I was an only child and I spent a great deal of time on my own. We did not have a lot of money but we always had a collection of books, and of course library cards.
Books intrigued me. There were grown-up books with lurid enigmatic dust jackets, pictures of strangers lurking in darkened doorways, or a single outflung hand, or an image of lip-sticked women with broken pearl necklaces. These I was not allowed to read as they were ‘too grown-up’ but I liked to look at the covers.
Then there were the books that had either been my mother’s or one of her brother’s or sister’s: Enid Blyton’s ‘The Island of Adventure’, Malcolm Saville’sLone Pine Five series. I read the ones we had again and again, struggling at first with the more advanced language of the Saville books, but not wanting to put them down – something in those stories gripped me. And when I became old enough to have pocket money, aged 9 or 10, I began to spend all my money, from birthdays and Christmas too, on any books I could get my hands on. By the time I was 11, I had hundreds.
Now more than 50 years old!
I can remember making paper models of Famous Five and Lone Pine Five stories, cutting out little people–and of course the dog–and things like tents and bicycles. I also wrote to Malcolm Saville and was thrilled to receive a letter back, signed by him and enclosing a Lone Pine Five badge—he was already in his late 70s or early 80s at that time.
I can remember writing my own stories on the back of scrap paper, and stapling them together inside a ‘cover’ made from a cereal packet which I decorated with crayons. I made dozens of little notebooks for myself.
An aunt gave me a massive book on Christmas–the complete works of Lewis Carroll. I loved that. Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, of course, but even the essays, the letters, acrostics and puzzles, and, new to me then, the magical Sylvie and Bruno stories. I read ‘Twas Brillig…’ in German—or tried to—before I even started to learn the language, and it too was magical.
I can’t remember the day when I suddenly thought ‘I could do this, I could be a writer’. I can only remember that those early books gave me something that I longed to participate in. By the time I was 10 or 11, it was a fully fledged ambition. I wrote stories and made covers for them from cereal packet carboard. My teacher took them seriously and critiqued them.
Poems that inspired me, and filled me with encouragement, a sense of story, and with awe: Jabberwocky. Daffodils by Wordsworth. I read it as a child and felt I could really see them—the simple imagery was something I could understand and relate to. The haunting opening line of Walter de la Mare’sThe Traveller—‘Is anybody there…?’
The first Enid Blyton ‘detective’ story I read.
It wasn’t until I was older, in my mid-teens, that I began to see writing as something I wanted to do in a professional capacity—but I was told I didn’t have the right background, or the right education, the right skills, that kind of thing. Did it stop me? No, of course not. If you’re passionate about a thing, no one and nothing can stop you. I told myself I could write ‘just for myself’, not to try to be published. So I saw myself as a hobbyist.
Formal studies at school and through university courses made me learn to see books as works, and view them from the outside, so to speak, not just immerse myself into them as an experience. I learned to understand techniques and things like plots and motifs and point of view. I discussed meaning and learned phrases like ‘unwitting testimony’. I honed my own writing skills and learned important grammar stuff. A lot of the books I ‘had’ to read didn’t appeal to me beyond the course. But I learned so much about books and writing.
Wow, I was staggered by the whole concept of stream-of-consciousness writing. And this was one of those works that really made you think. I was in bits by the end.
The Colour Purple
It was the direct yet otherness of the language that showed me how to reveal pain, to gain the reader’s sympathy and it made me want Celie to find her children and be happy. It felt all-engrossing. When she finally started addressing her letters to her children and not to God, it felt like an arrival. An emotional one.
Pride and Prejudice
It was what wasn’t said that I found touching. And also the gentle humour. I had never realised until I read P & P that ‘classics’ could be enjoyable.
The Wind In The Willows
The richness of the language, definitely wasted on children, was what inspired me. That and the busy minutiae of the animals’ everyday lives, so clearly people by any other name.
Patricia Wentworth & Agatha Christie
My cosy mystery heroines. The ‘safety’ of their stories and her worlds, the cosiness, the black and white certainty of each story is so restful and enjoyable. The intellectual wanting to know ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘who’. The satisfaction of revealing the culprit and vindicating the innocent. Christie sometimes added an extra layer of meaning, but overall I feel that her books remain cosy.
These were the books and the authors that got me started on the slippery slope! What are your book memories?
I first shared this blog post in 2016. To date, it’s still my best-performing blog post. Not sure if that is because it’s one of my shortest – I am quite a waffler these days.
But I love that line. It’s line 431 from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. The first time I read the poem, when I got to this line I burst into tears, because it seemed such a beautiful summation, of the poem, of my life, everything. Words do that to me–I’m a very emotional person, I’m glad to say.
I believe that our lives are made up of fragments. We are, in essence, a walking, talking collection of every experience we’ve ever had. This includes what we’ve read. Words.
So often I am out and about–yes, I escape now and again–and I hear something, see something, smell something which provokes a memory of something I’ve read. Most often it is snatches of conversation I overhear, being nosey and a crime writer, which as we all know gives me special dispensation to eavesdrop on others. (‘I ain’t been dropping no eaves, sir, honest.’) Words seem to lead to more words.
I hear someone say, ‘The wonderful thing…’ and mentally I’ve added ‘…about Tiggers is Tiggers are wonderful things.’ (I didn’t promise it was anything erudite!) Or someone may say ‘Wherever I go…’ and I think to myself ‘there’s always Pooh, there’s always Pooh and me.’ (By the way, Winnie the Pooh is not just for kids. Just read the chapter called The Piper At the Gates of Dawn…)
It’s not just A A Milne, though. So often snatches of Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, songs, poems, plays, hymns, prayers, all sorts of words come into my head. I can’t look at spring flowers without thinking ‘A host of golden daffodils’ or ‘April is the cruellest month’. (The Waste Land again!) A tall person becomes ‘thou painted Maypole’. A mouse is a ‘wee sleekit cowrin tim’rous beastie’. (Burns of course, who else?)
If something annoying happens, I hear Miss Marple whisper, ‘Oh dear, how extremely vexing,’ or I hear someone say something stupid, and Mr Bennett’s frustrated, outraged, ‘Until you come back…I shall not hear two words of sense spoken together’ comes to mind. I share his pain. In extremis, ‘I shall be in my library; I’m not to be disturbed.’ (Not unless there’s cake or Midsomer Murders.) Or I might hear Miss Silver’s indulgent, ‘In their own way, men can be quite useful.’
Or if sorrows come in, it’s Matthew Arnold’s painful comment filled with longing, ‘Ah love, let us be true to one another,’ because he believed that one another was all we have. (Dover Beach).
There’s always another wonderful sketch of words from someone who lived many years before my time. Or a contemporary. Or the next generation. We all use and need words.
And because of this, none of us can ever come to a text, for the first time, or the tenth, ‘cold’ or ‘new’. There is really no neutral approach in the human soul. We bring with us the sum of all our experiences and emotions, our world-view and our beliefs, and those inform what we read, and mercifully sometimes, what we read can inform all those things too.
When I was studying literature ‘back in the day’, I remember The Waste Land was one of our set texts. Critics deplored it, dismissing it as a pastiche, a patchwork quilt of other peoples’ work, revealing only a good memory for quotations. Students shuddered and declared it was one of the worst experiences of their life. But for some of us, there was a sense of ‘wow, I never knew poetry could be like this!’
When I read his words, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ (line 431), I said to my tutor, I think he is saying that literature, that words, will save us in times of crisis, bolster us when we are at a low ebb. I was told I was wrong, but in spite of that, I still choose to believe this could be one meaning of these, for me, immortal words. These fragments of remembered stories, poems, previous experiences, feelings, of words, I have stored up, internalised, to use as a defence, shored against my ruin, my unhappiness, times of want, misery, sorrow and confusion. Ruin.
For me it is a reminder that many things in life are transient, passing, temporary, but I will always carry within me the sum of what I have read. Just read Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 and tell me I’m wrong. It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s got a cheeky grin at the end. It’s perfect, and all human life is there.
I’ve always loved reading, and mysteries have always been my ‘thing’. Of all the authors in all the bookshops and libraries in all the world, Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth remain my favourites by a very long chalk, with Patricia a wee bit out in front.
Why do I love them so much when a) there are thousands—literally–of modern authors out there, and b) these traditional mysteries seem rather tired and old-fashioned by today’s standards?
Obviously I don’t believe they are tired and old-fashioned. I mean, yes, the author styles are out of touch with our era, and the roles and attitudes of characters are sometimes really horrifying. But for me, it’s the irresistible lure of the era: a time of long frocks, a time of afternoon tea, dinner parties, bridge evenings (I can’t even play bridge) and so forth. Yes, the plots can seem tame, contrived and are often insular, but as Christie’s Miss Marple often comments, ‘you see every aspect of life in a small village.’ And what we need to remember is that these stories were written, some of them, almost hundred years ago, and were fresh, new and very exciting at that time—the plots weren’t overdone or overused – they were more or less brand new, and I’m sure at the time, many of the plots would have seemed innovative.
Patricia Wentworth’s works are a wee bit tamer and even more moralistic than Agatha Christie’s, but we need to remember that there is a little over twenty years between their dates of birth, so I would definitely place Wentworth squarely in the previous generation of mid-Victorian Britain. Like many of Christie’s settings, Wentworth’s stories often revolve around a country house, and a small village, and her sleuth, Miss Silver is in many respects quite similar to Miss Marple. I like a village or country house setting; for me it’s like viewing a sample of the whole of society under a microscope. I love to see how ordinary (kind of, if rather posher than me!) people react in an apparently ‘safe’ setting when something goes horribly wrong.
I often reread these books. I have read all of Christie’s works at least twice, often many more times than that, and the majority of Wentworth’s many more times than that, although I’m still working my way through her non-series books. I have five or six different copies of some of Wentworth’s books, all with different covers, from different eras, and one of them is quite valuable. I won’t tell you which in case you nick it. (Clue 1: It cost nearly as much as my wedding dress. Clue 2: I got married in 1981 and my wedding dress didn’t cost nearly as much as it would have done today, but even so my mother gasped…)
I recently decided to reread The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth. As you can see, I used quite a few sticky notes as I read it and made notes for my own fun/blog writing at the same time. I wish I could say there was a special coded reason for using pink then yellow sticky notes, but it’s simply that I ran out of pink!
The Chinese Shawl was published in 1943, placing it in the latter third of Wentworth’s writing career. Her first novel, a romance, was published in 1910. She died at the beginning of 1961.
There’s something a bit different about reading a book if you are a writer, and also, if you’ve read it several times before. As well as an enjoyable read, it’s been an interesting, and useful experience. Different things struck me this time. Here are a few of them: (btw – contains spoilers!)
Point 1. Wentworth is a great one for setting the scene. Her murders seldom happen as quickly as, for example, Christie’s. We get a lot of background—sometimes I feel maybe there’s too much, but it does mean that by the time the reader reaches the murder scene, they know the main characters quite well, and are deeply immersed in the story. The murder quite often doesn’t take place until almost halfway through the book, and sometimes we don’t meet the sleuth, Miss Silver, until that point, and often even later, although in this one, she is already there, in situ as a house guest, from chapter ten.
I also feel quite often in Wentworth’s books, that you can see the murder coming. But it’s not in an annoying, ‘Der—I knew that was going to happen’ kind of way. It’s more like watching a car crash in slow motion: you can see the inevitable outcome and are powerless to stop it. You can only watch it happen in a kind of fascinated horror. (Not that they are gory or horrifying in that sense.)
Point 2. The ‘sleuth’ is Miss Maud Silver. Like Christie’s Miss Marple, Miss Silver is an elderly lady, a retired former governess who primly knits her way through interviews and afternoon teas and picks up all sorts of gossip, clues and insights as she does so. She is an acute observer of human life, and a highly moral, highly principled person. In fact sometimes she’s a bit annoying in her manner which can seem outmoded by today’s standards. But she is a treasure, too. Her main advantage is that she is often ignored, overlooked or just plain underestimated. Miss Silver often makes remarks that I find hilarious, such as this one from Lonesome Road (pub. 1939) ‘In their own way, men can be quite useful.’ Men as a breed are for Miss Silver largely a closed book. She remarks somewhere that the chief difference between men and women is that men require two eggs for breakfast instead of one.
Point 3. In this book, the victim is not a very nice person, and so it’s hard to mourn her fate. But Wentworth never condones murder or violence, and even in the death of a nasty piece of work, there is a righteous indignation and a determination to get to the bottom of things. For Wentworth and her detectives, nothing ever justifies murder, and that’s a position I thoroughly applaud.
Point 4. Obviously, we have a sidekick. Usually a sidekick is a ‘Watson’ type character. In this case, it’s the official investigator – Randal March. He is not my favourite sidekick for Miss Silver—he is arrogant, pompous and (usually) far too self-satisfied. But then, maybe that’s more realistic for the era? All I can say is, thank goodness for Miss Silver, his former governess, as she usually takes him down a peg of two. In this book he has risen to the rank of Superintendent. When it comes to a supporting cast for Miss Silver, I prefer her other sidekick, Sergeant Frank Abbott, and if absolutely necessary, I can even put up with Abbott’s boss, Inspector Ernest Lamb, who is devoted to his three daughters. It’s a refreshing change to have a detective who is a family man with no massive issues.
Point 5. There is a wealth of period detail in this book, from fashion and etiquette to black-out regulations of WW2. I love this stuff, we get a really strong sense of the era and feel so deeply entrenched in the book. There is always a strong romantic, (quite an old-fashioned, polite romance,) thread running through the mystery. What I particularly like is the contrast between the dutiful ‘war work’ of bitter Miss Agnes Fane and that of Miss Silver:
Miss Fane surveyed it (Miss Silver’s knitting) with disfavour.
‘You should be knitting comforts for the troops.’
Miss Silver’s needles clicked.
‘Babies must have vests,’ she remarked in a mild but stubborn tone.
For me this sums up perfectly the difference between Miss Silver and Agnes Fane, the alpha female of the story. Agnes Fane is all about being seen to be right and perfect in every way, and above reproach. She craves status, yet her heart is in many ways cold though obsessive. Miss Silver, dowdy, slightly irritating, definitely overly moralistic and governessy, nevertheless does everything she does from a place of love, which is why, for me, she is the best sleuth. She is devoted to her former charges, their loved ones and their growing families.
And lest we forget, she’s a working girl, a gentlewoman come down in the world due the premature death of her parents and the very real need to earn her own living. Unlike, for example, Miss Marple, she is not an amateur detective who does it because she’s nosy or in the right place at the right time, she hires herself out at a decent rate as a ‘private enquiry agent’. This has given her the means to afford a nice flat in London and a maid to take care of her. Girl power! She don’t need no man!
Point 6. As in any good mystery, there are a number of suspects. The murdered woman leaves behind her a slew of cast aside lovers, a divorced husband, the wife of a cast aside lover and another chap’s girlfriend, not to mention other possibilities. It seems as though almost anyone could have carried out the dastardly deed. And then of course, comes the twist—maybe she was killed by mistake? That leaves the already wide door thrown even wider. Who killed her, and why?
Point 7. Actually, when I said sidekick, I should have said sidekicks, because front and centre in this story is our heroine, Laura Fane, and her new beau, a former lover of the murder victim, all-round war hero, Carey Desborough. Actually the romance between these two flourishes within the space of a day or two—it is love at first sight, and it’s essential for the lovebirds that they help Miss Silver get to the bottom of the crime so everyone can live happily ever after. Well, almost everyone. And a rather unbelievable attempt to set up first one of these as the baddie then the other fails to convince the reader, and so we know we can rest happily in the fact of their happiness.
Point 8. Really my only criticism of Wentworth’s books generally, and this one in particular is her frequent use of that hateful tool ‘the had I but known/little did they know’. I hate this ploy with a passion. And it crops up here several times. On top of that, we almost always have a phrase along the lines of ‘little did they know but the events of that evening were to be sifted and gone over with the utmost care, and everything they did and said would be held up to the light and examined.’ *sigh* Moving on…
Point 9. Wentworth loves a dramatic ending. And so do I. Although I knew ‘whodunnit’ because I’ve read this book loads of times, I still savoured the outcome. There is too, generally a nice ‘wrap-up’ scene where the good guys take tea with Miss Silver at the end and she expounds and moralises, a good egg teaching her pupils. This one is slightly different as the wrap-up is with Randal March, but it’s still good to get insight into their thoughts about the crime and its resolution. And of course, the two lovebirds go off together into the sunset, but it’s a slightly scaled back happiness—after all, there’s still a war on. A very satisfying ending.
As a review, I know this isn’t much cop. I’m hopeless at reviewing, but if it’s made you think, ‘I might read that’, then my work here is done. Enjoy!
Other of Wentworth’s best works include:
The Listening Eye
The Alington Inheritance
The Clock Strikes Twelve
And there are loads more, both series, and non-series.
Three weeks ago, I wrote in part one of Writing Genre Fiction that all genres, including my favourite genre of cosy mysteries, have conventions. And what is a convention? The Oxford English Dictionary defines convention as: ‘a) general agreement, esp agreement on social behaviour etc by implicit consent of the majority; or b) a custom or customary practice, esp an artificial or formal one.’
Here is a quick recap of the main conventions of books in the cosy mystery genre:
No excessive gore or violence, no realistic trauma, bad language is mild, no sex scenes.
Usually feature a small cast of characters in an idealised setting, often a country house or a village.
There must be clues and red herrings.
The emphasis is on the puzzle of the crime and readers solving that alongside the sleuth.
The sleuth is usually an amateur, not a police professional, and is often female. Though of course, not always.
The ending is (generally) cut-and-dried and is often resolved with a gathering of all the main suspects and other players of the story so that the sleuth can reveal the truth behind the crime(s). There may be ongoing storylines that are not resolved, but the crime itself should be resolved at the end of the book.
(I’d be the first to say, my own books don’t always adhere to these guidelines. Sorry.)
Very often authors will strive to write something ‘new’ and may feel that it has all been done before, or that the conventions are ‘old hat’. But for readers who enjoy reading mysteries, doing something different just for the sake of it is not always a good way to win their approval – they love the conventions and expect the author to stick by them at least to a greater extent.
Readers have certain expectations
No reader will be happy if you kill off someone’s pet. And it goes without saying that if you bump off your main character’s love interest or a close relation or friend, you will be vilified forever. Likewise if you allow your character to – well – act out of character, readers will notice and be unhappy. Reader expectations are high once you have set out to create a series, and you absolutely have to do what you can to respect the reader’s investment of emotion as well as time and money into your work.
But in actual fact, the range of options available to the author is limited, because as we know, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:9! See, I can do research!) and also, ‘Is there a case where one can say, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us.’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:10)
And if it had already all been done in Biblical times…
But just because you are constrained by generic convention does not mean you can’t be creative or original. This is where the twists and turns of the plot become the essential ingredient to muddy the waters and cover your tracks . Sorry about the mixed metaphors.
Writing unique or ‘different’ genre fiction can seem difficult – you only have 26 letters to play with, and everyone uses them, right? And if all these conventions and tropes have been used before, if there’s nothing new under the sun, how can we find our unique voice? How can we say something new or fresh? Again this is where plot twists and devices and your own unique way of using those 26 letters comes into play.
He’s about to sing, the Lament of the Trope
Like writing, music is another creative art that has genres and stylistic conventions. And whilst I am not a musician, I am passionate about music. And guess what? Composers of music can be every bit in need of all their ingenuity as writers when it comes to creating something fresh and ‘original’. Just to give you an extremely simple illustration: all these songs are in the key of C Major.
Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers
Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin
Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley
Bad Romance by Lady Gaga
But they are not the same, are they? I was actually a teeny bit surprised to realise they are all in the same key. And of course, there are other keys than just C Major – and all the keys are made up of notes, which when combined in conventional ways, create chords. Chords are grouped together one after the other (called progression, ie moving forward) to create a tune. (Or for the writer, these would compare to scenes or chapters). Here’s another set of examples:
These four songs all heavily feature the same chord progressions. It is the I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F known as the Optimistic chord progression for its uplifting sound. (I think these chords are for guitar – sorry, now I am really revealing my technical ignorance.)
No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley
Right Here Waiting by Richard Marx
Run by Snow Patrol
Let It Be by The Beatles
But again, they are so different, aren’t they? I could go on: these are G Major works:
Another One Bites The Dust by Queen
Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day
Brown-Eyed Girl by Van Morrison
You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC
Or other chord progressions. If the previous ones are termed the ‘optimistic’ progression, these are the ‘pessimistic’ chord progressions: these are the same chords, just reshuffled to give a different effect. The I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F becomes vi-VI-I-V or Am-F-C-G, and these can create a sense of sadness that ranges from the merely plaintive to downright Throwing Myself Off A Cliff:
The Sun Always Shines On TV by A-Ha (a bit plaintive here and there)
Hurt by Johnny Cash (definitely a cliff moment… but sad songs can be beautiful, and uplifting too – giving catharsis.)
Angels by Robbie Williams
or one of my favourites, Wake Me Up by Avicii
Can you see how different these are though they are using, at least in part, the same conventions?
Coming back to writing, with a small cast of characters, it can be really hard to conceal the guilty party from the avid reader who will often have read hundreds of mystery books and have an excellent working knowledge of the generic style. Enter the trope – a recognisable kind of set plot idea that is often in use in certain genres. In romance, you have tropes such as ‘fake romance’, where the main couple pretend to be in love, often to appease persistent match-making relatives and end up falling in love for real; or you can have ‘enemies to lovers’ (think Elizabeth and Mr Darcy) where the couple begin by hating the very sight of one another but end up by loving the person once they get to know one another better.
In cosy mystery writing, a common trope might be the country house mystery – a closed community, a small number of suspects, a specific set of relationships, and the stage is set for murder in a kind of extremely popular notion but very idealised version of a pre-WWII English country house. The country house could be something other than a country house. For example your story could be set, not in a house but on a train, in a submarine, on a space station, on an island, in a bomb shelter. almost anywhere, in fact, so long as the setting is enclosed in some way. Or you might use any one of the countless other tropes, the locked room trope, or you might use the disappearing corpse trope, or the gaslighting/I think I’m going insane trope…
Just because you are bound by conventions, doesn’t mean you can’t find your own voice, and your own style, and using the generic conventions means you can increase the readers pleasure as they can anticipate and understand what you are doing. If anything, sticking to the rules of your genre can give you greater freedom with a good, solid framework to build upon.
‘The Author, in the music room, with the typewriter…’
Please don’t let your detective cat smoke. Or Vape. It’s not good for them and ruins their fur.
I enjoy writing in a number of different styles and genres, but I’m a cosy mystery gal through and through. Even when I try writing a different genre, at some point my murderous instincts take over and drown out any other attempt to jump generic ship. Maybe I’ve written myself into a plot-corner and I’m not sure what to do; or I’m bored with the sweet romance I’m writing; or things are going all too easily for one character or another in my family saga; or my hologram’s new spacecraft is too fast, too shiny, everything is just soooooo perfect out there in the nebula, and there’s nothing for it: someone has to die.
I think it was Raymond Chandler who said (my paraphrase) ‘If in doubt, bring in someone with a gun’.
But there are so many sub-categories within all the main genres these days, and the Crime/Thriller genre is no exception.
For cosy mystery novels, some of the many subgenres include: international mystery, private investigators, women detectives, medical, legal, police procedural, technothrillers, and hard-boiled. The hard-boiled mystery, for example, is what is often referred to as Noir, or gum-shoe crime. They have evolved from the classics of the 40s and 50s and tend to be more graphic, violent, and unconventional. The detective is usually an anti-hero, with all kinds of issues, anything goes, and the grittier and grislier the book is, the better. The dialogue is bitty and abbreviated. There is a lot of swearing, shouting and people get ‘whacked’ or ‘rubbed out’. Often the end of the hard-boiled mystery is less cut-and-dried, leaving loose ends and a sense of a hollow victory, or a kind of ‘I’ll get you next time! On the upside, the men often wear nice hats. Like a Fedora or maybe a Trilby.
The cosy mystery genre is a world apart from the hard-boiled mystery. The cosy is a type of traditional murder mystery with it roots in the Golden Age of mystery writing as penned by Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth and many, many more. (If you fancy reading a bit more about that, please take a look at this article, or this one, both from guest author Elizabeth Roy recently.)
The plot of a cosy often revolves around social situations, perhaps a house party or dinner, as cosies commonly feature the wealthier classes at play, with undercurrents of malice lurking discreetly behind curtains or across the bridge-table. The relationships represented tend to be of a conventional, traditional type, and the novels are usually set in the present or the recent past. The hard-boiled or noir can be more experimental, and is well-suited to futuristic, non-traditional and even non-earth settings.
Cosy means exactly that, these books are pure entertainment, with nothing too terrifying, nothing too realistic or traumatising. It’s more of an intellectual puzzle than a brawl. In the cosy, the story is all about unravelling the central mystery, to find out whodunit by solving clues and working alongside the story’s detective to find out the truth behind a crime, nearly always a murder*. Cosies will feature good believable characters without a great deal of introspection and issues. Usually there are only one or two main characters, and a host of minor characters, individualised to a greater or lesser extent. There will be a twisty, ingenious plot, and a keep-‘em-guessing array of clues and red herrings. Readers are expected to read between the lines in every conversations and to observe character behaviour minutely and with suspicion.
The cosy does not feature gory murder scenes or long descriptions of stomach-clenching forensic information. The cosy does not include explicit sex or stronger bad language. There may be some saucy shenanigans but nothing too graphic happens ‘on-stage’, any ‘filth’ is conducted behind carefully closed doors, even if someone is listening at the keyhole or watching from the tree outside the window. Life lessons are not usually part of the cosy mystery, nor should you expect comments on social issues or deeply moving emotional scenes. Life is pretty good in the cosy mystery–for everyone except the perpetrator and the victim of course. Here again, in the cosy, the victim is not likely to suffer agonies or torture; death is usually contrived in a quick and often ingenious manner.
You must always be on the alert for clues and red herrings
Usually, though not always, the main protagonist is the sleuth who is going to solve the mystery for us, or should I say, with us. They will likely–though not always–be an amateur detective, often someone involved on the periphery of the murder and they will feel compelled to find out the ‘truth’, either from standpoint of moral outrage, or more likely, out of sheer nosiness. Of late, it has become the trend to write themed cosies centred around a hobby or service. For example, a lot of stories are set in book shops, craft groups or cookery schools, and hotels, or they might involve pet-sitters, mediums, hairdressers, gardeners, wedding planners, or interior decorators. Sometimes the detective has a dog or cat who ‘helps’ them solve the mystery. Sometimes the detective IS a dog or cat. This allows the author to introduce a range of situations and characters, which is a great way to produce a detective and a series that will turn readers into avid fans and keep them coming back time and again.
The cosy is all about solving a puzzle, and reestablishing the status quo. The book should leave readers feeling ‘Ahh,’ at the end, not ‘OMG OMG!’ The reader should definitely be able to pat themselves on the back for an armchair- detective job well done. The cosy is intended purely for escapist fun, which is another reason why the author needs to write plenty of them–readers will close one book and immediately reach for the next.
*please note: other crimes are available! But a lot less entertaining.
Cosy mysteries should be more feel-good and with a sense of all is well at the end.
I don’t know what the collective noun is for a bunch/murder/flock of detectives, but ‘clue’ has a nice and appropriate ring to it, I thought. Last week, a friend of mine, author Elizabeth Roy told us a bit about the Detection Club – a famous where successful authors collaborated together and compared notes. How I would have loved to be there at one of their meetings! Here is another snippet from Elizabeth about the Club.
The Detection Club was first founded in 1930 but it’s still going strong today. Many famous names are among the ranks of both members and club presidents, including: G K Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Julian Symons, H R F Keating, Simon Brett, Len Deighton, Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid, Peter Lovesey, Peter James, Martin Edwards, and Michael Ridpath. You might wonder why Arthur Conan Doyle was not included, but in fact he was invited to become the club’s first chairman, but had to decline due to his poor health, and sadly he died later in 1930, leaving G K Chesterton to preside over the creation of the club as its first president.
One of the most important functions of the club was to educate, compare notes and generally discuss crime writing as an academic pursuit, and to attempt to create guidelines, or ‘fair play’ rules for the best quality of crime writing. the famous oath only really scratched the surface of these guidelines:
“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
Member Ronald Knox is now, mainly, I would suggest, known for his Commandments, also referred to as the Knox Decalogue which went as follows:
“The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
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.
No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which provesto be right.
The detective himself must not commit the crime.
The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which passthrough 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.”
Of course the great thing about rules is that they are made to be broken, and I’m glad to say that many of the members and even–gasp!–the presidents–have broken at least one of these rules in their writing, whilst many others have been removed or altered.
Rule 1, for example, is akin to the common writing instruction that if a gun or some similar attention-catching object is mentioned at the beginning of a story or novel, it should be used by the end of the novel or story.
Rule 5 has more to do with the fact that in the 1930s, inscrutable, mysterious Chinamen were seen as figures involved in Chinese tongs and the drug trade. Because of those associations and stereotypical beliefs about Chinese culture, readers could be counted on to believe that a Chinese person would know mysterious, nearly undetectable ways to murder people through the use of martial arts, drugs, or even the occult. In any case, it was sadly all too common in both books and movies in the early twentieth century to automatically apportion blame to anyone seen as an outsider or to a person of different ethnicity. I’d like to think those days are well and truly behind us now.
As far as rule 9 goes, Watson was a competent medical doctor, hardly unintelligent. His brain may not work the way Sherlock Holmes brain does, but whose brain does work the way Holmes’s brain does? So, the Watson doesn’t have to be unintelligent. That character just needs to be someone who needs the detective character to explain his or her reasoning. We need them to perhaps just explain to us the detectives reasoning in a straightforward, logical manner.
All in all, lovers of all subgenres of crime fiction owe members of the detection club a huge debt of gratitude. Without them and their huge array of works, our lives would be infinitely poorer.
This week I’m handing the reins over to author Elizabeth Roy for the first of a short series of posts about the famous Detection Club: Thanks Elizabeth, over to you…
You may know of the Detection Club which was founded in 1930. If you don’t, you will know many of its members, both past and present. The earliest members represent some of the best-known detective fiction writers from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
Initiation into The Detection Club:
Evidence within the initiation ceremony and surrounding the administration of the Club’s membership oath allows us to deduce that fostering a golden age of murder mystery writing was among the members’ goals.
The famous oath was: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them, and not placing reliance on, nor making use of, Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
Most prospective members had written at least two successful pieces of detective fiction, with only A. A. Milne as an exception. Milne had published The Red House Mystery in 1922, but his next mystery didn’t appear until 1933. However, he was a prolific writer in other genres, most famously of course, his work for children. Prospective members also had to be sponsored by at least two members. The vote to accept or deny the new member was held in secret.
During the initiation ceremony, each new member was asked to name a thing he or she held in particular sanctity. Increased sales were substituted if the prospective member could not think of any sacred thing. Then, if the new member ever broke the oath just taken, he or she was “cursed” with the threats of lawsuits for libel, misprints, being cheated in contracts with publishers, and constantly dwindling sales.
Detection Club Meetings
At the dinner party meetings, the founding members enjoyed the company of other mystery writers and assisted each other with technical questions that they encountered as they wrote. While current members meet less frequently, in the early days, members regularly travelled to London to meet at the Café Royal and other locations.
At the meetings, the members sometimes agreed to collaborate on a novel or an anthology of novellas in round-robin style with each collaborator contributing one or more chapters.
For the collaboration on The Floating Admiral, the members agreed to rules that reduced the possibility of collaborators creating unlikely or impossible complications to the plot without showing that the contributor had a plan for reaching a reasonable plot resolution. Each collaborator had to include a sealed resolution to the plot he or she envisioned based on his or her contribution plus the chapters previously provided by others. These resolutions were published with the novel.
The founding members:
The founding members included: Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ronald Knox, (who created Knox’s Commandments, also known as The Knox Decalogue, the ten fair-play rules that all members were to use as guidelines when writing their mysteries, and that are still used as guidelines today for the writing of murder mysteries of the traditional type. The famous initiation oath was based on these statutes.) G K Chesterton, who served as the first president of The Detection Club, Freeman Wills Crofts, Arthur Morrison, Hugh Walpole, John Rhode, Jessie Rickard, Baroness Emma Orczy, R Austin Freeman, G D H Cole, Margaret Cole, E C Bentley, Henry Wade, Constance Lindsay Taylor, H C Bailey and Anthony Berkeley.
These men and women represented some of the finest and most meticulous authors of mystery fiction–and non-fiction, and most of them are still widely read and greatly admired today.
Since this whole covid thing hit, I’ve noticed I’ve become quite–erm–well, doolally is what my mother would have called it. I’ve gone a bit forgetful and dopey. And the most recent example of this is when, two weeks ago, I posted a blog entitled ‘More killer words’, and I actually said:
‘I mentioned a while ago (I’ve already forgotten when it was…) that one of the best parts of a murder mystery is when the killer is ‘on-stage’ and speaks.’
Well it’s taken me until last weekend to figure out where I said that, and it was in my subscriber newsletter – so no, I never did start that conversation here on my blog. On the blog we had the sequel but not the prequel, if you see what I mean. Sorry about that! So now, without further ado, I bring you the original (horribly long, feel free to completely ignore it) The Killer Speaks:
You know how, at the end of a murder mystery, they assemble all the suspects, and the police, and the investigator—whether an official officer of the law or an amateur sleuth, or even a paid private eye—tells everyone how the crime was done? I love that bit.
On the one hand, it bugs me that it’s done at all in fiction, because clearly, in real life the police don’t bring all the suspects to Great Aunt Madge’s house and, when everyone is sitting comfortably, begin to recount the case from the very beginning, filling in each step with a bit of evidence or some superhuman deductive reasoning. And usually I hate it when things in books aren’t done ‘right’.
But I love that big reveal, and the complacency of the investigator, having everyone there to listen to his/her theories. I love the ego of it, the pomp, the ‘you will all listen to me’ arrogance, and so even though I strive to make my own stories more or less believable, I sometimes just give in and go with that wonderful sense of occasion.
I’m not an expert on the Golden Age of murder mystery writing, but I am very familiar with some of the well-known authors of that time, notably Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth, and I have read quite a bit by some of their contemporaries: Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer. And I’m pretty sure it was this bunch who created the concept of this kind of finale. Or perhaps if we go a little further back, we will find Sherlock Holmes setting this up as the ultimate in wrap-ups, or Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff. I’m not clear where it began. I just know I love it.
We so often read of Poirot standing in front of a group of rather irritable, seated suspects whilst he expounds, his manner a cross between hectoring and lecturing. Miss Marple, by dint of her age, is usually seated, sometimes knitting, and has a far more hesitant, apologetic style, and is so self-deprecating. Both Poirot and Marple suffer from moral outrage: a murder is an affront and will not be tolerated mainly on the grounds of moral integrity rather than the unbiased basis of the law.
I enjoy ‘listening’ as they bring their case. But then comes the point I love the most.
The killer speaks.
Because this is the reason we hang onto Poirot’s thoughts for so long. We want to hear (read, I mean really) the killer say in her or his own words, WHY they did it. Yes, we do need to know how. And where, and with what weapon, we want to know about motives and alibis, but oh so often, the abiding desire in us is to know WHY. Why did they do such a terrible, irremediable thing?
We are often told that anyone could kill given the right circumstances and sufficient motive. Many of us doubtless would say, ‘No, I would never, could never kill. I can’t even bring myself to kill a woodlouse or a spider.’
I have asked myself if I could kill. I have killed bugs and beasties, generally by accident or out of sheer clumsiness. But I’ve never—as far as I’m aware—killed anything bigger than a bee. Unless you count calling the rat man. That I suppose is more like being an accessory, or conspiring to kill… From the rat’s point of view, they’d probably say I was a murderer. To me it’s different. I suppose murderers always say that.
But if it was a case of happening upon a person who was deliberately harming someone else, and I saw a way to stop it, what would I do? I’d like to think I’d never turn my back on someone in desperate need. But how far would I go?
So I think that’s why we—all of us avid crime fiction fans—enjoy getting to the pinnacle of a mystery, following the clues, deducing and pondering, and hanging onto every word to find out ‘the who’ and ‘the why’ behind the whole thing. As the killer shifts in his or her seat, the spotlight shifts to them, and this is their big moment. The chance to explain their WHY. We hold our breath, not daring to make a sound in case we miss a word. They lean forward, look us in the eye, they clear their throat, and they speak…
Which book finale have you read which gave you the biggest buzz? Do you prefer your killer to go down denying and fighting, or do you prefer your books to end with a kind of proud and well-bred admission of the truth?
I mentioned a while ago (I’ve already forgotten when it was…) that one of the best parts of a murder mystery is when the killer is ‘on-stage’ and speaks. It’s the highlight of the story for me–their moment of crowing glory or abject defeat. This is the moment when we the audience have already heard the detective’s wild accusations or seen their insurmountable proof. Then, turning to the perpetrator, the audience holds their collective breath. And then the killer speaks…
After The Funeral by Agatha Christie is one of my top ten of her books. I just love the way, right from the start, the reader is deceived. (I’ve tried to do this without spoilers, but there’s only so much I can do and still make my point!)
Here is an extract of the denouement. Poirot has been outlining his case. Then the killer remarks:
‘No, one doesn’t bother to look at a mere companion-help… A drudge, a domestic drudge! Almost a servant. but go on, M Poirot. Go on with this fantastic piece of nonsense!’
So Poirot does go on.. and it’s too late now for the killer to save him/herself. I love it when the killer challenges the detective in a rather snarky way–we know they are about to get their comeuppance. Of course Poirot has more up his sleeve. When it comes, it is, of course, irrefutable. The murderer realises they’ve given themselves away irretrievably, but if they can’t have their way, then nothing else much matters:
‘You don’t know how boring it is to listening to somebody going on about the same things, hour after hour, day after day… Pretending to be interested… And nothing to look forward to…’
All too often, the murderer has a side-kick who is apt to be thrown under the bus at the final moment, for their ineptitude. Side-kicks are notorious for saying the wrong thing to the detective in the final showdown:
‘…darling, it’s not true. You could never kill anyone, I know you couldn’t…it’s that horrible girl you married. She’s been telling lies about you….’ said the side-kick in Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, only for the villain to turn on them and snarl:
‘For God’s sake, you damned bitch… shut up, can’t you? D’you want to get me hanged? Shut up, I tell you. Shut that big, ugly mouth of yours.’
Life’s tough for a side-kick. The murderer will always be centre-stage, their vanity demands it.
What about the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – a controversial book in its day, one of my favourites, and still hugely popular. Here, after revealing the murderer, Poirot says to him/her:
‘It would be most unwise on your part to attempt to silence me as you silenced M. Ackroyd. That kind ofbusiness does not succeed against Hercule Poirot, you understand.’
To which the murderer responds, with a characteristic touch of vanity:
‘My dear Poirot,’ I said, smiling a little, ‘whatever else I may be, I am not a fool.’
It is important for him/her to be appreciated and treated with respect, even though they are a cold-blooded killer. At least for the reader, justice is served–or about to be–whilst for the killer, their dignity is more important than their life.
The best ‘killer speaks’ moment is when the murderer is unable to maintain their aplomb and with terrifying and self-condemning rage, they launch themselves at the detective–for whom this is usually all in a day’s work–and the game is most definitely, and fatally, up. This is that moment in Evil Under The Sun – my number one Agatha Christie novel:
‘Poirot said: ‘You will be interested to hear that both you and (……) were easily recognised and picked out by the Surrey police… They identified you both…’
(…..) had risen. His handsome face was transformed, suffused with blood, blind with rage. It was the face of a killer–of a tiger. He yelled:
‘You damned interfering murdering lousy little worm!’
He hurled himself forward, his fingers stretching and curling, his voice raving curses, as he fastened his fingers around Hercule Poirot’s throat…’
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a satisfying conclusion! The murderer must have his or her moment in the spotlight, to explain their motivation. It’s all very well to know how they did something, and of course, vital to know who committed the crime, but if you don’t know why – it’s one of those puzzles that can never be put to rest.
We at LaughingAtLife.org (not a real company!) have a new part-time vacancy for the role of armchair sleuth.
About this role:
You must be ready, willing and able to deliver timely advice to all suspects and potential victims. (But not too timely. Whilst we agree that forewarned is forearmed, if you’re too good at your job, you may find the number of victims drops alarmingly and you are left with no one to investigate/suspect which will lead to everyone at LaughingAtLife.org moving into the genre of romance. Or maybe Fantasy. No one at LaughingAtLife.org wants that to happen.)
You should be highly experienced in delivering comments such as ‘I knew that was going to happen’ or ‘You could write this (insert offensive vocabulary here) stuff yourself!’
If you have fancied taking part in shows such as Gogglebox, this job could be for you!
Eagle-eyed attention to detail.
Nerves of steel.
Ability to pick locks with a hair pin or safety pin. Or a lock-pick.
Suspicious of everyone and everything.
Able to sniff out spurious motives and supply educated guesswork.
Possess own monocle or pince-nez or (misplaced) reading glasses.
Should be able to demonstrate a long-established habit of putting your fingertips together in a thoughtful manner before speaking.
You must have a luxurious moustache which you continually fondle or trim or dye a suspiciously dark colour. This role is open to all genders.
Or, failing the moustache, you may have a knitting fetish, and take knitting everywhere with you so that you are ready at a moment’s notice to disarm suspects with your apparent inoffensiveness and the sense of calmness that you radiate.
Must be able to recall a long series of villagey anecdotes you can crowbar into any conversation.
Must know the difference between a colonel and a major. Must equally be conversant with the differences between life-peers and the other sort, whatever they are.
Must be able to shake your head sorrowfully from time to time and say ‘The world is a very wicked place’ or make some quote about the fallibility of mankind.
Additional desirable qualifications:
Knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible useful.
Must not be liable to scream or faint when confronted with a gory scene.
Encyclopaedic knowledge of deadly fungi and herbs could come in handy.
Must be able to dip fingertip in any powdery drug and taste it without dying and also must be able to identify said drug.
No salary, just the reward of knowing you did your best, and served your country. Or, failing that, completed at least one matinee jacket for the new baby of a friend of a friend.
No perks. There is no holiday allowance, as every time you go on holiday, someone will do something stupid and you will find yourself ‘embroiled’ in a new murder case. Even if you have a staycation, the grumpy colonel in the Old Manor House will upset someone who will then disguise themselves as a vicar and whack the colonel over the head 47 times with a fire-iron. You will of course realise that this was almost inevitable given the colonel’s manner, and also it will be just what happened with Mrs Castle’s little boy in Northampton when he skived off school that day.
There is no sick pay, apart from the satisfaction that your last days will be repackaged and sold as ‘Mr X’s, Ms Y’s or Mrs Z’s Final Cases’ with a picture of the actor who plays your role on the front cover.