In novelist David Handler's universe, Old Lyme is Dorset
Novelist David Handler is seated in the large, bookshelf-happy living room of his carriage house residence in Old Lyme. Brittle late autumn sunlight angles through windows overlooking the back yard, and a large, excellent cat rests peacefully on his lap.
It's a scene of gorgeous serenity, and Handler could absolutely be one of the characters in his popular series of cozy mysteries, the latest of which, "The Shimmering Blond Sister" (Minotaur Books, 247 pages) is just out.
Set in the very Old Lyme-y Connecticut seacoast village of Dorset and starring as always an unlikely couple, Jewish movie critic Mitch Berger and African American state trooper Des Mitry, "The Shimmering Blond Sister" is the seventh adventure in the series and continues a trend in which Handler is redefining the parameters of cozies.
Modeled after Agatha Christie's work, a "cozy" is a whodunnit mystery that's light on sex and gore and frequently utilizes comfortably exotic settings such as Dorset - er, Old Lyme. Yet for all the familiar characteristics of "cozies" fans enjoy in the Berger/Mitry stories, it's also true that Handler has infused laugh-out-loud wit, hip pop culture references, and up-to-the-moment intrusions of real world trends.
"When I started the series, I thought of Old Lyme as a place that had not been touched by the contemporary world," Handler says. "It was very much the same as it was in the 1950s. And I think Mitch was both amazed and enchanted by that."
Handler was, too. A longtime television writer in Los Angeles and a former New York journalist, Handler several years ago settled in Old Lyme with his longtime companion, landscape architect Diana Drake, and thoroughly enjoyed the laid-back familiarity and small-town comforts and eccentricities.
But he has also marveled over the collision of those static Gold Coast patterns with the gritty evolution of society, and it's all definitely surfaced in his work.
In "The Shimmering Blond Sister," a serial flasher raises the eyebrows of several of the community's older women, even as a disgraced Bernie Madoff-style swindler returns to his Dorest roots.
And in the previous book, "The Sour Cherry Surprise," Dorset's delusions of sleepy normalcy are shattered by teenage orgies and an infusion of crystal meth into the community.
Handler says the next volume in the series, "The Blood Red Indian Summer," will see Des dealing with her first racially charged
situation as a National Football League star and his outlandish entourage take up in Dorset.
"It's fiction, but I base a lot of this on things that are actually happening - in a town where you thought it wasn't possible," Handler says. "It's real. It's not even news that there are drugs in the high school because it's just like any other place. Modernization is part of what goes on. And my Dorset is now very much more a part of the 21st century than when Mitch first saw it.
"The blinders are off, and I guess part of what I'm trying to say is that, even in places like Dorset or Old Lyme, it's hard to hide from reality. I find it all very interesting and the intrusion of reality is very much a catalyst for the story."
In that context, Mitch and Des very much age in real time, and their relationship has its ups and downs as the characters evolve in achingly wonderful fashion.
"One of the most satisfying elements about writing murder novels, as opposed to writing murders for television, is a sense of real context," Handler says. "In each episode of a television series, you have all of these horrible things happening on a weekly basis - yet the hero is right back to normal by the next week. In my books, the pain or horror sticks with the characters and is reflected in their behavior, insights and relationships."
Hander admits that, while writing is a solitary craft and the author is by definition captain of the creative vessel, it's also true that his characters can be stubborn and unpredictable and occasionally head off in directions even he could not anticipate.
At the start of "The Sour Cherry Surprise," for example, longtime readers were alarmed to discover Mitch and Des had broken up.
"Frankly, that surprised me," Handler says. "I'd been working on a different project, and it was time to go back to Mitch and Des. And when I started writing, it seems Mitch had moved back to New York and was dating, and Des had taken up with her ex. I liked the idea of working from that situation, but I'm not sure how it happened!"
Handler says he works from a most basic outline. He knows who's going to die and who did it - but the rest has to evolve organically. And who knows what modern development might creep into the gentle town limits of Dorset and how it will affect Des and Mitch?
"I guess my version of a cozy is very much a mash-up," Handler laughs. "They are at heart traditional, but my characters are sophisticated, modern people and there is a very modern edge. The important thing, I guess, is that I hear from a lot of (traditional cozy) readers, and you know what? They seem OK with it. There's some twisted stuff in there, that maybe they've never seen before, but I think they like it."
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