The Lighter Side of Death: Six of the Best Cozy Crime Novels
Updated: Sep 26, 2018
Crime fiction is one of the most enduring and popular literary genres, and within it is a whole host of widely differing subgenres. The boom of Nordic Noir has seen a recent spotlight on dark and gritty police procedurals, however there continues to be strong demand for lighter fare and that’s where cozy mysteries come in. This is a genre where you can expect plenty of amateur sleuths, small communities, quaint settings, and a distinct lack of gore and violence. These stories have a reassuring formulaic quality to the process of solving mysteries, and the non-threatening nature of the characters and settings give them a sense of comfortable familiarity. There’s a particular joy in teasing out the puzzle of the crime set in a picturesque world of close-knit communities. Naturally, it’s almost impossible to talk about cozy crime without calling to mind the Golden Age of Detective Fiction with authors like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but for this list we’re steering clear of those excellent authors, if only because they deserve a reading list in their own right. Instead we’ve looked a little further afield to recommend a range of lesser known novels and authors. The vast majority of cozy crime novels come as part extensive series, and so for this list we have selected the first book of each series, although we have endeavoured to note where a particular series has a notable rise or dip in quality over time. With a genre as vast and enduring as crime and mystery, these recommendations are just a tiny glimpse into a genre, if there are any books that are sorely missing from this list, feel free to add them to the comments below and we’ll be sure to investigate them.
The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill
Colin Cotterill’s wonderfully cozy mystery series is set in the 1970s in the wake of the newly instated socialist regime in Laos. We are introduced to 72-year-old Dr. Siri Paiboun, the last doctor left in the country, who is asked to forsake his long sought-after retirement, for the honor and duty of becoming the national coroner. Despite his complete lack of interest or ambition he is persuaded to take on the role. There he forms a close community of rag-tag colleagues, as they endeavour to carry out their duties with little to no equipment or training. It is through this newfound career as coroner that Dr. Siri finds himself investigating the mysterious deaths that come his way. The series has some darker elements, with the constant threat of political violence and social upheaval, but the books maintain a sense of warmth from the relationships of the characters, and a tone of levity from Dr. Siri’s wry sense of humor. Certainly a sense of humor is needed when Dr. Siri finds himself the recipient of ghostly apparitions from the recently departed. The Coroner’s Lunch introduces us this world through the case of a politician’s wife who has died under suspicious circumstance. In looking into the case, Dr. Siri finds himself immersed in a whirlwind of dangerous bureaucrats, Hmong shamans, forest spirits, and worryingly inquisitive neighbors. Cotterill’s notable skill at crafting a mystery worth solving, is second only to his ability to create characters that are eminently lovable. His setting is wonderfully colorful and varied, perfectly capturing an era that was balanced uneasily between sleepy stagnation and political unrest.
Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn
Death at Wentwater Court is the first book of Carola Dunn’s historical crime fiction series set in the gloriously sumptuous era of the Roaring Twenties. It opens as the Honorable Daisy Dalrymple is setting out to become a woman of independence, a rare move for the daughter of a viscount. She has begun working as a writer for a magazine and uses her connections to be invited into the home of the aristocratic Wentwaters to write about the family and their day-to-day lives. When she arrives at the estate shortly after Christmas, she arrives just in time to be wrapped in a scandal. An unwelcome guest, Stephen Astwick, is found floating under the ice of the estate’s lake, and so Daisy Dalrymple teams up with the Scotland Yard’s investigation to get to the bottom of the crime. Dunn relishes in the historical setting of her story, never hesitating to delve into the details particularly in regards to fashion and style. The glittering aristocrats that populate the story are all cloche hats and Norfolk-jackets, but this is truly the fun of the story, allowing the reader to be swept up in a world of aloof style and panache. We follow Daisy as she unearths the dastardly misdeeds of her acquaintances, giving us all the glamorous intrigue that is to be hoped for. Yet, even through her obvious relish in the setting, Dunn manages to stave off an over-abundance of cliches and anachronisms, instead striking a good balance between setting and plot.
Fer-De-Lance by Rex Stout
Rex Stout produced an astounding number of Nero Wolfe stories in his life, Fer-de-Lance being just the first of 36 novels and 39 novellas and short stories. Despite the quantity, Stout maintains his quality, creating a delightful corpus of his charming detective stories.
The series doesn’t completely sit within the genre of cozy crime, there are a many noir elements, from the narration style to the mise-en-scène of the New York criminal world, but the combination of the genre styles results in a kind of charming “soft-boiled” mystery. The series is told through the eyes of Archie Goodwin, but it is his employer, Nero Wolfe who sits at the center of the stories. Wolfe has a range of the kind of eccentricities that you might hope for in a cozy crime sleuth. Although a licensed detective, Wolfe is the ultimate armchair detective, impressively corpulent and obsessive about maintaining his orchids, Wolfe refuses to leave his New York brownstone for any business, or to deviate from his daily schedule in anyway. Instead, he sends Goodwin out to do his legwork. This first book in the Nero Wolfe series opens with the mysterious death of a college president, the murder of a newly arrived immigrant, and the gift of a venomous fer-de-lance snake. From the sharp humor of Goodwin’s narration, to the whimsical eccentricity of Wolfe’s lifestyle, Stout’s seemingly unending puzzles and mysteries are a delight to dive into.
A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill
Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men is set against the backdrop Sydney in the 1930s, with its Great Depression poverty and political tension between Proto-Fascism and Communism. Despite this, the story’s characters seem at first to live a world away from this hardship, in the glittering milieu of aristocracy and intelligentsia. However, the threat of political violence and revolution might be closer than they’d like to think. Her protagonist, Rowland Sinclair, is an artist and a gentleman, who is caught between his conservative old-money family, and his more liberal peers, epitomized by the fact that he uses his family’s extensive fortune to house his three impoverished left-wing artist friends. Sinclair is the youngest of three sons, but with the death of the middle brother in the First World War, the Sinclair family is filled with tension and grief. Among them, only his uncle shares Sinclair’s free spirit, but when his uncle is attacked and killed, Sinclair must delve into the secrets of both sides, delving into scandal and political intrigue in order to find out the truth. Gentill’s world sparkles with vivacity, her characters are eccentric but not cartoonish and she balances the complexities of historical setting with a light and humorous touch.
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan
On the eve of his early retirement from the Mumbai police force, Inspector Ashwin Chopra finds himself in the unenviable position of having the unexpected gift of a baby elephant be only the second most unwanted surprise of the day. When he is presented with a troublesome case of a young man found drowned, Chopra fears that his successor will not investigate thoroughly, and so as a newly instated ordinary citizen, Chopra decides to follow up on the case on his own.
It’s a light-hearted story, the reality of the crime and corruption are balanced with Khan’s whimsical and humorous touches, including some wonderfully eccentric scenes as Chopra attempting to tail a suspect while accompanied by his newly-received baby elephant. Khan’s characters, particularly Chopra’s wife Poppy and her sour-puss mother, are all engaging and vivacious. Chopra himself is a thoroughly appealing main character, diligent and incorruptible, and his place at the story’s heart is contested only by his redoubtable elephant companion. Khan’s setting is a huge part of the book’s draw, whether in the sprawling slums or the shining new high-rises, Khan conveys the depth and color of the Mumbai’s city experience. There’s a real sense of knowledge and love for the city and its culture. This is maintained throughout the series which continues to be written, with the first three books currently available and a fourth forthcoming.
The Killings at Badger's Drift by Caroline Graham
We would be remiss if, in a list of cozy crime recommendations, we failed to feature any stories set in a sleepy English village. Of course this setting is used to perfection many of the works of Golden Age authors, Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage and G.K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown spring to mind, but there have been plenty of other authors who have delighted in setting their criminal escapades in quaint villages. Caroline Graham’s countryside setting of Badger’s Drift has in its own way become iconic, as her series was the inspiration behind the long-running television series Midsomer Murders. The first novel in the series, The Killings at Badger’s Drift, opens as the town’s typical tranquility in unexpectedly broken. Miss Simpson, an elderly spinster stumbles across something that was meant to go unseen, shortly afterwards, she is silenced forever. While her death goes unremarked at first, until her best friend Miss Lucy Bellringer insists it was murder. This leads Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby to take a closer look, and to discover the murky underbelly of this seemingly picture-perfect village. Graham’s story fits in wonderfully with the tradition of those Golden Age authors, contrasting the pastoral scenes with the threat of danger and mystery. While touching on darker elements, Graham still maintains the cozy feel of the close community and village lifestyle.
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published on May 26th, 2017.