Why do so many nice people enjoy tales of murder?

malice3That was one of the questions buzzing in my head as I hung out at the 25th annual Malice Domestic conference in the Washington, D.C. suburbs last weekend.

600 writers and fans were there to celebrate the sub-genre which some call “cozies” and others call traditional mysteries. These are the books in the Agatha Christie and Rex Stout vein which avoid the gore and profanity of many contemporary thrillers and hard-boiled mysteries.

In many cases, the books present amateur sleuths in idyllic small town settings similar to Jessica Fletcher and Cabot Cove, Maine, in the long-running CBS series “Murder, She Wrote.”

The traditional genre also encompasses the more cerebral, low-tech detective mysteries of contemporary writers like P.D. James and Malice international guest of honor Peter Robinson.

In the annual “Malice Remembers” tribute to major figures who are no longer with us, the conference honored Brit Dick Francis whose racetrack mysteries were guaranteed bestsellers for decades (the writer’s son, Felix, has picked up the baton and was at the conference to talk about his father and his own books).

Malice was great fun because it is a more intimate and reader-oriented gathering than Bouchercon and the other big mystery conferences.

The gamut of writers was fascinating, from the sometimes hard-boiled Harlan Coben and Laura Lippman to several of the reigning figures in traditional mystery, including Carolyn Hart and Katherine Hall Page.

Page did a terrific public interview with Amelia Award winner Hart which was apropos since both of them write unusually sophisticated and psychologically acute traditional mysteries. (I reviewed Page’s new book “The Body in the Piazza” in this space last week and I’ll be writing about the just-published Hart novel “Dead, White and Blue” in a few days).

There is nothing particularly “cozy” about the worlds of these two novelists where murder is never presented merely as a plot device — violence is not graphic in Hart and Page’s work but it carries tremendous emotional and moral weight because the deaths of even the most reprehensible characters are presented as terrible violations of the social order.

Hart provided me with a good answer to the question I kept asking myself at the conference — What has been the source of the appeal of murder mysteries for so many readers for so many years?

“They’re an affirmation of decency, fairness and justice,” Hart said of readers who turn to mysteries for the comforting sense of order we get when Miss Marple or Nero Wolfe (or Page’s Faith Fairchild and Hart’s Annie Darling) figure out who committed a crime and why they did it.

“They’re a place we go to together to find goodness,” Hart added.

(Molly Weston took the picture below of Katherine Hall Page and Harlan Coben.)


Joe Meyers