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Charlotte MacLeod, 82; Author of 'Cozy' Mysteries, Juvenile Books

January 19, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Charlotte MacLeod, mistress of the "cozy" mystery who penned more than 30 whimsical whodunits featuring warm, witty and downright wacky amateur sleuths solving murders by quicklime, ancient spear, stinging bees and other innovative means, has died. She was 82.

MacLeod, who also wrote a dozen juvenile books, myriad short stories and a biography, died Friday at a nursing home in Lewiston, Maine. The author spent most of her life in Boston but had lived in Maine since 1985.

Known for her ladylike manner, hat, white gloves and impeccable grammar, MacLeod was a perfect match for the "cozy" genre -- something of the opposite to hard-boiled private eye mysteries. MacLeod's cozy mysteries eschewed gore, graphic violence, sex and vulgar language and reveled in a dizzy pace, outrageous characters, a little romance and a lot of laughs.

"She wrote specifically for people who did not want blood and guts, at least not a whole lot of it anyway," Alexandria Baxter, her sister and business manager who typed and proofread her manuscripts, told the Portland Press Herald in Maine. "Everybody drank tea and ate molasses cookies. It was that kind of thing."

Film critic Kathi Maio, writing in Sojourner magazine, once characterized the author and her work: "If, as I believe, mystery fiction's primary goal is to entertain, then Charlotte MacLeod is one of the most gifted mystery authors writing today."

MacLeod, who sold more than 1 million copies of her books, wrote two series under her own name, the Peter Shandy mysteries and the Sarah Kelling mysteries. She also wrote two series under the pseudonym Alisa Craig, the Madoc Rhys mysteries featuring a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, and the Grub-and-Stakers mysteries about folks in a town she called Lobelia Falls in Canada.

The author's first adult mystery protagonist, Shandy, was a horticulture hotshot professor at Balaclava Agricultural College. He was world-renowned for developing the Balaclava Buster, a rutabaga, and also infamous as Balaclava Junction's "unofficial man-about-the-trouble," solving screwball crimes in his spare time.

Kelling was a young impoverished widow of a prominent Boston family still struggling to remain on Beacon Hill by running a boarding house. She marries art theft investigator Max Bittersohn, and together they investigate crimes, often in disguise, and do good, while managing truly outrageous relatives.

MacLeod described one of those relatives, Cousin Brooks, in her 1998 book "The Balloon Man," for example, as "a trim, sprightly man only 5 1/2 feet tall, with the bright eyes of a chipmunk and the inquiring mind of an investigative reporter. A man of many talents, he was particularly authoritative on the subject of the crested grebe."

In 1994, MacLeod wrote her major nonfiction work, "Had She But Known: A Biography of Mary Roberts Rinehart." Her subject, a contemporary of Britain's better-known Agatha Christie, was an early 20th century mystery writer and playwright whose autobiography had inspired MacLeod as a child.

As an aging fiction writer living in a house with three cats in rural Maine, MacLeod was often likened to Christie, and to fictional sleuth and author Jessica Fletcher portrayed by Angela Lansbury on the popular 1984-1996 television series "Murder, She Wrote."

Asked by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1994 if she were the inspiration for the Fletcher character, MacLeod replied tartly, "I can't even ride a bicycle. I have eight pairs of glasses, and I'm lucky if I can find one. That's about as good as I get at solving mysteries."

MacLeod was born in Bath, New Brunswick, Canada, on Nov. 12, 1922, and moved to Boston with her family as an infant and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951.

An avid reader as a child, she soon started writing her own stories. At 10, she entered a newspaper contest and won $1 when her story was printed.

After attending the School of Practical Art, now the Art Institute of Boston, MacLeod worked as an advertising copywriter, first for Stop and Shop Supermarkets, and then the Boston advertising firm N.H. Miller & Co., retiring in 1982 as the firm's vice president.

On weekends she wrote short stories. In her 40s, she moved on to books, beginning with juveniles because as a child she felt there were never enough mysteries for girls to read.

She published her first adult mystery, "Rest You Merry" featuring Shandy in 1978 and followed the next year with the first Kelling mystery, "The Family Vault."

Highly disciplined, MacLeod began new books on a Sunday, wrote mornings beginning at 6 a.m., rewrote in the afternoons, and worked in her bathrobe to avoid the temptation of running out of the house to do errands.

In addition to churning out books, MacLeod edited two anthologies of short stories, "Mistletoe Mysteries" and "Christmas Stalkings."

She was a co-founder and past president of the American Crime Writers League and won five American Mystery awards and a Nero Wolfe award.

MacLeod, who is survived by her sister and a brother, often said she so enjoyed writing her books that she would continue even if nobody read them. "I always loved to write. I love words," she said in 1994. "I can get ecstatic over a semicolon."

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