If you, loyal mystery fan, are weary of reading books dripping with blood and gore, stuffed with violence and vulgarity, cozy novels are likely to be your cup of tea. Can’t you picture yourself snuggled by the fire, an afghan tossed casually across your lap? Perhaps a kitten nestles across the top of the chair or a puppy lies at your feet. You pick up the book on the side table and within a page or two you are in the light and airy world of the cozy novel, where every story has an emphasis on the puzzle or who-done-it aspect rather than on the salacious details of the murder itself.
The crime solver is an amateur sleuth, usually a woman, who is thrust into the aftermath of the murder. It’s possible that she or a friend discovers the body; perhaps a relative or dear friend is accused of the murder; or the victim is someone the amateur sleuth knows and the circumstance of murder arouses her curiosity which is another key component of the cozy mystery. Imbued with an innate nosiness, the amateur sleuth is not above snooping and actively seeks out gossip for any nugget of a clue it may provide. She persistently asks questions that she has no business asking, and generally doesn’t stop until she gets an answer.
The protagonist frequently has an occupation or hobby that brings appealing information to the reader. Many cozy mysteries involve cooking or baking and include recipes. Other cozy sleuths have a variety of occupations/avocations, including: gardening, interior decorating, needle work design and expertise in crafts of every description. Each of these activities provides familiarity to the reader through recipes, patterns and helpful hints.
Because the sleuth is not a cop, sheriff, medical examiner, or district attorney with access to information about the murder, she often has a friend or relative who works in one of those jobs and will share information, although it may take some badgering by the amateur sleuth to make the information flow.
And finally we come to the thing that draws me back to cozy mysteries time and again—the setting. Although a few cozies are set in larger cities or towns, in most the activity takes place in villages or hamlets, where people know their neighbors and individual quirkiness is not only accepted but often celebrated. The one commonality of all cozy settings is that if I was suddenly spirited out of my recliner and into the pages of the book, I always think I’d be delighted to live there, be it the small town of Elderberry, Georgia, setting for Miss Dimple Rallies to the Cause or Llaneden, Wales, the home of Canadian ex-pat Penny Brannigan in A Killer’s Christmas in Wales.
The classic forerunner of the cozy mystery is Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, an elderly spinster who sees and hears all that goes on around her and very often solves a murder or two while never missing a stitch in her knitting. The Marple stories meet (or have set) all the standards for cozy mysteries mentioned here. The murder is a puzzle presented without goriness. Miss Marple is the most amateur of amateur sleuths, complete with knitting. And most of the murders take place in the tiny village of St. Mary Mead or similar places.
And if you’d like to see a modern day version of the English cozy mystery, you need only to check the schedule of your local television Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) for the charming series, Rosemary and Thyme, with its lush gardening theme.
So, dear mystery reader, if you are in need of an easily kept New Year Resolution, I’ve got one for you. “I firmly resolve to read a cozy mystery or two in the beginning of 2012.” Do that and I guarantee that you’ll be reading cozies regularly long before 2013 commences.
cozy china image via Janet Rudolph
According to Terrie, writing short mystery fiction is nearly as much fun as hanging out with any or all of her seven grandchildren. She is editor of the recently released Sisters in Crime New York/TriState chapter anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices and blogs at Women of Mystery.