The allure of the cozy mystery

A few months back my friend Sherry Harris posted about mystery fans and writers who look down their noses at “cozies,” stories of amateur sleuths solving murders (ike Sherry’s own Sarah Winston series). Lots of cozy readers chimed in with comments about why they loved cozies: no foul language, no graphic violence, characters you can hang out with from book to book (cozies have much larger supporting casts than most hardboiled mysteries do).

While I don’t think any of the commenters listed it, I wonder if representation isn’t part of the cozy’s appeal too. It’s a genre in which overwhelmingly the detective protagonists are women, and ordinary women at that; not cops but business owners, suburban housewives, senior citizens. Miss Marple, one of the founding investigators of the genre, is a retired, elderly woman, precisely the kind of character who rarely gets the starring role. But in a cozy, she can be the leading lady.

Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple, for example, is a strong-minded old woman who, much as Inspector Craddock dismisses her, is invariably right about something sinister going on. She’s a skilled golfer, excellent cook, talented horsewoman and a capable community theater actor, among other talents. And she always solves the case. I don’t believe she has much in common with Agatha Christie’s original, but still, she’s pretty cool.  Speaking of which, let’s wrap up her films —

Following Murder Ahoy came MURDER AT THE GALLOP (1963) in which Miss Marple walks in on a wealthy local recluse who’s obviously just died of a heart attack … or was it because someone deliberately exposed the old ailurophobe to a cat and gave him a heart attack? To investigate, Miss Marple takes a room at heir Robert Morley’s stable/hotel and begins watching the recluse’s family as they cast baleful eyes at each other. With the series’ regular cast, plus Morley and veteran British actor Flora Robson as a nervous made. The film does a good job making the killer the last person I’d have suspected, but I’m surprised Miss Marple never recognizes one seeming accident was an attempt on her life. “It is unusual for an Englishwoman to prefer reading to riding — but it is possible.”

MURDER MOST FOUL (1964) wraps up the series as Miss Marple becomes the lone juror in a local murder case holding out against the obvious verdict of guilty. Determined to prove the man innocent, she joins up with a local theater company, recites Robert Service (“All the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon.”) and researches the worst play ever written. The usual fun, even though like a lot of older mysteries involving blackmail, the Big Secret someone would kill to hide now looks trivial.  “Only a woman’s mind, perhaps only yours, could have come up with that.”

I caught THE ALPHABET MURDERS (1965) for a brief Miss Marple cameo in one scene (“It’s as easy as ABC.”), and I can’t see any other reason to ever watch it again. Tony Randall feels miscast as a prissy Poirot, and the film is way too slapstick, almost to the camp point. It does boast a cast of familiar British faces including Robert Morley as a buffoonish Hastings and Maurice Denham as Japp, while Anita Ekberg plays a beautiful mental patient. “I’m celebrating my first cigarette in fifty days.”

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3 Comments

Filed under Movies, Reading

3 responses to “The allure of the cozy mystery

  1. Thanks, Fraser! I love your take on why they are popular and the reminder of these movies!

  2. Pingback: Saints, Gentlemen and Scoundrels | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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