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By Ellen Waters
When the dulcet tones of Boris Johnson graced our screens in March 2020, we gathered anxiously around the television, waiting for the grim truth that we all knew was coming. Rolling out before us was a weary drain of time – weeks and months of uncertainty, wandering around the same muddy field, dreading the unrelenting enthusiasm of Joe Wicks, glancing at one another as if to say is it too early for a glass of wine?. As doors locked and days opened up, we settled onto our sofas and looked for something to do.
Since its publication in September 2020, Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club has become one of the fastest-selling novels ever, shifting over 114,000 copies in the first three days. Although cosy mysteries have always been popular, the astronomical success of Osman’s debut novel, and its successor The Man Who Died Twice, is different, and has to be attributed in part to the remarkable cultural moment in which his work first appeared, as well as its association with a long history of detective fiction.
This phenomenon is not a new one. In the midst of the First World War, Agatha Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the novel that would launch her into literary success in 1920. The novel is one saturated with the aftereffects of the war, as Hastings is a solider on sick leave, Poirot is a Belgian refugee, and Christie’s own experiences as a war nurse provide her knowledge of poisons as murder weapons. However, it is also removed from it, with the comfortable, country manor setting producing the perfect reminiscence of upper-class British life and pre-war opulence.
Much like the publication of Osman’s debut novel exactly a century later, Christie’s first book caught its readers at a point of desperate instability and international crisis. The inherent paradox of the genre, retrospectively named ‘cosy crime’, is crucial to its success, giving readers the chance to absorb frightening scenarios in a comfortable and detached way. Its unique form of escapism, with a grounding in prevalent issues of mortality, “taps into a need for self-protection” that readers struggling through a pandemic can relate to, as much as those emerging from WWI might.
The graphic violence and sexuality of many gritty, modern crime dramas appear off the page here, allowing the focus to remain on a calm and logical process of investigation and clear resolution. In Osman’s first novel, we see the cosy country house setting translated into a luxurious retirement village for the 21st Century, where a group of elderly residents have a safe, affluent environment in which to explore the murder of a local builder. The name ‘Thursday Murder Club’, which most likely references The Detection Club, is a nod to a long tradition of British crime fiction.
It is difficult to know what is next for the cosy crime genre. With the dazzling success of Osman’s new series, the space is wide open for a flurry of second wave ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction’ novels. Perhaps the next Agatha Christie, fresh from a shift on a Covid ward, is writing their detective debut as we speak.