I’m not surprised that the humour and gentle escapism of cosy crime is having a moment. The books themselves are not a response to what we’re living through: most were written before lockdown or Cop26. But while noir profits from exploring our deepest anxieties, cosy taps into a need for self-protection that many readers are feeling right now. It doesn’t mean that a well-constructed cosy mystery is light or meaningless.
When I set out to write about the Queen as a secret detective, I wanted to explore a world run by a woman driven by a strong moral code. The sort who would say, on her 21st birthday, “My life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service,” and mean it. I wouldn’t say that integrity in public office is the defining characteristic of our age, but it can be relaxing to imagine it. Add to that a unique perspective on the world, a lifetime of high-level political experience, and access to any expert she pleases – and you have a ready-made investigator. The Queen is in fact one year older than Miss Marple, who first appeared in print in 1927. Is that really such a coincidence?
There is no such thing as a cosy crime, of course. Murder is murder. However, while there may be sex and violence in these stories, it is usually off-stage. In the following books, we spend our time with detectives who have somehow managed not to become drink-addled loners, who inhabit places we would like to live or visit, among communities who, despite their differences, ultimately trust each other and get along. It makes a change from the papers. What’s not to like?
1. Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie
Written before the second world war, this Poirot novel is full of tightly wound characters hiding seething emotions. The plot contains masterful misdirection about place and time, but its success was also due in part to its depiction of summer sun, silk pyjamas, blue skies and sandy beaches. By the time it came out in 1941, the peacetime Devon coast where it’s set had become a fantasy world. The victim is obvious from the start, as so often in Christie’s novels, but by whose hand will she die, and why? And what about those silk pyjamas?
2. The Appeal by Janice Hallett
A postmodern, do-it-yourself mystery, composed exclusively of emails, texts and notes, in which the reader is asked to solve the crime. Set in the comfortable yet ruthless world of amateur dramatics, its comedy comes from the wide variety of the message-writers’s voices, from passive aggressive to desperate, all of which we recognise.
3. Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by MC Beaton
MC Beaton was one of the many pen names of the prolific Scottish author Marion Chesney, who died in 2019 having written 31 books about Agatha Raisin and 34 about Hamish Macbeth. If there’s anything cosy crime readers love more than an underestimated heroine, an Airbnb-worthy Cotswolds cottage and a cat, it’s a series. Agatha herself is a comic delight: sexy, vampish and rude, but hiding more than a few vulnerabilities, and not hiding them very well. I wasn’t convinced by the TV series, which didn’t quite capture her Birmingham roots with Mayfair overtones, but Penelope Keith makes Agatha her own in many of the audiobooks.
4. Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers
I grew up on golden age crime fiction, and fell in love with Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey as so many readers do. He is Bertie Wooster with Jeeves’s brain, made human by the first world war PTSD that still haunts him in moments of stress. In Strong Poison, he has fallen madly in love with Harriet Vane, a spiky, unyielding, intelligent woman who is condemned to hang for murdering her lover. Sayers clearly made Harriet a successful crime writer because if she couldn’t have her beloved Peter, then no one could.
5. Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
A beautifully descriptive tale of a young man who inserts himself into a wealthy family, knowing he is not the missing son they want him to be. The mystery he encounters is a slow-burn, but ends up with a not-so-cosy denouement worthy of Iain Banks.
6. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
If there’s a king of cosy crime, I’d argue it’s Horowitz, who originally adapted Midsomer Murders for TV and bettered it with Foyle’s War. In Magpie Murders, telling a simple detective story is too easy, so Horowitz tells two, one inside the other. The clues to the contemporary outer crime rely on an editor’s finely tuned understanding of the writing of the inner one, in which Horowitz recreates a classic golden age mystery. It could seem like plain showing off, but its clever theme of editing-as-detection is a delight.
7. The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
Richard Osman used to be a TV celebrity who secretly wrote crime fiction in his spare time. Then The Thursday Murder Club came out and he is now a worldwide publishing phenomenon who makes TV shows. Osman is a very funny writer, a brilliant observer of middle-class mores, who cares about the lives of his protagonists – residents facing their mortality in retirement homes – and it shows. He is also good at killing people all over Kent, and getting his unlikely quartet of detectives to work out why and how. Book two, The Man Who Died Twice, is as good if not better.
8. Three Pines series by Louise Penny
Can these books be called cosy? Penny explores dark political themes and some of the books read like thrillers, but there is an essential goodness to the community in the fictional Canadian town of the title, and the warm and loving relationships that hold Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, his family and friends together. Her deft touch in capturing those bonds is a balm for any soul battered by the relentless news of what keeps us apart. They also feature good poetry and good food.
9. Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett
Garrett made waves in the US as a standout voice when her Detective by Day series was first published in 2017, scooping several awards. Garrett takes the cosy to Los Angeles, featuring semi-famous, mega-broke Black actress-turned-PI, Dayna Anderson. Her prose is fresh and funny and the settings are everything a film lover would hope for.
10. Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
Before writing adult crime fiction, I wrote for children and I’m certain that some of the best books are written for 10 to 12-year-olds. This series imagines two 1930s schoolgirls solving crimes in Christie fashion, featuring the intrepid duo of Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong. The books combine a sense of history with a very modern sensibility and I have seen readers approaching Stevens at events to hug her, because they mean so much to them.