Over the craziness of the past eighteen months, I’ve thought a lot about what I find comforting. I’ve shared some of those answers (here, here, here and here). But one thing has emerged as unexpectedly comforting. Murder. That’s right, cold blooded murder.
During lockdown I was bored and stressed (who wasn’t?) and I started randomly watching Murder, She Wrote. It felt like a sigh. It was exactly what my brain needed. For those who have never seen it, the TV series ran from 1984-1996. It stars Angela Lansbury as mystery novelist, Jessica Fletcher. Fletcher started writing mysteries for comfort herself, as a way to distract herself following the death of her husband. Her books became instant hits, and Fletcher became a worldwide bestselling author. She remains in her hometown of Cabot Cove, Maine, but travels extensively. And everywhere she goes, murder seems to follow. There are actually fan theories that Jessica Fletcher was the one whodunnit all along! I mean how else are we to account for the fact that people around her just seem to drop dead?
But kidding aside, watching a few episodes of the show got me thinking, and thinking got me googling. Angela Lansbury had played Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in the 1980 film The Mirror Crack’d. The film flopped, and Lansbury was never asked to play Miss Marple again. However, it made the series producers think she’d be just right for the role of Jessica Fletcher. The two characters are very similar really. Both are older women (Fletcher is a widow and Miss Marple’s a spinster) who have a curious nature and a shrewd intelligence that helps them outwit both criminals and law enforcement officials. Both can latch on to a seemingly casual comment and use it to unravel a whole case.
That made me realize that I find Miss Marple very comforting too. So is it old lady detectives that I find soothing? Yes, but not just them. I started thinking about other mysteries I find comforting. Agatha Christie (not just Miss Marple), Murder, She Wrote, Midsomer Murders… Is it cozy mysteries that give me the comfort factor?
For those not aware, goodreads defines the genre as follows:
Cozies very rarely focus on sex, profanity or violence. The murders take place off stage, and are often relatively bloodless (e.g. poisoning), while sexual activity (if any) between characters is only ever gently implied and never directly addressed. The cozy mystery usually takes place in a small town or village. The small size of the setting makes it believable that all the suspects know each other. The amateur sleuth is usually a very likeable person who is able to get the community members to talk freely about each other. There is usually at least one very knowledgeable, nosy, yet reliable character in the book who is able to fill in all of the blanks, thus enabling the amateur sleuth to solve the case.
Do the books and shows I’ve mentioned count as cozies? Yes and no. In the above examples, not all the sleuths are amateur. Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher are. But Inspector Poirot is a retired police officer. Not technically “on duty” but not an amateur either. In Midsomer Murders, a British TV series based on Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby series (which I haven’t read), the main character is the titular police detective. The setting of my comfort mysteries isn’t always a small town either. It is in Midsomer Murders, but Jessica Fletcher leaves Cabot Cove quite often. She’s solved crimes in big cities, remote islands, and everything in between. In some cases the suspects all know each other, but in some cases they don’t. They all have elements of the cozy dynamic though.
I think most of us here can agree that murder is a very bad thing. (really, really hoping no one disagrees with that!) So why should watching a film or reading about murders being solved be soothing? Well, I think the importance lies in the being solved part of that sentence. Things on screen or on the page get pretty bad. An innocent (or not so innocent…) person(s) is murdered. People around them, usually the people the victim(s) trusted most, had reason to want them dead. Within the immediate pool of suspects and bystanders there are likely to be a number of secrets, lies and betrayals that will be uncovered. As a reader/viewer and armchair detective I don’t know who to trust. But from the first page, or the first image onscreen, I know it will all be uncovered. That’s not to say everyone will have a happy ending. But the case will be solved. I’ll know who was responsible, and why. It will make sense.
Over the last few years, I’ve felt like very few things make sense: the pandemic, civil unrest, ecological disasters… We can and should hold our lawmaker’s accountable. But we usually can’t look at any one person and say “it was all his fault.” Even in cases where there is a single perpetrator, we’re realizing that there are systems of circumstances that are involved in what they do. But a fictional mystery is comforting because it really is that simple. The killer did it. Maybe other people are culpable in some way too, or maybe not. Even if justice can’t completely be restored in these stories, something is usually set to rights at the end. There’s a sense of stability and a restoration of order.
In an article for Psychology Today, David Evans actually compares the way that murder mysteries work to the way that fairy tales work for children: “Several years ago, there was some very significant work that psychologists did, suggesting that the fairy tales children read have a very helpful effect on their emotional lives. The psychologists found that the fairy tales gave children a format that allowed them to deal with their fears and traumas and be less troubled by them.” He suggests that mysteries serve a similar function for adults. “Murder mysteries may give us hope by telling us stories that begin with evil events, but call forth the efforts of people who can rise to heroic heights and reassure us that, with great effort, evil can be overcome. We love murder mysteries because they are redemptive, they give us hope, and help us move from fear to reassurance.” Leaving aside the fact that I believe that fairy tales are appropriate for all ages (see here and here for more about that), and that fairy tales serve purposes other than just comforting children, I agree with what he’s saying.
There are certainly mysteries that don’t give comfort. If I want a mystery that will soothe me, I don’t look to writers like Gillian Flynn, Tana French or Stieg Larsson (in some cases, I’ll enjoy their work for other reasons, but comfort isn’t one of them.) But it’s nice to know that if I need to be soothed I can pick up an Agatha Christie novel, or turn on an episode of Murder, She Wrote.