Review: Softboiled by Lisa Maas

My Quick Take: This graphic novel was a warm and charming take on a detective story, with cozy mystery vibes.

Thanks to the author and publisher Black Rose Writing for a digital ARC in exchange for my honest review. Publication date is Oct. 20, 2022, and you can pre-order it now! 
I’m sitting here on this very sunny, eerily warm mid-October afternoon and I’ve just finished reading Softboiled, Victoria BC-based author Lisa Maas’ second graphic novel. The book is set in Victoria in October, with rainy-grey days, and rainy-dark nights. Two very different Octobers. I almost wish it was rainy and atmospheric here to match the story (Ok, I said almost…I’m actually quite enjoying the sun!). It was fun to see the Victoria setting, as I grew up there! Maas' first book, Forward (2018), was selected as an ALA Stonewall Honor Book in 2019, given for outstanding works in LGBTQIA+ literature. 

In Softboiled, main character Calli has a failing private-eye-themed business that she has to close: not enough tourists lining up to play amateur detective, so not enough money to pay the rent. She feels like a failure. As a last ditch effort to avoid eviction, she sublets one of her office rooms to a writer, who disappears. Mystery ensues, and Calli finds herself taking on the role of a real amateur sleuth with the help of a wonderful cast of friends and family.

I am pleased to report that I can wholeheartedly recommend this graphic novel! It is one of a few stories I’ve read this year that give me “warm hug” vibes, and that immersed me in the story fully. From the first chapter, I very much liked the main character Calli, and sympathised with her. She is having one very, very bad day and you know that there is nowhere to go but up. I enjoyed getting to know her, and also her fantastic group of friends, each of whom stands out with their own personality. As side characters, they were well-drawn and really cared, always ready to help. For that matter, the Victoria community in and around Chinatown also played host to a group of engaged businesses and friendly shopkeepers. This is what I mean about a warm hug. The tone was community minded and friendly.

That said, there were some baddies, and there was a mystery to solve. It kept me engaged and I didn’t guess the ending, but I also wasn’t trying very hard. For me, the mystery was certainly a fun aspect, but it was the frame on which to develop the real action, which was getting to know Callie and her friends. They are a diverse cast of characters, with queer and trans representation, and there’s a bit of romance too. I liked the gumshoe aesthetic, and though the story is set in the present, there were some neat anachronisms that lent a noir atmosphere: typewriters are ubiquitous, and there’s a reel to reel tape recorder. Kind of strange, but I liked it!

The dialogue felt genuine and real, and Calli’s responses to the situations she comes up against were logical and familiar: true to life. That said, despite her occasional bouts of self-doubt, I think she may have more gumption than me. Let’s just say you’ll not see me jumping into boats in choppy seas in the dark of night! Little details also made me laugh. At one point if you look for it, there’s a funny fortune cookie that predicts, “The greatest danger could be your stupidity.” Words to live by.

The art shone! Part of my enjoyment of the book was the beautiful panels. I loved the colour palette, which showcased muted, cool, creamy colours with rusty reds and desaturated greens and yellows. Colour varied with the scene and helped create mood and atmosphere, with occasional bursts of bright pink and purple. The shading and lines were very expressive rather than clean-cut and precise, which I thought embodied the cozy mystery theme. Maas has used acrylic ink on watercolour paper, and all the art is hand painted and lettered.

So if you’re in the mood for an afternoon or two for an escapist, cozy, warm-hug detective story with rainy fall vibes, curl up with a cup of tea and a fuzzy sweater and enjoy Softboiled.


An addendum on the cozy mystery genre:

I’m totally hoping that this is the first in a series! I’d love to know what happens next with Calli and her fun group of friends, and there will always be room in the world for a well-crafted graphic novel cozy mystery series. I don't mean to presume that Maas set out to create a cozy mystery with Softboiled, but as a reader, those were the vibes that I got. To that end, I did a bit of research into what exactly a “cozy mystery” is, and if there are any graphic novel cozies out there already.

A cozy mystery (or, “cozy”) is something that I know when I see it, but can’t put into exact words. In fact, my bookish friends and I just had this conversation recently and we all knew it but couldn’t define it.

In a survey of web articles on this topic, I learned that the term “cozy mystery” was coined in the late 20th century, though they certainly existed long before that. Common features include:
  • an amateur sleuth, often a woman
  • a small community setting
  • a fun and quirky cast of supporting characters
  • usually a murder but not always
  • the culprits are not psychopaths or serial killers but usually motivated by desperation or greed
  • no or very minimal sex, violence and profanity on the page
  • they’re often a series
I think that Softboiled has most aspects of a cozy mystery. It’s a bit more atmospheric than most cozies I’ve read, with the Victoria rain and some features of the hardboiled aesthetic, but that lends it a unique edge. I suppose that’s why the title is so apt and a play on the genre.

I couldn’t find any prominent graphic novel cozies on a quick survey of the Web, though they may well exist. There were tons of hardboiled and noir comics out there. So here’s hoping for a Softboiled Book 2 at some point in the future!