Cozy Mysteries: Murder Most Fair

A mystery is a mystery is mystery, right? Not so fast.

Cozy mysteries have their own special place.

Recently, I overheard two women fall into a conversation about the book one of the women was reading at Panera. It was a mystery. (Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Face Time, to be precise.) Each woman declared “I love mysteries!” and then proceeded to list her favorite authors. There was zero overlap between the two lists. They seemed puzzled and each wrote down the other woman’s faves, promising to check them out. I could have told them they were not going to like each other’s books, but I (uncharacteristically) kept my mouth shut. It was clear to me, eavesdropping, that one of the ladies read nothing but cozy mysteries and the other read police procedurals.

The book-selling industry has parsed mystery into so many genres it’s hard to keep track of them: hard-boiled or soft-boiled PI, cozy or traditional, paranormal, suspense, legal, historical, police procedural . . . the list goes on and some mystery are a conglomeration of the above, such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files which features a wizard (paranormal) as a hard-boiled PI.

What, Exactly, Is a Cozy Mystery?

All Sales Fatal by Laura DiSilverioCozy mysteries, also known as traditional mysteries, are characterized by several elements:

  • Small town or rural setting
  • An amateur sleuth heading up an ensemble cast of quirky family members, co-workers, and friends
  • Frequently hang on a hobby or activity “hook” such as knitting, scrapbooking, cooking, etc. (This is true of modern cozies more than of classic ones. It’s a marketing ploy that enables publishers to refer to “the Mall Cop mysteries” or “the Dead-End Job series.”)
  • Little or no language more profane than “damn”
  • Most of the violence and sex occurring “off-stage”
  • “Happy,” unambiguous resolutions: good guys win, bad guys lose (get punished by the judicial system for their crimes, usually)

Examples of Popular Cozy Mystery Series

Agatha Christie is usually credited with being the (unintentional) mother of cozy mysteries with her Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Successful modern practitioners of the traditional mystery include Carolyn Hart, Elaine Viets, Maggie Sefton, Sheila Connolly, Avery Aames, Joelle Charbonneau, Lorraine Bartlett, and many others. Notice the lack of male names? That doesn’t mean that men don’t write cozies—they do. They usually publish them under female pen names. One exception is Donald Bain who “co-writes” the Murder She Wrote books with Jessica Fletcher. My own Ballroom Dance mystery (which I write as Ella Barrick) and Mall Cop series (featuring a partially disabled military cop turned mall security officer) are cozy mysteries.

Why We Read Them

Dead Man Waltzing, a Ballroom Dance MysteryI can’t speak for the whole reading public, of course, but I enjoy writing and reading cozy mysteries because they give me a puzzle to wrestle with (figuring out whodunit) without drowning me in the kind of violence, gore and depressing examples of people’s inhumanity to each other that I can get from any news outlet. As with many mystery genres, they’re about the triumph of the individual (the amateur sleuth, in this case) over evil (the murderer). They’re about restoring balance in the world (usually the small world of a Cabot Cove or Fernglen Galleria), of righting a wrong, or, in the case of murder, punishing the killer. The sleuth always figures it out (with the help of her family and friends and usually with a knitting needle or spatula at the ready) and the murderer gets what’s coming to him or her. I also enjoy the on-going relationships that are a staple of cozies; I like checking in on a character’s romantic life, frustrations with her cantankerous grandma, or adventures with her best friend. What’s not to like about that recipe?

Cozies Don’t Get No Respect

Although some dismiss cozies as “formulaic,” I’d suggest that’s true of most fiction, other than the most experimental. Consider: Protagonist confronts a problem, suffers setbacks, and emerges somehow changed at the end of the story. That “formula” describes what happens in most genre fiction, as well as in most great literature. Gone with the Wind? Yup. The Silence of the Lambs? Yup. All of my books? Yup. Yes, I’m being a tad simplistic for the sake of this description of cozies, but it should be the quality of the writing and the story that matter, not whether or not the story structure can be called “formulaic.” After all, a sonnet is a formula—right?—and yet we seem to think Shakespeare’s are still worth reading. And since Agatha Christie is the single best-selling author of all time (far outstripping the James Pattersons and J.K. Rowlings), we can safely say that there’s something appealing in the cozy formula.

See my recent series at Career Authors for a complete guide to the formula for writing a cozy mystery.