[13 November 2008]
Thanks to my fiancée working in a bookshop, I have been fortunate to discover a bizarre sub-genre of book that I would never have heard of otherwise: the cosy murder mystery.
The proliferation of hard-nosed TV cop shows of the CSI ilk has given me the impression that murder is a pretty grisly business. Yet apparently there is a section of the populace that like their murders with a side of handicrafts and a dressing of soothing familiarity.
My first experience with this style of book was with the inimitable Laura Childs and her scrapbooking murder mystery Photo Finished. Not only has Childs produced six murder mysteries set in a New Orleans scrapbooking shop (all loaded with helpful exposition on decorative edging), she is also responsible for a series of teashop mysteries. Photo Finished is appallingly written and the plot is nothing short of absurd, but that all seems irrelevant when you discover that Childs is far from the only writer working in the genre.
The concept behind these books is not so strange. After all, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books featured a cosy English village that was unusually prone to homicide. Last century, butlers were notorious for bumping off houseguests in novels—possibly lashing out at their declining employment prospects. Why should scrapbooking shops be any less popular locales for murders?
Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing combination. Could there be anything less comforting than the prospect of being sent packing from this life while enjoying the simple pleasures of flower shopping (Shoots To Kill), drinking coffee (On What Grounds) or…gasp…teddy-bear collecting (The Clockwork Teddy)? In fact, the thriller genre has been most effective when it has shown crime intruding into the safest places.
The trick with the cosy murder mystery seems to be to keep the murder part to a minimum. Killings are brief, absent grisly detail and usually of incidental characters we have not had time to get used to. I suppose this is one way to maintain the “cosy” vibe, but it does seem to defeat the purpose of a murder mystery.
I’m trying to work out what the existence of this genre says about humanity. If we sidestep the question of why some people are so keen on scrapbooking that they want their murder mysteries to involve it, we’re still left with this: why people simultaneously crave the excitement of bloodshed and the comforting knowledge that it won’t happen to them and they can go back to their quilting afterwards.
Maybe decades of crime fiction has reduced murder to a simple plot trick. We’re no longer interested in the procedure of detection or the psychology of crime. We’re really just looking for an excuse for our characters to momentarily escape their lives and have an “adventure”.
That would at least explain why so many of these books are about really boring hobbies. If you’re writing about skydiving or spear-fishing in the Marianas Trench, then you hardly need to bump off one of your characters with a pair of craft scissors—the thing is exciting enough as it is. On the other hand, writing 200-odd pages about a group of cat-sitters would drive anyone to murder.