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The other day I noticed that a small sub section had been introduced within the crime fiction area in my local branch of Waterstones; they call it 'cosy crime' and though I hadn't heard the expression before, it was immediately obvious the type of novels it was referring to. JB Stanley's 'Chili Con Corpses' is exactly the sort of crime fiction that might fall into that category: it's easy to read, slightly camp and don't contain any scenes that might make you tremble with fear, or language that would turn the air blue.
It's the third in a series of short-ish novels called 'The Supper Club Mysteries'; I found that this one read perfectly well as a stand alone but it's obvious that character development goes hand in hand with the series and I wondered whether, if I had read the books in order, I might have felt that a good deal of old ground was covered in bringing new readers up to speed (or refreshing the memories of readers who have been away). It seems that in each novel a different member of the eponymous 'Supper Club' takes on the role of main protagonist, in the case of 'Chili Con Corpses', it's James, a librarian. The 'Supper Club' is a group of friends who love food; in fact, they are referred to occasionally in this novel as the 'Flab Five', a reference to the previous novel in which the characters embarked on a mission to shed some weight. In this novel the gang sign up for Mexican cooking classes and each chapter starts with a recipe for a (low sodium for James!) Mexican dish.
Lindy, a school teacher, asks her fellow Mexican chefs to act as chaperones for a trip that she has organised for her students to some nearby caves but during the visit one of the adults is murdered. Unfortunately for Lindy a witness reveals some information that makes her look like the chief suspect. The Supper Club must get together to clear Lindy's name and to do that they need to find the real murderer. None of their number is a detective but the group does have past form when it comes to solving murders; in fact - something that is one of the daftest things about the series - is that until the Supper Club was formed, murders were something that never happened in this sleepy little American town. They have their work cut out as several suspects begin to emerge and there are plenty of twists as the story is played out.
'Chili Con Corpses' is high camp; the characters are colourful and quirky and though they are more than a touch stereotyped, it somehow doesn't matter because to complain too much would be to take the novel too seriously. We're teetering dangerously on the verge of corny here but JB Stanley manages to maintain just enough credibility by remembering now and again that this is a mystery and if trying the guess the outcome of a whodunnit is your thing, you'll enjoy trying to piece together the clues. The murder mystery element does disappear quite frequently as a number of entertaining little sub plots come to the fore. In this novel there's trouble brewing between James and his fiancée Lucy as she works hard towards her police entry exams, and James worries his father is losing his zest for life.
With so much going on that isn't essential to the murder, you do have to like the characters and I could understand if some readers found them irritating. Personally I rather liked most of them and was able to forget about those that I didn't much care for so it wasn't an issue for me but the characters do tend to be sugary sweet and always so happy to help that some might find them veering towards the nauseating end of the scale. It took me a while to get a grip on who the characters were and I had to flick back a few pages from time to time for a reminder.
'Cosy' is an excellent description for this short but entertaining novel; yes, there's murder, violence and even sex (but I won't spoil it by saying who gets in to whose fleecy pyjamas) but it's all very proper and only slightly twee. There's no denying that the crime element is weak, for all the little twists it doesn't require the little grey cells of Poirot to pick out the murderer but it's the getting there that's important and I really enjoyed the more personal elements of the story. Romances are handled well and are touching without being too saccharin as I feared early on might be the case. I also loved the cooking classes, especially as I love Mexican food. It's not a crime fiction classic but it's good fun and the sort of book that makes good holiday reading.
I bought this for almost nothing as a Kindle download from Amazon. The paperback version is the only format currently available from Amazon and new copies are priced at a hefty £13.50 which is far too much for such a short and frothy novel. Used copies start at £3.98 but I would keep an eye out until a download becomes available again, or request a copy from your local library.
288 pages in print