The Cozy Mystery Genre


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

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8 thoughts on “The Cozy Mystery Genre”

  1. Do you count the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers as “cozies”? They don’t match up EXACTLY with the criteria you listed (some of the murders are a bit gruesome), but in every other area I’d say yes. I loved reading Sayers because her characters were so delightful, especially Peter’s mother, and his valet, Bunter. They weren’t as simplistic as most cozies today–Lord Peter had a bad case of PTSD that affected him in several novels (it was called “shell shock” then).

    I read them again and again.

    I haven’t heard of the Flavia de Luce series but based on what you’ve said, I have to give it a go. 🙂

  2. I had a general idea of a cozy not being graphically violent, but that was about it. I found the explanation of the classic cozy most enlightening.

  3. Planning a cozy mystery series for next year…but more importantly, I’ll be doing a presentation to retirees about choosing to start writing. I will mention Alan Bradley as an example!

  4. I found this article on the cozy mystery very informative and useful. In fact, it’s something that I could be inspired to write. Thank you for sharing.

  5. This is by far my favorite column from the DailyWritingTips.

    Defining the concept of “The Cozy Mystery” fit in perfectly with my
    unformed idea of the genre. Love the relative gentleness even of
    the described murder, am repulsed by any detail of blood and guts.

    Love the idea of the main character solving a mystery through
    knowledge and wits rather than fists.

    Based on your recommendation, I read the first of the Alan Bradley
    “Flavia” novels, “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” and it is an
    utter delight.

    This is Young Adult fiction at its finest and fine YA fiction is suitable
    at any age–I am 67, dammit.

  6. Mel Hugheson, Yes, I’d definitely include the Sayers novels.
    Although I have laid out the elements of the “classical” cozy, I must admit that I would include as “cozies” a great many mysteries that don’t meet all the criteria. Perhaps the most important elements for me are recurring characters who belong to a specific social community. For that reason, I’d even include the dark Gamache novels of Louise Penney because of the always interesting denizens of Three Pines and the tough-gal novels of Sue Grafton.

  7. Paul Maglic
    I’m glad you enjoyed your first Flavia novel. One is never too old for a great book. I still read Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit on occasion just because I think it’s the most perfect book of its kind.

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