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Tuesday, April 25, 2023


Article by Margaret von Klemperer (Courtesy of The Witness)

Is crime getting cosier? That’s a question that might raise hollow laughter in South Africa where every day we are regaled with more news of vicious, violent crimes. But in terms of crime writing, it just might be true.

Locally, cosy crime seems to be the province of Sally Andrews and her Tannie Maria novels which combine detection and cookery and have been made into a TV series. There’s also the Kubu Bengu series by Michael Stanley (the pen name of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip), which is on the cooler side of cosy. And internationally, regularly topping the bestseller lists are Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club books, now also destined for TV. There is also Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency seemingly endless series set in Botswana and Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders. But what makes crime novels cosy?

To go back to the early days of crime writing, the so-called Golden Age writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and others, set the benchmark though the cosy term hadn’t been coined. There was little overt violence, almost no sex (if any, it was implied rather than visualised) and even, on occasion, no murder. Two examples of that are Sayers’ The Nine Tailors where there is certainly a corpse but I don’t want to give spoilers in case anyone hasn’t read it, though it would be hard to call yourself a crime fan if you haven’t. The other is her Gaudy Night where no-one dies at all.

Another example of Golden Age crime is Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time which regularly appears in lists of the greatest crime novels ever. In this one, the detective is flat on his back in hospital following an accident and the crime is 400 years old – the disappearance and presumed murder of the Princes in the Tower. Historically the novel may be questionable – Tey’s thesis has been largely debunked - but the detection is still great fun.

Those early cosy writers favoured a series detective – as do Andrews, Stanley, McCall Smith and Osman – and a mixture of genuine clues and red herrings for the readers to follow. That is one of the main divides between cosy and hard-boiled crime writing. In the latter, where the horrors are piled on thick and the shocks are visceral the reader is less likely to be trying to spot the baddie and more likely to be perched on the edge of their seat nibbling their fingernails. In fact, the perpetrator is often known. Avoiding and catching him or her is the problem.

The hard-boiled or psychological thrillers often also miss the element of fun that is an important part of cosy crime, sometimes at the expense of realism. You have to take Osman’s quartet of septuagenarians with a pinch of salt but they are hugely enjoyable. Hard-boiled crime of the kind pioneered by Americans such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett often had humour and wit, but not so much tongue-in-cheek stuff.

The hard-boiled genre has led on to the police procedurals and noir genre of today while the Golden Age writers spawned the cosy novels. They certainly have killings, often lots of them, but there’s not usually too much spattered blood and horror. Though sex is much more visible than it was nearly a century ago in the Golden Age.

Of course, there is a degree of crossover. To my mind, Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels – which are among my favourite crime novels of all time – fall into that category. The earliest ones, The Crossing Places and The Janus Stone are genuinely frightening. But as the characters of Ruth and DCI Nelson develop, along with their fraught relationship, somehow the crime begins to seem less important than their story. Perhaps Griffiths’ novels could be called warm rather than cosy. In the most recent in the series, solving the mystery has been almost perfunctory, secondary to the characters.

Other series, such as Ann Cleeves’ Vera books have begun to seem cosier thanks to their television spin-offs where Brenda Blethyn’s stunning portrayal of Vera has made her seem a much warmer character than she appears in the novels. Again, as the series has developed the reader, or watcher, has become more invested in the personality of the central figure and less in the detection.

The current popularity of cosy maybe owes something to the Covid pandemic, though it was growing in popularity before lockdown. When we were all stuck at home, and facing a very uncertain future, an escape from dark realism was appealing. And in a more and more uncertain and tormented world, humour and the certainty that good is going to triumph and all will be well in the end offers some comfort, even if only for the time you are curled up in your armchair with a book.

Publishing figures suggest that while cosy crime is having an upsurge, so is its darker cousin. Crime pays if you are a publisher, although an article in Publishers Weekly a couple of years ago pointed out the dangers of less skilled writers jumping on the cosy bandwagon and damaging the whole genre.

All in all, there are worse ways of taking time out from day-to-day reality than curling up with a bit of cosy crime. At the very least, the best ones will give you a laugh and they still make you jump - just not too high - when the door creaks. – Margaret von Klemperer