Mystery fiction is a genre, or category, of fiction that usually involves a murder or crime. Within the category of mysteries are a number of evolving and developing genres bridging true crime, fiction, supernatural, paranormal and others. One of the fun things for a writer is to discover new ways to expand the envelop of a genre, although this may not be so comfortable to the reader.
One of the most popular genres in mystery fiction is what are known as cozy mysteries, or cozies. I have to admit, this is one of my favorite genres.
- Likeable characters
The reader can see the sleuths as their own neighbors or friends. They can people you wouldn’t mind sharing a meal with. Here in America, the mystery movies on the Hallmark Channel usually have characters you would like to meet at a party or work with. They are fun, happy, optimistic.
I think optimistic is a key value. Unlike noir and other more ‘realistic’ genres, the stories in cozies are usually hopeful and you can see the people having happy futures.
- Amateur sleuth
The sleuth is not an official detective, working for the police, a medical examiner, or a spy. They work in everyday jobs, have hobbies and often have families. Normally, they would never come in contact with a body or a victim in a crime, but this time. . .
The sleuth, for reasons out of their control, have to get involved even though they may not want to. Maybe they know something or suspect something the police doesn’t. The tug-of-war between the officer officially in charge and the ignorant citizen who eventually shows up the officer is often a key plot point.
Sometimes, the curiosity of the sleuth won’t let them stop asking questions. And by asking those questions, they uncover information the criminal would prefer to keep secret.
- Tranquil setting, often a scenic small town or village
That became the joke about Murder, She Wrote. Jessica Fletcher lived in the quiet little town of Cabot Cove, Maine where no one would ever expect any violence and everyone knew everyone. But after ten or more books, or three or four years of a TV series, you start running out of townfolk. And no one will let Jessica move into their neighborhood.
By having a small setting, it limits the numbers of characters and suspects. The criminal loses the anonymity of a big city. If it is set in a big city, it will be in a smaller part of it like Chinatown. Someplace where you think you know everyone, and where you feel safe. It’s that feeling of security we writers want to smash, until the end where everything is rosy again.
- Clean language, violence and gore are offstage
Cozies are usually gentle stories, The writer wants to capture and entertain the readers, without bogging them down in the dirt and emotional turmoil of a crime. Think of the stories and movies of the forties and fifties.
This is one of the areas of the genre’s biggest changes. With cable TV and movies becoming more and more brutal with their images and languages, the line where how much is acceptable becomes blurred. It’s hard to imagine someone being shot at and them saying ‘Drat.’
In this area, today, it is really buyer beware. But with all the cozies out there, you can find an author who you can be comfortable with.
- All the clues are included for the reader
Like a puzzle, cozies must include all the pieces, the clues, where the alert reader will see them. The reader just needs to assemble. Ellery Queen made this even more obvious by breaking the story for an interlude before the detective gave the solution.
The gathering of the suspects together to hear the sleuth explain the crime has become a cliché. More often, it is the sleuth telling the criminal or the authorities the details of the crime.
But it can’t be a last minute inspiration or clue, called a deus ex machina (god from the machine). This comes from old Greek and Roman plays where, at the very end, something would drop from the sky and solve all the problems in the play. In a cozy, the solution comes from the intelligence, knowledge, or stubbornness of the hero.
- A happy ending, except for the victim and murderer of course
In a cozy, they catch the right criminal, justice is served, and peace is restored. We don’t see the lawyers battling it out on court or the broken family. We do see the sleuth getting their applause and moving on with their lives. Until the next book or show.
Cozies do not always give a moral, except crime doesn’t pay. But readers’ interest lies more in the character.
- A theme
Many modern cozies build around a theme, quilting, cooking, bed and breakfast, you name it and it has probably been done. I just finished reading Joanna Fluke’s Christmas Cake Murder, with Hannah Swenson, she includes fourteen recipes. Hannah spent more time cooking, and her mother eating, than she did sleuthing. (And it made me hungry.)
A cozy represents escapist reading at its grandest. Slipping inside the book will take you away to a prettier, happier place with friendly people.
Just ignore the taped outline on the floor.