Claire Malloy is a busy woman – she’s a widow, a mother, and a business owner, running a semi-successful bookstore in Farberville, Arkansas, a small college town where life seems to largely revolve around the liberal arts college Claire’s husband was a professor at before his untimely demise. Claire doesn’t live the romanticized small-town life often shown in many modern Cozies – though she has a relatively wide social circle, her natural cynicism (verging on pessimism) often leads her to see the negative in those around her, including but not limited to her daughter, her bookstore, and her friends.
One of these friends, Mildred Twiller, aka renowned romance author Azalea Twilight, convinces Claire to hold a signing and reception for her most recent release, Professor of Passion. The signing is most definitely not a success – one of Claire’s other friends, a professor at the local college, arrives to read a few choice excerpts from the book, all of which make very clear parallels between the characters of the novel and questionable acts by the local academics. Suffice to say, it isn’t long before Mildred Twiller/Azalea Twilight is found dead, strangled to death at her house.
Before I go any further in discussing this series, I’ll have to mention that it’s a bit older than many of the Cozies I’ve covered, and as a result doesn’t fit many of the modern conceptions of a Cozy. Most notably, the novel deals a lot more with sex than many other Cozies nowadays – not on-screen, but more as an element of character backstories and as a topic for discussion, especially considering that the deceased for this novel is a renowned romance author. I personally did not find any of this any more objectionable than I did when I first read this novel thirty years ago – but some readers might.
As I said, I still enjoy this novel as much as I did decades ago. One of the most interesting parallels I noted as I re-read it was how many elements from this, a novel first released in the mid-eighties, have now become staples of the Cozy genre in general. As with most modern Cozies, Claire is an independent woman in one of a handful of specific occupations – in her case, owner of a book store. Also as within most modern Cozies, she was once either married or in a serious committed relationship that has relatively recently ended, not due to her own choice – in this case, the death of her husband. And also in this case, there’s the introduction of a detective Claire seems to feel some attraction toward, though in this case the attraction is substantially less evident and acted upon than in many modern Cozies due to Claire’s own somewhat prickly nature.
There are noteworthy differences, however. The most obvious have already been mentioned – namely, the somewhat candid attitude toward sex compared to modern Cozies and Claire’s more acerbic personality. The second in particular is something I appreciate as a nice change from the more positive, “can-do” style modern Cozy sleuths – I suppose it’s nice to see someone who doesn’t always seem to see only the best in people right away!
Overall, I’m not sure I can recommend Strangled Prose to everyone, but it’s certainly right up my own alley. It’s certainly an interesting study in Cozy-ish novels from the 1980’s.
If you’re interested in other Joan Hess series, she’s also the author of the also quite-excellent Maggody Mystery Series. I wrote about the Claire Mallory series because I slightly prefer it, but I know many people prefer the Maggody series, which I also like a lot – just not quite as much as this one.