The word cosy always makes me think of teapots, so I was surprised to discover a few years ago that it is also a sub-genre of crime fiction – the kind of mystery novels I quite like. The big awards given to the best in the genre are called the Agathas, in deference to the author who inspired them – that massive best-seller and all-time favourite, Agatha Christie.
But just how cosy are they? They still deal with violent death after all. It seems rather than exploring the psychological stuff going on within the mind of a criminal, forensics or the relentless police work involved in bringing said malefactor to justice, the cosy mystery is one that follows a tried and true formula. There is always a bunch of suspects, not usually from any kind of criminal underworld – often quite respectable people – red-herrings galore, and the slow revelation of facts while tension builds towards the unmasking of the murderer. It’s usually murder – that’s what people want. Cosy, eh?
There’s often an amateur sleuth involved too, who readers come to identify with; an interesting/exotic/charming setting and there might even be a bit of a romantic thread running through the series. Here’s a few of my favourites:
One writer who often turns up on the Agatha shortlist as well as earning the odd CWA Dagger award is Louise Penny. Her sleuth is a proper policeman – Inspector Gamache – but the setting of the tiny hamlet of Three Pines in Quebec, plus a whole raft of charming characters (artists, a grumpy old poet and her pet duck, the gay B&B/bistro owners and providers of lovingly described meals) make you want to book a holiday there. In spite of the astonishingly high death rate. These are best read in order.
Elly Griffiths’ first series is probably too cosy to be anything else, while others may disagree. Her main character is forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, who has a tricky relationship (romantically and professionally) with policeman DCI Harry Nelson. There are some wonderful characters among Nelson’s police team, as well as Ruth’s friends and colleagues, but Cathbad, a cloak wearing Druid, is a gem. As is the setting – Norfolk’s marshy south coast which is full of history and plot opportunities. Again, best read in order.
I have only read a couple of the Nicola Upson series based on real-life crime writer, Josephine Tey. She and policeman friend, Archie Penrose, make a great team, the plots satisfyingly complex and the writing is superb – wonderful atmosphere, and characters with loads of complexity. All set in between-the-wars London and sometimes Oxford and further afield.
Alan Bradley has an interesting sleuth in Flavia de Luce, a young girl with a passion for chemistry, who lives in a quaint English village circa 1950s with her eccentric family. Her first outing – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – won a raft of awards including a dagger and an Agatha. I am sure it picked up a lot of potential readers due to the delightful title. It has all you want in a cosy, but also an ingenious plot, and an adventurous amateur sleuth who tells the story in appealing first person.
Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is mostly set between the wars, with many of the crimes echoing back to the ongoing effects of World War One. Maisie is a psychologist with a knack for reading people and gaining their confidence, sometimes called in to investigate by Scotland Yard and the secret service. She’s had lots of adventures, lost loves and always comes out oozing good sense and integrity. The stories are always interesting, often highlighting little known aspects of the Great War – the work of wartime film-makers, the women who handed out white feathers, etc. Well researched and engaging.
I am sure I have left a few out – in fact I know I have – so I will be returning to this theme sometime in the future. Any Cosy recommendations happily accepted.