S. F. X. DEAN – Such Pretty Toys.

Tor, paperback reprint; 1st printing, Oct 1986. Hardcover edition: Walker. 1982. Trade paperback: Felony & Mayhem, 2007 (shown).


   So, what’s the word I want? Synchronicity? What are the odds that any two mysteries you happen to pick up, one after the other, would both take place in Sante Fe, New Mexico? (Not unless you were trying, that is.)

   And listen to this. The woman who sells Professor Neil Kelly his bus ticket believes that Sante Fe is inhabited solely by “Indians and psychiatrists and other divorced women.” She’d either just been there, or else she’d just finished reading the same book I just did.

   [NOTE: This preceding book was False Impressions, by Karin Berne, in which divorced Elllie Gordon solves a murder while visiting Sante Fe. You can find my review here.]

   Actually Kelly takes the bus only from Albuquerque, there being no direct flights from Boston. If you haven’t read his first adventure, By Frequent Anguish, you wouldn’t know that Professor Kelly is an English teacher at Old Hampton College, apparently a fictionalized version of a school like Smith, Amherst or Hampshire — or perhaps a conglomerate version of all of them. In that earlier book, Kelly solved the murder of a student he was about to marry, and not surprisingly, I found it a fairly gloomy affair.


   In this one, following close upon the heels of the first, the dead girl’s father is murdered and the mother blinded in an explosion, one apparently aimed at the latter, a part-time CIA agent. The trail leads to a half-sister in New Mexico, which is where Sante Fe comes in, as well as assorted FBI and CIA agents, not all on the same side, for some reason.

   The difference in tone between this book and the False Impressions is enormous. In the earlier novel, murder is posed primarily as a puzzle to be solved. In Such Pretty Toys murder is easily seen to be the crisis and tragedy it really is, rather than existing as the focal point of a work whose only purpose is entertainment.

   I am bothered by this, but both approaches are undeniably valid ones. Both are are not only accepted but taken for granted in mystery fiction. Personally, I lean toward Dean’s approach. In the two cases at hand, I think his is overall the better book, and yet I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the Berne book as well.

   In terms of demonstrating the tensions and personal anguish that a murder in the family should arouse, however, Professor Kelly’s venture into the real world of espionage and world-wide intrigue is also the more honest of the two, by far.

   But I also think that Dean might have chosen another family for tragedy to strike. The point kept bothering me, throughout the book, that the Laceys have been through quite enough, thank you. This time around, why not someone else?

— From Mystery.File 1, January 1987 (slightly revised).

[UPDATE] 07-25-08.   I don’t know if the term “cozy mystery” was in wide usage back in 1987, but perhaps not, otherwise I might have used it to describe False Impressions, which I used in strong contrast to Such Pretty Toys. I’m on better terms with the sub-genre of cozies now than I was back then, as long as they take death as a serious matter. (Some don’t, but hopefully only a few. One I remember most distinctly — and with much distaste — was one in which the lady sleuth whispers and giggles with her male friend all through the victim’s funeral service. I read no further.)

BIBLIOGRAPHIC DATA.   Taken from the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin. Series character: Prof. Neil Kelly, in all:

DEAN, S. F. X. Pseudonym of Francis D. Smith, ca.1926- .
    * By Frequent Anguish (n.) Walker 1982 [Academia; Massachusetts]
    * Such Pretty Toys (n.) Walker 1982 [New Mexico]
    * Ceremony of Innocence (n.) Walker 1984 [England]


    * It Can’t Be My Grave (n.) Walker 1984 [England]
    * Death and the Mad Heroine (n.) Walker 1985 [Massachusetts]
    * Nantucket Soap Opera (n.) Atheneum 1987 [Nantucket]

   Said Newgate Callendar in a New York Times review of Ceremony of Innocence (15 July 1984):   “S. F. X. Dean, whose real name is Francis Smith, is a professor of humanities at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. He concentrated in Chinese studies at Harvard and during World War II was a weather analyst in the Pacific for the Navy.”

[FURTHER COMMENT] 07-26-08.   It has belatedly occurred to me to describe what I call a cozy mystery. A definition on Wikipedia summarizes my own thoughts very well, if not quite exactly: “‘Cozy mysteries’ began in the late 20th century as a reinvention of the Golden Age whodunnit; these novels generally shy away from violence and suspense and frequently feature female amateur detectives. Modern cozy mysteries are frequently, though not necessarily in either case, humorous and thematic (culinary mystery, animal mystery, quilting mystery, etc.).”

   I do not think of Golden Age puzzle mysteries as cozies. Agatha Christie is NOT a cozy mystery writer. If I were to add to the Wiki definition, I would include a phrase to the effect that large chunks of cozy mysteries are taken up with the personal relationships and interactions between the characters, their families, their friends and fellow hobbyists, but with such relationships having nothing to do with the causes of the crime or the solving of the crime, nor are they in any way a consequence of the crime, except in the most incidental fashion.

   Current-day cozies can very well include a puzzle plot approach to solving the crime. As the Wiki definition says, and I hadn’t thought of this in so many words, the current cozies are a “reinvention of the Golden Age whodunnit.” But the way cozies become flawed — or even fail, in my opinion — is by either including too much non-crime related material, or (as in the example I mentioned above) by not taking the process of solving the crime seriously enough.

   And to be truthful, even though (and especially because) I was the one to bring it up in the first place, I can’t tell you whether or not False Impressions actually is a cozy. I’d have to read it again to be sure. From the review, it sounds as though it might be, but since I also admired the puzzle aspect, if it is, then it’s one of the good ones.