Now is possibly the best time ever to be a cozy mystery crime readerDavid Suchet in Agatha Christie's Poirot - Cozy Mystery crime fiction

Sales of crime novels in the UK soared this year, overtaking general fiction for the first time. And, like hummus, it seems that different flavours of crime are becoming increasingly popular.

Depending on taste you can read anything from hard-boiled, private eye, courtroom dramas to caper and police procedural. You can have your crime spiced with humour – as with sardonic spy novelist Mick Herron – or very dark.

Indeed, the talk of recent international book fairs, such as Frankfurt which is taking place this week, is of two very different genres – cozy and noir.

Cozy crime novels have been rising fast over the last few years. They are usually set in a middle class environment, such as a village, with the murder solved by an amateur. There’s no graphic gore, sex or grime.

An amateur sleuth, an ordinary victim, a quirky supporting cast and a trail of clues and red herrings feature prominently in a cozy mystery.

The genre was first described in the 1980s and 1990s, to cover – in the words of “cozy” novelist Amanda Flower – “small town stories in which an average person, like me, could solve a crime and bring justice to a family after a murder.”

Sales of reissued and new “cozies” are flying off the shelves.

Agatha’s Christie’s Poirot novels have never gone out of print. But over a recent Christmas period, Waterstones sold more than 50,000 copies of J Jefferson Farjeon’s 1937 country house murder story Mystery in White.

At the same time, major contemporary novelists such as Anthony Horowitz have had fun parodying the gentler side of mystery in books such as his Magpie Murders.

The theory is that all this coziness is a reaction to the dark and disturbing nature of today’s world.

“In a cozy,” says Flowers, “there is a happily ever after and justice is served. That does not always happen in the real world. A cozy is a brief escape from the troubles of the real world, and I, for one, plan to take that escape over and over again.”

And bestselling thriller writer David Baldacci says, “When times are stressful and it looks like the bad is winning out over the good, along comes the genre of crime novels to put the balance back in life.”

But I think there’s more going on than that.

I think readers are cleverer than they are sometimes made out to be. Crime novels also give writers an opportunity to look deeply into ourselves and the way we live.

In the 1920s, when Hollywood writers wanted to tell stories about the rich corporations who were making money while ordinary people starved, they dressed them up as gangster movies.

I think modern crime novels often do the same. Not always, but often.

Both cozies and noirs hold a magnifying glass up to society.

Both genres frequently feature liars and crooks passing themselves off as up-standing.

And both refuse to accept things as they are.

As Flowers says, “There is more to a cozy than the average person taking on a big challenge. Many times, the protagonist is surrounded by a group of family and it is a story about a community banding together for what is right.”

Maybe what crime books are telling us is that justice can be fought for. Can be won if we stand together. Not always, but often.

Now there’s a message for our times, right there.

Read more:

The murder to end all literary murders? Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz reviewed

The Guardian: No mystery that crime is the biggest selling genre in books

Publishers Weekly: What Exactly is a Cozy Mystery?