The growing popularity of two crime fiction subgenres has prompted the creation of two new categories in the annual Crime Writers’ Association awards, including one for “cosy crime” – the subgenre of comforting mysteries that originated with Agatha Christie and is now most associated with Richard Osman.
The Daggers, as the CWA awards are known, recognise authors across 11 categories including historical crime, translated crime and lifetime contribution to crime writing. Next year, the two new awards will be the Twisted Dagger, for psychological thrillers, and the Whodunnit Dagger, for cosy crime.
Cosy crime errs on the lighter side with minimal violence, sex and gore. Stories are often set in a rural, intimate community, and the detectives are usually amateur sleuths, like Christie’s Miss Marple. Though the label is applied to Golden Age novels, contemporary versions have had huge commercial success in recent years, driven by Osman’s 2020 novel The Thursday Murder Club.
Osman has now released four books in the series, which feature elderly sleuths in a retirement village. The most recent, The Last Devil to Die, became the fastest-selling hardback title by a British author since records began when it published in September.
Psychological thrillers saw a commercial boost with the publication of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl in 2012 and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train in 2015. Sometimes called “domestic noir”, they are generally female-led and bestselling authors today include Lisa Jewell and Adele Parks.
CWA chair Vaseem Khan, who took on the role this year, thought it important that the changing tastes of crime readers were reflected in the awards. “Like genial sharks, crime fiction readers rarely stand still. We’re always looking for the next thrill, the next murderous innovation.
“What’s particularly wonderful is how the genre revisits the past even as it reinvents it,” he said. “The modern cosy phenomenon uses the tropes of Golden Age crime, with a focus on characters and intellectually challenging mysteries.”
Khan said it was “always clear” to him that there were “glaring omissions in the Dagger roster”. Psychological thrillers “dominate the crime fiction landscape – and have helped redress the gender imbalance in the genre – but there was no Dagger specifically aimed at this incredibly popular segment of the market.”
Although sometimes perceived as a new publishing trend, psychological thrillers have always been popular, said Harriet Tyce, a former criminal barrister and author whose most recent novel is It Ends At Midnight. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are all early examples of the subgenre, she explained.
“As a genre it’s been traditionally more popular with female authors and readers – who make up the majority of book buyers, let us not forget – perhaps because its exploration of the terrors that can be hidden in domestic settings are so strong and resonant to women who are trapped by patriarchal structures within the home.”
Cosy crime, on the other hand, has been accused of being “twee” and “insipid”. FL Everett, author of A Report of Murder, disagrees. “Fundamentally, cosy crime is about optimism and escapism,” she said. “Yes, something horrible triggers the investigation – there has to be a murder or two – but ultimately, you’re investing your time in people you can trust, who you know will solve the problem.
“I think that speaks to a deep human need for satisfaction and resolution, and a longing to be able to trust in good people and know they’ll do the right thing, despite their flaws.
“I don’t find that twee at all – I find it vital. Particularly at the moment, when it’s so hard to trust politicians, the police, the press – it’s natural that we’d turn to a fictional world to see order restored and give us some reassurance that crimes get solved, bad people repent or are punished and good people are rewarded.”