Book Review: “Halloween Hayride Murder” by Linnea West

This is a cozy mystery. I don’t read a lot of cozy mysteries, unless you count Zachary Shatzer’s Roberta and Mr. Bigfluff stories, which are really parodies of cozies, rather than straight-up cozy mysteries. That said, this is a genre where the line between serious and parody is sketchy at best. More on that in a bit. But c’mon, it’s a Halloween book. How could I not read it?

The protagonist of the book is Tessa, a 30-year-old woman who has moved back to her small Minnesota hometown after the death of her husband. To take her mind off her loss, she has thrown herself into the job of helping out at her family’s B&B and helping run the town’s annual Halloween hayride.

The latter becomes more complicated when Earl Stone, the rather unpleasant fellow who owns the land for the hayride, is found run over with the tractor. Tessa is forced to use the detective skills she’s learned from listening to True Crime podcasts to solve the case. And all this while juggling deciding which of her two admirers–Clark the handsome football coach or Max the handsome policeman–she will favor with dressing up in a couples Halloween costume.

Already, you perhaps begin to see what I mean. The news of the murder, and the news that two of her suitors want to dress up in matching costumes, are given equal emotional weight.

Also, the writing style itself is a little… curious. Generally, it’s thought to be bad form to repeat the same word too many times in a sentence. Yet, this happens frequently here. Indeed, it happens so often it’s almost like a kind of literary device. Mark Paxson once wrote a story where he would pick a word out of the dictionary at random, and use it as a prompt for what would happen next. It feels like something similar is going on here, only the challenge is to see how many times you can use the word in the same paragraph.

But again: it’s a cozy mystery. Cozy mysteries are, by their nature, not that serious. That’s not to say it’s an outright comedy like Shatzer’s books are. At least, I don’t think so.

Perhaps the best way to describe it is as camp. Camp is always a difficult thing to define, though; and one man’s camp may be another man’s… whatever the opposite of camp is. But offhand, I’d say this book is more camp than Mr. Humphries.

I was able to figure out who the killer was about 70% of the way into the book, but again: “Zis is a cozy, ve don’t surprise here!” Cozies are about the familiar and the comfortable; surprise and suspense are antithetical to this. Perhaps the whole concept of a cozy mystery is inherently contradictory, like asking for “safe danger.”

Then again, isn’t this the whole concept behind amusement parks, too? The illusion of danger, while actually being rigorously designed for safety? No, faulting a cozy mystery for being too predictable is like faulting water for being too wet.

You know what this story needs? A change of narration. Instead of being told by the investigator herself, who makes all the deductions plain to the reader right away, we needed a framing device. Someone telling the story of Tessa’s investigation through their own bewildered eyes. A Dr. Watson, a Captain Hastings, a (to use that memorable phrase of Stephen Leacock’s) “Poor Nut”:

Here, at once, the writer is confronted with the problem of how to tell the story, and whether to write it as if it were told by the Great Detective himself. But the Great Detective is above that. For one thing, he’s too silent. And in any case, if he told the story himself, his modesty might hold him back from fully explaining how terribly clever he is, and how wonderful his deductions are. So the nearly universal method has come to be that the story is told through the mouth of an Inferior Person, a friend and confidant of the Great Detective. This humble associate has the special function of being lost in admiration all the time. In fact, this friend, taken at his own face value, must be regarded as a Poor Nut. 

That’s from Leacock’s essay “The Great Detective,” which I highly recommend.

Still, the acid test of any book is whether or not the reader enjoys it. I actually did enjoy this. Perhaps I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoy Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or Elvira’s Movie Macabre, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. And so ironic enjoyment comes right around to being sincere again. Strange how that works.

Anyway, if you like cozy mysteries and/or Halloween, give it a whirl.


  1. I don’t read a lot of cozy mysteries for the same sort of reasons you mentioned in your post, but I love the fact that they often have puns for titles and are set around so many holidays!

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