Everyone has heard of the murder mystery.
Whodunnits, locked rooms and what nots, with a careful detective – whether it’s Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher or a Phryne Fisher, that unravels all the secrets and twists until a murderer is discovered, justice is had and vengeance is wrought.
I have loved murder mysteries since I was a child – I started out innocently enough, following Nancy Drew down crooked staircases and joining Tom and Liz Austen through Casa Loma – and very quickly turned to Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey and P.D. James. The more I read, the more I realized I liked a particular subgenre of the murder mystery – that is the cozy mystery.
The definition of “cozy murder mystery” on Wiki is as follows:
Cozy mysteries, also referred to simply as “cozies,” are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.
Essentially, a cozy murder mystery is a mystery set in a little town, with a finite amount of suspects and a lot of deep secrets beneath the rose bushes, white picket fences and smiling faces. Usually, our detective is female. Usually, our detective is an amateur. And usually, our detective will not be taken seriously by professional detectives or police – which is great since she can operate at te peripheries of the law – like how Miss Marple waltzes into people’s homes for tea and talk, or how Jessica Fletcher casually puts her ear to doors to overhear conversations. They have good observation skills, and an understanding of humanity – including motives and impulses.
In short, their fun mysteries in little towns.
The reason I like them, partly anyway, is that they bring you into an insular world, where the suspects, victims and bystanders are all neighbours of varying degrees, and there’s that intimacy as what happens with small towns. I like the idea of having my perpetrator be a part of a community, instead of a random. I like the symmetry of it, the quaintness even.
Also, I love a good lady detective.
So, to whet your appetite, here are a few of my favourites:
We’re introduced to Miss Marple as one would someone’s aging old busybody aunt with a fondness for needlework and poking her nose where it doesn’t belong. She’s smart, she notices people and she always has some obscure story of how whatever situation she’s in, or whatever conclusion she’s drawn – has a mirror in a situation she remembers from St. Mary Mead, her cozy little village, and its often strange residents. Miss Marple has been immortalized on film and television, as well as in play form by the original author, Christie, and my favourite adaptations of Miss Marple mysteries have been the latest (and still ongoing) series starring first Geraldine McEwan and then Julia MacKenzie as the titular character. Both actresses are brilliant, and my favourite episode (funnily enough, is very very loosely adapted from the novel) is Nemesis – not only because of its shock value, but because of the ways in which we get a glimpse at how truly tough Miss Marple can be.
If you’re starting out with Miss Marple, I would actually start with The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side: it’s not first in the series (if it can indeed be called a series) but it can be read as a stand alone, and it introduces you soundly to the climate and population of St. Mary Mead. If you want to start the series at it’s true start, then the first full length novel to read would be The Murder at the Vicarage – also one of my favourites!
I will confess – I haven’t read the Father Brown books by G.K. Chesterton. I should get around to that at some point, but I haven’t yet. Not to be stopped, however, I have watched all the Father Brown episodes from BBC – the new series beginning in 2012 and starring Mark Williams. As I understand it, the original books are set in the 1920s, and the series is set in the 1950s but the spirit is still the same.
The Father Brown series revolves around an inquisitive and deeply logical Catholic priest, Father Brown, and his parish, where he continuously poke his nose into the investigations of the village detective, warranted or not, in an attempt to solve crimes. In terms of episodes, I much taken with the Series 2 episode “The Pride of the Prydes”, though there is a special place in my heart for Series 1’s “The Devil’s Dust”.
The series manages to capture the spirit of the cozy mystery genre, as well as the fraught times of 1950s England. It’s brilliant.
I have been told two things that surprised me lately about Murder, She Wrote: (1) They are remaking this series, but not the character of Jessica Fletcher; and, (2) That Jessica Fletcher is not based on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. While I am super excited about the former (especially since Octavia Spencer is slotted to be the new-but-not Jessica Fletcher!) the latter, quite frankly, baffles me. Miss Marple is an elderly woman, with no cildren of her own, but a nephew she’s fond of, who has a habit of being a bit of a gossip and is observant enough to unravel a mystery. Jessica Fletcher is a former Maine (Cabot’s Cove as opposed to St Mary Mead) schoolteacher and widow turned murder mystery writer, with no kids of her own, but a bunch of nephews/nieces she’s fond of, with a habit of being a busybody and snooping, but with wits enough to solve a mystery or two. Maybe it’s an archetype of somesort? The elderly mystery-solving busybody? Meh …
Regardless, the show itself is pretty ace: Jessica Fletcher faces off with Russian KGB enforcers, hot-shot social climbers, actors and directors, and a myriad of other suspects, including a really creepy male secretary (on my mind since I watched that particular episode last week on Netflix). She’s a no-nonsense type, probably gained from years as a schoolteacher, and she has a great mind to watch at work. The townspeople of Cabot Cove are also great fun – equal parts aw-shucks homey, and possible deterrents to Jessica’s own investigation. A little dated now, so I cannot wait to see what this prophesized reimagining will do with the character, but still, the humanity of the show is timeless and the murder mysteries are fun if nothing else!
This is stretching the “cozy” part of “cozy murder mysteries” since it’s set in and out of South Africa, Swaziland and Botswana, with a running count of different characters, however since our Lady Detective, Precious Ramotswe – a traditionally built African woman with keen observational skills and a huge, warm heart – surrounds herself with such memorable and constant characters as companions, and treats everyone like her village neighbour, I am putting it in here.
Also, you guys should totally check out both – the books by Alexander McCall Smith, and the (too short!) tv series by BBC/HBO. There are some major differences between movie and books (when aren’t there?) But both capture the spirit of Precious and her group of confidantes. The mysteries, particularly in the books, can ramble a bit, and she takes ona few mysteries at once, so you can sometimes forget which trajectory you’re on, but they all roll around to a great explanation for everything that went on by the end – where you’re like, oh duh – why didn’t I think of that? They’re also full of everything that reminds me of South Africa – which makes my heart hurt a little with longing.
I have not seen the sort of “prequel” movie attached to this one, since Netflix stopped streaming it shortly before we got Netflix, but I was able to catch this film – set in Canada, about a resort-owning family coming back to their family resort for a final Christmas as their patriarch has announced that he is dying. The main character is the manager of the resort, a young woman who loves to solve riddles and puzzles – which s fortunate for her, since her grandfather (the dying partiarch) is making the family member who solves his game of riddles the heir to all he owns. Of course, like any well-ff literary family, there are secrets. egos, lies and murder behind more than a few of the smiles around the dining room table.
All in all, it’s a low budget made-for-television dealio, but it’s a fun romp with plenty of mysteries to keep you entertained. The suspect pool is small, given their stranded at a resort in the middle of a Canadian winter, and our amateur detective is pretty spot on – she should follow her spidey sense more often. Not sure if this is still on Netflix, but if it is – definitely check it out! And hopefully the first movie will be put back on for us soon!
Subgenre: Mysteries and Recipes
As with any genre – the more people write under its label, the more subgenres get created! My favourite in the “cozy mystery” genre is probanly the “Recipes and Murder” mysteries – the types of books with delightful sounding titles, recipes attached to some chapters, and of course, a village full of murder suspects. Some of my favourites over the years have been these delightfully titled morsels:
Death by Darjeeling & the rest of the Tea Shop Mysteries series by Laura Child
One Bad Apple & the Orchard Mysteries series by Sheila Connoly
For more on Cozy Mysteries, visit these sites:
Cozy Mysteries List site.
Mystery-Cozy, themed lists.
As you can maybe tell, I also have a preference for English Cozy Mysteries, but I always welcome more recommendations!