My first exposure to the strange and inoculated world of “cozy mysteries” was on a long road trip with my older sister. We were driving through Niagara Falls, New York, passing vendors hawking memorabilia from the Falls, when our conversation stopped and she lit an audiobook titled Three Chocolate Cheesecake Murder. This was the 27th installment in a series called the The Mysteries of Hannah Swensen, by Joanne Fluke. My sister had read them all: Blueberry Muffin Murder, Murder of lemon meringue pie, Murder of a fishing shoemaker. I’m generally more likely to listen to a true crime podcast while driving, but I was lulled by the simple prose, charmed by the protagonist’s life as a bakery owner and hobbyist sleuth – and drawn to the paradoxical concept. of a feeling – good murder.
It turns out that I am not alone. Fluke’s books join a host of cozy mysteries, many of which are regularly the subject of bestseller lists, which are all about making murder acceptable, if not calming to readers. Prolific blogs and Twitter accounts that discuss it litter the Internet. Detectives who love these books, like Hannah Swensen, tend to be brave, sympathetic young women living in small towns. They have charming household chores: apothecary, librarian, baker, seamstress. They could date men whose professions (police officer, coroner) are extremely conspiratorial, giving them unhindered access to boxes of evidence and autopsy reports. They usually resolve cases without ever entering too much a delicate situation.
But the characteristic that most distinguishes Cozy from other detective novels – and which makes its extensive appeal so curious – is that it is devoid of gore. Murders tend to take place off the page, and many are bloodless. Details that appear are spared: a pair of legs sticking out of a doorway, a witness clearly crying, “He’s dead!” The overwhelming mood is one of appeasement. At Elizabeth Penney’s Hems and homicides, the protagonist finds a skeleton in the cellar of her shop; while waiting for the police to arrive, she sits down on a chair by her bay window and notices how surprisingly comfortable her cushion is.
The mysteries of non-violent murder have a long legacy. When the murders barely resemble murders, readers should focus on the real pleasure of the mystery, which is the puzzle itself. In this, the comfortable finds its ancestors in the harmless female detectives (Nancy Drew, Miss Marple) of the “golden age” of detective fiction, which dominated the world of mystery before darker detective novels gained prominence. popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. Comfortable and popular writers such as MC Beaton and Alexander McCall Smith return to these earlier novels, which encouraged readers to clean up plots for clues and kept the promise that at the end of the book , the matter would still be resolved.
The popularity of cozies in today’s pop cultural landscape is unexpected, a relic of a bygone era. Mystery writers such as Gillian Flynn, Tana French, and Paula Hawkins dominate contemporary detective fiction, offering readers brassy characters and elegant prose. Police dramas taught home viewers the language of autopsies and criminal interrogations. The foul granularity of real crime can have a visceral impact: your heart pounding, your body contracting. Cozies would seem to operate in opposition to all of this. They are almost unbelievably picturesque; that I read, the lack of words such as ligature, contusion, hemorrhage-words that the CSI the franchise has become an everyday vocabulary – was striking.
And yet, as I weave my way through a variety of cozy mysteries, I can understand why they seduce so many readers, why someone might choose to avoid the macabre over and over again. Readers can immerse themselves in a world of crime without fear of being overwhelmed by unpleasant images or genuine grief; they choose to see the violence precisely so that they can look away. This kind of world – isolated, filled with homemade baked goods and chaste love stories, stripped of all loss – alleviates the need to question what is so alluring to humans about violence.
Cozies allow the reader to easily draw a line between themselves and the murders they read about, in part because the characters themselves tend to maintain a slight distance from the crime they are investigating. While the protagonist of Tana French in The resemblance, Cassie Maddox, is consumed with her detective work, fearing it will even overwhelm her and drive her crazy, Hannah Swensen manages to make a part of her detective in Three Chocolate Cheesecake Murder. Instead of a late-night undercover job and some serious forensic analysis, Hannah invites her prime suspect over for a quiche and champagne.
It makes sense to me that my sister loves the cozy kind: her life has been marked by difficulty, and yet she remains one of the most positive people I know. In fact, she takes positivity very, very seriously. She avoids thrillers and harsh news and turns to Hallmark and HGTV movies. I am the opposite. My experiences with violence have led me to seek it avidly in my media. I watch frightening detective reports and documentaries with fascination; they help me analyze my biggest fears through dark exposure therapy. Wallowing in the worst of the world, I convince myself that I am taking control of the vilest possibilities, rationing my fear until it is tame.
My sister’s decidedly conflict-free media regime and mine almost seem like two sides of the same coin. At the end of the day, we’re both drawn to the murder stories, just very different; we both seek, in a sense, to regain control of the violence that we see reflected in the real world. Maybe we think we can filter it through the media we consume, and what we consume will in turn empower us.
That said, you can’t hide away forever, not even, it seems, in comforters. The genre has begun to shed its protective cocoon, tackling the types of real-world struggles that many of its readers may have come to escape: prejudice, financial insecurity, mental illness. And young writers, including more writers of color, are extending the genre beyond its archetypal roots. Their protagonists use cell phones and social networks to help them in their investigation. Some live in big cities. They sell DIY soaps on Etsy, become YouTube influencers, support Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement.
The cozy beginnings of Mia P. Manansala, Arsenic and Adobo, for example, deals directly with fatphobia, racism, class prejudice and the police, as well as rich descriptions of the Filipino comfort food served in the restaurant of its protagonist’s family. Manansala told me that she addressed such questions in her book because it was the only way to be true to her main character. “Cozy Mysteries are escape fiction… that’s why I love them,” she said. “However, to be true to the character and make the world feel like real, I had to recognize the way Filipino Americans are formed. [how] my protagonist, Lila Macapagal, sees the world and how the world sees it. And because detective fiction is meant to interrogate society and human behavior, it would be remiss not to include some of the [these issues]. “
That a genre meant to distract and comfort begins to question – or at least acknowledge – pain may seem like a change. But to tell the truth, getting away from the cozy has never really been an escape. Despite the gentle repackaging of crime, despite the humor and novelty, what draws readers to the genre is still crime at the heart of every story. And even without the gory details, the upsetting nature of the murder sometimes creeps in. In Hems and homicides, after the protagonist stumbles upon a skull in the cobweb-covered cellar of her cafe, The Belgian Bean, we learn, during an informal conversation, that the skeleton belonged to “one of Grammy for ages “. The light touch only emphasizes the darker reality.
Comfort can seem overwhelming when it too stubbornly ignores the real world. Those of us who devour real crime might feel that its chills are temporarily leaving us behind our own fear. But like the cozies, it’s its own form of limited escape.
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