The Mystery of Murder
Why on earth are murder mysteries so comforting? They shouldn’t be, really. Given the sinister plotting of so many psychotic villains (which our quaintest British villages appear to be riddled with) and the violent dispatching of all those country vicars, farmers and baronets, murder mysteries should leave us quaking in our beds at night, terrified of trip wires on the staircase and cyanide in the Horlicks. The literary term ‘cosy crime’ is in itself a problematic one – what could possibly be cosy about witnessing so many grisly deaths? How could a crazed killing spree that leaves a score of bodies strewn about the picturesque landscape (perhaps one in the river, one under a combine harvester and, usually, at least two flung from the roof of a handy church or stately home) be in any way comforting?
Oh but they are comforting, aren’t they. And ever so cosy. There are, in my humble opinion, few things more pleasurable than curling up in an armchair with a cup of tea, a warm cat and a Miss Marple. Since moving abroad my fondness of this genre has developed into something altogether more all-consuming… an obsession, perhaps? An addiction? I devour the books, I listen avidly to the audiobooks and I work my way hungrily through DVD boxsets. Many’s the Sunday evening when I will say to my husband, “Why don’t we watch a nice murder after dinner, darling?” – and if “nice murder” isn’t an oxymoron I don’t know what is.
I think it’s partly to do with the formulaic nature of murder mysteries. Villains in your average Agatha Christie are usually very obliging and inevitably ‘come quietly’ at the end, helpfully confessing the ins and outs of their misdemeanours. Which is awfully sporting of them. So there is comfort to be found in this predictable pattern. Our detective always gets his or her man (or indeed woman – it’s often the prodigal daughter or angelic school teacher, you know), and the satisfaction of the thoroughly explained denouement – every loose end neatly tied up – is vital too.
With cosy crime on DVD, one can enjoy pausing the drama shortly before the end and discussing with one’s companion the various suspects and theories before the solution is revealed. I get the same gentle, intellectual stimulation from watching a good a murder mystery as I do from working on a cryptic crossword: murder mysteries are interactive entertainment – there is a puzzle to be solved and we can join in the fun.
As for the murders themselves, discounting the trendy, gruesome Scandinavian crime thrillers, your average cosy crime execution is rarely shocking or disturbing. We are spared the goriest of close-ups in these non-naturalistic, sometimes even cartoony deaths. Midsomer Murders (a great favourite of mine) frequently borders on delightful parody – each wonderful cast indulging in exaggerated caricatures and hammy death scenes. The actors are clearly having a marvellous time, and so we do too.
There’s something else though. For the homesick exiles such as yours truly, these dramas present the glorious British countryside at its most charming. Idealised though they may be, all those idyllic villages, thatched cottages, traffic-free roads and endless, untouched fields and woodland satisfy our nostalgic yearnings for home. The stunning Art Deco architecture featured in an episode of Poirot or the elegant evening dresses or vintage sports cars in a Miss Marple are sumptuous aesthetic treats for the viewer, transporting us to a blissful bygone age. Through a well-made mystery we can enjoy an imaginative escape into a dreamy fantasy version of England, populated by affable archetypes who dress for dinner, take sherry in the drawing room and then merrily murder each other. And what could be cosier than that?