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Peter Swanson on Comforting Crime in Stressful Times

Posted on 5th May 2020 by Mark Skinner

Peter Swanson's latest enthralling whodunit, Rules for Perfect Murders, is a brilliantly clever homage to classic crime where a serial killer recreates iconic slayings from seminal novels. In this exclusive piece, Swanson debates why we find reading about murder so oddly comforting and shares his top 5 cosy crime reads.

Why is reading a murder mystery—or watching a crime series on television—a comfort to so many people? There are some solid theories on this very question. It makes sense that the comfort lies in the inherent structure of a crime novel—a world is thrown into chaos by a murder, and then that same world is put to rights by a detective. It’s a reassuring plot structure, especially when it is repeated again and again with only slight variations.

But I think there’s something more to it than just the plot. I think the darkness itself—the idea that evil exists—can be comforting to a reader, especially if they are tucked up in the safety of their own home, preferably with a roaring fire and a glass of whiskey for company. Reading about fictional murder is not the same as encountering it in real life. The distance is all.

But most of all I think that, for many of us, crime is comforting because of the associations with childhood. Most lovers of mystery fiction were introduced to the genre as young readers. Whether it was through the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew or through Agatha Christie, there is a nostalgic element to getting thoroughly swept up in a good whodunit. I know that nostalgia exists for me, even when reading dark crime.

So here’s five of my favorite comforting crime reads, books that transported me far from the worries of my real life and into worries of someone else’s fictional life. They aren’t all cozies, but some do fit that designation. Happy reading.

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

Edmund Crispin, real name Robert Bruce Montgomery, wrote mystery novels in the style of P. G. Wodehouse. They are literary, urbane, and equal parts funny and thrilling. The Moving Toyshop is his most famous novel, with a brilliant premise, and an exhilarating sequence at the end involving a merry go round spinning out of control (yes, Alfred Hitchcock stole this idea for his filmed version of Strangers on a Train).

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Mixing riveting mystery with witty characters and rhetorical exuberance, Crispin serves up another brilliantly quirky story of detection. Starring his inimitable amateur sleuth, Oxford Professor Gervase Fen, The Moving Toyshop is filled with humour, atmosphere and intellectual puzzles, destined to entertain.
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Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

Also known as Miss Marple’s Last Case, a young wife is renovating a seaside mansion when she becomes convinced that she’s not only been in the house before as a small child, but that she witnessed a murder. This was one of the Christie novels that I read at a young age and it has always stayed with me. A classic gothic thriller that morphs into a Miss Marple whodunit.

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Miss Marple’s final case is a triumphant return to form for Agatha Christie and proves that the Queen of Crime was still capable of producing high quality whodunits in her late period. Eerie and touched by a gothic sensibility, Sleeping Murder is a highly impressive achievement.

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A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

Brother Cadfael is not just a monk, he’s an herbalist monk who solves crime. This is the first in a series set in the twelfth century, and there’s something about being immersed in a distant time and place to really shake off the realities of modern life. All the Cadfael books are humane, often humorous, and brilliantly plotted by Peters, whose real name was Edith Pargeter.

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Set in the twelfth-century monastic world, A Morbid Taste for Bones transports the reader into the midst of an extraordinary murder mystery. Brother Cadfael sets out on a quest to acquire holy relics from a community shrouded by secrets and soon finds himself involved in a precarious game of life and death.
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Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Yes, this one is gruesome and grim, but it’s also a classic potboiler, at times hokey in its adherence to the tropes of a gothic thriller. There’s an insane asylum on an isolated island, a raging storm, and a detective who feels he’s losing his mind. Full of twists, and creepy fun.

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Chilling, complex and addictive to the core, Shutter Island is a psychological tour de force from the author of Mystic River. Set in the claustrophobic world of a remote hospital for the criminally insane, this is a book that plants one suspicion after another in the mind of the reader, building towards a terrifying climax.
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The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

A ghost story—or is it?—for a cold winter evening. Or several cold winter evenings since this is a long book. Set in the 1940s and revolving around an aristocratic family that can no longer afford their house, it is well worth sinking into. Waters, known for Victorian potboilers, showed she could do a slow burn thriller with an unreliable narrator as well as anyone. This one has a huge payoff at the end.

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An expertly crafted ghost story from one of the twenty-first century’s most gifted writers, The Little Stranger’s chills may be elegant and exquisite, but they are still mighty scary. A crumbling Georgian pad and a family with sinister secrets to hide lend this eerie narrative a slowly escalating sense of creeping dread.
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