Dawn Brookes lists some of the questions and responses from the discussion in this article.
What makes a crime story cosy?
The Setting: socially intimate e.g. and English country village (Debbie Young), a cruise ship (Dawn Brookes). Other settings can be large hotel, small town, business, seaside resort, train, university etc. W.H. Auden suggested the scene should be ‘as Eden-like as possible’ in order to demonstrate the shocking contrast when a corpse appears.
Characters: likeable central character/s
Sleuth: amateur, often but not always, female.
Content: although there is usually a murder the content is clean, no graphic violence, without explicit sex or swearing, light reading.
Tone: humour interspersed throughout along with some eccentricity.
1) Do you have any favourite terms that reviewers have used to describe yours?
Debbie Young: “rose-tinted murder or feel-good murder”
Dawn Brookes: “Shades of Agatha Christie on a cruise ship”
Wendy H. Jones: ‘The narrative sparkled and the witty dialogue almost took my breath away.”
2) Is cosy crime the natural descendant of Golden Age Crimewriting? Authors identified as cosy crime writers include, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers. The standout crime writer who remains a bestselling author today is Agatha Christie.
The list below was used by Debbie on the day. A list that was compiled by crime writer Ronald Knox in 1929. As a clergyman, the list became known as the ‘ten commandments’ or ‘decalogue’ :
- The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
- All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
- Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
- No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
- No Chinaman must figure in the story (related to racial cliches of the early 1920s).
- No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
- The detective must not himself commit the crime.
- The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
- The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. (Knox, 1929).
The authors were generally in agreement with the rules and took them in the spirit in which they were intended!
They didn’t feel rules such as these should be followed verbatim. Dawn commented that she liked to push the boundaries slightly but not so much as to deter cosy readers from enjoying the genre in which they were familiar. Dawn confessed to breaking rule 1 by accident in her first book and despite receiving some criticism from stalwarts, she hasn’t overly suffered for it.
3) James Runcie, author of the Sidney Chambers Grantchester mysteries, writes:
“I was intrigued by the possibility that one of the reasons for the popularity of crime fiction in the last fifty years might be due to the decline of traditional Christian worship. A hundred years ago people would recite the Book of Common Prayer on a daily basis and attend church regularly to contemplate the moral implications of birth, love, sine and death. Now attendance has fallen and human beings search for meaning in alternative places (art galleries, yoga retreats, museums and concert halls). Perhaps, similarly, crime fiction is another replacement for religion: a secular replacement, a disguised way of thinking and talking about death. Readers can contemplate their fears and their mortality within the pages of a reassuring narrative of justice – rather than reach for the comfort of a loving God in whom they find it hard to have faith.”
Debbie believes he has a point, and was impressed that he can see it that way, given his own strong religious convictions (son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury) and the amount of Christian thinking-aloud that he does in the novels.
Dawn: I tend to take things at face value but do agree with his point that people do tend to search for meaning in a variety of places and if they’re not into religion might look for other things to find fulfilment. I’m not sure that people seek answers to life and death through the pages of crime fiction.
4) One of the most avid fan groups for cosy crime in the US in particular is the Christian reader. Debbie asks, Do you write with this kind of reader in mind, or is that a coincidence? How compatible is even the cosiest crime with breaking at least one of the 10 commandments: thou shalt not commit murder?
None of the authors wrote specifically for Christians, but they did acknowledge they tried to avoid religious offence.
Dawn: Although my protagonist is a devout Christian, I write for the mainstream audience and don’t write with a Christian audience in mind. I am pleased to be developing a Christian following but I’m also finding that fans of clean crime are many and varied and I have a small growing muslim following.
5) I also read recently that Dorothy L Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, daughter of a vicar and religious scholar and playwright, found herself increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of earning her keep by writing about murder. Do you have any such qualms and if so how do you deal with them?
Debbie Young describes herself as the ‘reluctant murderer’ and is very honest about how she finds it difficult to kill off people in her books. One of the tropes of a cosy mystery is to make the murdered person unpleasant and unlikeable. Nevertheless, none of the authors believe in capital punishment and recognise they write fiction not fact.
Dawn: I differentiate between fact and fiction and although I find the idea of violence and murder abhorrent, I find crime mystery books interesting and engaging. I steer clear of gratuitous violence and would never murder a child in my books.
6) Does a cosy mystery – or any good mystery story – have to cost lives? Does a good mystery even have to include crime or is intrigue alone enough, as in a good cryptic crossword puzzle?
The authors generally agreed that a murder was expected by the reader and felt that without one, the reader might feel cheated.
Dawn: I term cosy mysteries as ‘a good, clean, murder’ and don’t think about it too deeply.
7) There are two popular optional extras in cosy crime: humour and romance. To what extent do you embrace either or both in your books, and why are they a good bedfellow with cosy crime?
All of the authors add humour to their cosy writing and felt it was a natural fit, providing comic and emotional relief for the harder acts of crime.
Debbie Young includes romance as part of her writing and Dawn’s protagonist is in a steady relationship.
8) Nordic noir has been all the rage for a while, in books and on TV, and lots of other dark series – but there’s also now a boom in demand for cosy crime. In the age of Trump and Brexit, do we need more escapist crime in which all ends happily and the good guys come out on top? Is it the antidote not only to Nordic noir but also to 2019?
The authors gave a resounding ‘Yes’ answer to this question.
9) With a clear prescription for cosy crime, when writing a series, how do you avoid writing the same book over and over again?
Debbie adds new and different characters to each adventure plus moving on to a different time of year with seasonal events.
Dawn: Although it could be argued that all cruise ships are the same, the people cruising are not. I am enjoying exploring different characters, nationalities, seasons and destinations which I hope keep them separate. I also enjoy the upstairs/downstairs elements that can be developed.
10) We are all writing cosy mystery series – how long should a good series run?
Debbie suggested that a series should not be so long as to become tired. She is limiting her Sophie Sayers series to 7 + 1 bonus extra, plus maybe a couple of spin-offs about minor characters.
Dawn explained that she would keep going as long as people like to read them and that the stories can be different. She would also stop if she no longer enjoyed writing about the characters. She is not limiting the series to a finite number but believes she will know when to stop. She is developing another series involving Rachel’s boyfriend who is a PI.
11) What future plans do you have for cosy mystery in your writing life?
Debbie is writing a new series which does not include murder – just attempts on lives. The series is set in a private school.
Dawn is working on a new PI series, including a sidekick Springer Spaniel based on my beloved pet, now deceased. She also has an idea for a different cosy mystery series that will remain secret for now!
Wendy H. Jones intends to work her way through the alphabet with her Cass Claymore series! The first is Antiques and Alibis.
12) Who are your favourite cosy mystery writers from any era and what makes you like them so much?
The authors mentioned Dorothy L Sayers because of strength of characters and settings and her intelligence; James Runcie, a contemporary writer but writing historical mystery, and not all featuring murders; Agatha Christie; Jessica Fellowes’s take on the Mitford sisters as historical crime novels.
13) Agatha Christie learned a great deal of useful information about poisons from her career as a pharmaceutical dispenser during the First World War. To what extent do you draw on your former nursing career to inform or shape your cosy mystery stories?
Dawn: When I started the series, I considered making the protagonist, the nurse but decided to have her as the best friend so that I could move outside of my comfort zone while still using my nursing background as a side story. I use my medical background and knowledge quite a bit, almost veering into the medical fiction genre at times.
Wendy uses her experience as a nurse to inform some of her crime writing.
I think you will agree that this was an interesting discussion of the genre. Please join us in 2020 for more informed discussions from talented authors. Any comments welcome.
Debbie Young writes the Sophie Sayers Mysteries
Dawn Brookes writes the Rachel Prince Mystery Series
Wendy H. Jones is a thriller writer whose latest release was a first-in-series cosy crime.