Cosy crime was once the literary world’s guilty secret, a refuge for any reader seeking entirely unchallenging entertainment – like an Escoffier chef with a private penchant for Mars Bars. It has always proved a great getaway in tough times, which helps explain the extravagant success of Richard Osman’s novels. Murder Before Evensong by the Reverend Richard Coles (Orion, £16.99) follows on Osman’s heels, with the advantage of it being both a more interesting story and a better writer telling it.
It begins with an array of clichés, a feature of the cosy genre. Daniel Clement is a man of the cloth, tending the rural flock of a small village whose church’s living is in the hands of the local estate’s predictably irascible squire. Set in 1988, the novel has the advantage of taking place in an era familiar to all but young readers, yet distant enough not to highlight the essential unreality of the book (realism has never been this genre’s strong suit).
The story begins with a furore over a proposal to add lavatories to the church, and then escalates when the estate’s archivist is found murdered, stabbed with a pair of secateurs. Having discovered the corpse, Daniel becomes immersed in the case, working alongside the police sergeant assigned it.
The usual archaeology is at work, with much digging into the past, bringing new mysteries and a slew of minor characters. But instead of sticking to stereotypes, Cole provides some attractively quirky characters. The Reverend’s mother is ageing but pugnacious, and sharp about her son’s unworldliness: ‘He can write a shopping list in Hebrew but he can’t wire a plug.’ She has another son as well, a television actor famous for his role in a popular soap.