#25: Modern ‘Cozy’ Crime Fiction & Me – A Non-Love Story

CozyCrime blogger Kate Jackson – whose fantastic work over at Cross-Examining Crime puts my own pale attempts at getting my thoughts online to shame – reviewed Kel Richards’ The Corpse in the Cellar a little while ago, which was serendipitous at the time because literally two or three days before I’d seen it in my local Waterstones.  The bland and slightly innocent-looking cover – intentionally or otherwise calling to mind the recent and deservedly successful British Library Crime Classics – and its billing as ‘A 1930s Murder Mystery’ got me excited for another resuscitated classic and forgotten author whose work was enjoying a reprint for the first time in 80 years on the back of the revival of interest in our beloved Golden Age.  Except that, upon inspection, Richards turns out to be a contemporary novelist and the book was in fact originally published earlier this year.

Now, I cast no aspersions on Kel Richards with this – Kate’s review is very positive and has convinced me to give the book a go at some point – but at the time my immediate reaction was one of disappointment (and it even contains an impossible crime!) and a deflation of interest.  It could well be an excellent book, but there is something about the aping of that classic era that leaves me a little cold.  Richards is by far the only person from doing it, if he were I’d have been more likely to give his book the benefit of the doubt for sheer chutzpah, and it seems that of late that the publishing industry has developed a proclivity for putting out anything that will fit into this ‘cozy’ niche.  And, honestly, none of it interests me.

I look at the Golden Age as being so called because of the diversity and the richness of ideas it produced – the elevation of the puzzle plot, the challenging of conventions it encouraged, the establishing and then smashing of the acceptable rules of conduct, the genre-muddling weirdness of romance and horror and satirical self-awareness all tied around someone being killed – as much as the quantity of quality books it produced.  Christie and Carr – unarguably among the luminaries of that period, standard-bearers for everything I love about this genre – frequently put out several books a year in their earlier days, and produced some timeless classics while doing so.  The enthusiasm for this work and the hunger for something more to supplement the appetites of their faithful has led to ‘continuation’ novels to the work of Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and others (some of them more successful than others) which have failed to cause the same kind of stir, but were guaranteed to sell nonetheless.

Take Fantasy fiction as a counterpoint.  I’m starting to read more and more of this now, and each story seems to involve an orphan or societal outcast (thief, bastard son, etc), a complicated political system (typically ruled over by evil men) and usually some magical element.  It’s the magical element that sets them apart, as each author is able to bring their own concept of magic to the world they create.  The same could be said of the Golden Age – each author was able to bring their own twist or skew on the ideas central to a detective novel – and so I don’t see what is left for modern authors to add.

Only one other explanation occurs to me.  There’s a scene in John Dickson Carr’s Fire, Burn! in which the modern day detective, having been swept back in time to the late 19th century (yeah, it doesn’t sound great, I know), decides to use his futuristic knowledge to get one over on the innocent rubes he’s forced to work with.  This new ‘cozy’ fiction gives me that sort of impression: there has been some scientific of technological discovery that can be used in a crime novel set in the past, because the innocents back then won’t have been aware of it and so it’ll make a good crime Macguffin.  Fine, but it raises two problems: first, it shows a remarkable lack of respect for your readers who are presumably aware of these things, and second, how is your detective going to explain something that couldn’t be understood at the time of your story?  It would be like setting  mystery in the Stone Age and having Detective Inspector Ugg waxing lyrical on the workings of the motor engine.

Now, as ever, I must keep in mind that I could be (and probably am) wildly off-track.  All I’m seeking to do here is explore my indifference for these books, without – it must be noted – having ever read one of them.  The counter-argument goes that if people want to write these stories, why shouldn’t they be free to?  It’s a perfectly valid point.  But I’m curious: does anyone else share my aversion to these books?  And can anyone explain it in clearer detail than I’ve managed in these rambling 800-odd words?  Better yet, do you write or publish books that fit into this niche?  Would you care to challenge my perspective?  No judgements here, I’m just trying to understand my own prejudices…

12 thoughts on “#25: Modern ‘Cozy’ Crime Fiction & Me – A Non-Love Story

  1. I understand the appeal but am not a modern ‘cosy’ fan either – on the other hand, I am a great admirer of authors like Peter Lovesey and Simon Brett who continue to write in that tradition – but I realise that is not quite what you mean, I just blame the rest on those often terrible people in marketing 🙂


    • Absolutely, give me a modern fair-play puzzle novel and I’ll be delighted (Lovesey’s Bloodhounds was pretty close, but still fell short enough to matter); I can’t help but feel that the overwhelming majority of these cosies don’t fit into that niche, however. But I’m willing to be argues around…


  2. As ever a thought provoking piece, making me think about my own attitude towards modern authors doing GA mysteries. Oddly enough I’m probably closer to your own stance in that I don’t tend to go for such books having tried a number when I first started reading crime fiction in a committed way. I always feel like its just not quite the genuine article and there is often a sense of predictableness. Consequently, I tend to cherry pick with such books and will probably only go for them if there is something different or quirky and this was the case for Kel Richards, whose choice of C. S. Lewis as a detective intrigued me.
    Also thanks for the shout out, always nice to have a fan and you shouldn’t be so down on your own sterling efforts as your opinion pieces always give me something to think about and as ever your reviews add many a title to my books I want to buy list.

    P. S. You should definitely write that stone age mystery with D. I. Ugg!


    • You may have hit something there: the differentness is important, isn’t it? The sense that you’re not going to get the same old recycled pap. It’s part of what keeps bringing me back to try certain Holmes pastiches (of which more at a later date) and certainly the hook that makes the Richards stand out in my mind.

      Delighted to think that I get someone thinking, too, you are most kind; shall get to work on D.I. Ugg once the patent has cleared…!


  3. Yeah I am a little wary of Holmes pastiches (and consequently haven’t read any for a while), as some kinda work, whilst others again feel like a knock off version of the genuine article. Pastiches which were written contemporary to the original stories can be quite good such as Brett Harte’s The Stolen Cigar Case. Also I imagine with the stone age saga you could have a lot of fun with the crimes such as a locked room mystery (cave which had been closed by rocks or an avalanche or even a snow drift), murder made to look like an accident (body with saber tooth tiger marks on it or a spear throw gone rogue), mysterious clue left by the dying victim (cave paintings) and no doubt there would be a point at the end of the book where the killer tries to bump off one more victim by rolling a large stone down a hill… and yes I may have overthought this…

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    • I warmed to Holmes pastiches as I read more of the original stories and saw how the quality tails off the longer they go on. I’m not diving in to everything left, right and centre, but I have found quite a few that I’ve enjoyed (and plan to post something about them in a week or two…got a new one to read now). And I am seriously impressed (or do I mean disturbed?) at your Stone Age Crime overthinking…this could be our fortune being made here!

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  4. The cover for ‘The Corpse in the Cellar’ does bear an uncanny resemblance to one of the British Crime Classics reprints…!

    I can see why it’s hard for modern-day writers emulating the Golden Age stalwarts to break new ground, especially when Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, put together, have covered an extensive range of narratological tricks and innovative set-ups… Every time I read a mystery novel written in a *ahem* certain way, or a mystery novel revolving around serial killing, I cannot help but think of ‘Roger Ackroyd’ or ‘ABC Murders’.

    To date, I’ve only read two Golden Age emulators: Paul Halter and Dolores Gordon-Smith. I’ve enjoyed both, though I’ve only read one novel by Gordon-Smith. It strikes me that Halter tends to tread down the Carrian path of fiercely intricate master-plans, while Gordon-Smith leans towards the charming early twentieth-century British mystery novel.


    • I adore Paul Halter’s novels, and couldn’t be more adamant in my support his his writing, because he genuinely tries (and, well, succeeds!) to do something new with the form; my issue is more those novelists who strike me as simply churning out a series of cosy tropes under the impression that it will consitute a book. Imust be mindful that I’m being critical of something without actually trying it – a cardinal sin on the internet – but that was, honestly, my main motivation in writing this: I want to know how wrong I am!


      • I daresay I’ve been well-insulated from these inferior ‘cozy’/ ‘cosy’ titles insofar as I’m inclined towards second-hand copies of actual Golden Age novels. And of, course, I benefit hugely from solid review sites. 🙂

        Regarding Paul Halter, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Seventh Hypothesis’, but the two titles I read after that – ‘Seven Wonders’ and ‘Crimson Fog’ – were good rather than great. Then I read ‘Fourth Door’, which brought my estimation of Halter up a notch – but not quite to the original heights of ‘Seventh Hypothesis’.


        • I loved The Seventh Hypothesis, it’s a wonderful whirligig of plot and counter-plot, and happens to have a couple of nice impossibilities in there for good measure. The Seven Wonders of Crime is a little unlikely, I agree, and probably the weakest of the Halters published to date. The Crimson Fog is wonderful, but the main problem is that you know where it’s going (it’s in the synopsis, and forms part of the marketing) and would be a far better book if it were possible to read it without the knowledge of those three words (you know the ones!).

          I’m a fan of everything Locked Room International have published by him, and am really looking forward to Death Invites You, but my favourite to date is either The Phantom Passage or The Tiger’s Head…though The Invisible Circle is utterly and completely delirious and massively enjoyable for it (although possibly not to everyone’s taste). I need to get more Halter reviews up, actually, so might have a rifle through the vaults and see what’s worth highlighting.


  5. I managed to resist reading the blurb at the back of ‘Crimson Fog’, as I was warned against doing so in a review by Puzzle Doctor. 🙂 But when I looked at the blurb after completing the novel, I wasn’t entirely certain what, precisely, was the spoiler… My greater disappointment with the novel stems, perhaps, from the fact that ever since a certain infamous novel *ahem* I’ve always been on a lookout for a certain twist *ahem*, which I didn’t think worked quite as well in ‘Crimson Fog’.

    Would be interested to read more of your Halter reviews – thanks for recommending ‘Phantom Passage’. 🙂 I still have ‘Picture from the Past’ and ‘Demon of Dartmoor’ sitting on the shelf, awaiting reading…


    • Ah, fair enough. I can’t really discuss Crimson Fog here without spoiling it for anyone else, unfortunately, but I’m very interested to hear that you don’t think there is a spoiler. Also, I have discovered Picture from the Past sitting unread on my Kindle, thanks for reminding me!, so might tackle that as my next Halter. Hmmm, maybe I have too many unread books…


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