A Very British Mystery

It must be the cooler weather, or just wanting a bit of mid-year R & R, but lately I’ve been devouring cosy mysteries. All have one thing in common – English rural settings. For some reason, there is nothing more entertaining than visualising a charming English village, complete with manor houses, welcoming inns and period churches, and then throwing in a whole lot of murder and mayhem.

First off I went to Bridgestead in Yorkshire, a village which is also home to a woollen mill. In Dying in the Wool, private investigator, and general nosey parker, Kate Shackleton accepts her first commission from soon-to-be-married chum Tabitha. Tabs wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but no one has seen him since the war (WWI, that is) when he ran away from the nursing home where he was being treated for depression. Is he alive or is he dead? That’s the problem. Soon there’s murder, danger and a bunch of characters with plenty to lose, so it’s just as well Kate has a right-hand man: Jim Sykes, an ex-copper too smart for the force. They make a great team. Tootling about in her 1913 Jowett, Kate is independent, undaunted and a sparky narrator. The 1920s era makes a brilliant backdrop too and I learned a lot about the textile industry. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the next in this cosy series by Frances Brody, A Medal for Murder.

The Kurland St Mary series by Catherine Lloyd makes you imagine what would happen if Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy decided to investigate murders together. Or maybe Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. The Austen era is more accurate for the series, but the Bronte characters seem to fit better somehow. Sir Robert Kurland is a Napoleanic Wars veteran, with the big house up the hill. He gets grumpy because of his leg injury. Lucy is the rector’s daughter who knows how to handle his moods and has an independent streak at odds with what was expected of women of her station. In Death Comes to the Fair, the two are planning their wedding but murder gets in the way when the verger is found with his head bashed in by a gargoyle. You can’t get more period mystery than that. The book introduces all the people who surprisingly hated Ezekiel Thurrock, farming folk mostly, and a story that goes back to events in the 1600s with some interesting stuff about superstition and witchcraft.

I’ve also been catching up with the Superintendent Richard Jury series by American author, Martha Grimes. It’s terrific that ebook versions of the earlier novels are coming out and I picked up The Old Fox Deceiv’d, the second in the series, for a couple of dollars – a genuine bargain. You might think that with Jury investigating, the stories would be more police procedural than cosy. But you couldn’t get a less stereotypical policeman. His mate is Melrose Plant who, with his abandoned title and lovely manners, has entree into the world of people with power, privilege and mansions. Plant loves nothing better than helping his chum Jury on a case. The books are each named after an English pub – here The Old Fox Deceiv’d is in the coastal village of Rackmoor, a bleaker spot you’d have trouble to find, this being Yorkshire in winter. When a woman in mummer’s costume is stabbed, Scotland Yard are called in and Jury and Plant carry on their detecting together, helped by home-alone twelve-year-old Bertie Makepiece and his dog. All the hallmark ingredients of a Richard Jury novel are here: humour, quaint characters, money and position, buried secrets and haunting tragedies. Good food too. What’s not to love?

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.