Cosy or Not-So-Cosy? That Is the Mystery

The cosy mystery novel has become one of the most popular trends in online publishing, probably pipped only by assorted romance genres. But what makes a murder mystery cosy? I’ve read a few over the years and have come up with a list of common features:

  • An amateur sleuth, often with no technical skills usually associated with solving crime other than a tendency to be nosy. A sharp mind also helps. The classic amateur sleuth in my book is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who has seen the worst of what humanity is capable of through observing life in St Mary Mead. Today many cosy mysteries are set around handcrafts or food preparation. The amateur sleuth, Hannah Swensen, in Joanna Fluke’s popular novels runs a bakery with titles that couple murder with a bakery item (Double Fudge Brownie Murder, for example).
  • Cosy mysteries invite the reader to take part in the investigation. The reader is given random clues throughout the book, as well as red herrings, which make you pay attention and guess ‘who done it’. Even so, it is frustrating if the mystery is too obvious – a surprise revelation at the end is what keeps you reading.
  • A small group of suspects to choose from, usually presented early in the peace. The classic mysteries of yesteryear might have everyone holed up in a country manor house (think Dorothy L Sayers); or else they all live in the same village or small town. Village mysteries are still popular, hence the success of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels. Yes, I know Gamache is a senior policeman, but he gets help from the inhabitants of Three Pines, particularly from local artist, Clara Morrow. Louise Penny pops up regularly in the Agatha Awards nominations, which recognise authors of cosies, or as they put it ‘malice domestic’.
  • Cosies are usually written in series, often with story threads involving the personal life of the sleuth running through them. I’ve lost track of the number of husbands and boyfriends M C Beaton’s Agatha Raisin has had. It’s fun to see how the main character develops their skills, or runs up against the local constabulary as a regular feature. It’s also amazing how many suspicious deaths can occur in some small villages over a short space of time, no doubt keeping the local undertaker busy and opening up real estate opportunities for incomers.
  • As with any genre, you can find a range of novels lumped together that are hugely varied and might not seem cosy at all. It’s hard to keep the police force out of crime fiction entirely, so a regular detective might appear alongside the amateur sleuth. Darkly sinister motives can pop out of the woodwork making the story almost chilling. Deliciously chilling of course.

Review: Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah

casketClosed Casket is one of the new Hercule Poirot novels – yes, Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth – and it is written by Sophie Hannah, well known for her Culver Valley crime series. Hannah has won awards and been a best-seller many times over, as well as being translated into numerous languages, so it’s not surprising she was commissioned to continue the legacy of the Queen of Crime.

I recently read a couple of old Christie novels I’d had knocking about the place –  perfect for holiday reading – so was a bit dubious about whether anyone else could work the same sort of magic as Christie does. And while I enjoyed Closed Casket immensely, it isn’t really like Christie at all. Was I disappointed? Continue reading “Review: Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah”

Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier

y648An author I’ve picked up fairly consistently over the years is Tracey Chevalier, who writes historical novels – you may remember The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was made into a movie. Her books are usually a fairly light, engaging read, but she has a knack of digging out a very human story from an often overlooked corner of history.

Remarkable Creatures is a novel about two women who were instrumental in the discovery of fossilised remains of dinosaur-era animals at the coastal town of Lyme Regis. We are just after Waterloo, and the Origin of the Species has yet to be written so the Bible’s version of how God made the world holds sway. Continue reading “Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier”

Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam

funeralWhen I went on holiday recently, I packed an assortment of books knowing I would have a few quiet hours away from the Internet and Netflix. I usually like to include an old favourite – you don’t want anything that will be too hard to get into on holiday – and that usually means Anne Tyler, one or two Agatha Christies or a Jane Gardam.

The Summer After the Funeral is a short novel about a family coming to terms with the death of their father, an elderly clergyman. Rev. Price had a kind of allure with women and fathered three children in his dotage, but unfortunately, Mrs Price and her family must leave the rectory to her husband’s replacement. She concocts a convoluted scheme of passing her children round to various acquaintances and family for the summer while she goes job hunting. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam”

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

ehGosh, how do you begin to try and describe a book like this one? The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is like a cross between an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery – say The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Hollow – and a story from Dr Who. Or maybe one of those old computer games where you have to find your way out of a labyrinth, but keep losing your life and have to start again.

The book opens with the main character running through the woods by night, desperate to save Anna, whoever she may be, while there’s a killer on the loose. He’s lost, but worst of all, he doesn’t know who he is either. He looks down at his hands and they are the hands of a stranger. He eventually finds safety in a crumbling stately home called Blackheath, and learns his name is Dr Sebastian Bell.

The next time he wakes up he’s someone else again – a pattern that repeats itself over the following days. Continue reading “Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton”

I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…

It’s Sea Week – yes, we do this every year – and it made me think about some of the books I’ve enjoyed that are set on or near the sea. Here’s a small sampling:

C S Forester’s Hornblower books

When you start with Mr Midshipman Hornblower, the first book in the series, it’s hard to stop until you’ve read a good half-dozen of the novels. Maybe it’s because some of my ancestors were in the Navy at a similar time, (that is, the Napoleonic Wars and decades following), but I find Foresters’ accounts of sea battles and his main character’s tactical ingenuity really exciting. Forester also develops Hornblower’s character as a man, a husband, lover and father, revealing the difficulties of being away at sea for years at a time.  Apparently the real-life figure of Thomas Cochrane (later Lord Dundonald) inspired the Hornblower character. Continue reading “I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…”

Book Review: Transcription by Kate Atkinson

transcriptionYou never know where a novel by Kate Atkinson is going to take you. Transcription begins when Juliet Armstrong is hit by a car. Hanging between life and death, Juliet reviews her past over two time zones. The first is in 1940 Juliet is an eighteen-year-old-typist at MI5 when she is required by Perrigrine Gibbons for some secret war work.

Was she to be an agent then? (A spy!) No, it seemed she was to remain shackled to a typewriter.

‘We cannot choose our weapons in a time of war, Miss Armstrong,’ he said.

Perry is suavely handsome, and Juliet has flights of fancy about him, but she is soon set to work in a Finchley flat, where secret recordings are made of the conversations next door. Through the wall, a secret service operative, Godfrey Toby, has clandestine meetings with Nazi sympathisers who pass on interesting tit-bits of information. Juliet has the job of typing up the transcripts, hence the title. Continue reading “Book Review: Transcription by Kate Atkinson”

Creative Cover Art: loving the linocut look

I know we’ve got Indesign and Photoshop so book covers these days can look really glam and polished and shiny and flash. But you know I just can’t tear myself away from those cover designs reminiscent of linocuts and print-making generally. I love the thoughtfully contrasting colours and the way the pictures seem to be built up in layers, the skilful use of simple lines and contours. You know there’s a true artist at work.

This is a style that’s been around since well, forever – probably Albrecht Durer, or even earlier. Happily, I’ve seen quite a few covers like this lately, and I’m no artist so I can’t tell you exactly how they were created, or even if there was a slab of lino in sight. Maybe they were done on a computer, after all. But don’t they look interesting?

 

Book Review: Restless by William Boyd

restlessWilliam Boyd is one of those rare writers you can trust to turn in a taut and thrilling plot while paying attention to the fine craft of writing. His sentences are thoughtful and elegant and his characters multi-faceted. So it is with Restless,  first published in 2006, and later dramatised by the BBC.

The story spans two eras, the most recent taking place during the heatwave of 1976 as  Ruth visits her mother, Sal, in the Cotswolds and finds cause for alarm. Sal is showing paranoid behaviour to the point of pretending she needs a wheelchair.  She hands her daughter a packet with the start of her memoir, detailing events going back to 1939 and her recruitment into Britain’s secret service.

I can see what the BBC saw in Restless. It’s got a lot going for it and not just pleasant locations which would look attractive on the small screen: Oxford in the heatwave of 1976; Scotland (where Eva has secret agent training and changes her name); London during the blitz; New York in winter; and New Mexico and even Paris get a look-in too. Continue reading “Book Review: Restless by William Boyd”

Book Review: The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall

greenwoodsWho wouldn’t want to live in an English rural backwater where there’s a little branch railway-line long since mothballed just asking to be restored? You could join a small society of passionate enthusiasts and dedicate all your spare time to finding engines and carriages, refurbishing and reupholstering and essentially going back in time.

In The Last of the Greenwoods, Zohra Dasgupta is a young postal worker, whose best friend Crispin has roped her into a group of railway restoration buffs. She’s only 25 and lives with her parents over their corner shop so seems an unlikely candidate for a pastime you’d imagine to be enjoyed largely by male retirees. The railway runs through Crispin’s father’s land, what there is left of it, formerly an estate of some standing. Crispin lives here with his father in a crumbling ruin of a once splendid mansion, camping out in a still liveable corner. Continue reading “Book Review: The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall”