Don’t Call Me Cosy!

Bryant and May

burning man

On May 19th I’ll be heading to Bristol for the annual Crimefest, where one of the panels should get a bit fighty; it’s about the pros and cons of the so-called ‘Cosy’, a relatively new sub-genre of mystery fiction which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crimes take place in a small, socially intimate community.

The term was first coined in the late 20th century when various writers produced work in an attempt to re-create Gold Age crime fiction. The sleuths are usually amateurs, there’s no swearing and the themes avoid anything controversial, political or religious. They’re usually called something like ‘Dorothy Sultana and the Punctured Teabag’.

I hate them.

Mainly because every once in a while, someone who has clearly never read more than a few sentences from one of my books says I write them. I’ve persistently written about class, politics, racism, ageism and other hot-button topics in my non-Bryant & May novels, but because my crime fiction also uses humour, the ‘cosy’ accusation crops up.

In ‘Psychoville’ and ‘The Sand Men’, the political comment is overt (enough to get interviews censored) and although the Bryant & May books have lunatic plots there’s usually a serious point to be made in them. ‘The Burning Man’ was set again the banking riots. ‘Strange Tide’ starts with a boatful of Libyan refugees heading for Lampedusa. The books take serious lessons I’ve learned in London and uses them as springboards for mysteries, that’s all.

killer-in-crinolinesBut I look at the book above and want to throw up, even though I’m sure many readers find it perfectly charming. The joke is, of course, that in my own way I’m also doing following ‘cosy’ rules, making the Peculiar Crimes Unit a world of its own. Regular police departments have been done to death, so I needed to write about a different kind of place, and found it after I talked to my father about his scientific unit, where the average age was 21 and methods were wildly experimental.

My unit was based on his reality, which gave me something to work with. His friends and colleagues were very unusual people, often socially awkward, lost in abstract thought. Many were unable to deal with the real world. The difference is in the friction created by the two worlds rubbing together. That’s when the sparks fly, which is why I balance the world of the PCU with true events occurring outside it.

Cosy? You be the judge.

PS The new painting at the top is ‘The Burning Man’ by Keith Page, clearly based on images from the bonfire societies of Lewes.

17 comments on “Don’t Call Me Cosy!”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    I wouldn’t call you cosy. I’m been described of that despite my tales taking place in the world of BDSM

  2. Debra Matheney says:

    No way are Bryant and May “cozy”. Eccentric, yes.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I have cosy as a category for Goodreads but you will certainly not find B&M there. Many cosies have the amateur detective making contact with only one police officer, a friend & often the romantic interest. There is no reality in these, although there are a couple who try. If you don’t want sex, violence, or bad language why would you read a book about crime, a subject notoriously brimming with all of those elements?

  4. snowy says:

    Well at the risk of a sudden, involuntary radical nasal re-alignment, there are reasons why the series might be perceived at least at a very surface level as being in the ‘cosy’ category.

    [I haven’t had time to completely marshal my thoughts, the peril of an incoming biff to the snuff chute is slightly distracting.]

    However if I extemporise, I did know who created the ‘cosy’ label but I’ve never found out the background to it. [I think it is either pure marketing puff or an attempt to carve out and exclusive niche for a group of writers to create an identity distinct from other crime writing in an already overcrowded market.] However it exists, for good or ill; and we are probably going to be stuck with it for a while. It is all slightly meaningless any way since there are only two categories of books from a readers perspective, ones you like and ones you don’t.

    Having the B&M books mentioned in the same breath as some other books, by some might say lesser authors, is not completely unflattering. It might even pull in a few more readers. And since the first chapter of each book usually contains something grisly, described with anatomical glee, [not quite sure that phrase works, but neither did ‘extreme relish’ either], anyone will swiftly realise they “… are not in Kansas any more.” And either plough on, and perhaps become a fan, or bail out early and go back to “Hilary Cockburn and The Mystery of the Moist Gusset” none the worse for their encounter.

    It’s just a classification error, they abound everywhere, a whale isn’t a fish, nor a spider an insect. People like to think they are because it’s a form of mental short-cut, unknown thing, er… don’t know what it is looks like other thing I do know about, therefore will assume it belongs to that category until evidence proves otherwise. [Not an evolutionarily sound strategy, in all cases, four foot high Lion-y things that look just like Tiddles aren’t going to be very chuffed if you decide to tickle them under the chin, though they will enjoy having you for dinner, “It’s the Circle of Life”.]

    But why this particular error? For that we have to follow the whiff of ‘Parma Violets’ to the tweed-clad “elephant in the room” that is Agatha, [Christie not Hamilton] and the ‘E-word’!

    Mention ‘Elderly Detective(s)’ anywhere in the description and BOOM! Mental switches get thrown, [sonic oscillators go very odd and the reactor starts making a noise not unlike a chicken in a spin-dryer], ……. desperately, desperately looking for a slot to put whatever comes next, into a category, any catagory; and the only place anyone can go who has not read the books is *drumroll*…………… ‘Marple’, at which point there is no point making a fuss because “It’s Game Over Man! Game Over!”, there is only one way in and no way out of this particular cul-de-sac.

    Some things we can never change, we can give it a good steady ignoring. Or shift things about so that it flows in the direction that suits us. Since all is ‘grist’ to a writers ‘mill’, why not play with it and subvert or destroy it.

    [I can imagine in my head some sort of exchange between Maggie, whose coven has suddenly become completely obsessed by one of these ‘cosy crime series’, [really, utterly, ludicrously obsessed, like the aberration that was FSoG]. And another character; in which she systematically rips into and details just what a pile of rubbish these things are.]

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    I prefer mine hard boiled to soft boiled, and scrambled to coddled. On occasion; Benedict.

  6. Vivienne says:

    Shouldn’t that be ‘Killer in a Crinoline’ – I wouldn’t have thought, given the exuberance of that article, that you could wear more than one of them.

    I avoid cosy. I thought the No 1 Ladies Detective series sounded too cosy, so haven’t tried those. Do read B&M so I clearly see them as hardboiled.

  7. Jo W says:

    Hey Snowy!

    Hilary Cockburn and The Mystery of the Moist Gusset sounds very uncosy, downright uncomfortable. Any idea if I can find a copy in my local library? 😉

  8. snowy says:

    Jo, I think the Central Library has the only copy, but it’s kept behind the counter, [it stops people fingering it.]

    *innocent face*

  9. Jo W says:

    Snowy!! Oooh, you are awful! 😉

  10. agatha hamilton says:

    You’ve had this battle before, haven’t you, Admin, at Crimefest?
    ‘Cosy’ suggests sentimentality, doesn’t it? And your B and M certainly aren’t that. They draw their strength from the characters,the humour, the history/psychogeography and also, I would say, charm, if it doesn’t offend you – (you may agree with Antony Blanche’s dismissal of charm in ‘Brideshead as the ‘great English blight’)
    Categorization is always difficult. Where, for instance would you put MRC Kasasian? Grisly murders, very funny, startling characters.
    And as for Snowy’s feeling he has to clarify which Agatha he is talking about – well, even to be linked by the name is excitement enough.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    BookCrossing tonight and I was handed “Tapped Out: a Jenny T. Partridge Dance Mystery” by the author of “Tutu Deadly”. Sometimes they’re fun to read just for the title. I won’t read the really silly ones, some of which have been televised (!), but there is a series about a bookbinder which I enjoy in spite of several silly elements because the book binding is fascinating. There is a series involving wine and a cheese shop which I won’t bother with because there is too much time spent with unfamiliar wines and cheeses and the plot holes are deep enough to bury an entire vintage.
    There is a series set in Alabama at the beginning of the thirties which I will read because she has done her homework and it is like being transported back to small town America of that time.
    As someone said up there, there are only two kinds of books: ones you like and ones you don’t.
    Oh, and the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency are not cosies they are sociological studies and real, not cute. My fear had been that they would be patronising, but they don’t seem to be. They don’t deal with murder generally, just mysteries.

  12. admin says:

    Don’t mind me, you chat among yourselves. I love reading your posts, and read every one. I’m in an airport coffee bar heading for Seville (free perfect unlimited wifi – are you listening Gatwick?) and chortling.

    BTW Maggie came to my launch last week and proved even stranger than anyone there expected. And you think I make this stuff up.

  13. LAM says:

    I’ve always thought of B&M being much more the inheritors of what I guess I think of as the sort of madcap and “speculative” mystery tradition of Innes & Crispin, which sometimes connects at the edges (at least on the madcap side) with someone like Allingham from the Golden Age ladies. There’s an explicitly literary or philosophical exploration going alongside–what can we do on s literary side with this form, what ideas to these kinds of mysteries allow us to explore? I mean, thank heavens their not procedurals (which I sometimes like if they’re very good) or dreary sado-porn investigations of the mind of a psycho-killer, which I used to enjoy but now just bore and depress me. Which isn’t to say other people shouldn’t like them. I read around a lot of stuff in the mystery genre–I quite like Ian Rankin, who is harder edged, Kathy Reichs (for the forensic detail, less so the writing), and Erin Hart who writes beautifully about bog bodies, and I also admit that under duress I read the magical cat and coffee shop mysteries when I need soothing–but I don’t take those seriously as literature. (I have a rule that I can only read one series at a time where cats solve the mysteries because, well, pretending to be a grown-up is sort of essential at my age.) Even Christie, let’s be honest, didn’t write what some people refer to as cozies–they may have had a set of charmingly eccentric characters, but she believed in cold-blooded evil and some of her novels still make my hair stand on end. Plus, she was an absolute formal innovator–how do you write a whodunnit where the narrator did it? where the victim did it? where everybody did it? There’s a deep precision behind the light narrative style. There’s not much currently on the mystery side that reminds of B&M, so I think it’s probably hard to categorize. I’d have to categorize it somewhere between China Mieville and Ben Aaronovitch, neither of whom write mysteries, but both of whom love cities and the implications of cities with histories, if I were looking for a common thread.

  14. LAM says:

    I meant “they’re not procedurals.” I hate not being able to edit.

  15. linda ayres says:

    Cosy…… I can hear Mr
    Bryant sounding off about PCU being described as cosy.

  16. snowy says:

    *Dons tweed jacket, checks leather elbow patches, flicks chalk dust off cuff*

    Having pondered the question a little more seriously, [well a change is a good as a rest], and I beleive that I can prove that B&M are not ‘Cosies’ using SCIENCE!.

    Unfortunately it’s a Venn diagram which is a bit hard to convey in a text-based environment [and I’d need to brush up on Set Theory before I can be 100%].

    The exercise did make me wonder if Prof. Kirkpatrick has formed an suitably withering opinion on the Cosy Crime genre?

  17. admin says:

    Having just given the troublesome Prof Kirkpatrick a slightly amplified role in the next Bryant & May novel (along with his half-brother) I’m wary of exposing his disgraceful views to the public gaze, but may be forced to if I feel grumpy again.

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