Cozy crime flourishes in the selection of summer thrillers

Cozy crime was once the literary world’s guilty secret, a haven for any reader looking for unchallenged entertainment – like a chef Escoffier with a private penchant for Mars Bars. It has always proven to be an excellent escape in difficult times, which explains the extravagant success of Richard Osman’s novels. Murder before the evening song by Reverend Richard Coles (Orion, £16.99) follows in Osman’s footsteps, with the benefit of being both a more interesting story and a better writer telling it.

It starts with a panoply of clichés, characteristic of the cozy genre. Daniel Clement is a man of the stuff, tending the rural flock of a small village whose church life is in the hands of the predictable cantankerous squire of the local estate. Set in 1988, the novel has the advantage of being set in a time familiar to all but young readers, but far enough away not to underline the essential unreality of the book (realism was never the strong point of this gender).

The story begins with a fury over a proposal to add a toilet to the church, then escalates when the estate’s archivist is found murdered, stabbed with a pair of pruning shears. Having discovered the corpse, Daniel immerses himself in the case, working alongside the police sergeant who assigned him.

The usual archeology is at work, with plenty of digging into the past, bringing new mysteries and a host of minor characters. But instead of sticking to stereotypes, Cole comes up with engaging and quirky characters. The reverend’s mother is aging but pugnacious, and sharp on her son’s non-worldliness: “He can write a shopping list in Hebrew but he doesn’t know how to plug in a plug. She also has another son, a television actor famous for his role in a popular soap opera. He shows up with a flash car, an entirely secular set of tastes, and an annoying reluctance to stay out of his brother’s hair.

The truth is eventually uncovered (but not before a second murder) and the plot’s unfolding is neither easy to follow nor particularly rewarding. The answer to ‘who did it?’ is hard to remember even a few hours after finishing the book. But the delight offered derives not from the tradition of murder mysteries the book invokes, but from the freshness of its (mostly) humorous prose, the engaging account of village life, and the old-fashioned but heartfelt depiction of the vocation of a clergyman. It’s a promising start for what is planned as a series, which will undoubtedly move Grantchester
on TV in due time.

Unless you think tension is an emotion, conventional thrillers are generally very bad at portraying feelings, as if that’s something a fast-paced plot shouldn’t indulge in. At best, however, a comfortable crime can do just fine. Nicola Upson certainly succeeds in Dear little corpses (Faber, £14.99), the latest in a series featuring real-life mystery writer Josephine Tey.

When war was declared in 1939, the mass evacuation of city children ensued, with some sent from London to the small Suffolk village where Tey lived with his partner Marta, an actress. When a local girl goes missing, panic grips the village, already deeply disturbed by the arrival of refugees from London. Archie Penrose, the regular detective involved in these mysteries, appears on the scene, and together he and Tey help search for the missing child, with the help of the great figure from the golden age of detective fiction, Margery Allingham.

By setting the story in 1939, the author allows for a vivid depiction of the anxiety caused by the prospect of war without the story being overwhelmed by the conflict itself. And the more we learn about the inhabitants of the village, the darker the story becomes. The writing is often powerfully nuanced: a mother’s grief as she sends her baby daughter to strangers is particularly well portrayed, capturing feelings – the mother’s frightening uncertainty as to whether her daughter will be safer. security after all; the bewildered hurt of the daughter being sent away by her loving mother – without any of the verbal billboards used by lesser writers. There seems to be an awful lot of depraved crackpots for a small village, and the many twists and turns towards the end start to feel unrelenting, but the writing is top-notch, the historical context resonant but not intrusive, and as Upson heads into the next title of his Tey series, his imagination and his prose show no signs of weakening.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with kill a troubador (Quercus, £20), the 15th volume in Martin Walker’s Dordogne series featuring his French police chief Bruno Courrèges. As always, the author lovingly depicts daily life in the fictional village of St Denis; he appropriated the Dordogne as much as Peter Mayle did Provence. The plot of the novel is refreshingly simple. A Catalan independentist group must give an outdoor concert when a specialized sniper bullet is discovered. An assassination seems planned and the Spanish government suggests that right-wing extremists may be plotting to kill the band’s singer. Naturally, Bruno is called, as well as a host of special forces and anti-terrorist officials, including his old love Isabelle Perrault, now relocated to Paris.

Along the way, we learn about many of the dishes Bruno prepares and his favorite ingredients – for the gazpacho and for the dry rub of roast lamb. Then there is breakfast for the special forces (eggs, pâté, tomato salad) and a most anti-French coronation chicken. The food is there but the actual taste for it is not. There are also lengthy dissertations on Occitan culture and history that slow the narrative down badly without generating much compensating interest.

When an action finally takes place, it is well described, even gripping, but it is far too little present and comes far too late. Newcomers to the series would benefit from starting with the previous books. The latter is not so much superficial as mechanical: the elements are essentially there, but we feel an auctorial enthusiasm at half mast. Enough to think it might be good for Walker to take a break and maybe write a cookbook afterwards – but the acknowledgment page came first: “A composite volume of Bruno’s cookbook to be published in English in 2022.”

If your saccharine tolerance is saturated by these adventures in cozy crime, antidotes are available, and among recent thrillers, that of Stephanie Merritt Storm stands out (HarperCollins, £14.99). A charismatic, ultimately demonic young woman named Storm infiltrates a gathering of friends on vacation in France. She is determined to avenge deeply buried historical wrongs. The interplay between old friends – their attachments, their resentments – is distinctive and well placed against the disruptive newcomer. The pace is beautifully varied, despite the book’s 400 pages. A top notch read by a very skilled writer.

Much more unusual – indeed unlike anything you will have read – is A certain hunger (Faber, £8.99), Chelsea G. Summers debut. It is the fictional “memoir” of a homicidal female psychopath, told in the first person, and will be unpleasant for many, being full of very explicit sex and extreme violence. The story is casually told by Dorothy Daniels, who details the savagery that landed her in prison for life. A food writer of some renown, not surprisingly given the taste with which she butchers and sometimes even eats her male victims, Daniels makes Moll Flanders look like Alice Liddell. But her voice is perfectly honed – articulate, sarcastic and often very funny – and the writing is incredibly good. Although the grotesque nature of the novel will deter many and unsettle even those who persevere, if you value prose over probity, this one is for you.

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