Mystery novelist and fellow blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Knot What it Seams was released in February. That’s the second in her series featuring retired art gallery professional Beatrice Coleman. And Rubbed Out, the fourth in Craig’s Memphis Barbecue series (which she writes as Riley Adams) is due to be released in less than a month. I’m very happy for her success, as I think she’s very talented. It’s also got me thinking about the appeal of cosy mysteries. They’ve been a part of the crime fiction scene for a long time, and they are consistently popular with a lot of readers. Of course, everyone likes one or another kind of novel for different reasons. But here are a few of my ideas as to why cosies are as popular as they are.
Many of them feature amateur sleuths and readers who like to identify with the protagonist find amateur sleuths especially appealing. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a normal, if I can put it that way, person. She’s not a cop and frankly, she’s not even eager to investigate mysteries. She’s a baker and that’s her real professional passion. She’s also not fashion-magazine beautiful. She’s one of ‘the rest of us,’ and that makes her accessible. Of course, the series features interesting characters and solid plots too, as well as a really effective Melbourne setting. But all that aside, Chapman is a ‘regular’ person. Now, not everyone might call this a cosy series because it does get a little edgy at times, but it ‘counts’ for me. Your mileage as the saying goes may vary.
Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson is also an amateur – a ‘regular’ person. When we first meet Jacobson in Retirement Homes are Murder, he’s moved to a retirement home after the death of his wife Rhonda. One day he finds the body of fellow resident Marshall Tiegan stuffed into a trash chute. When the police are alerted Detective Saito takes the case and begins to investigate. Jacobson is immediately suspected for a few reasons. First, Marshall Tiegan did not exactly top most people’s popularity lists and Jacobson had good cause to dislike him. What’s more, Jacobson has severe short-term memory loss. He can’t recall on any given day what happened the day before. So he can’t explain how he came to find the body or what happened just before the murder, and he can’t provide an alibi. Jacobson knows he’s not a killer though, so he decides to investigate the murder himself in order to clear his name.
One of the most appealing things about cosies for a lot of readers is that they tend to be low on violence and even lower on gore. Of course, murder is a violent, horrible thing and a well-written cosy acknowledges that. But the violence is generally kept ‘off stage.’ That’s what we see for instance in Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. Bayles is a former attorney who now owns an herb and tea shop called Thyme and Seasons in Pecan Springs, Texas. In Chile Death, Bayles’ policeman partner Mike McQuaid is recovering from a serious line-of-fire injury that has left him in a wheelchair, probably permanently. When he’s invited to serve as one of the judges for the upcoming Cedar Choppers Chili Cook-Off, Bayles thinks this is the perfect way to help McQuaid take his mind off his troubles. He’s unwilling at first, but finally agrees. On the day of the cook-off, one of the other judges Jerry Jeff Cody suddenly dies. It turns out that he was severely allergic to peanuts, and someone put peanuts in the chili he was asked to sample. Since she and McQuaid were both on the scene, Bayles gets involved in the investigation. There are several suspects too since Cody was not only an unfaithful husband but also a shady businessperson. In the meantime, Bayles and McQuaid also look into some disturbing allegations of some things happening at the nursing home where McQuaid is recuperating. There are stories that the director may be skimming money from the patients and has been abusive with at least one resident. These stories tie in with the murder and bit by bit, Bayles discovers the connections. There is violence in the story in the sense that someone is killed. But there is no gore and the violence that there is, is ‘off-stage.’
That’s also the case with Alan Bradley’s historical (1950s) Flavia de Luce series. Flavia is a preteen chemistry whiz who lives in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie we learn that she and her two sisters are being raised by their father Colonel de Luce in the family home Buckshaw. One morning, Flavia finds a dead body in the family’s cucumber patch. It turns out that this man is the same man she saw having an argument with her father the night before and sure enough, Colonel de Luce is soon arrested for the crime. Flavia knows that her father isn’t a murderer so she decides to find out who the dead man was and who really killed him. Flavia discovers that although the dead man and her father did have a tragic past connection, there are several other people who were just as eager to see the victim killed. In this novel, we don’t see the murder as it actually occurs, and the description of the body is kept brief. And yet, there is no doubt of what happened and Bradley gives a very authentic picture of how frightening it must be to have a family member accused of murder.
Many cosy series also feature a cast of ‘regulars,’ some of whom may be eccentric, but they’re all appealing. For lots of fans of cosies, that’s a big part of their appeal. Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Mma. Precious Ramotswe is like that. Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s only lady detective, is the main protagonist. But there are several other characters too, to whom fans of the series have become deeply attached. For instance, Mma. Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni owns Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. He doesn’t really solve cases with his wife, although she does sometimes seek his input. But his character is much-loved, and even his not-exactly-hard-working apprentices are popular ‘regulars.’ So of course is Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective with quite a lot of skill in her own right. Fans have followed the development of her character as she has evolved through the series. Also popular is Mma. Sylvia Potokwane who runs the local orphanage. There are other ‘regular’ characters too, and those who love this series are as attached to them as to anything else.
We also see that with Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series. The main protagonist is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, who lives in the small town of Pickax, in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ But there are several other ‘regulars’ who have become popular with fans. There’s Polly Duncan, head librarian and later bookshop owner, who is also the main woman in Qwill’s life. Then there’s Arch Riker, Qwill’s close friend and editor, and Arch’s wife Mildred. There’s also local police chief Andrew Brodie and luncheonette owner Lois Inchpot. As the series progresses, we see how the various ‘regulars’ interact with each other and with Quill, and fans have enjoyed the story arcs that feature them.
Well-written cosies of course also have believable mysteries and a solid setting too, just as any good crime fiction novel does. But for many people, the accessible protagonist, the low level of violence and brutality and the ‘regular’ characters of most cosies makes them especially appealing.
What about you? If you’re a fan of cosies, what is about them that appeals to you? If you write cosies, why did you choose that sub-genre?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Clarence Paul, Barney Ales, Dave Hamilton and Mickey Stevenson’s Once Upon a Time, made famous by Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells.