Professor Plum. In the library. With the candlestick. Crime fiction is a little more complex than a game of Cluedo, but the formula of a murder mystery is just the tonic to pandemic times. It is gratifying to reach the end of a whodunnit and have all the outstanding queries neatly ticked off. There is a certainty to murder mysteries tropes that we do not possess about any other aspect of life in these uncertain times.
It’s perhaps this familiarity that makes cozy mysteries a comfortable read. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express encapsulates this Golden Age of crime writing. There is a glamour, an edginess and darkness present that simply evades the weariness of life during lockdown, where life peaks and troughs the length of the dishwasher’s cycle.
We have certain expectations when it comes to this genre. We trust that our flawed yet capable detective can see through the beguiling exterior of a cast of suspects. Authors intend for appearances to be deceptive, begging us to examine the ulterior motives behind a wife’s primrose curls and Persian rugs. Even when authors tinker with a whodunnit formula, such as in Alex Pavesi’s Eight Detectives, there is enough familiarity to hook our pickaxe of expectation to.
In book clubs and crime fan clubs, readers imagine themselves in the role of the detective. Collecting evidence, assessing suspects, cross-referencing alibis and noting potential murder weapons. But as readers, we also imagine ourselves as both the victim and suspect.
For reading murder mysteries helps us understand ourselves and our own motivations. In a modern setting such as Lucy Foley’s The Guest List, we witness disagreements familiar to the 21st-century reader. Could you ever kill a person? What if your whole world was about to be destroyed? Or maybe if someone we loved was in danger, would that be enough? Desperation is one of the saddest and most understandable motivations for murder.
For most of us, the pandemic has represented the most significant challenge in our lifetime. Living a nightmare may help us empathise with Golden Age suspects in books set in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. The spectre of war looms over characters of books set in this time, representing their own dark histories, desires and motives. Things were done during the war that were unthinkable in peacetime. I don’t think we could ever fully understand how life could be turned upside down by outside forces before now. However, our circumstances are still different. We are safely ensconced at home, with death and peril of illness circulating at the perimeter, feeding on the elderly and vulnerable like predatorial vultures. Yet this is still unlike the hellish, unthinkable young loss of life that came with world war.
This takes us to the setting of a murder mystery. The decadence of exclusive villas, luxury trains, and stately homes turn into a depraved crime scene once a killing takes place. To imagine the gilded ball and claw-footed chair; a sumptuous tapestry; an expansive verandah helps us escape from the mundanity of a wilting IKEA couch. We escape from the rattle of the tumble dryer to the rat runs of an ancient wine cellar or secret library door. Perhaps we visit another country another time. I was writing Twelve Motives for Murder during lockdown and found great relief in escaping to the greeny-blue waters of Lake Como, sucking my tongue hard as if I might taste the limoncello from the story.
Death is expected in a murder mystery, just as death is expected at the end of one’s life. Struggle as we may with our demise. Once it meanders maliciously outside the expected, that is where we struggle. The unexpected deaths from Covid and proximity to suffering mean we need more comfort than ever, so a comfortable cozy is an easier choice than a gruesome thriller. And so comes one of the peculiarities of the genre. Despite being epitomised in a British author’s works, cozy has retained the transatlantic spelling with a z.
We may be approaching the end of the pandemic. If this were a murder mystery novel, we would be alone in an empty house with a killer prowling about looking for us. This lockdown is our own locked room mystery. Instead of Inspector Poirot or sleuth Elizabeth Chalice presenting the denouement, we will receive our resolution from a politician announcing the easing of restrictions. We await a final climax and a tidy explanation of all outstanding matters. But until then, we can make ourselves comfortable with a deadly familiarity.
(c) Fiona Sherlock
Author photographs (c) John Shortt Photography
Fiona Sherlock has published two books during the lockdown: Twelve Motives for Murder in audio and ebook for Hodder & Stoughton and Preserved in ebook for Poolbeg.
About Twelve Motives for Murder:
Immerse yourself in TWELVE MOTIVES FOR MURDER, perfect for fans of KNIVES OUT and Agatha Christie.
TWELVE SUSPECTS. TWELVE INTERVIEWS.
TWELVE MOTIVES FOR MURDER . . .
A murder mystery told entirely through interviews.
Private Investigator Elizabeth Chalice needs YOU to help her solve this case.
It’s a beautiful day in Como, and the Caswell-Jones family are surrounded their nearest and dearest in their Villa Janus. But when Jonty Caswell-Jones is found dead in his study, it is clear the only suspects are the guests and the family. It seems all this time, tensions have been brewing, guests seething, and rivalries have reared their ugly head.
Jonty’s wife, Catherine, knows there’s a killer among them so she calls her acquaintance, Elizabeth Chalice, to investigate. She wants to keep this firmly within the family if she can. No one else must know.
As each suspect is interviewed in turn, Elizabeth must work out who killed Jonty and why. And is anyone else in danger? But with twelve suspects each with their own very clear motive, anything is possible . . .
Download the audiobook for the full immersive experience!
Order your copy online here.
He’s watching her unfold his masterpiece, but her time is almost up.
When a local farmer announces on social media that he has discovered a bog body in Ardee, the world’s historians are keen to explore the secrets of the life and grisly death of the victim.
Antique journalist January Quail is fighting to keep her newspaper job and uncovers far more than she bargained for. The victim is actually a recent murder, and January uses her nose for the truth to investigate the County Louth town. From shopkeeper to the publican, everyone is a suspect, but when the Gardai can’t find the killer, can January?
Once she sets down the liqueur glass, January gains the confidence of the lead garda investigator. Within days, the case unravels into a much more dangerous situation with a killer on the loose.
Despite the risk, January is electrified that this newest discovery has come at the perfect time to inject some colour into her flailing career. January relinquishes her old ways to fight for survival, abandoning her antiques column and vintage corsets to solve a cryptic crime that has the experts puzzled. This woman who longs to lives in the past must now fight for her life in the present.
‘Glorously gruesome and utterly unique whodunnit’ – SOPHIE WHITE
‘A compelling thrilling debut from the imagination of Ireland’s latest rising crime fiction star. A breath of fresh air and one to watch’ – PAUL WILLIAMS
Order your copy online here.