What image do you conjure up in your head when you hear the term “cosy mystery”? A tea tray set before a blazing log fire in a library where the occupant sits lifeless? An idyllic rural pastoral scene punctured only by the bullet hole through the forehead of the local country squire? If you’re anything like me the first name that pops to mind will be Miss Marple’s—a small backwater village in rural, genteel England, where the curtains swish with every passer-by and murder lurks just along the lane. Which brings me neatly to the first point that I feel most cosy mysteries share in common: they are invariably set in some version of the past, even those that are meant to be contemporary. Scratch the surface of Agatha Raisin’s Cotswold village of Carsely, Hamish Macbeth’s remote Lochdubh, or Mma Ramotswe’s bustling Gabarone, and you’ll find yourself not so very far from rustic 1930s St Mary Mead. Why should this be? Well, as Jane Marple remarks to her nephew Raymond in The Thirteen Problems:
‘You think that because I have lived in this out-of-the-way spot all my life I am not likely to have had any very interesting experiences.’
‘God forbid that I should ever regard village life as peaceful and uneventful,’ said Raymond with fervour. ‘Not after the horrible revelations we have heard from you! The cosmopolitan world seems a mild and peaceful place compared to St Mary Mead.’
‘Well, my dear,’ said Miss Marple, ‘human nature is much the same everywhere, and, of course, one has opportunities of observing it at close quarters in a village.’
Like the redoubtable Miss Marple, detectives in cosy mysteries are almost always amateur sleuths. Think of Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody and Alan Bradley’s 11-year-old master poisoner Flavia de Luce. Possibly less familiar, but of equally amateur status and just as enjoyable, we have Colin Cotterill’s 1970s Laotian coroner Dr Siri Paiboun freshly dragged out of retirement, Frances Brody’s 1920s Yorkshire lass Kate Shackleton, a young war widow who’s game for anything, and Lindsey Davis’s swords & sandals informer (read “private investigator in Ancient Rome”) Marcus Didius Falco. Even the great Hercule Poirot has no official standing, despite his lifetime service to the Belgian police force.
There are one or two exceptions to this rule: M. C. Beaton’s Scottish bobby Hamish Macbeth is on active duty (of a sort), as is Andrea Camilleri’s food-loving Sicilian, Inspector Montalbano. So too is Georges Simenon’s Maigret, if you include Maigret in this genre. But none of these series could be described as “police procedural”, and the officers in question are not beyond working outside official channels—indeed they often must. All share a further factor with practically every other cosy mystery—the sleuth, be they amateur or otherwise, has companions.
Companions. Whether it’s Amelia Peabody’s Emerson howling curses at her as he strides manfully off across the sands, or Precious’s be-spectacled assistant Mma Makutsi sitting at her typewriter and contemplating yet again the ninety-seven per cent score she received for her diploma, it seems to me the detective’s companions are key to distinguishing the cosy from every other type of mystery. A cosy is likely to be just as much about the companions as any murder that may (or may not) occur. Indeed, from The Kalahari Typing School for Men onwards Grace Makutsi nearly always steals the limelight, bringing a great deal of pathos to the proceedings as she does so. In Colin Cotterill’s Disco for the Departed, Siri’s young morgue assistant, Mr Geung—who happens to have Downs Syndrome—is abducted and whisked far from home, and in many ways (for me at least) the book is about his singular determination to make it back. Even animals can feature: Bastet the cat in The Curse of the Pharaohs, Saloop the dog who saves the doctor’s life in The Coroner’s Lunch, Nux the stray, who attaches herself to Falco in Time to Depart, Hamish Macbeth’s happy-go-lucky Lugs who gambols playfully with wildcat Sonsie in the heather. Human or furry, the role of the companion is not only to move the plot along (or to slow it down if need be), but also to bring humour to the story.
Humour: it may not be essential to the cosy mystery, but the majority have it in spades. Whether it’s 11-year-old Flavia rejecting method after method to arrive at the perfect way of poisoning her hosts, or Mma Ramotswe (slight spoiler here) insisting on still calling her husband Mr J. L. B. Matekoni after their marriage (as in, ‘Wake up Mr J. L. B. Matekoni! Wake up Mr J. L. B. Matekoni! There is a fire!’), a wry and comic insight into human nature is guaranteed to find fertile soil in this genre. Eagle-eyed readers will, I hope, forgive the fact that I made that last quote up myself; it is, however, entirely consistent with the series, as I’m sure other readers will attest.
So; have I managed to sum up the elements that make up a cosy mystery? Have I left anything out? I’d love to know your thoughts. If you’ve come here via Facebook, why not leave me a comment on the post there? The same goes for Twitter. And if, like me, you are a fan of Crimes & Thrillers, do consider joining me at the Canada Water Crime & Thrillers Book Club on Facebook. We are a small but friendly and enthusiastic reading group who read widely—from classics by the likes of Wilkie Collins to more recent novels such as The Girl on the Train—but most of us have a soft spot for a good cosy mystery. We generally meet up at 2 pm at Canada Water Library (in Rotherhithe, London) on the fourth Thursday of every month, but if you live elsewhere in this big, wide world and fancy following what we read, you are most welcome to join us online. Maybe you’ve read and loved our current book? Then do share your thoughts by posting on the appropriate post; we’ll try to read through them at the meeting (though sadly the wifi can be a bit dodgy).
Finally, to celebrate this year’s midsummer solstice—and as a small token of my thanks for taking the trouble to find this page—I’d like to offer you any (or all) of my novels for free. You’ll find no cosier mysteries anywhere than the Send for Octavius Guy series! This extraordinary offer is available from Wednesday June 21st to Saturday June 24th 2017 inclusive.