- a murder mystery
- a phenomenal success
- in spite of being “only a cosy”.
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
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.
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!)
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
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.