I scroll less on my phone, I enjoy a healthy escape into Hercule Poirot’s comforting logic and delight for the little pleasures in life, such as hot cocoa and brandy.

In my mind, I am always right here (Art by Flora Forager)

Last night I saw A Haunting in Venice, a film loosely based on Hallowe’en Party, directed by and starring Kenneth Branaugh as Hercule Poirot. At the end of the movie, which follows a group of potential murderers as they throw both a Halloween party and a seance in a haunted palazzo, Poirot reflects on why he’s always drawn back into solving crimes, even post-retirement. He notes, and I am loosely paraphrasing here: we all do what we can to make peace with our ghosts. Maybe I am drawn to whodunits because they offer me a little comfort along my journey to make peace with mine.

Kate Schenck is currently hanging bats in her living room with her black cat, Franny.

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