Cannell, Dorothy (Reddish) 1943-
CANNELL, Dorothy (Reddish) 1943-
PERSONAL: Name rhymes with "channel"; born 1943 in Nottingham, England; immigrated to United States, 1963; married Julian Cannell, 1964.
ADDRESSES: Home—Peoria, IL. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.
CAREER: Mystery writer.
MEMBER: Mystery Writers of America (board member), American Crime Writers (secretary), Sisters in Crime, Novelists, Inc.
The Thin Woman: An Epicurean Mystery, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Down the Garden Path: A Pastoral Mystery, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1985.
The Widows Club, Bantam (New York, NY), 1988.
Mum's the Word, Bantam (New York, NY), 1990.
Femmes Fatal, Bantam (New York, NY), 1992.
How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law, Bantam (New York, NY), 1994.
How to Murder the Man of Your Dreams, Bantam (New York, NY), 1995.
God Save the Queen!, Bantam (New York, NY), 1996.
The Spring Cleaning Murders, Viking (New York, NY), 1998.
The Trouble with Harriet, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.
Bridesmaids Revisited, G. K. Hall (Thorndike, ME), 2000.
The Family Jewels and Other Stories, Five Star (Waterville, ME), 2001.
The Importance of Being Ernestine: An Ellie Haskell Mystery, Wheeler Pub. (Waterville, ME), 2002.
Also author of numerous short stories, including "The Family Jewels," published in the anthology Malice Domestic 3, Pocket Books, 1994.
SIDELIGHTS: Although Dorothy Cannell lives in Peoria, Illinois, and has resided in the United States since 1963, her mysteries are set in her native England. Cannell's stories are long on social satire and short on violence, often making use of contrived endings. Critics have found that humor is more important to her tales than is detective work or murder, and often the actual mystery seems almost peripheral to events that most affect her central characters. Numerous reviewers have professed admiration for her cleverly written tales, vividly drawn characters, and humorous situations.
Most, though not all, of Cannell books are "Ellie Haskell Mysteries," revolving around Ellie and Ben Haskell, the wacky Tramwell sisters, or a combination of the two; and the majority of stories take place in the rural village of Chitterton Fells. The Thin Woman: An Epicurean Mystery introduces readers to Ellie (short for Giselle) when she is still Ellie Simons, fat and without prospects of marriage. But then Ellie's wealthy uncle, Merlin Grantham, invites her to visit him at his estate, called Merlin's Court. Mortified at the prospect of showing up alone and being talked about by her gossipy, acid-tongued relatives, she hires handsome Bentley T. Haskell, a professional escort, to pose as her fiancee. Uncle Merlin is so taken with the knowledge of Ellie's alleged impending marriage that when he dies, shortly after her visit, he leaves Merlin's Court to the two of them.
The only stipulations of Merlin's will are that Ellie lose sixty pounds and that Bentley write a novel, both in six months. Ellie's and Ben's challenge is further complicated by the fact that several others are jealous of their inheritance and have set out to kill them. With this mystery as a backdrop, Cannell unfolds a Cinderella-style tale of a woman who winds up thin, married, and rich. As for the mystery itself, Library Journal reviewer Lynette Friesen noted that while it is not particularly strong, "the story is such a cheerful make-believe that these failings don't hinder enjoyment." A Publishers Weekly critic offered readers the enticing knowledge that a great surprise awaits when the villain is revealed, and concluded that "discriminating whodunit fans will want more of [Cannell's] inventions."
Instead of continuing with Ellie, Cannell's second book, Down the Garden Path: A Pastoral Mystery, introduces Tessa Fields. An orphan raised by a vicar and his wife, Tessa is determined to find her mother and win the love of a young man with whom she is infatuated. In the course of her search, she winds up in an ancient house called Cloister, where she meets the Tramwell sisters, Hyacinth and Primrose, and the actual mystery begins. Allen J. Hubin of Armchair Detective, noting that he had been "enormously taken" with The Thin Woman, called Garden Path "a disappointment." But a Publishers Weekly critic called it "brimful of surprises," and a Library Journal reviewer gave it a positive review.
With The Widows Club, Cannell returns to the saga of Ellie and Ben. Despite the storybook ending of their earlier book, tensions loom for the soon-to-be-wed couple. Ellie is about to open a restaurant in Chitterton Fells, she and Ben are busy restoring Merlin's Court, and she is having difficulty getting used to the thin woman she sees every time she looks in the mirror. Soon after the wedding, she and Ben start to have problems, and her parents—whose marriage is in trouble—come to live with them. At this point the Tramwell sisters, who now own the Flowers Detection Agency, arrive and ask Ellie's help in solving a mystery. Unfaithful husbands have been dying all over Chitterton Fells, apparently the victims of murder, and the Tramwells suspect that a "widows club" of angry wives is behind the killings.
A Booklist reviewer called the Haskell-Tramwell mystery "a judicious blend of suspense, frivolity, and eccentric characters." Though noting that the resolution seemed a bit contrived, a Publishers Weekly contributor commented, "Ellie, for all her scatterbrained foolishness, remains a heroine with gumption and grace." Hubin, in Armchair Detective, also commented on Ellie's behavior in the book, which he called "overlong" at 338 pages: "Ellie, once vastly fat, lost the weight (and perhaps an important part of her brain, silly woman that she has become)."
A club also figures in Mum's the Word, published in 1990, only this time it is an exclusive chefs' organization in the United States that meets in the home of a former movie starlet. Ben and a now-pregnant Ellie travel to the American Midwest to gain admission to the club, and the troubles start as soon as they arrive: Ben flirts with another woman, and fellow aspirants to the club are getting killed. "For those willing to take their charm unadulterated with reality," a Booklist reviewer offered, "this will do nicely."
With Femmes Fatal, Ellie has given birth—to twins. Thus, needless to say, she and Ben have their hands full. But that does not prevent them from getting involved in all sorts of shenanigans, especially because yet again, a social club figures into the story. With the pregnancy and the birth of the children, as well as other distractions, the fire in Ellie and Ben's marriage has flickered. She and one of her domestic employees join Fully Female, a group whose mission is to "enable every woman to fulfill her physical, emotional and sexual potential." The employee, Mrs. Malloy, has her intentions set on a funeral director, Walter Fisher, but soon after she and Ellie join the club, a rash of murders begins. Thus, on a night when Ellie attempts to reignite Ben's interest by dressing up as a Viking princess, she receives a call from a neighbor whose husband has just died mysteriously. Together, Ellie and Mrs. Malloy go in search of the killer. Despite finding the ending "contrived," a Publishers Weekly contributor wrote, "Cannell's wicked sense of humor and sprightly style move the story briskly to its. . .conclusion." A Kirkus Reviews critic was less favorable, dismissing Femmes Fatal as "harmless, but no joy." But Mary Carroll in Booklist was effusive: "Fans may not quite know how to pronounce Cannell's latest, but they will find a way to request it."
In 1994 Cannell published How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law. Once again, the setting is Chitterton Fells, and Ellie and Ben are hosting a party to celebrate Ben's parents' thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. The fact that the first names of the Haskells are Magdalene and Elijah suggests trouble: Mrs. Haskell is Catholic, Mr. Haskell Jewish. For this reason, they could never agree on a place to get married, and therefore were never legally wed. This revelation leads to a full-scale row, and Elijah leaves Merlin's Court to sleep at a hotel. With her mother-in-law now ensconced in her house, Ellie goes out for a drink. At the pub she meets three other women similarly suffering mother-in-law troubles, and as the booze flows, the four fantasize about getting rid of the pesky matrons in their lives.
The women are just letting off steam, of course, and don't mean what they say—or at least, most of them don't mean it. The problem is that someone is not joking. The mother-in-law of one of the women winds up dead, and now it's up to Ellie and her friends to find the killer. "This droll story," a reviewer in Publishers Weekly wrote, "lurches haphazardly from one crisis to the next, sometimes revealing a lunatic edge." But Ellie and her environment "are rendered with zest and affection." A Booklist critic described it as "vintage Cannell."
Cannell followed How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law with How to Murder the Man of Your Dreams in 1995. Having placed the twins in the care of an au pair, Ellie has a little free time, and she decides to organize a benefit event at the local public library. The fundraiser has an unfortunate cause, however: the librarian has died, and the purpose of the event is to raise money for a bust of the deceased woman. In a promotional coup, Ellie secures the participation of Karisma, a Fabio-like hunk who graces the covers of romance novels. In the meantime, the milkman, who adopted the late librarian's dog, suddenly suffers a heart attack and dies. Then, to make matters much worse, Karisma has an accident in the library and dies as well.
A reviewer in Publishers Weekly wrote of How to Murder the Man of Your Dreams: "some may wish that this tale, with no clear murder until near the end and little active detection, placed more emphasis on its mystery elements." Still, the critic noted Cannell's "witty intelligence." A Library Journal contributor offered qualified praise, noting that some of the humor in the plot was squandered by a surplus of details and heavy-handed prose. A Booklist reviewer pronounced Man of Your Dreams "another winner in another vastly amusing series."
God Save the Queen! in 1996 became the first Cannell mystery to feature neither Ellie nor the Tramwell sisters. The heroine, Flora Hutchins, has been raised by her grandfather, butler to Sir Henry Gossinger of the stately Gossinger Hall. Much to the chagrin of his new trophy wife, the aged Sir Henry announces that he will leave his mansion, built in the tenth century, to the butler. When Flora's grandfather turns up dead, with his head stuck in a twelfth-century privy, foul play is obvious. Flora, sent away to London by Sir Henry and his wife, must now solve the mystery from afar, with the help of Sir Henry's spendthrift nephew Vivian. With God Save the Queen!, Cannell was on firm ground in the eyes of many reviewers. Publishers Weekly praised the characters as "a sterling cast" and the plot as "a royal romp." Ilene Cooper of Booklist wrote that "Cannell. . .succeeds winningly in her latest offering." Cooper concluded by inviting readers to enjoy a mystery that would make them laugh as well, a fitting description of Cannell's work.
The Spring Cleaning Murders, published in 1998, takes readers back to Ellie and Ben Haskell and their twins at Merlin's Court. In the midst of their gloriously happy home, however, several cleaning women fall victim to disasters. Ellie's prime suspects are her eccentric neighbors. Booklist reviewer GraceAnne A. DeCandido termed the book a "wispy cozy."
Cannell continues Ellie's story in her 1999 novel, The Trouble with Harriet, a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock's film The Trouble with Harry. On the eve of Ellie's and Ben's vacation to France, Ellie's father, Morley, appears at their doorstep. Absent from Ellie's life since her mother died, her dad bears an urn containing the ashes of his love, Harriet. His mission is to return them to her relatives, who live near Merlin's Court. However, the mysterious disappearance of the urn and a car accident that kills two people lead police to suspect Morley of murder. As Ellie tries to prove her father innocent, a daffy cast of characters and preparations for the parish play provide a humorous and zany backdrop for the story. BookBrowser reviewer Harriet Klausner wrote, "Anyone who relishes a comic romp of a mystery should try this novel." Yvonne Zipp of the Christian Science Monitor said she enjoyed the book but that it "lacks some of the verve and wit of Cannell's best." Booklist reviewer GraceAnne A. DeCandido of also liked the tale but thought the best parts were the descriptions of Merlin's Court, "the overwrought dialogue, and Ellie's distracted adoration" of her husband, Ben. A Publishers Weekly contributor called the book an "oddball story dominated by daffy characters and physical comedy," making it quite enjoyable.
In 2000 Cannell published Bridesmaids Revisited which involves Ellie Haskell's late grandmother's three bridesmaids, Rosemary, Thora, and Jane, whom Ellie hasn't seen for many years. When Rosemary writes to Ellie that her grandmother is trying to make contact from beyond the grave, Ellie travels to the ancient English village of Knells to see what this is all about. As she becomes involved in the townspeople's protest of a buyout by a greedy financier, Ellie also learns of old longings and uncovers family secrets about her grandmother and grandfather, as well as her own mother, who died mysteriously when Ellie was only seventeen. This tale is one of Cannell's most involved and is perhaps a little darker than most. A Publisher's Weekly contributor referred to its "mysterious old houses, hidden diaries," and "spooky emanations," which make the novel resemble a beefy Wuthering Heights. DeCandido thought the Gothic tale to be "clearly Cannell's best so far."
In 2001 Cannell published a collection of short stories The Family Jewels, and Other Stories.. One of the stories, "The Family Jewels: A Moral Tale," won the prestigious Agatha (Christie) Award in 1995. The collection also includes "The Purloined Purple Pearl," "Cupid's Arrow," "The Gentleman's Gentleman," "Come to Grandma," "The High Cost of Living," "One Night at a Time," "Telling George," "The January Sale Stowaway," "Fetch," and "Poor Lincoln."
In Cannell's 2002 novel The Importance of Being Ernestine: An Ellie Haskell Mystery, Ellie, disappointed by Ben's less-than-enthusiastic response to her redecoration of his study, goes off to confide in her maid, Mrs. Roxy Malloy, who works nights for a private detective, Mr. Jugg. Jugg is away, and, after raiding his liquor cabinet, the two women pose as private investigators themselves when a late-arriving client begs them for help. Mrs. Krumely of Moultty Towers, disturbed by the demise of several relatives, is seeking Ernestine, the daughter of the Krumely's former parlor maid, Flossie, whom Mrs. Krumely fired thirty years earlier for allegedly stealing a brooch. Trying to care for Ernestine alone, Flossie died of tuberculosis, cursing the Krumely family before her death. Hoping to prevent more strange "accidents" in her family, Mrs. Krumely seeks Ernestine to make things right with her. Ellie, using her interior design business to get in the door, and Mrs. Malloy embark on a search for the long-lost daughter and encounter a bevy of odd characters along the way. Ilene Cooper of Booklist wrote, "This one's got it all, wit, charm, a pair of sprightly sleuths." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called it "A painfully arch but amusing tale of upstairs, downstairs, and inside-out." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted, "Cannell orchestrates plenty of laughs along with a clever plot," acknowledging that the writer makes fun of genre conventions in this "dizzy spoof."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Heising, Willetta L., Detecting Women 2, Purple Moon Press (Dearborn, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Armchair Detective, winter, 1987, Allen J. Hubin, review of Down the Garden Path: A Pastoral Mystery, p. 16; winter, 1989, Allen J. Hubin, review of The Widows Club, p. 22; spring, 1990, review of Down the Garden Path, p. 229; spring, 1993, p. 92; spring, 1993, review of The Thin Woman: An Epicurean Mystery, p. 58; spring, 1993, review of Femmes Fatal (audio version), p. 92; winter, 1993, review of The Thin Woman (audio version), p. 88; summer, 1997, review of God Save the Queen!, p. 358.
Belles Lettres, spring, 1990, review of Down the Garden Path, p. 21.
Booklist, June 1, 1984, review of The Thin Woman, p. 1378; April 1, 1988, review of The Widows Club, p. 1316; February 15, 1990, review of Mum's the Word, p. 1142; September 1, 1992, Mary Carroll, review of Femmes Fatal, p. 35; June 1, 1993, review of Femmes Fatal (audio version), p. 1878; March 1, 1994, review of How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law, p. 1183; September 1, 1995, review of How to Murder the Man of Your Dreams, p. 46; January 1, 1997, Ilene Cooper, review of God Save the Queen!, pp. 823-824; April 15, 1998, review of The Spring Cleaning Murders, p. 1379; April 15, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Trouble with Harriet, p. 1468; April 15, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Spring Cleaning Murders, p. 1460; June 1, 2000, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Bridesmaids Revisited, p. 1863; May 1, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of The Importance of Being Ernestine: An Ellie Haskell Mystery, p. 1468.
Bookwatch, July, 1992, review of The Thin Woman (audio version), p. 3; July, 1994, review of How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law (audio version), p. 8.
Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 1999, Yvonne Zipp, "Murder by Illusion, I Think," p. 18.
Cosmopolitan, May, 1988, p. 48.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1984, review of The Thin Woman, p. 380; November 15, 1985, review of Down the Garden Path, p. 1223; March 15, 1988, review of The Widows Club, p. 410; July 15, 1992, review of Femmes Fatal, p. 881; February 1, 1994, review of How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law, p. 96; August 15, 1995, review of How to Murder the Man of Your Dreams, p. 1143; December 15, 1996, review of God Save the Queen!, p. 1768; April 1, 1998, review of The Spring Cleaning Murders, p. 446; April 15, 1999, review of The Trouble with Harriet, p. 575; April 15, 2002, review of The Importance of Being Ernestine, p. 527.
Kliatt, winter, 1986, review of The Thin Woman, p. 6; spring, 1992, p. 64; September, 1992, review of The Thin Woman (audio version), p. 64; September, 1994, review of How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law, p. 56.
Library Journal, July, 1984, Lynette Friesen, review of The Thin Woman, p. 1350; November 1, 1985, review of Down the Garden Path, p. 114; September 1, 1992, review of Femmes Fatal, p. 219; April 15, 1994, review of How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law (audio version), p. 130; September 1, 1995, review of How to Murder the Man of Your Dreams, p. 211; December, 1997, review of God Save the Queen!, p. 184; May 1, 1998, review of The Spring Cleaning Murders, p. 142; May 1, 1999, Rex E. Klett, review of The Trouble with Harriet, p. 117; June 1, 2002, Rex. E. Klett, review of The Importance of Being Ernestine, p. 201.
Publishers Weekly, May 4, 1984, review of The Thin Woman, p. 51; October 18, 1985, review of Down the Garden Path, p. 50; April 1, 1988, review of The Widows Club, p. 78; July 14, 1989, review of Down the Garden Path, p. 74; May 4, 1984, p. 51; April 1, 1988, p. 78; July 6, 1992, review of Femmes Fatal, pp. 40-41; January 10, 1994, review of How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law, pp. 46-47; August 7, 1995, review of How to Murder the Man of Your Dreams, p. 445; November 4, 1996, review of God Save the Queen!, p. 66; April 13, 1998, review of The Spring Cleaning Murders, p. 55; April 12, 1999, review of The Trouble with Harriet, p. 58; June 12, 2000, review of Bridesmaids Revisited, p. 58; June 25, 2001, review of The Family Jewels and Other Stories, p. 55; June 3, 2002, review of The Importance of Being Ernestine, p. 68.
Rapport, February, 1992, review of Femmes Fatal, p. 30; March, 1994, review of How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law, p. 43.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 27, 1992, review of Femmes Fatal, p. 6.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1999, review of The Thin Woman, p. 416.
Wilson Library Bulletin, October, 1984, Kathleen Maio, review of The Thin Woman, p. 133.
BookBrowser.com,http://www.bookbrowser.com/ (March 21, 1999), Harriet Klausner, review of The Trouble with Harriet.*