As we are in the first week of NANOWRIMO—the yearly challenge to writers to produce a 50,000-word novel in the thirty days of November—an overview of the cozy mystery may be of use to participants who have chosen that genre as their challenge.
The adjective cozy (Br. cosy) applies to people, places, and things. A person feels cozy when comfortable, warm, and well fed. A cozy place is sheltered and warm. A “tea cosy” keeps the teapot warm. A “cozy corner” is a pleasant retreat for reading.
A “cozy mystery” is comfortable to read. Its protagonist will be someone who resembles people in the reader’s sphere of activity—a quirky neighbor, the local bookseller, a school teacher. The central character will have flaws, but they will be such weaknesses as vanity or an overfondness for sweets, not drug addiction or wife-beating.
Murder is the usual crime in a cozy, but it will be a sanitized murder without graphic details. The murder victim is usually a person who will not be missed, perhaps even a stranger to the community.
Community is an operative word in this genre. Cozies, usually written as a series of novels, introduce the reader to an intimate collection of characters, many of whom will reappear in subsequent stories, adding to the pleasure of the writer’s following.
Here are the elements of the classic cozy, as developed by Agatha Christie:
Setting: small village or limited venue such as a hotel or island.
Sleuth: amateur (Miss Marple) or private detective (Hercule Poirot)
Other characters: eccentrics who all have something to lie about. The sleuth often has a sidekick. Poirot has a Watson-type companion in Hastings.
Plot: An intellectual puzzle with clues and red herrings provided for the reader. The dénouement leaves no loose ends. Sex and violence are not a significant element in the story as they are in other types of mystery. References to sex, if any, are humorous and couched in euphemisms.
Murderer: Someone motivated by such understandable motives as jealousy, heartbreak, revenge, or greed and not by innate evil.
Crime: (usually) murder, often offstage or long in the past.
Style: Light and humorous.
Point of View: The cozy can be written in either first or third person.
Diction: Informal, but polite. Educated characters speak standard English. Uneducated characters speak nonstandard dialects. No vulgarity, at least not in the speech of the sympathetic characters.
As one might expect, a genre introduced nearly a hundred years ago (the first Miss Marple mystery was published in 1927) has evolved in the hands of later writers. I’ve read “cozies” that depart from the elements listed above, offering foul-mouthed protagonists and dark subplots, but the classical form is alive and well in the works of Alexander McCall Smith, M.C. Beaton, Lilian Jackson Braun, and Alan Bradley.
The Flavia de Luce books of Alan Bradley are my most recent discovery. I was so taken with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I binged on the rest of them, completing all twelve novels and the single short story in a two-week span.
I love the Flavia series because of the brilliant writing, classical allusions, humor, and subtle characterization. A peripheral enjoyment is knowing that the author became a full time writer at the age of 69, following a 30-year career in another field.
In the first novel, Flavia de Luce is eleven years old and a passionate chemist with her own state-of-the art lab in a wing of Buckshaw, the decaying family mansion near the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Her mother is dead and her father emotionally remote. Her best friend is the family factotum, Dogger. Flavia speeds around the 1950s countryside on a bicycle named Gladys and solves crimes with the help of a child’s invisibility and her knowledge of chemistry.
I recommend reading them in the order of publication:
1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
2. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
3. A Red Herring Without Mustard
4. I Am Half Sick of Shadows
5. Speaking from Among the Bones
6. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
7. The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse (short story)
8. As Chimney Sweeps Must Come to Dust
9. Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d
10. The Grave’s a Fine Place
11. The Golden Tresses of the Dead