Originally published in Red Herrings, the Newsletter of the Crime Writers Association
The cosy mystery gets a lot of hate these days. Modern cosies tend to be like popcorn: light, tasty, but ultimately insubstantial. The writing can be workmanlike and slapdash. But the most common criticism, in my experience, is that the stories are superficial, and don’t delve into the dark corners of the human psyche like “proper literature” ought to.
Full disclosure: I don’t write cosies. I write gritty historicals. I do love to read cosies, though. For me, and, I believe for a lot of readers, they fulfil a very specific function.
The cosy has its roots in the collective trauma of the first world war. The stock cosy settings — villages, country mansions — offer the reader (and, admittedly, the writer) control over a chaotic world.
In a cosy, it’s often clear from the beginning who will be the victim (they deserve it). The murderer generally isn’t too difficult to identify, either. Many suspects have motives, but most of the time, who actually done it is clear early on.
The clean, controlled, chaos-free environment allows for a low-angst examination of the crime. Following the breadcrumbs of means, motive, and opportunity gives the reader a low-stakes puzzle with a reward at the end.
And the final resolution of a cosy provides a tidy wrap-up to something horrible and untidy. It makes sense of the senseless — a resolution that may elude people who have experienced, or are experiencing stress, or even trauma.
I love cosies because they are tidy. I read them voraciously when I’m stressed. I tore through my particular favourite series, Edith Maxwell’s Quaker Midwife series, during lockdown. Maxwell’s stories not only make sense of the senseless in a small, rural town; they also surround the reader with a cast of characters who are aggressively decent.
Considering the flood of nastiness that pours forth from the internet, television, and newspapers, an hour or two of aggressive decency can be a lifesaver.
As a fan wrote on Maxwell’s own website:
“Your books are a fine vacation from these painful times, and especially good companionship while my Friends meeting is diminished by quarantine. I’m glad for your books and the values they bring.”
Writer Peter Dunne said that the purpose of journalism is ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’
And while I agree that, as Blake said, examining the nature of human conflict is a mission of the novelist, I also believe that providing comfort is an equally valid and important mission.
And for me, comfort and low-angst entertainment are why I (and probably other readers) love a nice cosy.
Fancy some historical mystery? Check out my Simon Pearce Collection, Shadow of Justice, now available at your favorite e-tailer.
My new book isn’t a cozy, but it does have a mystery, and possibly a monster or two. Coming August 2021 from Bold Strokes Books.