At the Left Coast Crime Convention in Portland, OR in mid-March, I kept hearing series mystery writers bring up the “Cabot Cove Syndrome”. Like the Black Plague, these authors were concerned about how to avoid it or, alternatively, reassured people they had avoided it.
Everyone, well, everyone meaning mystery readers and writers, knows the reference. Jessica Fletcher, author and amateur detective, kept falling all over dead bodies in her remote little town of Cabot Cove. I read on Wikipedia that someone did a study in 2012 and found that Cabot Cove’s murder rate was 1,490 per million people. That’s 50% higher that the world’s highest murder rate. Given those figures, no insurance company concerned with the bottom line would insure anyone living there since the odds of dying there were so high.
So the syndrome has come to mean that murder happens in small towns or remote locations at a well-above average rate. And that one amateur investigator would always be involved, stretches credulity even more. This sobering set of facts strikes at the heart of cozy mysteries which tend to be set in smaller towns or rural areas.
No one blinks an eye at someone encountering deaths weekly in New York City or Hong Kong or … well, you name the big city. We kind of expect larger numbers of folks in higher density locales to die. But, Cabot Cove? Nah. Some people don’t buy it. Even when Jessica left Cabot Cove, death seemed to follow her. What was it about that woman?
On a search to find out how mystery writers avoid the “Cabot Cove Syndrome” I encountered some pretty interesting perspectives. Here are the six views:
1) Change up the crimes.
There is a camp of writers who change crimes in their mysteries. Not every book has a murder. And that works fine if the crime that is committed is one with high stakes so readers keep reading. Blackmail could work. It can be just as damaging to fear the loss of reputation and esteem when a secret is revealed. But keep the crime concealed and revealed as in any mystery. Nothing worse than a non-mysterious mystery.
2) After x number of books, start a new series.
Some authors think that by limiting how many bodies a series piles up they avoid the syndrome. Book six can be the exact same crime that might have been in the first series, but the author renames the series and creates new characters and sets it in a new locale, and Bingo! Book one of anew series is born, just waiting for more bodies to accumulate. It’s kind of a genius technique, yes?
3) Authors set the series in a vacation area to bring in outsiders to kill.
Some authors figure that they can increase the killable population by setting their cozy mystery in a seaside town or theme park area. Others have a growth spurt in the town via new industry or government agency. Lots of new blood, so to speak, to kill off what with new residents, transients, and tourists. A problem I see is with making the dead guy familiar enough to people so they don’t confuse him with the last book’s dead guy. But this is definitely do-able, and some authors are doing it.
4) Create a new kind of series.
At least one author has re-defined what a series is by setting each book in a very different venue and introducing characters for that book, dropping characters from other books. A unifying thread among books in the series ties them together. The antique print dealer travels and ends up in many locales. One could also have an ensemble cast, say college friends, who each takes the lead in solving crimes in her town (with the help of the friends). There are a multiplicative of ways to re-conceptualize a series.
5) In the spirit of Jessica Fletcher, send the sleuth off to new towns.
This is a twist on #4 but also a throwback to what the Murder, She Wrote authors ended up doing with Jessica Fletcher on the long-running series. It was pretty clear that about the only people left to kill were Jessica, the sheriff, and Jessica’s good friends that nobody wanted dead. A danger with this strategy is that people got attached to Cabot Cove and the series lost its local flavor. If the series starts off that way (as in #4), it would probably play better. This alternative was the most frequently mentioned by authors I studied.
There is a contingent of authors who don’t worry about the “Cabot Cove Syndrome”. They say that if readers like the book they will willingly suspend disbelief. They say that mystery readers may be more forgiving than mystery writers. They point to Agatha Christie’s enduring “Miss Marple” series as evidence.
So where do I come down on this? It’s not as much an issue for me since Glendale, Arizona is a mid-size town set next to behemoth Phoenix. I got bodies to kill.
I am also inspired by Louise Penny, who once said she never even considered the “Cabot Cove Syndrome” when she wrote Still Life, and it wasn’t until the third book she became alarmed as the small town residents died off at a rapid rate. Now she has her sleuth travel every second book to break it up. Book four in my series does that when Alli and Gina are demo cooks on a cruise ship in the Aegean. Nice work if you can get it.