Cozy mysteries—with their puzzle plots, engaging characters, and reassuringly familiar settings—often don’t get the respect they deserve. Over the past two decades, conflicted private eyes, crazed serial killers, and cynical cops may have appeared to dominate bookstores, but cozies quietly sell, year in and year out, to a huge audience.
Over the same period there’s been a boom in crime fiction in Canada. Thirty years ago you might have been hard pressed to name a Canadian crime writer, but in the early 1980s Howard Engel changed all that by writing his Benny Cooperman mysteries, and by founding the Crime Writers of Canada, paving the way for the later success of Eric Wright, Peter Robinson, and Louise Penny.
Canadian Mary Jane Maffini, writer of three cozy mystery series, is at the intersection of these two trends. Her newest book, The Busy Woman's Guide to Murder, was published in April 2011. It’s the fifth in the Charlotte Adams series, set in the Hudson Valley, about a professional organizer who catches crooks while clearing away clutter.
She also writes the Fiona Silk series, about a failed romance writer living in Quebec, and the Camilla MacPhee series, featuring a lawyer working for social justice in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. Maffini has had 13 books published since 2003.
While the Charlotte Adams series is pure fun, with organizing tips starting each chapter (“Organize your closet by color, type of clothing, and season”), the MacPhee books are a bit more serious and grew out of her childhood and family life.
Her companionship with books and writing goes back a long way. In grade school in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Mary Jane created and used her first private detective, Mike Chisel (modeled after Mike Hammer), to tell her stories when she was called on to produce those what-did-you-do-on-your-vacation assignments. “I read every book I could get my hands on. I loved all the usual suspects including ‘the boy detectives’ and Nancy,” she remembers.
Meanwhile Maffini was getting an education at the dinner table. “My family had animated discussions about the Coffin case.” In 1956, Wilbert Coffin was convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence in a highly controversial case. He was hanged and this triggered a huge debate on capital punishment in Canada. “Early on, I realized that an innocent person could be convicted. As a mystery writer, I still follow court cases in the papers, and think, what really happened? Like many readers, I am often disappointed in the outcomes. Creating my own stories lets me fix that, to my satisfaction. My character Camilla MacPhee, a lawyer who works as a victim’s advocate, is particularly driven by a need to seek justice.”
Maffini was born and raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Her future husband, Giulio, wooed her by arranging dates at bookstores. They have two daughters. Maffini obtained her master's degree in library science at Dalhousie University, and had her first job at a library in Halifax. “I got to select mysteries for the system,” Maffini remembers. “I was always worried they’d find out how much I loved it and stop paying me!”
Eventually the family moved to Ottawa, Ontario, where she worked as the librarian for the Brewers Association of Canada, and was encouraged to drink beer at her desk. She went on to the Canadian Library Association and eventually became the director of Canada’s National Science Library.
“I didn’t do much writing until I was in my mid-thirties—I didn’t think I had much to say,” says Maffini. Then for several years, she wrote mysteries from 6 am to 7 am in the morning, creating “unreadable tomes, which over time, became readable.”
In the early nineties, Maffini wrote “Death Before Doughnuts,” which won The Ottawa Citizen’s short story contest. “Then through a local writing group, Capital Crime Writers, I learned that mystery conferences existed.” Her world changed. A late-night discussion with fellow Canadians Peter Sellers and Vicki Cameron at the 1993 Bouchercon in Omaha resulted in Maffini’s short story, “Naked Truths,” being published in the Cold Blood V anthology. (The mystery involved covering up clues in a nudist camp—think of a small, easily accessible weapon and something on a nudist that looks too good to be true.)
Maffini took another step into the mystery world in 1995 when she became part owner of Ottawa’s Prime Crime Mystery Bookstore with fellow mystery writer Linda Wiken. “The big thing for me was the books, mysteries floor to ceiling, and more coming every day. I was a customer long before owning the store and I still am—it’s one of my favorite places on earth.”
Maffini wrote her first Fiona Silk mystery, Lament for a Lounge Lizard, in 2003. Fiona is a failed romance writer with no sex life—and finding her murdered ex-lover in her bed only adds insult to injury. Fiona lives in St. Aubaine, Quebec, a picturesque tourist town of two thousand, and this is just the sort of thing to get the neighbors’ tongues wagging in both official languages. Eventually the police investigation threatens those close to her. “That’s what drives these books,” says Maffini. “Despite Fiona’s failings, in the darkest hour, she does what needs to be done to save the people she cares about.”
THE LADIES’ KILLING CIRCLE Joan Boswell, Vicki Cameron,
Barbara Fradkin, Sue Pike, Linda Wiken and Mary Jane Maffini
enjoying a trip to Florida
Maffini has found her greatest success with her amusing Camilla MacPhee mysteries. The irascible Camilla, “the black sheep of her perfect, blonde family,” runs a legal advocacy agency called Justice for Victims. She lives in Ottawa where she is surrounded by peculiar friends and an eccentric family. The first book, Speak Ill of the Dead, is set during Ottawa’s annual Tulip Festival; The Icing on the Corpse, during Winterlude; and each subsequent book involves one of the many festivals held in our nation’s capital. Law & Disorder, the sixth in the series, was published in 2009 by Canada’s RenzdezVous Press.
The MacPhee books have been optioned by Toronto-based Thump Entertainment for TV. Talks are underway to option the Fiona Silk books, as well.
For a change of pace, Maffini introduced Charlotte Adams, the professional organizer, in 2007’s Organize Your Corpses, so now she has three cozy series on the go.
She’s not slacking off in other areas, either. Maffini is a member in good standing of the Ladies’ Killing Circle, a group of Canadian women mystery writers. Together they have produced seven short story anthologies, garnering ten Arthur Ellis nominations and scooping up three.
In addition to the Ladies’ Killing Circle anthologies, Maffini’s short stories have appeared in numerous other anthologies and in publications such as Chatelaine. She has been voted one of the top 10 favorites of the year by readers of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and her book, The Dead Don’t Get Out Much, was nominated for a Barry Award.
Maffini served two terms as President of Crime Writers of Canada and was awarded the Derrick Murdoch Award for her contributions to the organization. She also earned Arthur Ellis Awards for two of her short stories, and has been nominated for several more.
Maffini was the 2006 Guest of Honor at Bloody Words, Canada’s premier mystery conference, and is slated to be master of ceremonies at the 2009 conference. She also teaches writing workshops across Canada, nurturing the genre’s next generation.
Maffini still remembers the thrill of discovering there actually were Canadian mystery writers. “I found Howard Engel and Eric Wright first.” Today she reads dozens of Canadian crime novels a year. “Canadian mystery writing is coming into its own. We have Peter Robinson, Giles Blunt, Barbara Fradkin, Lyn Hamilton, Rosemary Aubert, Louise Penny, and the list goes on and on.
“A lot of these writers reflect our culture and society. I know, for instance, far more about the condition of our native people in Saskatchewan from reading Gail Bowen’s books than from reading the Globe and Mail. It’s a new golden age for Canadian mystery writers,” she states.
And no writer is more a part of this new Golden Age of Canadian Mystery than Mary Jane Maffini herself.
A Mary Jane Maffini Reading List
THE CAMILLA MACPHEE NOVELS
Speak Ill of the Dead (1999)
The Icing on the Corpse (2001)
Little Boy Blues (2002)
The Devil’s in the Details (2004)
The Dead Don’t Get Out Much (2005)
Law & Disorder (2009)
Canadian Martha Edwards is a freelance writer and a lifetime mystery enthusiast. She is on the lam from corporate writing and is president of her local chapter of the Professional Writers Association of Canada and has served as a library trustee and library board chair for many years.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #109.