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Can murder be cosy?

A Racing Murder by Frances Evesham is out now!

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Murder is final. There’s no going back, once you’ve done it. You can’t undo the crime.

That doesn’t sound cosy, does it?

Murder is deadly serious. It’s not trivial,  like telling a white lie about the dog eating your homework. Why would anyone ever deliberately kill another person, ending their life and knowing the deed can never be undone?

How can anything as dreadful and permanent as murder become ‘fun, ’‘entertaining,’ or ‘cosy?’

A cosy murder mystery, sometimes called cosy crime, is a contradiction in terms, like ‘open secret’, ‘working holiday’ or ‘silent scream.

There’s no overt gore, sex or swearing. But, don’t roll your eyes. A good ‘cosy’ murder mystery is anything but dull.

It’s a story set in an ordinary, normal world, where people go about their everyday business cooking and eating, gardening and painting, reading, writing and gossiping – until someone dies.

That death threatens everything they hold dear. They no longer trust their neighbours and friends. Even their romantic relationships can be in danger. Their world is in turmoil.

Someone must bring back normality and restore order.

That’s exactly what our  cosy crime detectives do, whether they’re ex-policemen like Poirot, fluffy elderly ladies like Miss Marple, or a few friends in a ‘murder club.’ By finding and stopping the criminal, they prevent their word from spinning out of control.

I love these mystery stories. I remember reading Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians when I was thirteen, on holiday on the Isle of Wight. I walked behind my family on the way to the ferry, the book in my hands, my head bent over it. I tripped over stones and bumped into bollards, still reading.

I couldn’t drag myself away from the story.  I was hooked forever on its intricacy, the puzzle at the centre and the drive to understand what was really going on.

All good murder mysteries share these challenges, and I think that’s why they’re so engaging.  Some are more graphic than others, and cosies sit at the less ‘gritty’ end of the spectrum, where gruesome details of pain and death are kept to a minimum.

The term ‘cosy mystery’ has been used for years. It was invented in the middle of the 20th century, to describe the Agatha Christie style of crime story.  Recent war, death and destruction made readers long for order and normality, just as we do during our pandemic, and writers developed rules for keeping the story cosy.

Untangling the web of clues, secrets and lies and catching the murderer should be at the heart of the story. The murder shouldn’t be too gruesome or gory, there’s little or no swearing and no graphic sex.

There are other rules, but since Agatha Christie herself broke at least one, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out – describing it will give away the ending,) I like to treat them more as ‘guidelines.’

It’s sometimes a challenge, in today’s world, to write a fascinating, intricate story that keeps to those guidelines. Especially when mobile phones, Google and Facebook mean we have instant information at our fingertips.

But it’s a challenge I love.

Because, every mystery is different. It’s a puzzle to be solved, an enigma, a secret to be uncovered, and at the heart of every good mystery lie questions that scream to be answered. Who did it? Why? How? When?

As you read, your challenge is to answer those questions along with the detective and solve the mystery. There are clues, but the clues may be hidden or lead in the wrong direction. You must keep asking, is that a real clue, or a red herring? Are you being misdirected? Is that character telling the truth, or a lie, or a half-truth?

When all the questions are answered, the secrets exposed and the mystery solved, with an explanation of every aspect of the murder and maybe an exciting or dangerous climax, the final piece in the jigsaw slips neatly into place.

However circuitous the route, however many rabbit holes visited along the way, the ending of a good cosy murder mystery must be the only possible explanation for all the events and conversations described in the story, and it should be as satisfying as the last bite of a delicious meal.

Here’s a tip for readers – motive is the key. What’s going on in the murderer’s head? What could bother them so much they kill? Why do they feel entitled to step outside society’s norm?

Murder turns the world upside down – not just for the victim, but for everyone touched by it.  And yet, in a murder mystery, the murder is solved. At the end, the world rights itself.

You can breathe a sigh of relief.

Maybe you give yourself a pat on the back for solving the murder before the detective did, or maybe you grind your teeth because you ‘didn’t see that coming.’

Everything is once more safely under control.

And that’s why we call this a cosy murder.

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