Back in the day, there was little that was cozy about my life. Sure, I had creature comforts, thanks to a part-time secretarial job that paid most of the bills., and even a long-haired grey cat whom I loved dearly. But what I needed for soul sustenance was loud, hard, and fast.
For the first few years, after I graduated from college, the local music scene was the center of my life. The clubs where bands played original music – the Rat, the Channel, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Storyville, among others – became my “third place,” not home, not work, where I could go. Through it, I found my tribe of friends and lovers. My first profession – as a music critic. More fundamentally, in the loud garage punk scene of ‘80s Boston, I found an outlet for the emotional turmoil I had grown up with in a family plagued by mental illness and dysfunction. The friends I made there understood this – many of them had similar stories – and the late nights were as often as not joyous celebrations of relief and release as expressions of pain or rage.
Perhaps it is the nature of things to change. At any rate, things did. The writing I was doing for music magazines led to more mainstream, more stable, jobs. The clubs I knew closed, the bands broke up, and between the need for more sleep and the pleasures of more secure relationships, I felt less of a need to learn the rhythms of new ones. The books that had been my salvation growing up ¬ – from C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Beatrix Potter to Lillian Jackson Braun and Rita Mae Brown – once again claimed center stage, and I rediscovered the joy of whimsy and mystery. I started writing cozies.
Granted, there was some overlap. My first cozy, Mew is for Murder, featured a freelance writer trying to establish herself as a music critic. Throughout the six books of that series, my heroine Theda Krakow’s sidekick was a purple-haired punk musician who calls herself Violet Haze. But in the 12 years and 16 other mysteries since, the music scene has receded. Granted, not all my books have been cozies – my editors usually prefer the term “amateur sleuth” and I’ve dubbed one series “pet noir” – but they’ve been gentle. No cursing, no overt sex. As the old saw goes, “the blood is dry before it hits the page.” And the music, when it plays, is secondary, no longer the life blood – the pulse – that it was.
Until now. For World Enough, I’ve created Tara Winton, a heroine who shares many characteristics with the woman I once was. Isolated, somewhat disconnected from her family and her past, back in the day Tara too found solace and a community of sorts in the clubs. Twenty years later, she’s not doing as well, though. She’s marking time with a boring corporate job and drifting emotionally, unable to move on from her divorce. Until, that is, she runs into an old friend – now the editor of a glossy city magazine – at the funeral of a former scenester, a bartender/bouncer who had settled down with a wife and kid before dying in what appears to be a freak accident.
Tara and her buddy start talking at the wake, and he throws her a lifeline – an assignment to write about the old scene. In particular, about a band – the Aught Nines – that should have been famous. That would have been – if only the singer hadn’t OD’d, twenty years before. That rising star had a tenuous connection to the man whose funeral they’ve just attended. In many ways, all the attendees are connected. And so it makes sense for Tara to start interviewing her old cohort. Her ex Peter and her best friend Min scoff at the assignment, but Tara is grateful for the chance to write again about something she cares about. To reconnect with a world that once meant so much.
That world is rife with drugs and sex. With petty rivalries and struggles for fame and attention. It is the world I once knew and still, in some part of me, love. It is not, in any sense, cozy. But it is a world that I was ready to revisit. A story that maybe, after 22 lighter mysteries, I finally had the discipline to explore, the skills to chronicle, and the will work into the larger plotline of a double-edged (and morally ambiguous) mystery.
Will there be others? At this point, I think so – though I am very much enjoying the playful feline-centric cozy that I’m working on now. Maybe it took this long for me to be able to go back and write about the club scene, to balance its attractions with its excesses and flaws. Maybe I needed the distance to be able to see what really happened. Or maybe I’ve simply reached the point where I can put on an old record – vinyl, even – and think, “Damn, that was something, wasn’t it?”
After three nonfiction books and 22 cozy/amateur sleuth mysteries, Clea Simon returns to her rock & roll past this fall with World Enough (Severn House), an edgy urban noir. She is also the author of four mystery series with cats in them, the most recent being the black cat-narrated As Dark As My Fur (Severn House) and the “pet noir,” When Bunnies Go Bad (Poisoned Pen Press). A recovering journalist, Clea lives in Massachusetts. She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com
This essay originally ran on Mystery Fanfare, the blog of Mystery Readers International.