Sunday, February 17, 2013

Is It Comfy or Cosy? M. C. Beaton (Marion Chesney) on the Craft of Crime

I enjoyed this interview in the Daily Record with Marion Chesney, aka M. C. Beaton, creator of sleuths Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin.

Scotland's Secret Literary Sensation Marion Chesney

I had no idea Chesney was that popular, at least in terms of library borrowings.

I'm currently reading a Caroline Graham mystery novel for a blog piece (though at 400+ pages it's been taking me longer to finish than I thought!) and I see that Graham's books often are referred to as cosies.

Sit down and make yourself comfy!  Or cosy.
On this matter Chesney says:

"Reviewers call what I do cosy crime, a description I dislike. I prefer comfy crime."

"I pack in plenty of murders, I just don’t do blood and gore."

What do you think of this distinction between comfy and cosy?

I must confess that I never heard of this one before!  Is comfy less cosy than cosy?

And is Caroline Graham cosy (or comfy)?  The book by her that I'm reading has a blurb from Publisher's Weekly comparing her to P. D. James and Ruth Rendell and no one calls them cosy (or do they?)!

Personally, I'm rather reminded by the wickedly sardonic Graham of those Class of '36 boys, Peter Lovesey and (especially) Robert Barnard (also early Reginald Hill, who was Class of '36 too).

P. D. James: Fifty Shades of Cosy?
Read the article for yourself, but I have to quote this jewel from Chesney:

"I don’t do explicit sex scenes. I was horrified when I purchased EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, mistaking it for a PD James novel because I was wearing the wrong glasses."

Whoops!  Don't you hate it when that happens?

I must admit I only ever started one Beaton, Death of a Witch I think it was called.  I got rather bored with it and laid it aside and never got back to it.  But I have a number of Beaton books, they have such lovely, um, cosy covers.  This article reminds me I need to actually read one someday!  Any recommendations?


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  2. Anyone will do. They are cosy and comfy and rather formulaic if that is a word. Having said that I have read them all. I enjoy the easiness of the read and the going back to visit old friends. But the last Hamish MacBeth book was just awful. I think they have run their course and should be retired. And I really want that yellow chair!

    1. Peggy,

      isn't that chair a pip?

      I will read a Hamish mystery someday, I do love those covers!

    2. Peggy, I dug out three Beatons in hardcover, from 2001 to 2005, am going to do a piece on them soon, since this seemed to be interesting to people!

  3. Caroline Graham is in the same subgenre as Minette Walters. Far from cozy or comfy. Satires of the village murder mystery, I think. Sardonic humor, clever plots, subversive ideas for crime novels. Which one are you reading? The Killings at Badger's Drift her first book, IMO, will always be her best.

    Never read Beaton and probably never will. Didn't she create a character called Agatha Raisin? That's enough to send me elsewhere.

    1. John, I subjected myself to one of 'em in my post-Christie wanderings when I was desperately looking for a new author and still took book blurbs at face value. I recall it was awful stuff, with one of the worst twist endings I've ever come across and a silly story full of side lectures into random stuff because why-the-hell-not? Trust me, you're not missing much.

    2. John,

      Yes, I had the same reaction to the name "Agatha Raisin" (unfavorable). Barzun liked the first Hamish Macbeth mystery though (Death of a Cad, I think).

      The Graham I'm reading has a long scene (like 4000 words) describing sex between a male schoolteacher and an underage girl. If this is cosy/cozy, it really expands the definition for me! I think the f-word has been used about six or seven or eight times too, didn't know you were allowed that many in a cozy!

      I read Badger's Drift like twenty years ago, then was put off by the next two as I recall (one had this totally implausible razor murder on stage and the other was about one of those tiresome fictional cult religions), so have never read anything by Graham since! Of course she only wrote seven series detective novels, but I thought I would give her another go.

      Yes, I can see the comparison to Minette Walters too in the sardonic quality. Graham is somewhat cozier than that, but I can't call Graham cozy, really.

    3. I despised that razor business in DEATH OF A HOLLOW MAN. Absurd. Graham should know better -- she was a playwright before she became a novelist. Maybe she really doesn't know the backstage business at all. But still a playwright should know how stage violence works. It's all illusion. No actor would actually touch a prop razor (real or not) against his throat. Just like no one ever really gets punched in the face on stage or in a movie. The idea that an actor could kill himself accidentally with a real razor on stage like that is inane.

    4. John, I think this is a good example of a mystery writer going with a flashy murder even though she must have known it made no sense. And did any reviewers call her on it? I bet not. And yet they love to ridicule GA murders!

  4. John, I totally agree with your assessment of The Killing at Badgers Drift!! One of my top ten favorites!!

    1. I've got to reread this, it's been about twenty years. I used to have in a first edition, but somehow lost track of the copy, ugh.

    2. If you can't find your copy of ...BADGER'S DRIFT I'll send you a paperback I picked up last year. I always have one or two copies of that book.

  5. The Killings at Badgers Drift is the only one of Graham's books that I've read and I found it a treat - and certainly not cozy or comfy -

    As for M C Beaton - you can see what I think of her here - and here - I'll say no more...

    Puzzle Doctor

  6. I think how the public views the books of both Beaton and Graham has been affected by the television programmes that were made based on their work. Beaton's books about Hamish Macbeth were the subject of an eponymous programme starring a very young Robert Carlyle produced by BBC Scotland, in 20 episodes over 3 seasons. The programmes were, by and large, charming, subtle, and intelligent, which in my opinion is exactly the opposite of the novels. I have described the novels elsewhere as mysteries for the hard of thinking; I used to recommend them to elderly customers who had read their way through the "The Cat Who …" series, which to me is actually worse.
    Caroline Graham is a much better writer, of course, since it would be difficult not to be; but the long, long British television series (95 episodes, at last count, and approaching 20 years) called Midsomer Mysteries has supplanted anything that the books have to offer. One or two of the books are quite clever, particularly The Killings at Badger's Drift, and the rest are at least readable, but no one will ever be able to get past the widespread view that the television programmes are irretrievably linked to the uncritical enjoyment of the middle and lower classes (in Britain) and thus the books are tarred with the same brush.

    1. Noah,

      I guess we're preempting the Caroline Graham blog piece that should come tonight, but I noticed she only wrote two more of the novels after the series started, which really made me wonder whether the television series killed the book series, which is a shame if so.

      I notice people reviewing the books commenting that they hadn't realized there were books and how they don't like Barnaby and Troy nearly as much in the book as on TV. In the book of course Sergeant Troy is a sexist, racist homophobe, a satirical character. I imagine they didn't want to deal with that in the series so made him much more "cuddly."

      I don't know how much the true "cozy" really accommodates sharp satire. Some of the humor in Graham is cozy, but some of it is much sharper, with a subversive edge I would say. But, anyway, I'll be posting on Graham soon enough. Reading her again has caused me to go back and look at some of the other authors of her generation, like Barnard and Hill.

    2. If you go back and review the earliest of the Midsomer Murders episodes, you'll see that Troy is presented certainly as a homophobe -- he reserves his greatest scorn for a young male sexworker who is being exploited by an elderly man, calling him "shirt-lifter" and "poof" (as my memory tells me) and treats him like a criminal rather than a sexually-assaulted juvenile. But as the series progresses, I think the "cosy" aspect takes over, and this helps me define exactly why Ms. Chesney is so off track in attempting to label her own work. After the original Caroline Graham material was exhausted, the various writers of TV episodes took Troy to a level of personality where he did not, and could not, offend anyone, although he occasionally displays resentment at venial members of the upper classes -- but this would be a sentiment shared by the target audience. In other words, everything that could possibly offend anyone about the characters and plots has been systematically removed, a kind of pablumization process that grinds the horrible realities of murder into a meaningless pap. And then the audience can, to paraphrase Paul McCartney at a royal concert, clack its dentures and rattle its jewelry in time to the music.
      Since this pablumization is precisely what Ms. Chesney's work exemplifies, without any prompting from program planners, I don't think she can complain if people assign the term "cozy" to her work. Or, rather, she can try to name it "comfy" all she likes, but we should not bother to pay attention. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's a duck, and putting throw pillows around it doesn't make it into a sofa. To me, the cozy mystery attempts to take evil and make it commonplace, simple, and comprehensible; I think this is the most morally unsound thing you can do to attempt to entertain a reader. Yes, blood and guts are disgusting, but glorifying what Hannah Arendt called the "banality of evil" is even more so. That's not entertainment, it's moral morphine.
      And, as a corollary, I suggest that the sharp satire in Graham's books that you've so accurately pinpointed takes it entirely out of the realm of the cozy, if her themes of incest, child molestation, and wife-beating hadn't already done so. I don't have a copy handy, but I think that's what the first victim in Badger's Drift actually says to her friend -- that she has seen something truly evil. Most of us would agree, and that's what lifts the book high above the platitudes of the cozy.

    3. Noah,

      Yes, I don't believe that one can really say that Graham tidies up all the messy corners of life in Written in Blood. She does allow some characters hope, but overall there's a lot of wretched, unpleasant stuff in here.

      Even Christie, who often gets written of as a classic cozy author, was very committed to the idea of portraying murder as evil. One thing I do find odd about some of the modern cozies is that they really seem to be happy country life novels, like the Miss Read books, yet they have murders thrown in, discordantly, it seems to me.

      I mean, I've read the Auden "Guilty Vicarage" essay too and understand the idea of discordance between murder and setting, but it seems a lot of the cozies don't even try to take the idea of murder seriously at all, even in a pro forma manner. It kind of goes back to the old "Murder? What fun!" idea of the Golden Age. But even in the Golden Age, many of the books profess to take the idea of murder seriously, even though they are treating primarily as an intellectual problem.

      A lot of the modern cozies seem to draw more from the later Phoebe Atwood Taylor books, say.

    4. >>Even Christie, who often gets written of as a classic cozy author, was very committed to the idea of portraying murder as evil.<<

      In the intro to one of the Poirot books - I think it was Hercule Poirot's Christmas - she also remarked how she'd upped the gruesome quotient quite a bit, apparently in response to the perceived notion that so many of her murders were rather quaint.

    5. Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

  7. This is a very interesting post and the comments are great too. I have a great difficulty deciding whether a book is cozy or not (after reading it). So many definitions. Agatha Christie novels (like the Miss Marple series) are called cozies but don't seem so cozy to me. But yet the definition fits.

    1. Tracy,

      The Marples may be cozies, but I do think there is more satire in them and also an appreciation of evil than is sometimes recognized.

      I was happy to get these responses too!