There’s a reason they call these things “cozy mysteries,” the literary fluff that has consumed an awful lot of my non-working hours this awful, awful year. Epitomized by Agatha Christie, these are low-stakes stories, light on the violence, heavy on atmosphere and just simply pleasant distractions. Most 21st-century efforts aren’t as clever as Christie, are easier to figure out, but still provide the kind of escape 2020 has demanded. They make me just want to settle in with a cup of cocoa (or tea, if I’m going to get really into the thing) and live in a world that probably never ever existed, but feels so much better than this one.
The ones that really suck me in are the ones set in the first half of the last century—up to and sometimes including World War II—and in the U.K. Because I’m an unrepentant Anglophile. And because I can fantasize about what it would be like to have staff, like a sturdy butler and an intrepidly loyal ladies’ maid—because all of our (mostly) heroine amateur sleuths have staff. Mind you, I’m the kind of person who would clean the house before the house cleaners got there because I’m so uncomfortable with the thought of someone cleaning up after me. I’m even a little bit chagrined that I have people grocery shop for me these days, trying to keep the vulnerable in my household safe. But, damn, having someone else run the household, deal with the broken stuff, cook, clean: I could at least try it for a while. The other thing that’s great about these is that most are part of a series. If you find an author you like, you have a well of entertainment there to keep drawing from.
Here are some of my favorites. If this is your kind of thing, please do share in the comments—they’re really fast reads, so I’m always looking for the next book! And if there’s some other genre that scratches that itch, please share. We’re all going to be needing some escapes for a while longer.
- “Lady Hardcastle” series from T.E. Kinsey. They’re pre-WWI, with eccentric and independent widow Emily Hardcastle who has a not-so-secret past life in espionage and her sidekick lady’s maid Florence Armstrong, also a former spy and martial arts expert. These are particularly wry and well-written, with sharp dialogue and imaginative plots.
- “Her Royal Spyness Mysteries” by Rhys Bowen. These are pre-WWII, featuring Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie Rannock, who is something like 34th in line to the crown and penniless. She’s close enough to the royal family that Queen Mary regularly calls upon her for secret missions, usually involving spying on the future King Edward VIII and “that woman” Wallis Simpson in the early going, but branching out into larger and more trepidatious situations as the series progresses. This series has an engaging cast of regulars that it’s nice to keep up with.
- “Miss Seeton Mysteries” by multiple authors, created by Heron Carvic, and with multiple authors taking the series up. These are set in the late 1960s—the first ones were actually written then, and subsequent authors chose to remain there. They are just silly, but fun silly, with an elderly yoga enthusiast and retired art teacher protagonist, Emily Seeton. Miss Seeton is armed with an umbrella (with which she wreaks unintentional havoc) and a paranormal gift of second sight (which she remains steadfastly unaware of). These stories really do veer into absurdity, but are ridiculously fun getting there.
- “Lady Eleanor Swift Mysteries” by Verity Bright. Again, between the wars with a wealthy, independent maybe-orphan who inherits an estate from her uncle, solving crimes with her slightly mysterious butler who probably helped her uncle in secret service to the King, but you just don’t know. These are well-written, a little trickier in the plotting (if you’re into that kind of thing) and engaging.
- “Bunburry” series, by Helena Marchmont. This is a rare departure revolving around a widower, in a contemporary setting. But it’s still incredibly cozy because it’s set in the Cotswolds village of Bunburry and has eccentric old ladies who make fudge and solve crimes with protagonist Alfie McAlister, who retreats from London with his millions from selling his wildly successful start-up and a broken heart. There’s an unfolding mystery about Alfie’s parents winding through the series, and again a thoughtful cast of characters that you find yourself wanting to keep up with.
- “Posie Parker Mysteries” by L.B. Hathaway. These are more intricately plotted and slightly darker than much of the froth above, featuring Posie Parker who actually works as a detective. And there’s a cat. But also set pre-WWII.
- “Angela Marchmont” by Clara Benson. This series, again inter-war, is a rarity with a definitive endpoint. It features the enigmatic, probably widowed Angela Marchmont, who is preternaturally gifted at observation and keeping secrets. There’s a spinoff series to these, which is sillier and more lighthearted fun, the “Freddy Pilkington-Soames Adventures Series.”
Those are a handful of the better stories that have kept me distracted between releases of books in series I’m more invested in, like the “Maggie Hope” series from Susan Elia MacNeal, or Jacqueline Winspear’s “Maisie Dobbs” novels. Also in the more serious vein is the mother-son duo writing as Charles Todd who’ve created Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford, two characters dealing with WWI and its aftermath (the Rutledge series more effectively, IMO).
Yes, they’re pure escapism, but is there anything wrong with that?
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