(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

About her own mystery fiction, Charlotte MacLeod commented, “My murders are simple, old-fashioned affairs using weapons that might be found in any well-appointed home: plant poisons, quicklime, contaminated food, bed pillows.” Most of the crime and detection in MacLeod’s novels occurs in the domestic scene. Her approach to the domestic life is marked by humor and satire; while a few of her novels reflect the dark side of life in a community, most focus on amusing incidents and social relationships that are temporarily disrupted by murder. In her novels, the perpetrators are often obvious and the solutions at times implausible, but these are not the central elements in her work. MacLeod presented comedies of manners in which verbal wit and social foibles and faux pas often take center stage. Her writing supports the structure of the comedy of manners by relying on marriage as a means of reestablishing stability in the community. MacLeod used each series to allow character development: The personalities of continuing characters evolved as new novels appeared. Thus, the characters were not fixed at the time of their first appearances, and in the course of each series, many characters changed from being types to becoming rounded and interesting figures. While developing the personalities of her continuing characters, MacLeod also allowed the identities of the particular community in each series to emerge, revealing local folklore, customs, and values that influence the crimes and the solutions.

Mystery fiction is often regarded as a literature of reassurance and conformity, and this is the case for MacLeod’s writings. In her various series, MacLeod established secure relationships for her sleuths and returned communities to a sense of well-being at the end of each mystery. She provided few gory details, and though suspense was created through the use of the unknown, it did not culminate in moments of violence. MacLeod’s use of the domestic and her humorous touches in each series contributed to the positive outlook on the world that her mysteries convey. For the fictional worlds that MacLeod created, murder is merely a momentary diversion in the development of social relationships and the satirizing of those who cannot laugh at their own foibles.

Rest You Merry

MacLeod’s first series, featuring Peter Shandy as an amateur sleuth, began with Rest You Merry (1978). Reflecting traits that suggest Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Peter Shandy enjoys puns and plays on words, collects literary obscurities, and displays a few “Shandyisms” of his own, including his proclivity for counting everything he sees and beginning statements with “M’yes.” Peter serves as a moral center for his community at Balaclava Agricultural College, a fictional institution in western Massachusetts, though he sometimes overestimates the self-serving motives behind other people’s actions. In his first appearance, he is a staunch bachelor, but when the librarian Helen Marsh arrives on the campus to catalog the library’s Buggins collection, she brings an end to his bachelor days and works with him to solve two murders that have marred Balaclava’s Christmas extravaganza of holiday lighting and winter sport. Under Helen’s influence, Peter becomes less priggish and allows more of his sense of humor to show. By the novel’s end, the couple are involved in a budding romance.

The Corpse in Oozak’s Pond

By the time Peter and Helen appear together in The Corpse in Oozak’s Pond, they have settled into a comfortable marriage and often work together to solve cases, using Helen’s research skills and knowledge of the Balaclava Buggins collection to turn up clues related to the town’s and the college’s past. The efficiency of their household and the details of their domestic life serve as a means of contrasting the chaos and disintegration that mark the home life of many criminals and their victims.

While developing the character of Peter Shandy in this series, MacLeod also defines the town-and-gown world of Balaclava College. She draws heavily on humor to present the sources of conflict found in academic life—the struggle for funding, the need for grants, the prima donna personalities of some faculty members, and the unbelievable eccentricities of others, including the school’s president, Viking-like Thorkjeld Svenson and his equally imposing wife, Sieglinde. MacLeod’s work reveals a realistic appreciation for the less-than-idyllic nature of college life and for the tensions that exist between a college and its host community.

To convey continuity and development in her setting, MacLeod includes information about new members of the faculty and new residents in town. When Professor Joad joins the chemistry department and moves onto the Crescent, where almost all college faculty live, Peter consults him on a case and makes him part of the investigating team. MacLeod also allows characters to provide background information on the town’s past, as Grace Porbles does in The Corpse in Oozak’s Pond, recalling incidents and details from her childhood. This sense of change and growth in the community is accompanied by the development of minor characters, the best example of which is Police Chief Fred Ottermole. In the first few books in the series, Ottermole is a flat character whose principal function is to serve as a foil for Peter; as the series continues, however, Ottermole gradually becomes more perceptive and more likable, with his own particular quirks and mannerisms. The presence of a community that provides a context for the mysteries but does not remain a fixed and static place has helped to make this series a favorite among reviewers of MacLeod’s...

(The entire section is 2358 words.)