Cozy Crime of Yesteryear

Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the lead pipe!

Whatever happened to the good, old fashioned mystery? As with many things in our increasingly fast-paced world, it seems to have been forcibly shoved aside and curb-stomped to make way for its bigger, brasher, more abrasive and action-packed cousins.

Poirot InvestigatesThrillers of every make and model seem to dominate bookshelves and screens alike, and even quiet mysteries are peppered liberally with gun battles to keep the audience hooked. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a good bang-bang-shoot-‘em-up. But, sometimes, the horror that lies within us, and within the places we think we know—and love—so well, can provide thrills beyond blood and guts.

I’m thinking, especially, of the stories that now sound–even look and feel–a bit dated to the modern eye and ear: Agatha Christie’s Poiroit or Miss Marple mysteries, for example, or PD James’ Dalgliesh and company. Poiroit far pre-dates Dalgliesh, but the same British sensibility appears in narration by both Christie and James. Most often, an assembled group of people (from both upstairs and below) finds themselves locked up together at a fine manor house or swanky place of business, and tensions run high in the aftermath of a horrific murder. The policeman (or men, or women) are often the odd men out, barging into the quiet world of the manor, museum, private dental practice, or what have you.

It feels like modern writers have lost some of the charm and sensibility of these earlier mysteries. Even James’ Cordelia Grey, significantly younger and cooler than Dalgliesh, has a good head on her shoulders, and finds herself drawn into cases swirling with family turmoil, lustful liaisons, and 70s kids more interested in pot and parties than untangling the case of just who might be murdering their university pals.

Regardless of the era or detective, these cozy crimes are built on the foundation that the mundane can be as terrifying as any ghost story or nightmare scenario. The right conglomeration of people, doused with the right phermones or jealousies, tangled up with people that put them on edge or in a place that drudges up bad memories, is a recipe for disaster (for the one to five corpses that will appear, in any case).

Perhaps the Internet, that wondrous place we turn to for advice, solutions, and friendship, really is making us lazy, like the old folks say. If authors can get answers in seconds by searching for it themselves or asking thousands of dedicated Twitter fans for advice, then it only makes sense that their characters have access to the same technology, and find their solutions just as easily. The days of struggle are long gone, a time where broken down cars meant being stranded and power outages meant true seclusion. Today, we call AAA and worry about keeping our cell and laptop batteries charged to ride out the storm. Back then, detectives had to work for their red herrings and their golden clues.

In the process of modern expansion and evolution, some mysteries have lost their sense of…well, mysteriousness. It isn’t often that a group of people will be secluded enough to allow for the right kind of atmosphere to lead to murder, and most cases today aren’t as easy to solve as sealing a limited number of suspects in the drawing room and dramatically pointing out the red-handed culprit before his or her peers.

Crime headlines today–fictional and non–are riddled with horrific acts of torture, violence, and death. Can’t we just go back to offing hated family members on sprawling countryside manors?

Yeah, it’s cool to like James Bond again, because he has enough gadgets and gizmos to make even the Little Mermaid jealous. And maybe the reality of our world today is that a super spy can’t go running around Jamaica with only a handgun, his wits, and a supporting cast of questionably-named sidekicks and gal Fridays.

But isn’t it still exciting to read about a hero matching wits with the antagonist? Isn’t it fun to see if you can figure out the puzzle yourself, before any of the characters mention emailing a compatriot or Googling an answer?

Isn’t it worse to imagine your own grandmother poisoning Sunday dinner? If she wants to go down in a hail of bullets in a final showdown with the local FBI, that’s fine. And if she ordered her arsenic off the darknet, more power to her. But there’s a way to bring cozy crime into the twenty-first century, and that’s an alternate route I’d love to see more mystery writers investigating.


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