“My first case,” says Father Brown in The Mask of Midas, “was just a small private affair about a man’s head being cut off.”
It’s not surprising that G.K. Chesterton’s sleuth begins with a paradox; a great many books belonging to the genre known as cozy mysteries have, in fact, a paradox at their heart. Death, especially murder, tends to be violent and gory; having the steps that led to that grisly encounter figured out by a mild-mannered cleric, an elderly spinster, or any of a plethora of inoffensive protagonists, in many ways, stood the whole mystery genre on its head.
And, it was Father Brown who led the charge. Chesterton was wary both of the novels that were taken so seriously by the intellectuals of his time and of the mysteries that emphasized a crime’s mechanics, opting instead for the humanity inherent in the crime’s motives. “When I tried to imagine the state of mind in which such a thing would be done,” says his gentle priest, “I realized that I might have done it myself under certain mental conditions. And then, of course, I knew who really had done it.”
Up until Father Brown, crime-solvers had been dashingly flamboyant, the possessors of special skills and attributes, with Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most famous and enduring of literary detectives, epitomizing this model. Murders took place among spies or a gang of thieves and were solved by deduction stemming from sometimes-bizarre clues that might have been barely perceptible—or, indeed, invisible—to the reader. The crime was deciphered through detection of the most minute of physical evidence (through what we today would call forensics) left behind by the careless or unlucky perpetrator.
And that’s the essence of the real change that came with the advent of the cozy mystery: the amateur who figures out the crime does so through the understanding of human motivation. This new detection entails a certain compassion, empathy, and humility that one would never expect of—or receive from—a Sherlock Holmes. And, it requires the detective to take second place to the essence of the story.
Indeed, Father Brown has been said to be “edging sideways” into his tales, but once he’s edged in, his unobtrusive presence points to issues larger than sheer personality. Through his unassuming priest, Chesterton raises unsettling points and causes readers to think—not just about the crime, but also about themselves.
Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple has unobtrusiveness down to an art form; she’s overlooked, insulted, and often ignored. Yet, in her very ordinariness, we find wisdom. “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life,” she observes drily, and she, too, knows that “murder is never simple.”
Christie, herself a keen observer of human nature, endowed another detective, Hercule Poirot, with similar insights:
“[T]here is nothing so dangerous for any one who has something to hide as conversation!” he declares. ”Speech, so a wise old Frenchman said to me once, is an invention of man’s to prevent him from thinking. It is also an infallible means of discovering that which he wishes to hide. A human being, Hastings, cannot resist the opportunity to reveal himself and express his personality, which conversation gives him. Every time he will give himself away.”
Even Wikipedia knows that the human factor, the motivation, the characterization, is essential to this genre:
The murderers in cozies are typically neither psychopaths nor serial killers, and, once unmasked, are usually taken into custody without violence. They are generally members of the community where the murder occurs, able to hide in plain sight, and their motives—greed, jealousy, revenge—are often rooted in events years, or even generations, old. The murderers are typically rational and often highly articulate, enabling them to explain, or elaborate on, their motives after their unmasking.
Atmosphere is also a hallmark of the first cozies—not the dark, brooding atmosphere of the noir genre, but something homey that seems to smell of lavender or cinnamon or fresh linen. Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey may straddle the line between cozy and flamboyant, but the attention to detail in the novels brings readers into the characters’ lives in the most basic of ways. (For an even homier touch, read The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook, now sadly out of print, that features menus and recipes from the dining practices of Lord Peter and his entourage. Wimsey devotees will recall Miss Climpson's 21-hour orgy of teas in Strong Poison, the unfortunate breakfast (with bloaters) when the duke has been arrested in Clouds of Witness, and dinner as “a slice of the breast and glass of the best.”)
In a character said to have been modeled on himself, Chesterton, the originator of the cozy, returns in The Club of Queer Trades with Basil Grant, who observes “how facts obscure the truth…facts point in all directions, like the thousand twigs on a tree. It’s only the life of a tree that has unity and goes up—only the green blood that springs, like a fountain, at the stars.” It’s a lyrical way to encapsulate the sea change that he brought about in mystery literature.
Michael Newton has observed, most accurately, that Chesterton “inherited a form naturally given to morbidity and infused it with a reckless joy. He also took over a form preoccupied with facts, and turned it rather in the direction of atmospheres.” And thus an entire genre was born.
Let’s let Father Brown have the last word:
“Our general experience,” he says, “is that every conceivable sort of man has been a saint. And I suspect you will find, too, that every conceivable sort of man has been a murderer.”
And therein lies a tale.
Jeannette de Beauvoir is a lifelong mystery reader and the author, most recently, of Deadly Jewels from St. Martins/Minotaur, which features WWII murders, neo-Nazis, diamonds conceived in a concentration camp, and a little romance, all of it against the dramatic backdrop of Montréal.