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.

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…”

Quick Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

museumA novel based on letters can be instantly engaging, especially when the writers start out as strangers and through writing, become friends. One of my favourites is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Anne Shaffer, which is one of the most heart-warming books ever. And then there is 84 Charring Cross Road by Helene Hanff, which isn’t a novel, but the actual correspondence between the author and the staff at a second-hand bookshop. You wouldn’t think that could be interesting, but thanks to the wonderful personality of the author, has become a classic, especially for book lovers.

Now we have Meet Me at the Museum, a novel in letters which begins when farmer’s wife, Tina Hopgood, writes to the museum housing The Tollund Man, in Denmark. She writes to the author of a book she discovered as a child and regrets in the fifty years since that she has never been able to make the pilgrimage to the museum to see The Tollund Man or meet the author, Professor Glob. Continue reading “Quick Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson”

Quick Review: An Unsuitable Match by Joanna Trollope

match.jpgTrollope’s latest novel begins where many stories end – with a proposal of marriage. Rose and Tyler have fallen in love in their sixties, and within a few short months recognise that in spite of previous marriages for both of them, they’ve never felt like this before. The problems begin when they tell their children they plan to marry.

Rose has an elder daughter, busy mum and doctor, Laura, who at first supports her mother’s decision – it’s her life, after all. But twins, Nat and Emmy are appalled. Their reaction is emotional and soon legal advice and prenups are being talked about. Then there’s Mallory, Tyler’s American actress daughter, who is enjoying having her father around for once, but now it looks like he’s going to abandon her again, to live in England. No wonder she finds it difficult to answer his calls. Continue reading “Quick Review: An Unsuitable Match by Joanna Trollope”

Quick Review: MI5 and Me – a memoir by Charlotte Bingham

9781408888148If it was in any way possible to cross a novel by John Le Carré with one by Nancy Mitford, it might turn out a bit like this. MI5 and Me is an account of the author’s time working in the typing pool in the British secret service during the 1950s.

Bingham’s father (also the inspiration for Le Carré’s Smiley) was a distant man who didn’t talk about his work at home. When his daughter shows no talent for making anything of her life, he finds her a job at MI5 where he holds a senior position. At the time, the bureau is mostly concerned with communism, spying on what seem to be perfectly harmless people, breaking into their homes and planting bugs in their telephones. As well as creating endless paperwork – hence the typing pool. Continue reading “Quick Review: MI5 and Me – a memoir by Charlotte Bingham”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Cazalet Chronicles

The Cazalet Chronicles is a kind of historical saga set in England around the years of World War Two. The great thing about it is that there is such a large cast of characters and multiple plot threads, that every time I read it there is more to discover. It follows the Cazalet family of three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, and their families – particularly daughters Polly, Louise and Clary – who each take up a chunk of the narrative. There’s also the unmarried sister/aunt, Villy, as well as elderly parents which provide a link with the past.  Howard published the Chronicles in the 1990s and they were massively successful, with a follow-up book, All Change, in 2013 about the same characters some years later.

What I really like about it: Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Cazalet Chronicles”

Quick Review: The Wildflowers by Harriet Evans

 

The Wildflowers coverSometimes you just need an absorbing read that spirits you away to another place and time and connects with the emotions. Harriet Evans’ new book does just that, delving into the family secrets and tragic events that shape the lives of the Wilde family.

Anthony Wilde is the greatest stage actor of his day; his wife Althea has taken a pause from acting to raise her two children, eventually to become a success on television. They are the beautiful couple, with two beautiful children: precocious songbird Cordelia and her sensitive brother Ben(nedict). Every summer they arrive at the Bosky, the house built by Tony’s gambler grandfather, which nestles just above the sand dunes. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Wildflowers by Harriet Evans”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

caseYes, I know they put Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels on television and the series was so memorable you can probably remember the broad shape of each plot. But even if you can remember the ending, as soon as you pick up one of the books – and let’s start with the first one: Case Histories – you know you are in for a really good time.

In case you’ve forgotten, Jackson Brodie is a private investigator living in Cambridge, a failed marriage behind him and trying to be a good father to a daughter he only sometimes sees. He’s middle-aged and smokes but fortunately keeps himself in shape because someone is out to kill him. On his books are a bunch of cold cases when two eccentric sisters ask him to look into what happened to their baby sister thirty years ago.

What I like about this book:

  • This is a really intricately plotted mystery interweaving a bunch of story threads so that you have to keep your wits about you.
  • The character of Brodie who is almost your classic troubled PI – the smoking and broken marriage are dead giveaways – but he’s just so much more interesting than that. Perhaps it’s because he comes from the North.
  • All the characters are interesting, have strong backstories and are richly rendered on the page.
  • Best of all, I love Atkinson’s writing. It shows that she has won the Man Booker a couple of times. She really crafts her prose and yet at the same time, it is lively and readable.
  • Stephen King said it was the best crime novel of the decade – and he could be right.

Books from 2017 I Forgot to Read

It is humbling to look at your Must-Read List and see novels just getting away from you. You pick them up and put them down again because the reading experience is so personal that you know when a book is right for you – and when it isn’t.

Some books need a lot of concentration so you save them for a holiday or a long, wet weekend. Others are just the wrong genre for your mood at the time. Or maybe you wanted to read it but were put off by that negative review, or worse, the review that had too many spoilers in it. And then there are those books you just want to save for a special occasion – like the last chocolate in the box of Belgian pralines. You just never know when you might need it.

So here is my list of really good books I should have read last year but, for whatever reason, didn’t: Continue reading “Books from 2017 I Forgot to Read”

What’s So Special About Scottish Islands?

I’ve done it again – picked up a novel because it was set on a Scottish island. Not that I was disappointed. Keep the Midnight Out is a solid mystery novel featuring Alex Gray’s regular investigator, DI Lorimer. I enjoyed it so much I plan to read the rest of the series, even if I do have to cross the water to the mainland.

And while I do have ancestral connections to the Isle of Skye, I know I’m not the only one to really enjoy these Scottish island settings – the remoter the better. Once you’re on an island, cut off from super-fast broadband and other tricks of modernity, well, anything can happen and so often does. Continue reading “What’s So Special About Scottish Islands?”