Sunday 26 May 2019

Forget cold hard crime, Cozy is just as thrilling

Forget New Year resolutions, fight the cold bleak months of winter with a good dose of Cozy Crime, writes Anne Marie Scanlon

David Suchet may have retired Poirot, but the Belgian sleuth has been brought back to life by Sophie Hannah in 'The Mystery of Three Quarters'
David Suchet may have retired Poirot, but the Belgian sleuth has been brought back to life by Sophie Hannah in 'The Mystery of Three Quarters'

Anne Marie Scanlon

January is, without doubt, the most dismal month of the year. Traditionally a time of empty pockets and tight waistbands, we make things even worse by punishing ourselves with self-denial and resolutions we can't keep.

Those with the cash escape to warmer weather but you don't need to jump on a jet to find solace in the long dark cold nights. A 'Cozy Crime' mystery does exactly what it says on the label and banishes the bleaks.

The 'Cozy' is a subgenre which, unlike much modern crime fiction, doesn't grab headlines. Despite the lack of publicity, Cozies regularly appear on the best-seller lists, although a consistent definition of what constitutes one is elusive.

Mystery author Amanda Fowler describes the genre as having "an amateur sleuth, an unsuspecting victim, a quirky supporting cast and a trail of clues and red herrings".

Catriona McPherson, author of the Dandy Gilver books, has a simpler explanation - "someone gets killed but no one gets harmed".

I asked McPherson why such a popular genre hadn't garnered more attention. McPherson thinks there are two issues, one being sexism. Cozy Crime, like traditional Golden Age Crime, is penned mainly by women and the derision aimed at it echoes that usually reserved for traditional romance.

Secondly, McPherson says, the name itself lacks "cool" and "is problematic. You do hear a lot of people denying that their books are 'Cozies', insisting they're called 'traditional mystery'".

Many Cozy Crime stories, like McPherson's Dandy Gilver series, The County Guides series by Ian Sansom and the Kate Shackleton mysteries by Frances Brody are all set during the 'Golden Age' period and feature country houses, picturesque towns, village fetes, posh people and clever plots. The settings are intimate, with a limited amount of characters and suspects.

The joy of these books is that, although it is fun to read them in sequence, they all work well as standalone novels.

Bangor-based Ian Sansom has created a Holmesian-style character with Swanton Morley, the 'People's Professor' in the, to date, four County Guide novels (Fourth Estate), all set in the 1930s and narrated by the character Stephen Sefton who is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War.

The latest Dandy Gilver escapade A Step So Grave (Hodder & Stoughton €29.39) is her 13th outing having gone from a new bride struggling to make sense of the aftermath of World War I to now being a mother-in-law fearing the coming of another cataclysmic war. In true 'Classic' style, the action all takes place in a 'Big Hoose' (while Dandy is English she's married to a Scot) on an island. The islanders, including the inhabitants of the Big Hoose, all speak Scots Gaelic and fervently believe in pre-Christian superstitions which are seamlessly woven throughout the plot.

Similarly, Kate Shackleton's latest outing, her 10th, in A Snapshot of Murder (Piatkus, €12.99) is set in 1928. The detective's photography society has taken a trip to Haworth for the opening of the Bronte home when one of their number is murdered in plain sight. Like McPherson, Brody manages to weave in plenty of facts, which will amuse Bronte fans.

For modern readers, the historical Cozies represent the best of both worlds as we get the atmosphere and setting of a classic, added humour and none of the casual racism, sexism and anti-Semitism that jar so much when you come across them unexpectedly in a Golden Age novel.

Then there are the novels that are historical Cozies with a twist. Some characters are too beloved to die - even when the author has. Dorothy L Sayers's aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey was resurrected for three books by Jill Paton Walsh while Agatha Christie's famous Belgian sleuth Poirot has been brought back to life by Sophie Hannah, a best-selling author famous for her domestic noir titles. Hannah's books are all cleverly plotted which made her a natural choice to continue Christie's legacy. The Mystery of Three Quarters (Harper Collins €17.99) is Hannah's third Poirot book, which sees the famous detective exercise his little grey cells over letters, purportedly sent by him, to a number of people accusing them of the murder of Barnabas Pandy, an old man who died accidentally. As befits both Christie and Hannah, The Mystery of Three Quarters has an extremely labyrinthine plot.

Cozies are not confined to the inter-war years - the bestselling Agatha Raisin series by 'Queen of Cozy Crime' MC Beaton, has a contemporary setting as does A Clean Canvas (Constable €11.19), the second of a, hopefully long, series featuring Lena Szarka, a Hungarian cleaner and amateur detective by Elizabeth Mundy.

The unifying theme between the historical Cozies and the contemporary kind are they both eschew overt sex and violence. While that might make them sound twee, they're not. Both Lena and Agatha are formidable and funny women who like men. Lena keeps getting in her own way with her policeman friend and in her latest jaunt Agatha Raisin and the Dead Ringer (book number 29, Constable €25.19) Agatha finds true, although not necessarily lasting, love.

It's too cold to be cool in January. Get Cozy.

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