You may recall I did a little poll last week concerning the nature of the term “cosy” when it comes to crime fiction. I was going to wait a little while to collect my thoughts, but I’ve been listening to an interview where Laura Wilson interviews Martin Edwards and Richard Coles – it’s a bit odd, it’s like a tag-team event where Martin gets ten minutes to talk about the Crime Classics range and then Richard gets tagged in to talk about Murder Before Evensong. Anyway, at least twice now, Laura has used the word “cosy” as a euphemism for “Golden Age”, and I think it’s time to put an end to this confusion once and for all. I just wish that I could.
The term “cosy mystery” – technically “cozy mystery” as sources seem to indicate it started in the US – first appeared in the late 20th century and seems to, in theory, cover mysteries where:
- any violence, sex or profanity occurs off-page
- the sleuth is an amateur
- the sleuth often has a specific job – bookseller, cheesemaker, White House chef
Also, more often than not in the titles that I’ve read
- the sleuth is having a relationship with the local sheriff; and
- the title is a god-awful pun
These books profligate in the US as a response to the hard-boiled genre but never really had much success over here in the UK. That hasn’t stopped the term “cosy mystery” from crossing the Atlantic however…
Nowadays, it is often used to describe anything that tackles the first criteria listed. But just because the author doesn’t describe any of those things, doesn’t mean that the book in question is light and fluffy. So let’s take a quick look at the results of the poll I conducted.
|The Appeal||Janice Hallett||83%||17%|
|Gallows Court||Martin Edwards||94%||6%|
|Magpie Murders||Anthony Horowitz||81%||19%|
|Brother Athelstan||Paul Doherty||86%||14%|
|Brother Cadfael||Ellis Peters||65%||35%|
|The Thursday Murder Club||Richard Osman||83%||17%|
|The Bernie Rhodebarr Mysteries||Lawrence Block||83%||17%|
|The Hollow Man||John Dickson Carr||94%||6%|
|And Then There Were None||Agatha Christie||92%||8%|
|A Murder Is Announced||Agatha Christie||56%||44%|
|The ABC Murders||Agatha Christie||80%||20%|
|The Hound Of The Baskervilles||Arthur Conan Doyle||95%||5%|
So in the eyes of the expert witnesses (i.e. you good readers) none of these books are cosy mysteries.
You might question my choices, but there’s a method in my madness. The Appeal is a well-disguised traditional mystery with clues and stuff. But that doesn’t make it cosy. Gallows Court is set in the Golden Age. Not enough either. Magpie Murders, similarly, is two very traditional mysteries in a new setting. But clearly a new setting is enough to stop it being cosy. Cosy mysteries need familiarity.
Brothers Athelstan and Cadfael were then enlisted, partly to see the contrast. You see, I thought Cadfael might tick the image of a cosy. He fits a lot of the criteria (although I don’t think he’s in a relationship with the Sheriff) whereas Brother Athelstan is a ray of light in a distinct grubby London where his creator never shies away from some grotesque (but true) imagery – the dismembered head with the victim’s nether regions shoved in its mouth is an image that had never left me (and now will never leave you – sorry). Quite frankly, I’m amazed 14% thought he was cosy.
Richard Osman’s book being so non-cosy surprised me, I have to say, given that I’ve seen it described as such many times. Lawrence Block’s Burglar books however… now the only difference between the basic set-up of those books and most US cosies is the lead being male. So again, this one surprises me. Any insight on these two would be gratefully received.
The Hollow Man and The Hound Of The Baskervilles were there for contrast, but the most interesting results are the Agatha Christie books. Namely, Miss Marple (or at least A Murder Is Announced) is the closest book in the list to having a majority of cosy votes whereas Poirot and And Then There Were None didn’t come close. Is it Miss Marple herself? Is it the village setting? If I’d picked The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd (set in a village, Poirot is now an amateur), might that have come close? Probably not.
So what have we learned? Well, none of these books are cosy mysteries. There are such mysteries in the UK these days, but they tick the same boxes as the US traditional cozies, such as Murder At The Dolphin Hotel by Helena Dixon, Faith Martin’s Jenny Starling mysteries etc. But these are books where, I’m 90% sure, the author would admit that they have set out to write a cosy mystery.
Certainly just being written between the wars does not make a book cosy. As you know, dear reader, Golden Age crime fiction covers a multitude of styles of books – even if you only read Agatha Christie – so trying to paste a generic “cosy” label over them is generalising to a ridiculous extreme.
There’s nothing wrong with a good cosy mystery (apart from the fact that one with clues in it is pretty rare) – for example, you really should check out Chef Maurice And A Spot Of Truffle and its two sequels by J A Lang. But we could really do without tagging anything going with the label as it does put some people off a book if that label sticks.
Have I reached any useful conclusion? Not really, apart from the fact that people use the term incorrectly, and I knew that already. But how about that we don’t use the word “cosy” to describe a book unless the author does so first? Or if it involves a haunted yarn shop?