Soma Das explores comfort reading during the pandemic
I have always enjoyed curling up with a mystery novel, especially on days when nothing seems to go right. But over the last few years, I started experiencing a vague sense of guilt every time I would read a non-academic book.
All that changed thanks to Covid-19. In Mumbai, the lockdown (in place since March) has meant limited mobility and life coming to a standstill. Exams have been postponed or cancelled, work is now largely done from home, and there is little incentive or safety in stepping out or travelling.
Reading is the best antidote to unpalatable things in life, including uncertain times. So, I started browsing through my bookshelf and tentatively selected a few dusty titles. The books, however, didn’t speak to me. I would keep reading the same passage over and over again, without being able to decipher the meaning hidden in the text.
So, I turned to the only thing that didn’t tax my brain: a cozy mystery. Also referred to as the cozies, this is a type of crime fiction where an amateur sleuth (usually a girl/woman) investigates a particular incident — it can range from arson to blackmail, a haunting, or a murder.
The plot is set in an idyllic location, such as a small village in England/France, or at a seaside resort. The stories are often humorous and tend to feature pets (mostly cats). There can be a culinary angle to the story, as the sleuth may be working/frequenting a cafe, or a crime may take place there. While some of the novels stand-alone, others are part of a series.
The titles of cozy mysteries tend to be strangely alluring, and hunger-inducing: Chocolate Cream Pie Murder, Mystery at Apple Tree Cottage, Murder over Cocktails, Profiteroles and Poison, Cookies, Spells and the Tolling Bells, Feral Attraction, More Cats, Cupcakes and Killers, A Sprinkling of Murder…
Unlike regular crime thrillers or mystery novels (where the goriness of the crime takes centre-stage), in cozies, the actual criminal act is not graphically described. And there is rarely any use of profanity. In other words, these are the non-PG (parental guidance) versions of sordid mystery novels.
The usual plot for a cozy mystery involves an idyllic locale where most people know (and trust) each other. The sleuth (usually someone resourceful and quick-witted, but not a trained detective) makes an entry. Just in time, a crime occurs. The amateur sleuth is somehow connected to the incident and must investigate. There may be a romantic angle as well. Several characters appear suspicious, but eventually, the sleuth eliminates the false leads and points out the real culprit. Interestingly, in these stories, most of the culprits are victims of circumstances and not serial killers.
Most of us have read cozy novels, but we perhaps never identified them as such. Some good examples are MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series, and Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
For me, an additional incentive to read these stories came from a simple fact: Kindle has a large number of cozy mysteries available for free. The pricing changes over a period of time (and what’s free today may not be free tomorrow), but there are always a few cozies available at any point of time.
Cozy novels are one of the most popular forms of crime writing. Novice authors along with seasoned ones often take a stab at it (pun intended), which accounts for the extensive range. It is safe to say we will never run out of cozies.
In terms of quality, some of the books can be boring and average, as the authors come up with improbable storylines or lose their hold on the plot during the denouement. But there are some works that are able to build suspense and keep you hooked till the very end. To save precious time, I would advise you to read the reader reviews and steer clear of the terrible ones.
Writing in Psychology Today, author David Evans described murder mysteries as “fairy tales for adults”. And therein lies their charm. While the stories talk of all kinds of evil things and people, it also offers a template on how to deal with your fears, as well as a reassurance that things will some day return to normal. More importantly, it tells you to trust your intuition and bravely face the challenges that life may throw at you. That is priceless advice in times like these. And all included within the price of a cozy!
Soma Das is an independent journalist and lecturer at the Department of Mass Media, Kishinchand Chellaram College, Mumbai.
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