About five years ago, my sister wrote her first novel, a romance novel set in medieval Scotland. We’ve been discussing genre writing, and she introduced me to the concept of the ‘cozy mystery‘. I love crime fiction, but I tend to like my protagonists flawed, my settings dark and my crimes a bit twisted. I love novels that have a political message and reveal something of the human condition. My favourites by far include Andrea Camilleri, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Jo Nesbo, Leonardo Sciascia, Henning Mankell, Maj Sjowall & Per Waloo, Arne Dahl, Gianrico Carofiglio, Michele Giuttari, Richard Crompton and Ian Rankin. I do occasionally read books that fall under the ‘cozy mystery’ banner – by Alexander McCall Smith or Colin Cotterill, for example – but most of the books I read in this genre are blisteringly dark, often involving corruption and/or organised crime.
I tend to get through my ‘darkness’ through my academic writing, which is about the darker side of state-society relations, and when I’ve tried to emulate my favourite writers, I’m not sure that I’m able to get into a dark enough place to produce the sorts of fiction they do. It’s about talent, of course, but maybe also about moving from the theoretical to the visceral. I’m not quite sure how visceral I can get.
And so my sister introduced me to the cozy mystery.
I read very little American fiction nowadays, despite having spent the first 25 years of my life in the US, and I don’t actually have any favourite US crime writers. I toured the cozy mystery section of Barnes & Noble as a complete novice, sure only that I have my limits when it comes to ‘cozy’. I definitely didn’t want Christian and cozy. I didn’t want peach pie baking and cozy. I didn’t want poodle-breeding and cozy. Seriously. I finally settled on Sally Goldenbaum‘s Seaside Knitters series. Set in the North Shore of Massachusetts, just south of where I was born and where I lived very happily for five years before moving to the UK, the series follows a group of women of a range of ages who meet up once a week for a knitting club and end up solving murders. (Ok…I am perfectly aware that there’s the finest of lines between knitting books and pie baking books…). I like all of the characters, and the murders are often pretty dark, if not graphic. But the cozy comes through in the setting, which takes me right back to my own time living in a little cottage on the North Shore. The characters are fairly affluent, and so there’s an appeal in their gentle, middle-class lifestyles, filled with good food, original art, charity work and beautiful wraparound decks for drinks parties, particularly as – in good New England fashion – no one is very ‘showy’. And then there’s the knitting. Sometimes the knitting metaphors get in the way and have clearly been placed in order to fit the genre, but I closed the first one that I read (‘Moon Spinners’, third in the series) and went straight away to get my plastic tub full of yarn from the garage.
I like crocheting, not knitting, but the effect is the same, at least in terms of well-being. Since starting the series, I’ve crocheted scarves for my daughter, my sister and myself, and am about a quarter of the way through an absolutely gorgeous blanket. Instead of spending the last couple of hours at the end of the day in front of the tv flicking around on my iPhone, I’m crocheting my beautiful blanket, something that will hopefully become an heirloom. I’ve made my way back into the local yarn shop, and I’ve not been able to resist buying yarn already for another winter scarf, which will come after this blanket is done. As far as hobbies go, crocheting is tactile and soft and warm and colourful and soothing and, let’s face it, cozy.
I may only be scratching the surface of my own first novel, but at least if I do continue on with it as a winter project, at least I’ll be able to do it lying under my own handmade and very cozy blanket. The way to reach deep inside to find the darkest corner of my soul? Probably not though. It’s a good excuse to order the next in the Nairobi Heat series perhaps…