Lockdown seems to bring out the frustrated book clubber in loads of people. Over the last few weeks people keep asking me if I’ve read this cosy crime novel which is:
- a murder mystery
- a phenomenal success
- in spite of being “only a cosy”.
Well, of course, say to a romantic novelist that a book is “only” anything and we’re onto our skate board and off to the nearest bookshop, out of sheer fellow feeling.
So, yes, I’ve read it. Now.
Of which more later*.
Cozy as a Term of Art
But that made me realise that I’ve always wondered about “Cozy Crime”. [US spelling because, at least in origin, it seems to be a US term.] I mean, what’s cosy [British spelling because this is me talking now] about crime?
By definition, crime is antisocial, the antithesis of cosy. Crime hurts people, sometimes terminally. It deprives them of something or someone they value and may well make them reassess their whole lives.
What’s more, crime can throw whole groups of family, friends and neighbours into turmoil.
Maybe that’s why “crime” is often modified to “mystery” when used in this sort of label.
Theoretically “Cozy Mystery” would cover everything from mild misdemeanour to murder most foul. For instance, it could, I suppose, simply be the disappearance of a fractious fiancée. (Sorry, alliteration is a bit of a theme in some of these books.) But in most cases a perpetrator needs to be unmasked over the course of the story. Indeed, similar novels were once called whodunnits
And, delightfully, there’s an excellent podcast called Shedunnit by Caroline Crampton in which she considers classic mysteries. While preparing this blog I listened to half a dozen episodes and could have happily gone on doing so, had not the deadline beckoned.
Cosy Roots and Readers
The received wisdom seems to be that sometime back in the 90s readers started to get nostalgic for the Golden Age of detective fiction – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh. So they welcomed books written in that tradition. Myself, I’d say you’ve got at least 6 traditions there, but you get the drift.
The crime writing guru Maxim Jakubowski is quoted as saying that essentially a cosy crime novel is “set in an idealistic world where nothing really bad happens and everyone can gather in the living room to discuss the culprit”.
In 2015 he told Alison Flood in The Guardian, “…people who buy them are the sort who don’t touch anything with a stamp of realism,” and went on to say that, like an Agatha Christie, “it doesn’t really feel real.”
Hmm. I’m not a huge Christie fan myself but I wouldn’t say her books feel unreal. Distant, yes. Some of the people pretty damn peculiar, yes. But not wholly unreal.
Cosy Crime Novel Qualities Checklist
This is my best effort, based on my own reading and several accounts by authors of books which attract this label. But note that while most accounts offer a set of identifying characteristics, so far I haven’t found two lists that are the same; nor any one element that is universally observed.
- upbeat tone (from neutral and civilised to downright farcical)
- protagonist an amateur sleuth, possibly reluctant, or fish out of water (but see below)
- with a strong support group
- set in attractive geographical place
- in a functioning sociable community
- crime must present a puzzle
- reader must have all the clues the sleuth has
- likeable and/or quirky characters
- satisfactory solution to the crime
- satisfactory justice and/or mercy post solution
- dead dogs and similar
- hurt children and similar
- gore or other nightmare-inducing unpleasantness
- sex on the page
Commentators have noted that It is also possible to intensify the cosiness by adding a USP to a series, such as cats, canines, crafts, quilting or cookery. (Alliteration just haunts this subject. What can I say?) In my experience, all of these are adjuncts to character quirkiness rather than stand-alone issues with their own weight.
The brilliant feline detectives of Felidae by Akif Pirinçci, for instance, wouldn’t qualify, even though the book is marketed as “A tale of cats and murder.” As one reviewer – who calls this book “unflinching” – says, “if you are keener on the light, bright, never-anything-nasty type of cosy mystery, this really isn’t for you.”
So we are looking to find the sweeter aspects of life in a cosy crime novel.
The Cosy Continuum
OK, more alliteration. Sorry but I couldn’t resist. Because no two crime writers or readers seem to agree what is cosy. Instead, they give you examples.
At random, in preparing this I have been offered: M C Beaton, Agatha Christie, Francis Durbridge, Kerry Greenwood, Vaseem Khan, Alexander McCall Smith, Louise Penney, and Elizabeth Peters. And, of course, the new kid on the block, of whom more later.*
Friend of this Blog, Lesley Cookman, finds her Libby Serjeant series labelled cosy quite often. I love her Libby and prefer the description “traditional mystery,” as I think she does too.
Looking at just those authors, it’s easy to see that every single one of the points on my checklist may be at one end or the other of a continuum.
For instance most experts generally say that the protagonist sleuth in a cosy crime has to be an amateur. But Hamish MacBeth (Beaton) is a village policeman, Inspector Chopra (Khan) is a retired police inspector) and Mma Ramotswe (McCall Smith) runs her own detective agency.
Similarly, with the list of DON’Ts, the crime “puzzles” presented in the 1920s-set Phryne Fisher series (Greenwood) frequently verge on the downright disturbing. And Miss Fisher has a lively interest in sexual freedom, even on the page.
In the Shedunnit episode, A Christie for Christmas, Caroline Crampton reflects on the difficulties of concentration on reading that she and others found during lockdown. She compares this convincingly with the debilitating effects of war and the Spanish flu pandemic on the emotional tolerance of general readers in the 20s and 30s. She memorably calls the Christie model “salve for the scattered mind.”
I certainly recognise that in myself and my own reading over the past eighteen months. And Caroline’s guest, Shaun Bythell who runs The Bookshop in Wigtown, describes customers buying 10 or 15 Christie titles at a time during lockdown. (The whole podcast is well worth a listen!)
But there are a couple of other attractions to this sort of crime novel which I find compelling. I don’t think either of them are inherited from the Golden Age but are specific to our time.
First there is that sense of a functioning community, which I think is both comforting and something many of us do not habitually experience ourselves. “There is no such thing as society” gets a trouncing here and I, for one, am grateful.
And second, there is a wonderful normality about the settings and dramatis personae, a concentration on those folk affected by the crime, instead of the frequently deranged and terrifying perpetrators in grittier sub-genres of crime.
The psychological thriller, with or without a twist, which gained favour over the last 25 years or so, has caused me pointless nightmares that I very much resent. So-called cosy crime, I find, restores my sense of perspective and the hope of order and reason.
*LATER or The New Kid on the Block
As you may well have guessed by now, my book clubber interrogators have been talking specifically about The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman.
Mr Osman had only previously come my way as something to do with a long-running TV Quiz show (not a TV fan, sadly) which I’ve fallen over a couple of times. Apart from that I had heard him as an amusing guest on various radio (see what I mean about TV?) programmes. He has a nice deadpan delivery and an attractive line in self-deprecation, as illustrated by this little gem from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. It’s got Victoria Wood too. So obviously I include it.
The Guardian reviewer called his book “an amiable if undemanding cosy caper”, which made me wince a bit. Undemanding is one of those Malvolio words that says, “You are a lesser thing. I am not of your element.” So I really wanted to be enthusiastic out of fellow feeling, if nothing else.
There are certainly some nice wry but affectionate jokes on the retirement home in which he sets his story. But the murder mystery itself seemed a bit bolted on. I didn’t really care one way or the other about the solution or, sadly, any of his characters – which undermined a couple of would-be poignant moments. Possibly a failure on my part. My reading concentration is still a bit patchy.
Reviewers in general have been very enthusiastic. I noted comments that it was hilarious and fiendishly clever. It certainly meets the Jakubowski criterion of having characters gathering in their day room to discuss the culprit. On the other hand, it approaches real life quite closely, both in the fun and some sadnesses of the retirement home residents. Mr Osman has a sequel in the pipeline, which I shall read with hope.
But I think, for a cosy crime novel to work for me, I really have to care about the characters.
If I don’t or, worse, if I positively dislike the protagonist, all the skilful world-building and cunning clues in the world aren’t going to pull me in. Which is why Sayers always does the business for me, Christie only sometimes and Georgette Heyer, in her mysteries, never once. So Mr Osman is ahead of the curve.
I’m a huge fan of cozy crime and thoroughly enjoyed this romp through the genre. I thought Mr Osman’s book was over-hyped, but I guess that goes with the celebrity territory. I’ll give him a second go, but I’ll wait for the paperback to be published since I really resent paying a hardback price for a digital edition. I do love the edge in the Phryne Fisher books – sadly not there in the television series which has been made for family viewing – and Sayers and Allingham. Enjoy Christie on TV, not so much the books, oddly. And I love that you chose a picture of Castle Combe to illustrate the locations. It was Christie’s inspiration for the village in Roger Ackroyd – but I’m sure you knew that!
I’ll certainly give Mr Osman another go. Not sure crime is quite his forte but I like his style.
With you every step of the way on the television adaptations of Phryne Fisher. They look gorgeous but she loses some of her fire and free-spiritedness on the screen. Still, the books are glorious.
I had no idea that Castle Combe was the Roger Ackroyd village. How perfect!
I agree about the Phrynne books and TV adaptations, although I admit to having a sneaking liking for the TV series – especially her clothes – and, of course, her Aunt, my alltime favourite Miriam Margolyes. But I really love her Corrina Chapman books, to which you alerted me, Sophie.
So love Corinna Chapman. Of course, she’s one with a special interest USP – an artisan bakery in Melbourne. AND she has cats – the Mouse Patrol. And a wonderful community of fellow sole traders, not to mention the other tenants in her delightful heritage block of flats with its magical roof garden. Totally lovely books.
Love the Corinna books, Sophie. Wonderful cast of characters and wonderful felines!
I only read the first one and I’m afraid the gore scene put me off. Not planning to read any more, mouse patrol notwithstanding. Horses for courses, eh?
Goodness, I don’t remember the gore, Joanna. Must go and re-read the first one and see what I’ve wiped from my memory.
I was underwhelmed. It felt very bitty and not a little long-drawn-out. Amusing in places, as you’d expect, but I thought it all needed tying together a little more and I didn’t really take to the characters.
My favourite golden-age detective story writer is the sublime Ngaio Marsh. I can (and do) read her novels over and over and over
My favourite Golden Age author is probably Sayers overall,Jan. But I love Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke (genuinely creepy in places) and several of Ngaio Marsh’s, especially (I think) Singing in the Shrouds. Not certain about the title. And, then, of course, there’s Josephine Tey, a bit later, though she feels like a member of the Golden Age to me. Her novels are so original and every one different!
I agree about feeling underwhelmed by The Thursday Murder Club’s characters. They ought to have worked but somehow they didn’t quite. Maybe it was because none of them had any believable stake in the murders? It was all a bit chilly and disconnected. Shall continue to ponder. And to read the next one.
A perfect piece! I agree with every one of your opinions, and i was rather put out when Mr Osman’s book was heralded as such a “new” addition to the crime genre. Like Jan, my favourite of the Golden Age (and beyond) was and is Ngaio Marsh. I read the whole lot, from A Man Lay Dead in 1934 to Light Thickens in 1984 once a year, but I do not aim to write like her. I was brought up with the Mystery or Detective fiction genre, and was not aware I was writing “Cosy” until after I’d started. I particularly object to the assumption that these books are somehow “lesser” than others – a mere throwaway. Let me tell you, they take as much effort to write as any gory psychological thriller of the “Girl” variety. Thank you, Sophie. I shall share far and wide.
Thank you, Lesley. I take that very kindly, as you are the expert.
Completely agree about the effort it takes to write well in any genre. As you know.
Fascinating piece, Sophie, thank you. Like others, I am a Ngaio Marsh fan. I do have friends who are great Christie fans but I find her books formulaic and I don’t return to them. Like Liz, I enjoy the edge of the Phryne Fisher books. Equally, I love Lesley’s Libby books and the Elizabeth Peters books, set in Egypt. I read the first few of the Mma Ramotswe books but I found the plots too thin and gave up on them. I haven’t read the Richard Osman book so can’t add to comments here.
As some will know, I am currently writing a whodunnit. It meets quite a few, but not all, of Sophie’s criteria. I have no idea whether, once finished, it will be classified as “cosy”. It does have some (ahem) “oddities” which might disqualify it. But I can’t say any more till I’ve sorted out my murderer 😉
Like you, Joanna, I’m not a fan of Mma Ramotswe. There’s just a touch of authorial superiority – look at these characters being simple and quaint, even in their jealousies and jockeying for position – that sets my teeth on edge. It’s true of his 44 Scotland Street stories too. I think I’m probably just out of step with the author.
I don’t find Christie formulaic, exactly. But her characters either don’t have much interior life or it is very private, from the other characters and also from the reader. So one never quite feels for them, the way one does for Marsh’s and Sayers’s people.
I think what you say about Christie is what I felt, reading them. The characters feel two-dimensional and I really don’t care about them. I know other readers disagree.
I know what you mean. Sometimes it reads more like a report than a novel. But that doesn’t make me disbelieve in them. Just not care very much.
Excellent blog post! I’ve just begun to write a cosy crime series myself, with Golden Age crime very much in mind, but the far more comprehensive background you trace is very interesting. And I agree on the Richard Osman book. Fun, but I couldn’t feel any real sympathy for the characters.
Thank you, Merryn. Much look forward to reading your new series.
Do listen to the Caroline Crampton podcasts. She’s really thought-provoking on the joys of the Golden Age classics and other detective fiction. You may well find her insights inspire your book. She’s certainly given me much food for thought as a writer, as well as a reader.
Will certainly listen!
You won’t regret it, Merryn.
Thought provoking! Thank you, Sophie. My definition of ‘cosy crime’ is a community (are there ay set in the city or big towns??) with characters who are interesting, an amateur sleuth, a mystery that doesn’t put me off my food or keep me awake at night, clues that the reader can spot and a satisfying ending. I’m also a Golden Age fan – Marsh, Allingham, Sayers. With Christie I’m always looking for the least likely suspect who is usually the murderer, which is irritating!
As for the Osman, it was OK and I might buy the next, but it would never have got where it is without the celeb status to boost the promo.
I agree with you, Louise. I’m sure that the community is a huge part of the satisfaction of cosy crime. Even when some members of the community are a bit of a pain, it’s still nice to feel there’s a communal enterprise going on somehow.
Wonderful blog, Sophie, thank you! I love cosy crime, but it certainly doesn’t mean I won’t touch anything with stamp of realism. And, like you, I wince at the term undemanding (is it coincidence both these quotes came from the same newspaper?). I dislike books that are unremittingly grim and cannot believe they are that much more realistic that our cosy crime. I accept that some poor souls lead very grim lives, while others, much more fortunate, are cocooned in comfort. Most of us muddle along somewhere between the two. More or less. It’s literary snobbery coming into play again. I read Osman’s book, too, and quite enjoyed it. More than Christie but not as much as Cookman or Sayers. Oh dear – what does that say about me??? Thank you for an entertaining and thought-provoking read this morning!
You’re very welcome, Sarah.
Another Ngaio Marsh fan here. Loved Rory and Troy. Have read all the Christies in the past, but not for a while. Never got into Margery Allingham and although I’ve read them all, Heyer’s mysteries mostly don’t cut it for me. There are some more obscure Golden Age writers being re-released which is quite interesting.
I agree cosy needs a community and a plethora of suspects and nothing too gruesome. For me, the point of a cosy is the puzzle, but I guess that’s true of all mystery (as opposed to crime). It’s not a term I apply to Lady Fan, though it meets the criteria in general. But I think as historical mystery writers, we get away with “traditional” rather than cosy.
Marjorie Allingham has definite touches of the surreal, Liz, but I enjoy them.
The Shedunnit podcast occasionally refers to more obscure Golden Age writers. I’ve been surprised how many of them I had picked up over the years. even have a few on my bookshelf.
Love your Lady Fan books. The community in them is very believable.
Interesting post. ‘Cosy crime’ is a bit of a contradiction, isn’t it. Still we know what we mean by the term, even if that doesn’t match what other people mean when they say exactly the same thing.
For me a cosy crime is comforting, in that the crime never seems to be anything which is particularly likely to affect me personally. Most of us don’t encounter murder, often the stories are set in the past, or places I don’t go, or involve characters very different from myself.
The other comforting thing is that in the end everything makes sense and the criminal gets stopped. Real life crime, even the more minor kinds is more frightening because it’s often senseless, there’s a real possibility we could be a victim, and the criminals are rarely stopped for long, if at all.
I think you’re right about everything making sense in a “cosy crime”, Patsy.
I seem to remember P D James saying that crime novels were about justice – and I think hers were. But I think that sense of a non-criminal, basically confirming that there is a normal and even kind world, is an essential part of these sort of books. I suppose that is something they do have in common with the Golden Age.
Glad I spotted Lesley Cookman’s tweet about this post and followed along. I’m not terribly well-read in crime, cosy or otherwise, I fear, despite being a writer of psych thrillers and the like (gore, missing children, occasional sex) so this was very interesting. I love Mary Stewart’s suspense novels (not cosy crime but certainly comfortable fare) and am currently re-reading them all as an escape from 2021 madness. My indie ‘Stella Penhaligon Mysteries’ might just about qualify as ‘cosy’, though they do have a touch of gore, as they’re set in pictureque Cornwall, feature a female astrologer sleuth, and have quite a bit of silliness going on and my usual quota of entertaining one-liners. I do enjoy writing them. I’ve always loved the TV versions of Sayers, and yes, so much more intimate in scope and character-based than some of the big Christie set-pieces. As I get older, I’m trying to write more about people than plots. Though I’ve still got a long way to go. Thanks for posting. Jane Holland x
Thanks for visiting, Jane. I must certainly get in touch with Stella Penhaligon. Astrologer and sleuth sounds an intriguing mix.