What is the 'cosy mystery' genre and why is it so popular?

A film version of hit eighties TV show Murder, She Wrote is reportedly in the works

Angela Lansbury starred as Jessica Fletcher in cosy mystery television show Murder, She Wrote for 12 seasons. Photo: NBC Universal
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Crime-solving author Jessica Fletcher is making a comeback, amid the news that popular television show Murder, She Wrote is being adapted into a film set to be released on the big screen.

Hollywood reporter Jeff Sneider revealed the hit show is being developed into a movie by the writers of Dumb Money, as well as Amy Pascal, the producer of Skyfall, The Da Vinci Code and The Social Network.

The show ran for 12 seasons between 1984 and 1996 and starred British actress Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a mystery writer who solved crimes and murders in and around the fictional town of Cabot Cove in Maine.

The series was a huge hit for network CBS, becoming one of the most successful and longest-running television shows in history, averaging 25 million viewers per week, according to USA Today Weekly TV ratings.

Lansbury was nominated for an Emmy award for every season of the show, although she never won one. When the final season aired in 1996, she was inducted into the TV Hall of Fame.

The film had been in development before the Writers Guild of America strike and has now been put on hiatus.

The enduring popularity of the amateur sleuth

Murder, She Wrote belongs to the popular “cosy mysteries” genre of entertainment, which has been around for a long time, but only recently given an encompassing label.

Cosy mysteries are defined by the fact that the crime or murder usually takes place off the page or screen, as does any other violence. Profanity or overt romance is also a no-no.

The protagonist is usually an amateur sleuth – often a woman – who either stumbles onto or becomes intrigued by the crime and devotes their time, often with a group of misfit friends or acquaintances, to solving it.

The setting is often a small town or village, and the motives for the crime are usually specific to the local area and people, and can stretch back generations.

The Miss Marple books, written by Agatha Christie are a perfect example of a cosy mystery, in which the elderly Jane Marple uses her benign demeanour to hide her razor-sharp mind and shrewd intelligence.

The character is seen as the female version of the “gentleman detective” literary trope, which includes the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

The 'whodunnit' gets an update

Television show Only Murders in the Building and Richard Osman's book, The Thursday Murder Club, are two examples of the modern cosy mystery. Hulu/ Penguin

As a sub-genre of the popular mystery genre of entertainment, cosy mystery has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.

It has the golden age of detective fiction to thank for its comeback, which denotes a literary era from the 1910s to the late 1930s, during which certain tropes and cliches laid the groundwork for what we today call a “whodunnit”.

Modern cosy mysteries include Netflix’s Knives Out and HBO hit Only Murders in the Building.

The latter, which stars Selena Gomez, Martin Short and Steve Martin, sees three residents of a high-end New York apartment block come together over their love of true crime podcasts to try and solve a murder in their building, and launch their own podcast.

In literature, Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, was a huge hit in the genre. It is based around a group of pensioners who set about solving the mystery around the murder of a property developer in their luxury retirement village near the fictitious village of Fairhaven in Kent, UK. The rights to the book were bought by Steven Spielberg’s production company.

“Murder mysteries may act as ‘fairy tales for adults,’” said Psychology Today about the genre. “We love murder mysteries because they are redemptive, they give us hope, and help us move from fear to reassurance.”

Updated: September 14, 2023, 5:34 AM