Allow me to start with sincerest apologies for the lack of Saturdays @ the South last week. It is the first time since this column’s beginning over a year ago that it hasn’t appeared and I certainly hope it will be the last. In the meantime, let’s move forward with this week’s content (and, hopefully, your forgiveness…).
I’ve noticed that television seems to be getting mighty cozy lately. I don’t necessarily mean that TVs have gotten smaller (if anything TVs have gotten bigger…) or that they’ve gotten warmer, but they are showing more cozy mysteries. What exactly is a “cozy mystery,” and how is it different from any other mystery you might ask? A cozy mystery is a book that’s generally defined as a mystery where the person following the clues and solving the puzzle is an amateur sleuth (as opposed to a police detective or private investigator who do such things professionally). Another characteristic of the cozy mystery is that they consist mostly of “offstage” violence, meaning that even though a murder (or sometimes several) take place, the action of the murder doesn’t take place on the page. It’s referred to or stumbled upon, but not “seen” by the characters and, therefore, not by the reader, either. Lastly a cozy mystery usually involves an insular community where people usually know each other, either a small town or a specific neighborhood in a large town, so the murder is often considered more shocking or potent.
If any of these characteristics are ringing a bell to you, it could be because television gave us over a decade of a classic (though not derived from a book) cozy mystery: Murder She Wrote. Those who didn’t settle in after 60 Minutes on a Sunday night in the late ’80s and early ’90s are people unknown to me. Murder She Wrote has all the makings of a classic cozy mystery: an amateur sleuth (the inimitable and ever-classy Jessica Fletcher), offstage violence and an insular small town (the fictional Cabot Cove, ME, inspired by real-life inlet in Kennebunkport, but actually filmed on the wrong coast in Mendocino, CA), though Jessica had to travel far and wide to keep solving crimes for 12 seasons. In many cases, cozy mysteries found on television or film are often based on books (as we shall see), but in this case, such was the love for Jessica Fletcher that the TV series inspired a still-running series of books which can be found both in paper copies and in Overdrive as e-books.
It is usually the other way around, however, in which a book (or usually in the case of cozy mysteries, a series of books) inspires a TV series. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries are generally considered the birth of the cozy (and has had several iterations on television), but the genre has exploded into a massive number of sub-genres (including pet cozies, culinary cozies- with recipes!, crafting cozies, paranormal cozies, historical cozies and so. much. more), so there are *plenty* of cozies to choose from when it comes to adapting television scripts. If you’d like to get a sense of the variety of the cozy-mystery world, I highly recommend you check out http://www.cozy-mystery.com/, which in my opinion is THE source for all things cozy. While I find the pseudonymous Erin Martin who runs the site to have a broader definition of a cozy than traditionally used (she includes some gentler police procedurals like the South Branch favorite Death in Paradise, in her cozy TV roundup), there is no denying that she has created a comprehensive resource that is regularly updated and broken down in many searchable ways.
Cozies have graced the screen easily since the late 1970s, early 1980s when Murder She Wrote was in good company with the likes of Miss Marple, Father Brown based on G.K. Chesterton’s series, Lord Peter Wimsy based on Dorothy L. Sayers’s mysteries and many more, but lately, I’ve been seeing somewhat a resurgence. Perhaps it’s just that I’m noticing them more on television or maybe there’s a genuine uptick in production (is there a grant out there that will allow us to research this?), but I’ve found several book-to-TV cozies out there that I thought would be fun to share with you all.
This is a British import brought to our TV screens by PBS but was inspired by James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers mystery series. I am familiar only with the TV series (it was only until I was actually paying attention to the credits that I noticed they were based on books) but Grantchester is a delightful series that takes its 1950s setting and uses it to discuss some of the more pertinent issues of today (abortion, racism, domestic violence). Lest you think a cozy get too heavy, it is also about the Sidney Chambers, the local vicar who has a kindly nature, helps the locals and has a rewarding friendship with the town’s detective, but battles his own personal flaws as well, making him a more complex character than can often be seen in a genre that can, at times, feel cookie-cutter.
Murder She Baked
This is a Hallmark Movies and Mystery channel offering of several movies. Murder She Baked is based on Joanne Fluke’s bestselling Hannah Swenson mysteries in which a baker in a small town in Minnesota occasionally solves murders in her hometown. The series is fairy true to the text when it comes to adapting the books (so far: A Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, Plum Pudding Murder and Peach Cobbler Murder with a new special A Deadly Recipe, based on the Fudge Cupcake Murder, on June 19th). This is a great way to see characters from a beloved series come alive and it has a great twist on the amateur sleuth angle. While Swenson is very capable in tracking down clues because she’s such an integral part of the town, the police investigators are not the bumbling screw-ups that one often finds such books. They are smart and capable and are often one step ahead of Hannah, she just happens to uncover one or two clues that the townspeople are otherwise unwilling to reveal to the police.
This is another British export brought stateside by PBS, this miniseries is taken from PD James’s book of the same name. James (and the miniseries) takes the beloved characters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and transports them six years after the action of Austen’s novel takes place. When Elizabeth’s disgraced sister Lydia returns crying that her husband has been murdered. it is Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett) who must look into the clues to prevent an execution. As someone who utterly adores Pride and Prejudice, I was hesitant to like this series, but the stellar acting and genuinely intriguing plot left me in suspense in all the right ways with a satisfying, but not too easy solution.
This is another TV movie series put on by the Hallmark Movies and Mystery channel. what was surprising about this series is not that it was adapted from books, but from who wrote these cozy mysteries. Charlaine Harris writes the Aurora Teagarden series, but she is better known for her other, considerably less-cozy paranormal Sookie Stackhouse mysteries that inspired the HBO series True Blood. Harris certainly proves that authors are in no way limited by their creativity and imaginations. In this series, Aurora Teagarden is a member of the Real Murders Club, in which amateurs study famous crimes, often gets herself involved in real murders taking place in her small town.
I hope this look into cozy mysteries currently or recently on TV has whet your whistle for the expansive genre both on TV and in books. There’s plenty more to choose from, so feel free to stop by the South Branch anytime to chat cozies! There are so many out there, you’re bound to find one that suits your tastes. Till next week, dear readers, whether you’re staying in and getting cozy or enjoying the beautiful weather, never forget the library is here to recommend books and much more!