In defence of cosy crime

Image credit: Ellen Birch

My friends and family have never understood how one of my favourite book genres is crime, since, sensitive soul that I am, any kind of thriller or crime-related film or TV show has me cowering behind the nearest pillow. However, the subtlety lies in the type of crime novel. My crime genre of choice? Cosy crime. Seemingly oxymoronic, the cosy crime genre will typically encompass old ladies, a village green, perhaps a bake sale or a fête with a vicar thrown in for good measure, and the inevitable murder of one of said characters in one of said settings. There is no gore, no description of how the knife entered the unsuspecting chap’s heart, or account of how the poison worked its fatal magic, for that is beside the point. Instead it is the characters who drive the plot, and their psychology which interests us. Where was Margaret really when she said she hadn’t moved from the drawing room that fateful night? What was the butler doing, mysteriously hurrying around the parish?

This village green example of the genre is best exemplified by the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Underestimated by her fellow villagers, this sweet old lady is surprisingly shrewd, using this façade to her advantage when dealing with criminals in order to uncover their inner psychology. Her other detective, the Belgian Hercule Poirot has his own quirks and charms which are employed in solving crimes in the neatest, most meticulous way possible.

In the 90s, the author M.C. Beaton created a modern-day counterpart to Miss Marple: Agatha Raisin. A middle-aged sleuth who lives in a cottage in the Cotswolds, with a weakness for drinking and smoking and perpetual weight struggles. Drawing on similar themes (the first in the series is entitled ‘Agatha Raison and the Quiche of Death’), the trials and tribulations of Agatha offer an extremely amusing contemporary twist on more traditional crime writers, encompassing the romantic struggles of Miss Raisin whilst never lacking in criminal action.

As a student of literature, I sometimes worry that studying ‘highbrow’ writing has the potential to turn us into snobs, forcing us to see the flaws in the predictable, formulaic plotlines of whodunnits. Yet there is a reason that this remains such a popular device; the best crime writers will drop clues, leading us to believe we’ve cracked it, only to introduce an unforeseen twist and reveal one of the most unassuming characters as the murderer. Yes, this unexpected element is almost as predictable as anything else, but is still intensely enjoyable. Christie wrote over 70 novels, yet the solutions to the crimes are still astonishingly original – she is the Queen of Crime after all.

Reading as escapism is a cliché as old as time itself but with good reason. In our complicated, uncertain world, there is always joy to be found in visiting a glossy, picture-perfect setting, following a detective’s quest to solve a civilised crime and relying on good old Miss Marple to save the day. One of my favourite presents of all time was a stack of cosy crime novels given to me by my Grandma, including whodunnits by Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell and Angela Thirkell. Such authors are abundant, the Christmas holidays are upon us, what better time is there to settle down with a cup of tea and get lost in these simple, cosy worlds of murder?


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