Are Bryant & May 'Cosies'?

Christopher Fowler
  P.C.U Logo I'm at Bristol Crimefest on Friday 16th May, where I'm on a panel about 'cosies'. 'Cosies' are a form of crime-writing that remind readers of Agatha Christie's safe, 'nice' stories, and it's a tag I vehemently resist (so it should be a feisty panel). The Bryant & May books are most decidedly not cosies, but I can understand why they get pigeon-holed as such. The characters are comedic and eccentric, and the unit is clearly not meant to represent the Metropolitan police. I use the characters as vessels in which to pour ideas, and would argue that many so-called gritty procedurals are nothing of a kind. Labelling is a curse that prevents any further development, but readers understandably need to get an idea of what they'll be reading. How did Hilary Mantel managed to avoid being pigeon-holed as a historical writer, given that nearly half of her novels are set in the past? The answer is obvious; her extraordinary talent makes it plain that she can turn her hand to any subject and take her readership with her. But it's not so straightforward for many writers. I'm fascinated by the question of pigeon-holing. Right now many of my friends are questioning their personal and public place in life, their need to balance comfort and achievement, because what we end up doing is rarely what we set out to do. Back in the 1940s, Abraham Maslow's 'Hierarchy of Needs' set out five development levels for our primal drives: 1. Physical needs - heat, light, warmth, food, mobility etc. 2. Safe & secure needs - health, home, stability, employment. 3. Belonging - love, connection, family, friendship. 4. Self-worth - achievement, respect, confidence, uniqueness. 5. Self-realisation - fulfilment of potential, development of creativity, intellect, conscience, morality, higher purpose. These states roughly correspond to what we read, with the most popular books hovering around stage 3. What's interesting to note is that a great many modern teenage books - especially in the US - are set at stage 4. Mantel's clearly concern themselves with stage 5. At this highly developed level, you are no longer a genre writer or a crime writer, but transcend categories to a separate world of literature. I've long considered myself a jobbing writer, happily working at stage 4. Recently, my agent has been keen for me to tackle the final level, which means stepping away from genres to write general fiction. It's a challenge, a mountain to climb, and it also means fighting off labels and finding more confidence - something I sorely lack. Last year I was promoted for a library event as a gay writer, which was odd as I don't write gay books and am known nowadays for crime and thriller writing. I'm not sure I feel it's appropriate to tag authors in this day and age unless they specifically write about aspects of a gay sensibility. Alan Hollinghurst is arguably a 'gay' writer because his point of view is selectively concerned with sexual experience. For me and I suspect the majority of writers, it's not an issue. I don't see that pegging E M Forster or Terrence Rattigan as gay writers throws any light on their writings whatsoever. While there are those who do promote themselves as gay writers, it seems that with equality comes an end to outsider status and exclusivity. I am always shocked to see demarcations so heavily outlined in Hollywood films. There are more all-black movies now than ever before, and the new subsection of Christian films. Failure to integrate creates the kinds of difference that the ignorant come to fear, and I feel bad for writers who happen to be black being labelled 'black writers', as if they'll be doomed to write about black experience only. As you may have suspected by now, I'm using you as a sounding board for a new book that will have a very different tone. The project is in its earliest stages of development, but I'll keep you in the picture as we go. One thing's for sure - it will most definitely not be 'cosy'!


Vivienne (not verified) Thu, 08/05/2014 - 13:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jumping in quickly, I came to this blog and knowledge of Admin through the Invisible Ink column in The Independent, so you appeared to me to be someone who covered all genres, certainly in your reading. I only caught up with Bryant & May later, and then read Plastic, which was completely different. I'm prepared to read anything (exaggeration), and try not to categorise or pigeonhole people. Looking through some recommended booklists recently, I was surprised to see some authors appearing under genres that seemed quite odd to me. Unusually ill last month, I really did feel like reading a 'cosy' golden age type of detective story, but I don't think I would put Bryant & May in that box - would quirky do?

pheeny (not verified) Thu, 08/05/2014 - 15:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I wonder if anyone has ever been pigeonholed as a heterosexual writer?

Bangbang!! (not verified) Thu, 08/05/2014 - 18:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've never pegged you as any particular type of writer. Just my favourite. Anything you choose to write will be absolutely fine with me!

Dan Terrell (not verified) Thu, 08/05/2014 - 19:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

No, B&M are definitely not 'cosies'. Keith Miles (Edward Marston) isn't either, although his characters' supportive chit chat certainly qualifies, if his plots do not.
Have at them during the panel discussion, but not enough so you miss a sale. The B&M books are sort a genre all to their own and are, I suspect, a bit hard to classify other than peculiar mysteries, with underground water, plenty of Indian take out, history rediscovered, and a cat with a parcel of kittens underfoot.

snowy (not verified) Thu, 08/05/2014 - 22:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)


Sorry, pet hate of mine, people taking research from one <em>very</em> specific field and then distorting it completely to try to manufacture a correlation to an entirely different area. It flows from the 'Self Improvement' Industry and the publishing empires which have been built upon that.

It doesn't work! at best it is just wrong and a complete waste of time and resources, at worst it is dangerous and could get people killed. It's very easy to spin out two dozen chapters of poorly referenced, snake oil, to take an advance from a publisher- "It must be good because I didn't understand a single word!" If anyone can demonstrate a correlation between an author's career and the function- V=dQ/dh. I will be impressed.*

Maslow's thoughts are outdated and were only ever very basic, once you have proved that a lungful of air is more important than looking at the 'Mona Lisa', it all starts to fall apart. Where does? "I will die for my country/faith" fit in, as just one example.

'Gay' writers

If you have warmed up on Maslow? Then 'Gay' writers, shall we wrestle that great big hairy bear to the ground and see what he's got in his pockets?

Er, no it's been done to death, hundreds of times before by people much cleverer than me. But Our Host being drawn into a 'Gay Writing Festival' in Hertfordshire did puzzle me slightly.

If any group of authors who write books dealing with, or around themes and ideas that are of interest to a particular audience get together and 'organically' organise a festival then success will follow. It is how the world turns.

But there is something else at play, public authorities have to <em>prove they are not</em> excluding anybody. Leaving aside the complexities of proving a negative, it matters for nought, because there is <strong>a box that must be ticked</strong> and if it isn't ticked; very bad things will happen to them. [Probably but not limited to loss of biscuit allowance.]

To this end they organise events for which there is no local demand, which are frequently cancelled because of low/zero ticket sales. But at least they tried and so can tick that box for another year.

[Even if there is demand; poor transport links, [common outside cities] and only putting on events during working hours means most people can't attend.]

*Yes, I will be seriously impressed; given it's the formula for how fast Er... stuff flows downhill.

snowy (not verified) Thu, 08/05/2014 - 22:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Are B&amp;M Cosies?

Short answer, No. Long answer below.

The genre of 'Cosy' seems to originate from a US Fan Convention in 1989. {Yah me! 2 minutes research, eat that all you so called pro. journalists, "Investigative Journalism in the 21st Century, reading the <em>whole</em> Wikipedia article and not just the summary at the top!"]

Ahem... I can't turn up a primary source at the minute. er..

But I have found an article about the genre, from which I've pulled out the key points.

i) The crimes should take place in a small community/group of people. [Village/Stately Home.]

ii) No gore.

iii) No sleaze of any sort and definitely no f*cking swearing.

iv) No sex, [romance permissible, but no more than a chaste kiss].

v) The detective should be an amateur, with no input from the police/authorities, usually but not exclusively female.

vi) No violence, kill as many people as you like obviously, but discreetly, off page and don't hurt the Hero(ine)s, [a quick bloodless blow to the bonce to render them unconscious is allowed but only for plot reasons and they must make a full recovery in minutes.]

The B&amp;M books fail at least 5 of the 6 tests above.

Even though those that proposed this genre cite 'Golden Age Crime Fiction' as the model, most authors and books they hold up as examples cheerfully ignored all these arbitrary and retrospectively applied 'rules' and did whatever suited their mood or the necessities of plot. It is a 'distinction without difference' just made up so that a self appointed group can have a little cosy area they can claim ownership of and feel important about. As a functional definition it is a complete pile of downwardly mobile stuff, [see previous entry].

Susan McCosker (not verified) Fri, 09/05/2014 - 15:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This is not a comment on "cosies." But...as the subject of homosexual writers surfaced in the blog, I want to suggest weaving Christopher Marlowe and his death, or non-death in Deptford into one of your non-"cosies."

John Griffin (not verified) Sun, 11/05/2014 - 16:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I would suspect I put you in the bag with some of Terry Pratchett's mid -period, in that you use a pseudo-conventional format to make some fairly serious general points and also have multiple character trajectories, while having a good larf too.
Personally I think that gore-fests have become the new cosies, shock-horror denouements often losing credibility, and Scandinavian or Mid-West US desolation as conventional as Christie's country house settings. I still love Crispin, a million miles ahead of most authors today in many ways.
I guess I like 'Vera' for that reason - several TV plots rest on simple errors of perception by an otherwise innocent character leading to tragedy, as opposed to unmitigated evil.

jan (not verified) Wed, 14/05/2014 - 11:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

U'mmmm know this might upset but of course they r cosies the books in no way reflect any sort of reality - they don't even distort it!! They are just reads about an imagined London law enforcement dept. Theres a sort of geographical reality i suppose but thats about it. Sorry!!