The “cozy” mysteries of summer

From books to television, the gentle mystery genre is everywhere these days

While mysteries like Henning Mankell’s Wallander series have received critical acclaim, the traditional “cozy” still sells like hotcakes. Just witness the popularity of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which is based in Botswana, or this summer’s line-up on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery! In cozies, the detective—often a woman and/or an amateur—solves crimes that defy befuddled small-town authorities. Violence is kept to a minimum and important clues are often accidentally overheard or stumbled on by pure coincidence. Agatha Christie might be dead, but the genre she perfected in the form of Miss Marple lives on.

Today, Alexander McCall Smith, a professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, is the reigning champ of the cozy. He pumps out a handful of books each year, each more delightful than the last. McCall Smith has four series on the go, though some, like the Isabel Dalhousie novels, are really character essays rather than mysteries in the usual sense of involving bodies and crimes. And in each book, especially his best-selling No. 1 series, the crime is less important than the people who inhabit the pages and their reactions to each other and to the crime.

This is perfectly exemplified in an exchange in the latest book of the series, The Double Comfort Safari Club. Mma Grace Makutsi, the assistant in the Gaborone-based detective Agency tells her boss: “Sometimes wickedness prevails.” She is referring to an old foe, Violet Sephotho, notorious for using her looks to ensnare men. However, Makutsi’s belief is anathema to detective Mma Precious Ramotswe. As McCall Smith writes: “In her short career as a private detective, Mma Ramotswe had encountered relatively few instances of evil, but she had seen some, and in each case she had seen the wings of wickedness clipped. Violet Sephotho had now stepped over a boundary that separated mere nastiness from real wickedness. She could not be allowed to prevail.” And, with the two women on the case, there is no doubt in readers’ minds that Violet Sephotho will get her comeuppance.

That simple reasoning that “might does not make right” is at the heart of a cozy’s appeal. Like a Harlequin romance and its inevitable happy ending, cozy readers know that in their world evil will be vanquished. A different variation of the cozy starts on Sunday, May 2 on PBS when Masterpiece Mystery! begins airing the final three episodes of Foyle’s War.

Set during the Second World War in the ancient British town of Hastings on the English Channel, the series features the most reluctant of detectives, Chief Supt. Christopher Foyle, who must solve crimes that can appear insignificant compared to the cataclysmic events occurring all around him. In these episodes, the war in Europe is over and Foyle is on the cusp of his much desired, much delayed retirement. Though these episodes deal with rather more grand issues than usual, Foyle’s War as a whole is the ultimate cozy.

Starring Michael Kitchen, who’s a delight as the enigmatic Christopher Foyle, the series is really about his quiet, determined refusal to accept the “party line”—that crime in wartime isn’t worthy of the most diligent police work. Of course Hastings plays host to the most amazing crimes, all of which would remain unsolved if not for Foyle, his former driver “Sam” Stewart and his deputy Paul Milner.

And after Foyle’s War ends there are eight episodes by the queen bee of cozies, Agatha Christie, including five Miss Marples and three new Hercule Poirots. For devoted readers of the clever sleuths, it’s enough to send them scurrying for the ideal tipple, perhaps an herbal tea or a Pimm’s, with which to enjoy watching the bonanza.

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