I just finished re-reading Crewel World, the first book in the Needlecraft Mystery Series by Monica Ferris (aka Mary Monica Pulver and part of the writing team under the name Margaret Frazer, at least for part of one series), another series that I am highlighting as one of my posts about the most popular and recommended Cozy Mystery series. Some of the novels that I highlight in this series are relatively new, and some relatively old. Crewel World is somewhere in between, and it wouldn’t be unfair to consider it one of the early entries in what I would consider the “modern” Cozy.
It’s easy to see how modern Cozies have been affected by novels like this – see if the description sounds familiar to any Cozies you’ve read recently… As her marriage ends, Betsy Devonshire has decided to uproot from her home in San Francisco to spend an indeterminate time visiting with her sister, Margot, in the small town of Excelsior, Minnesota. While there, Betsy will be able to not only get to know the friendly and often eccentric members of the small community, as well as spend time with her sister and help work part time in her store, the Crewel World knitting shop.
Unfortunately, not long after arriving, tragedy strikes when Betsy finds her sister in the shop, murdered, in what the police assume to be a robbery gone wrong. But there are many elements that don’t fit, including a landlord who had hoped to run Margot off to convert the property into a more lucrative development, and an apparently unbalanced acquaintance who wanted nothing more than to open up her own knitting store in Excelsior, a community too small to support more than one niche business of that sort.
Re-reading this novel, it’s also easy to see why this and others of its era were so popular, and how they came to set the mold that many Cozy series continue to turn two decades later. While this certainly wasn’t the first mystery to include details from an enthusiast hobby, the integration of the knitting and other needlework elements are inserted well into the novel, serving not only as a backdrop but also an important part of the mystery as it develops – which unfortunately isn’t always the case in many modern Cozies!
The writing of the novel is also well above average, including one part that actually became a bit uncomfortable. Often, the death of a relative or friend in a novel such as this is faced with almost a shocking degree of indifference, with the sleuth springing back almost immediately to vow to get to the bottom of the case. Here, the death is portrayed in a more realistic manner, with Betsy having significant difficulty recovering emotionally, which might be more accurate to reality, but wasn’t necessarily as comfortable as the more streamlined recovery time of other Cozy protagonists. Still, it does add a significant degree of realism that helps make the novel feel more real, and Betsy’s eventual determination to ensure the murderer is brought to justice feel more earned.
PS: Oh, one more thing that the novel also did, perhaps a bit ahead of its time – it included a sample of the theme at hand, in this case a needlepoint pattern!