What kind of mystery are you?

I just finished reading a series of five mysteries by Julie Smith featuring Jewish feminist attorney Rebecca Schwartz as the protagonist and set in San Francisco and surrounding counties, and I’m trying to decide where to slot them in the mystery panoply. They weren’t exactly cozy mysteries, by my definition: A cozy typically takes place in a small town, with a quirky set of local characters (some of whom are up to no good), and an amateur sleuth (frequently a gray-haired grandma) serving as detective. At the same time, I wouldn’t put them up against what I think of as “legitimate” mysteries, such series as the deadly serious Inspector Lynley books or the Harry Bosch saga. But in their way they do for San Francisco what Connelly’s Bosch books have done for Los Angeles—make the neighborhoods and idiosyncrasies of the City by the Bay a familiar and compelling backdrop to crime.

I have to say that I didn’t care much for the first book in the Rebecca Schwartz titles—Death Turns A Trick originates in a modern-day bordello, and the subsequent action and situations are just too ridiculous to be believable, as well as the mystery not being particularly compelling. I probably wouldn’t have revisited the series except for two factors: I had just finished reading a couple of uber-intense, rather lengthy items, and was in the mood for something light and not particularly challenging; and the second book is called The Sourdough Wars, which reminded me fondly of Robin Sloan’s book Sourdough. So I read that one, and was by then caught up in the momentum of Rebecca’s adventures and beguiled by the San Francisco milieu.

The books varied a bit in readability, my favorites turning out to be the latter three: Tourist Trap, Dead in the Water, and Other People’s Skeletons. So I guess you could extrapolate that Smith’s story-telling abilities improve over the course of the series, and I wouldn’t argue with that. I still felt that they were light and kind of silly, but on the other hand the characterizations are solid, the scene-setting is creative (one takes place at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or should I say IN it?), and the story lines, while not truly riveting, definitely render the reader curious enough to finish them.

The website StopYou’reKillingMe.com ranks these not as cozies but as “humorous mysteries.” There is an element of humor to them; but there are also rather graphic murder scenes, and serious pondering on relationships, feminism, child welfare, and liberal causes. The covers on the re-released paperbacks seem to suggest more of a chick lit vibe, further confusing the issue. The jacket copy cites Janet Evanovich, Joan Hess, and Elizabeth Peters as read-alike authors, so if they are authors you enjoy, then Julie Smith might be for you.

Note that the Rebecca Schwartz books were Smith’s very first series (written in the ’80s); she has since completed two series set in New Orleans, one with Talba Wallis, a female black poet and computer expert as protagonist, the other starring Skip Langdon, a policewoman. Since she is consistent about featuring a female protagonist (and also presumably with the feminism standard set by Schwartz), if a female lead is your preference it’s another reason to seek out her books.

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