Feet First

“It is much more important to know what sort of a patient has a disease than what sort of a disease a patient has.” - Sir William Osler

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    Sunday, February 01, 2004

    Cold, windy winter weather makes me want to curl up and reach for a good book. I might as well admit that I have old-fashioned tastes in reading; I'm not a "literature" type, and mysteries are what I live for. Also, I love to read the same books over and over again. This habit of mine has let me in for criticism more than once; when my sister sees me reading anything, she always asks: "How many times have you read that?" In my defense I point to none other than P.G. Wodehouse, also an inveterate re-reader, who said of the Nero Wolfe series: "I know what's going to happen and how it's all going to end, but it doesn't matter. That's writing."

    Let us return to the title of this post: HIBK. This acronym stands for "Had I But Known," a phrase coined by Ogden Nash to describe a certain type of mystery novel. Today this type of mystery is known in the publishing field as a "cozy." The HIBK novels always have a female heroine and are often narrated in the first person by said heroine. They are usually, but not always, written by women; they tend to have a strong emphasis on suspense (lots of heroine-in-danger scenarios) and romance (she usually winds up with a fiance at the end). The HIBK heyday began around 1905 with Mary Roberts Rinehart (generally considered to have been the founder of the genre) and lasted into the 1950's. I enjoy Mary Roberts Rinehart's work - she has a better literary reputation than most of the writers who followed in her footsteps - but a favorite guilty pleasure of mine is Mabel Seeley, who is probably a better example of HIBK anyway.

    I enjoy Ms. Seeley's books for several reasons. A Minnesota native herself, her books are usually set in this state - some in the big-city venue of Minneapolis, but often out in smaller rural communities. They contain a lot of information about the social mores and living conditions of this time. We learn that in these more remote areas of the United States, some houses didn't have electricity untiil well until the ninteen-forties; shared telephone lines ("party lines") were the norm; and the climax of one book involves an appendectomy that takes place on the kitchen table. Her heroines are not social butterflies, as Rinehart's often are - they're working women, supporting themselves and sometimes their parents as well. They have lots of breathless first-person narrative and heroine-cornered-by-the-killer scenarios. In short, they're a lot of fun to read. Seeley's books are mostly out of print, but I believe a few have been re-released in paperback form - or try your library.



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